WITH SOME FAMILIAR FACES AND NEW ARRIVALS, THE SUNS AIM TO SHINE IN THE SOUTHERN LEAGUE
By Steve Kolbe
The beginning of the 2012 season arrives with the excitement that only the start of a new season can provide every spring. Two of the past three years the Jacksonville Suns have stood alone as the champion at season’s end. Long before Opening Day and that first pitch, each team has the same goal, capture the Southern League Championship. The Suns know what it’s like to claim the crown, they have won it all two of the past three seasons. Since 2001 Jacksonville has been .500 or better in 8 of 11 seasons, won the division four times, and claimed the Southern League title four times in five appearances in the championship series.
Following back-to-back league championships in 2009 and 2010, the Suns finished the slate last season with a record of 70-70 under Andy Burkett. Now with preparations for the season complete Burkett and his staff, along with players, begin the 2012 season with the hope of bringing another pennant to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. This year marks the third season that the Suns have been affiliated with the Marlins, and the first two years have been successful with the Suns going a combined 151-129.
With the new season come expectations of what might be in store throughout the summer. This year’s edition of the Jacksonville Suns will include a mixture of familiar faces and new arrivals. It’s safe to say that the 50th season of Jacksonville Suns baseball will provide a glimpse into the future with all the thrills of the present when the team takes the field in 2012.
Andy Barkett returns for his second season as manager of the Jacksonville Suns after guiding the team to a 70-70 record in 2011. Under Barkett, the Suns had a solid first half of the season finishing four games above .500 and just three games out of the lead in the South Division. Barkett enters his fifth season overall as a manager. He managed the Oneonta Tigers in 2007 and the Lakeland Flying Tigers from 2008-2010 in the Florida State League before joining Jacksonville.
A former first baseman and outfielder, Barkett was originally signed as a non-drafted free agent by Texas in 1995. He played 11 seasons as a professional with the Pirates, Braves, Tigers, Rangers, Mariners, and Devil Rays organizations and never played below the AA level from 1997-2005. He broke into the big leagues when he appeared in 17 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2001 season. A native of Miami, Barkett made his Major League debut playing both left and right field for the Pirates against the Florida Marlins May 28, 2001 at PNC Park. He went 2-for-4 and scored a run in Pittsburgh’s 8-5 win.
Barkett played his college baseball at North Carolina State, and entering the 2012 season he is one of only 33 former Wolfpack players to play in the Major League.
Pitching coach John Duffy enters his third season with Jacksonville. In 2011, Duffy guided 27 different pitchers during the course of the season and 11 of them recorded at least three victories. His pitching staff from last season included a handful of players among the Southern League leaders. Sandy Rosario finished first with 23 saves, Brad Hand was second in wins with 11, and Omar Poveda ranked eighth with 116 strikeouts. Duffy’s playing experience includes six seasons as a professional with the Detroit Tigers organization in the 1980’s. This will be Duffy’s seventh season in the Marlins system where he has had coaching stops in Jamestown, Greenboro, and Jupiter.
Kevin Randel returns to Jacksonville to begin his first season as the Suns hitting coach. He spent the last two seasons as the hitting coach for the Greensboro Grasshoppers in 2010 and 2011. Last season under his guidance the Grasshoppers placed three players in the top 14 in the South Atlantic League in average, runs batted in, and slugging percentage. Under his guidance Greensboro batters ranked second in the league in home runs(142), total bases(1995), and slugging percentage(.426). The Grasshoppers were also third in the South Atlantic League in team batting average(.269) and hits(1259). Drafted by Florida in the 2002 MLB Draft, Randel spent his entire eight-year playing career in the Marlins organization. He was a key member of the Jacksonville Suns 2009 Southern League Championship team, playing 123 games and batting .253 with 12 homeruns and 49 runs batted in.
Christian Yelich was drafted in the first round in 2010. A year later he was named the Miami Marlins Minor League Player of the Year after helping the Greensboro Grasshoppers win their first South Atlantic League title in 29 years. Yelich ended last season among the league leaders when he finished third in the batting race, seventh in total bases and on-base percentage, ninth in doubles, and his 32 stolen bases ranked sixth. In 122 games for Greensboro he batted .312 with 15 home runs, 32 doubles, 77 runs batted in and he scored 73 runs. He’s a pure hitter from the left side of the plate with a smooth swing, and his speed makes his a base-stealing threat and gives him the ability to cover ground in the outfield.
Jake Smolinski patrolled the Suns outfield in 116 games during his first season at the AA level in 2011. He batted .245 with 7 home runs and 36 runs batted in. Originally a second round pick by Washington in 2007, Smolinski showed some pop at the plate. His 97 hits were sixth on the team and his 26 doubles were second-most among Suns players. He also finished among the team leaders with 59 walks.
Kyle Jensen split time between Jupiter and Jacksonville in 2011. The 23-year old appeared in 21 games with the Suns a year ago. He hit .250 with a homer and five runs batted in with Jacksonville. Jensen spent most of the 2011 season with Jupiter in the Florida State League appearing in 109 games for the Hammerheads.
At 6-4, 230 pounds, his size and strength at the plate make him pitchers nightmare. He led Jupiter in hits(121), home runs(22), runs batted in(66), and total bases(209). Jensen also hit for average batting .309 and had a slugging percentage of .535 last season.
Jeremy Synan also split time between Jupiter and Jacksonville during the 2011 season. With the Suns the 24-year-old played 35 games batting .338 with a home run, nine runs batted in, and he scored 17 runs. A product of N.C. State University, Synan also appeared in 64 games with Jupiter a year ago. He hit .197 with two home runs and 19 runs batted in, and tied for the team lead with four triples.
First baseman Ben Lasater played 102 games for Jacksonville in 2011. He batted .296 with 12 home runs and 60 runs batted in. He finished second on the team in home runs and runs batted in, only Luke Montz had more in both categories. A native of Las Vegas, Lasater finished third on the Suns with 25 doubles and fifth overall with 103 hits during the season.
Jim Negrych roamed the Suns infield for 121 games during the 2011 season. Only Kevin Mattison and Chris Gutierrez appeared in more games. Negrych hit .304 with five homers and drove in 46 runs. The 27-year old finished the season second on the Suns in hits(121), third in runs scored(60), fourth in doubles(22), and second in stolen bases(11).
Third baseman Paul Gran appeared in 95 games for the Suns. The 25-year-old hit .260 with six home runs and 42 runs batted in. Gran was second on the team with four triples, third with nine stolen bases, and fourth on the Suns in doubles with 23.
26-year-old infielder Ryan Curry played 112 games for the Suns last season. He batted .244 with eight home runs and 47 runs batted in. Curry was sixth on the team in RBI and seventh on the club with 90 hits. Only five players on the Jacksonville roster appeared in more games than Curry in 2011.
After playing in two games with Jacksonville in 2010, Kyle Skipworth appeared in 106 games during 2011 in his first full season with the Suns. The 22-year old switch-hitting catcher batted .207 with 11 home runs and 49 runs batted in, and showed some power at the plate collecting 82 hits on the season, 25 of them for extra bases. The Riverside, California native will also rely on a strong arm behind the plate to keep base runners in check. The sixth overall pick in the 2008 MLB Draft, Skipworth is entering his fifth season in the Miami organization and is ranked 15th on the Marlins prospect watch list according to MLB.com.
Following his impressive playoff performance in 2010, left-handed starter Brad Hand picked up where he left off by starting 18 games for the Suns during the 2011 season. Hand had a record of 11-4 and a 3.40 ERA in Jacksonville. His 11 wins were tied for second-most in the Southern League. He struck out 71 batters just under 109 innings of work. In 12 starts with the Marlins last season, Hand went 1-8 with a 4.20 ERA.
Pitcher Ramon Benjamin went into spring training hoping to earn a spot with Miami, but felt shoulder discomfort after only three bullpen sessions early in camp. The 24-year-old will miss the 2012 season after undergoing surgery in March to repair a torn labrum. Benjamin appeared in 16 games last season for the Suns going 2-2 with a 4.64 ERA.
While Brad Hand led the Suns in wins last season, righty Omar Poveda tied for the team lead with 27 starts and finished the season 8-6 with a 4.32 ERA. Proveda showed he was durable with his 27 starts tied for the second-most in the league, and his 156 and a third innings fifth among all Southern League pitchers. He also ranked eighth overall with 116 strikeouts.
Right-handed relievers Evan Reed and Chris Hatcher are expected to join Jacksonville in the bullpen for the 2012 season. Hatcher was one of the hero’s for the Suns in the Southern League Championship Series in 2010 with a walk-off home run in Game Four to clinch the title. He switched to being a pitcher the following season and made his Major League pitching debut at Wrigley Field against the Cubs July 16, 2011.