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Minor league preview: Columbia Fireflies

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How will the Columbia Fireflies fare this year?

Anthony Kay
Chris McShane

The Columbia Fireflies began the 2017 season with just as much buzz about them as they did their inaugural 2016 season thanks to the presence of quarterback-turned-outfielder Tim Tebow. In typical Tebow fashion, he homered in his first at-bat, but as the season progressed, he was exposed as the unrefined baseball talent that he is and regressed to the mean. The 2017 Fireflies season can be thought of as a microcosm of that at-bat. They started off looking good, but the team faded in the end. In the first half, the Colafies jockeyed with the Greenville Drive for first place all season but fell just short on the last day of the season, when a Columbia loss coupled with a come-from-behind Drive win dropped the team into second place by a half-game, knocking them out of the South Atlantic League playoff picture. The team was not nearly as successful in the second half as they had been in the first, as combination of promotions, trades, and injuries gutted the lineup and pitching staff.

The Columbia Fireflies will open the 2018 season on Thursday, April 5th against the Augusta GreenJackets, the Low-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants.

THE MANAGERS

Pedro Lopez will be taking the reigns from former manager Jose Leger, who served as skipper in 2016 and 2017. The 2018 season will be his 11th within the organization, having previously managed the Kingsport Mets in 2008, the Brooklyn Cyclones in 2009, the Savannah Sand Gnats in 2010, the St. Lucie Mets in 2011, the Binghamton Mets from 2012-2016, and the Las Vegas 51s in 2017. The Vega Baja, Puerto Rico native is one of the most winning managers in Mets minor league history, with the highlight of his managerial career winning the Eastern League championship in 2014 and leading the team to three straight Eastern League playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history. Flanking him will be Jonathan Hurst and Ender Chavez, who will be serving as pitching and hitting coach, respectively.

Hurst will be in his third season as pitching coach for the Fireflies and will be in the organization for 13. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in 1987 and played baseball all over the world in his ten year career, including Mexico, Japan, and Taiwan. Numerous pitchers have blossomed under his direction, and the trend will hopefully continue in 2018. Ender Chavez will be replacing Joel Fuentes as hitting coach. He spent the past two seasons serving as hitting coach for the Kingsport Mets, and spent the three seasons before that as hitting coach for the GCL Mets.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

THE HITTERS

The Columbia Fireflies were one of the worst teams in the South Atlantic League when it came to offense in 2017, hitting a collective .246/.338/.330 in 2017, and that is unlikely to change in 2018. The closest thing the team has to a true slugger is first baseman Jeremy Vasquez, who hit eight home runs while playing in Kingsport and Brooklyn. Third baseman Blake Tiberi, who will be returning from Tommy John surgery, may be able to contribute in that department as well, but there were questions about his ability to hit for power as a professional when he was drafted, and the answer is even more hazy two years later. Infielders Edgardo Fermin, Walter Rasquin, and Rigoberto Terrazas all has shown a solid ability to hit for average in their brief professional careers and will be handed their biggest tests so far in Columbia.

Columbia’s outfield is unlikely to be blasting balls out of the park, either. Stanford alumni Quinn Brodey and Matt Winaker will be playing in the outfield, one in center and one in a corner, while Wagner Lagrange and Raphael Gladu will split time in the remaining outfield spot. Dan Rizzie and Scott Manea will combine to get the majority of the reps behind the plate, but it is interesting to note that utility player Jay Jabs will be primarily used as a catcher this season, as his arm has always been his strongest tool.

THE PITCHERS

Pitching, on the other hand, should be the major strength for the team, at least to start the season. Anthony Kay, one of the Mets’ first-round draft picks from 2016, will be returning from Tommy John surgery and will look to establish himself as a pitcher in a similar mold. In addition to the first-round southpaw, high-ceiling right-handers Tony Dibrell and Chris Viall will also be taking the ball every five days. Joe Cavallaro, Nicolas Dabora, and lefty Jake Simon should all make starts as well.

The Columbia bullpen should also be solid. With his stuff and delivery, Stephen Villines has the ability to gets outs at an even higher level and should be an effective closer. Junkballers Conner O’Neil and Cannon Chadwick have good enough off-speed stuff to still fool Low-A hitters in the middle innings, while fireballer Marcel Renteria- if healthy, unlike 2017, when his stuff was compromised- should be able to blow away those digging in against him.