When New Orleans Zephyrs manager Andy Haines said health will be the key to this season, he means that for his team and the parent Miami Marlins.
The Zephyrs were in first place as late as July 21 last season. However, with the Marlins hit by injuries, 46 player moves in June involving the Zephyrs followed by 27 in July took their toll. New Orleans quickly tumbled to last place in the four-team American South Division, finishing with a 70-74 record.
However Triple-A teams exist to benefit the parent club. This season’s edition of the Zephyrs may be able to withstand that better and also be consistent throughout the season, he said.
“You look at any Triple-A club from last year who were successful, their major league club stayed healthy,” Haines said. “I think we’re going to reap the rewards of our major league club (making offseason moves) of what they’ve done. They’re deeper.”
So are the Zephyrs, Haines said. New Orleans lost players such as outfielders Kyle Jensen (27 homers) and Mark Cahna (20), who are with other organizations. They helped the Zephyrs finish fourth in the Pacific Coast League in home runs (151).
However, the Zephyrs’ talent level is up from last season, Haines said. First baseman Justin Bour, one of a handful of players who spent any significant time with the Zephyrs last season, heads a lineup with more players who played in the major leagues last season.
“I feel we have guys that have proven more at this level,” he said. “Just look at our infield.”
Bour is joined by Derek Dietrich (Marlins), Miguel Rojas (Dodgers) and Scott Sizemore (Yankees) and Gonzales native Reid Brignac (Phillies), all of whom played in the major leagues last season. Dietrich spent 21 games with the Zephyrs last season to work on fielding and hit seven home runs and three doubles in 82 at-bats.
Cole Gillespie (Mariners, Blue Jays) and talent Jordany Valdespin (Marlins) will be part of an outfield that also has returnee Austin Wates, who led the PCL in stolen bases (37) last season.
After a revolving door at catcher last season, J.T. Realmuto is expected to provide a lot of talent and stability behind the plate. He was the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year last season with Double-A Jacksonville. Considered a good defensive catcher, he also batted .299 with eight homers and 25 doubles.
“(Realmuto) controls the running game very well and worked well with the pitchers in getting batters back,” said Zephyrs first-year pitching coach John Duffy, who was with Jacksonville the past five years. “I think he can be a serviceable catcher in the big leagues right now. But (the Marlins) want him to get more consistent as a hitter.”
Left-hander Justin Nicolino heads a pitching staff that has three pitchers with big-league experience but for the most part is inexperienced. However, Nicolino was the Pitcher of the Year last season in the Southern League with Jacksonville after getting the honor the previous season with Single-A Jupiter in the Florida State League. He will be the opening-day starter.
He is joined by hard-throwing Jose Urena, one of four who pitched in Jacksonville last season, including Rob Morey and Grant Jackson, who came up to the Zephyrs.
“On the mound, I think we have some guys that this league will be a test for them,” Haines said. “(They’re) some really good young prospects, but I think they’re capable.”