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Mudcats starting under new flag

Brewers affiliation brings promising talent to Zebulon

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ZEBULON — Barring a trade at some point in their professional careers, the Carolina Mudcats that will toil in Five County Stadium beginning in 2017 have one goal: Earn a dugout seat for the sixth-inning sausage race at Milwaukee’s Miller Park.

Well, not exactly to that end.

But armed with three of the top-10 prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers’ minor-league system, the Mudcats begin their first year as a Single-A Advanced affiliate of the Brewers on Thursday night on the road at the Fredricksburg Keys. The Mudcats, back for another season in the Carolina League, will spend their first seven games on the road before welcoming the Keys to Zebulon on April 13 to kick off a 13-game homestand.

“This group we have — there’s probably eight of our top 30, maybe more — it’s an exciting group of players,” Mudcats manager Joe Ayrault said. “I’m looking forward to working with them.”

Ayrault, who previously managed the Brewers’ minor-league club in Brevard County, Florida, returns for his sixth season at the helm of Milwaukee’s Advanced-A affiliate.

Starting the season with the Mudcats and ranked in the top 10 of Brewers prospects by MLB.com are shortstop Isan Diaz, outfielder Trent Clark and third baseman Lucas Erceg. All three are closely intertwined in the list, with Diaz, Clark and Erceg ranked No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7, respectively. On MLB.com’s list of the top 100 prospects in the minor leagues, Diaz clocks in at No. 65.

While the Carolina League’s Northern Division of the Frederick Keys, Lynchburg Hillcats, Potomac Nationals, Salem Red Sox and Wilmington Blue Rocks remains unchanged, Carolina’s Southern Division home will have some intriguing new faces.

Back in the saddle are the Myrtle Beach Pelicans and Winston-Salem Dash, but the Mudcats will welcome the Buies Creek Astros and the Down East Wood Ducks to the fold. The Wood Ducks, an affiliate of the Texas Rangers, represent Kinston’s return to professional baseball. The Buies Creek franchise will play on the campus of Campbell University for two years before relocating to its long-term home in Fayetteville for the 2019 season.

Carolina, in its last of two seasons as an Atlanta Braves affiliate, went 52-87 last year.

BREW CREW’S FUTURE

Take a gander at the left side of the Mudcats’ infield, and it’s a pair that could be kicking up National League dirt within the next few years.

Diaz, acquired by Milwaukee in 2016 in a trade that sent Jean Segura and Tyler Wagner to the Diamondbacks along with Chase Anderson and Aaron Hill to the Brewers, hit .264 last year with 20 home runs in the Single-A Midwest League with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. His 20 homers led the Midwest League en route to earning a Robin Yount Performance Award as the Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year.

In 2015, Diaz was the Most Valuable Player in the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League, wielding above-average power for a shortstop.

Yet Diaz, along with Erceg, wouldn’t acknowledge that added pressure exists to rise through the ranks and reach “The Show.” He lists former Mudcat shortstop Francisco Lindor, now with the Cleveland Indians, as a mentor.

“To be honest, I tend to not pay attention to it as much,” Diaz said of his outside acclaim. “I do see it every once in a while to refresh my memory as to what’s going on, but I really don’t pay attention to it. I just go out and play. Everyone here is the same, and we’re just trying to get to one place.”

Erceg, a 2016 second-round selection in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, hit .327 and had nine home runs and 51 RBIs in two stops at Rookie League Helena and the Timber Rattlers.

“I wouldn’t call it pressure,” Erceg said. “I would call it an extra motivational factor to get there, basically. I know for me at least, to be able to go out with the name on my back that has a lot of people talking, it’s really good for me to stay focused and make sure I’m doing all the right things, even the little things.

Clark, a first-round pick in 2015, will be a primary outfielder for the Mudcats. In a 114-game minor-league career, Clark has hit at a .269 clip with 22 doubles and 44 runs batted in. He’s hit eight home runs in two campaigns and will begin 2017 in Zebulon after finishing last season with the Timber Rattlers.

Clark considers himself a student of the history of the game, and as such, has little use for not keeping his body in peak condition.

“I love the way the game was played back in the day and reading about it,” he said. “Watching documentaries about it is one of my favorite things about baseball. Watching those guys on a day-to-day basis and how they treated their bodies, and how bad they were on a day-to-day basis and still did their jobs. If they can do it with all the resources we have now, and the competition level we have now...”

On the mound, right-hander Marcos Diplan begins the season as the Mudcats’ highest-ranked prospect, rated No. 11 by MLB.com in the Milwaukee organization. Diplan owned a 5-1 record last year with a 2.10 ERA and was one of eight Timber Rattlers selected as a Midwest League All-Star.

Other arms on the Carolina staff are right-hander Cody Ponce (No. 15), southpaw Kodi Medeiros (No. 18) and right-hander Corbin Burnes (No. 20). Medeiros was taken in the first round in 2014 by the Brewers.

jlewis@wilsontimes.com | 265-7807 | Twitter:@JimmyLewisWT

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