The field at State Mutual Stadium this week was once again the place to find some of the Atlanta Braves’ organization’s top young talent.
After a spring in Florida, the players and coaches of the Rome Braves had a few days to acclimate themselves to the ballpark, the city and the season before diving into the Class-A affiliate’s schedule.
“Most of these guys are first-timers here in Rome. We've got maybe six or seven guys who were here last year. So we're just getting them used to the park. Getting them adjusted under the lights and seeing the ball in flight,” Rome manager Matt Tuiasosopo said after Tuesday evening’s workout.
“The kids are excited. They're ready to go. They really are chomping at the bit ready to start. We've got a lot of youth so just to see their excitement is exciting.”
If there seems to be an influx of youthfulness and excitement among the team at least through the first part of the 2019 season, Tuiasosopo is at the forefront of it.
The Washington state native played with Atlanta just two years ago and was playing in the minors just last year before getting the job as the Rome Braves’ new skipper.
“I tell the kids when they ask me how I'm doing, I say, 'I'm great. I don't have anymore bad days,'” Tuiasosopo said. “I don't have to worry about facing 95 with some cut or some sink, or a nasty curveball. I get to just serve them and work hard with them every day.”
All joking aside, Tuiasosopo said he and his staff is looking forward to getting to work with each of the players on the team’s 25-man roster, which was officially announced Tuesday.
He said between the ones who are fresh out of rookie ball and playing their first full professional season to the guys who are continuing to dedicate themselves to making the next level, he’s hoping they can all work together and keep positive.
“That's the only way we're going to make it through a full season is just pulling for each other and staying positive,” Tuiasosopo said. “They just love playing the game, so that's the fun part of working with them in the beginning part of their career — they just want to play ball.”
They’ll get that opportunity tonight as Rome opens the season on the road at Kannapolis for a four-game series before swinging through Columbia, South Carolina, for three games.
The Braves will play their home opener on April 11 at 7 p.m. against the Greenville Drive to start a seven-game homestand.
Joining Tuiasosopo on the Rome coaching staff this season is hitting coach Bobby Moore, who is in his seventh straight season and 15th overall with Rome. Kanekoa Texeira is on as Rome’s new pitching coach after serving the same role at rookie-level Danville last season.
Wigberto Nevarez takes on the role of coach this season after playing in the Braves’ minor league system from 2014-2017.
“Our job is to make them better for whatever level they get to,” Tuiasosopo siad. “Obviously, the chips are going to fall where they fall, but as long as I know that I was able to pass along what people taught me, that's the exciting part.”
Rome’s opening day roster includes 11 of Atlanta’s 2018 draft selections including pitcher Trey Riley, a fifth-round pick out of John A. Logan College in Illinois who struck out 117 batters in 77 2/3 innings in his last collegiate season.
The 6-foot-2 Riley is one of two players on the Rome team ranked by MLB Pipeline as one of Atlanta’s top 30 prospects, with Riley No. 20 and fellow pitcher Jasseel De La Cruz at No. 27.
Riley said he felt he had a good spring and is glad to be in Rome after getting back into the baseball frame of mind in Florida. He’s also high on the chemistry between the players and the coaching staff.
“It's amazing,” Riley said after Tuesday’s workout. “I had Tex last year in Danville and I trust him with everything. And you can tell with the clubhouse atmosphere it's something special already and we haven't even started playing yet. I think we've got a good group of guys and we're going to work together really well.”
Southpaw Jake Higginbotham, who was drafted by Atlanta in the 11th round last year out of Clemson, joins the Single-A club. With a 2.65 ERA at Danville, Higginbotham had the sixth lowest ERA among all Atlanta relief farmhands.
Also on Rome’s pitching staff are other 2018 draft picks Nolan Kingham and Victor Vodnik, as well as four players who spent time with the club last season — De La Cruz, Kurt Hoekstra, Odalvi Javier and Alan Rangel.
“I think the staff we have right now is incredible,” Riley said. “We're stacked up and down the affiliates, and even in extended we've got guys who are really good, so you've just got to go about your business and be you.”
Outfielder Andrew Moritz, a sixth-round pick out of UNC Greensboro last year, also highlights the Rome club. In three collegiate seasons, Moritz posted a .406 batting average with 59 extra-base hits and 10 home runs in 154 games.
Other position Rome players from the 2018 draft are infielder Brendan Venter, who played for Rome late last season, and infielder Greg Cullen.