2009 Savannah Sand Gnats Preview

Wilmer Flores headlines this young squad

The 2009 edition of the Mets' South Atlantic League affiliate is headlined by youth and promise. With a number of intriguing arms and highly touted position players, this club will provide story lines all season long. Here is InsidePitchMagazine.com's preview of the Savannah Sand Gnats who open their season tonight at home versus the Augusta GreenJackets.

2009 Roster:: [2009 Inside Pitch Magazine Prospect Guide rankings in parenthesis]

RHP Kyle Allen (40) [2008 GCL – 1-1, 2.12 ERA, 34.0 IP, 11 G, 5 GS]
RHP Eric Beaulac (41) [2008 TOTAL – 2-2, 3.38 ERA, 48.0 IP, 14 G, 8 GS]
LHP Robert Carson (29) [2009 GCL/KNG – 3-3, 1.68 ERA, 53.2 IP, 11 GS]
RHP Rhiner Cruz [2008 BRO/SAV – 2-2, 4.73 ERA, 40.0 IP, 21 G]
RHP Jeurys Familia [2008 GCL – 2-2, 2.79 ERA, 51.2 IP, 11 G, 11 GS]
LHP Jimmy Johnson [2008 BRO – 5-0, 1.25 ERA, 36.0 IP, 23 G]
RHP Jeff Kaplan [2008 BRO – 3-2, 3.45 ERA, 47.0 IP, 15 G, 4 GS]
RHP Manuel Olivares [2008 TOTAL – 3-3, 3.35 ERA, 53.2 IP, 21 G, 3 GS]
RHP Elvin Ramirez (36) [2008 SAV – 6-7, 3.67 ERA, 81.0 IP, 18 GS]
RHP Wendy Rosa [2008 BRO/SAV – 1-1, 3.19 ERA, 42.1 IP, 30 G]
RHP Chris Schwinden [2008 BRO – 4-1, 2.01 ERA, 62.2 IP, 14 G, 8 GS]
RHP Josh Stinson (34)[2008 SAV/SLU – 3-8, 3.96 ERA, 86.1 IP, 28 G, 8 GS]
RHP Erik Turgeon [2008 KNG/BRO – 1-1, 3.13 ERA, 23.0 IP, 18 G]

C Luis Alen [2008 TOTAL – .114, 1 HR, 3 RBI, 44 AB, 17 G]
C Jean Luc Blaquiere [2008 KNG – .271, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 129 AB, 37 G]
C Kai Gronaeur [2008 GCL – .356, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 45 AB, 16 G]

UT Eric Campbell (50) [2008 BRO – .260, 4 HR, 28 RBI, 215 AB, 66 G]
SS Wilmer Flores (2) [2008 TOTAL – .307, 8 HR, 42 RBI, 280 AB, 68 G]
1B Jose Jimenez [2008 BRO/SAV – .241, 15 HR, 64 RBI, 468 AB, 126 G]
SS Juan Lagares (15) [2008 BRO/SAV – .253, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 253 AB, 65 G]
3B Jefry Marte (24) [2008 GCL – .325, 4 HR, 24 RBI, 154 AB, 44 G]
2B Josh Satin [2008 KNG/BRO – .303, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 155 AB, 48 G]
2B Jordany Valdespin [2008 GCL – .284, 3 HR, 22 RBI, 134 AB, 34 G]

OF Rafael Fernandez(33)[2008 TOTAL – .255, 4 HR, 31 RBI, 231 AB, 63 G]
OF Sean Ratliff (45) [2008 BRO – .229, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 201 AB, 59 G]
OF Raul Reyes (35) [2008 SAV – .298, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 47 AB, 13 G]

Notes: Most notable about the new Sand Gnats roster is their youth. This year's edition will field six players born in 1989 or later [Allen, Familia, Carson, Flores, Marte, Lagares]. Overall there are seven players 20 or younger on the roster and the average age of the entire roster is just over 20 years old. Ten players suited up for Savannah at some point during 2008. Edgar Alfonzo moves on to manage the Sand Gnats after spending the last two seasons leading the Brooklyn Cyclones. His staff includes Ryan Ellis [batting coach], Marc Valdes [pitching coach] and Jose Carreno [bench coach].

On the Rise: Shortstop Wilmer Flores will be the youngest prospect in the South Atlantic League when play gets underway. Flores, the prize of the 2007 international free agent class and who does not turn 17 until early August, made a thunderous debut with Kingsport last season and is now looking at an opportunity to register roughly 450 at-bats. Very few, if any, lineups in minor league baseball feature such youth at the heart of the order, but the Sand Gnats will likely slot Flores in the third or fourth spot in the lineup.

Pitching: The Sand Gnats pitching staff features six arms selected in the 2008 draft—Allen, Beaulac, Johnson, Kaplan, Schwinden and Turgeon. Combine those arms with young pitchers making their full season debut [Carson, Familia] and a number of others opening the season on a full season roster for the first time. Elvin Ramirez—the club's Opening Day starter—and Josh Stinson are the only pitchers who were with the club on this date last season. Rosa, Cruz, and Olivares all saw limited time in Savannah last season, but only after starting the year in Extended Spring Training.

The rotation has a nice stash of hard-throwers in Ramirez, Allen, Carson, Beaulac. All four of them work their secondary pitches off their fastball. Chris Schwinden brings a different style as he relies more on location and using his slider to change the opposition's pace.

Position Players: The headline on this roster is the extremely young but promising left side of the infield. The spotlight will be on Flores and Jefry Marte who are making a very big leap from rookie ball. Each show a lot of upside with the bat though for both there is much work to be done in the field. Many, many eyes will be on the duo to see how they meet the challenge of their assignments.

They are not the only members of the roster making the jump from rookie ball. Second baseman Jordany Valdespin and catcher Kai Gronaeur are up from the Gulf Coast League and catcher Jean Luc Blaquiere and outfielder Rafael Fernandez spent last season in Kingsport. Gronaeur brings solid power and a very strong arm to the club and should have the inside track to the everyday job.

Eric Campbell, Josh Satin, Sean Ratliff—three picks from last year's draft—will all have significant roles on the team. Satin will be the starting second baseman and Ratliff figures to hold down a spot in the corner outfield. Campbell, drafted as a third baseman, will spend most of his time at first base but should get some time in the outfield as well.

Raul Reyes returns to Savannah after appearing in only 13 games last season before suffering a broken ankle. Juan Lagares also returns to Savannah. The shortstop spent 46 of his 65 games last year with the club, but with Flores now entrenched at shortstop, Lagares will be left without a true position and could move to the outfield.

On the Spot: Right-hander Josh Stinson begins the season in Savannah for the third straight year. Now entering his fourth season on the farm, youth is no longer a parachute for the 21-year-old who needs to make an impact in his permanent shift to the bullpen which began last season. Stinson's fastball/curveball combination made him effective in relief with Savannah last season, but he will need to demonstrate more consistency so he can get up to St. Lucie in the first half.

Under the Radar: Many may not know Eric Campbell, but the 2008 8th round draft pick will have the opportunity to raise his stock with Savannah. Campbell saw considerable time at first base during camp and in the outfield last season with Brooklyn. Favorable tools at the plate and good athleticism should bring him success in the South Atlantic League and make him a better known prospect by season's end.

Outlook: As mentioned, this is a very young team with the majority having never played a full season of professional ball. That will lead to growing pains throughout season for both pitchers and position players. This year's Sand Gnats roster is all about development which will make it very tough for them to compete with the first division teams in the South Atlantic League.

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