Whitey Richardson sees no need to go out on a limb. Feels no reason to make some outlandish prediction.
For the 1997 Augusta GreenJackets, who broke spring training camp in Bradenton, Fla., over the weekend and arrived in town Tuesday for their first workout at Lake Olmstead Stadium, it's all quite simple.
"If we get pitching, we're going to be good," said Richardson, the Augusta first-year manager. "I know we're gonna be a pretty good defensive club, and I think we'll hit the ball pretty well, so it really comes down to our staff. I think they're gonna be the key."
The first test for the Jackets and their young pitching staff comes Thursday at The Lake, as Augusta hosts the Cape Fear Crocs (formerly the Fayetteville Generals) in the 1997 South Atlantic League season opener. Game time is 7:05 p.m.
Left-hander Jason Haynie, a 23-yearold drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 11th round last June out of South Carolina, gets the start for the Jackets.
With Richardson as his manager last season in 16 games at short-season Class A Erie, Haynie finished with a 3-4 record and 3.25 ERA. In 80 innings, the 6-footer struck out 74 batters and walked only 22.
On a staff of 12 averaging a mere 20.9 years of age and only 1.4 years of professional baseball experience, Haynie anchors the starting rotation along with Jason Temple, a 21-year-old righthander in his fourth year with the Pirates organization.
Temple was 5-2 with a 2.26 ERA with the SAL champion Jackets in 1995. His season at advanced Class A Lynchburg last year was cut short by surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
"Some of them are young and a lot of them don't have a ton of experience, but I really like our staff," said Scott Lovekamp, the former University of Florida pitching coach in his first year as pitching coach with Augusta. "It will be fun for me as a coach because there are a lot of different types of pitchers here.
"We've got some young, projectable 18- and 19-year-olds, and we got a few more experienced 22- 23-year-olds here to work on different things. I'm really happy, I think I got a great group to work with."
Only a few returnees are back from last year's club that won the first-half title in the SAL and finished 71-70 under manager Jay Loviglio. Those who are back are expected to play key roles in '97.
Stan Schreiber, who took over as the Jackets' every-day shortstop last season after top prospect Chad Hermansen was called up to Lynchburg, will likely bat leadoff and play second base for Richardson. The 21-year-old batted .226 and stole 20 bases in 112 games last year.
First baseman Morgan Walker, a 23rd-round pick last June out of Lamar University, batted .300 last year with the Jackets - his first year of pro ball. Slated for Lynchburg until the final week of spring training, the 6-3 Walker will DH and play first base for the Jackets again this year.
Center fielder Freddy May, voted the best defensive outfielder in the SAL last season, returns to Augusta hoping to improve on a disappointing year at the plate, when he hit .203.
Outfielder Alex Pena, infielder Butch Bellenger, and pitchers David Daniels and Brian O'Connor - all of whom spent parts of the '96 season with the Jackets - also return.
The other notable familiar face is shortstop Tony Robinson, a 20-year-old who played in just 31 games at Lynchburg last season due to arm troubles. Robinson spent the '95 season with the champion Jackets, batting .229 in 96 games.
Among the top new faces are catcher Lee Evans and outfielder Corey Pointer.
Evans, the Pirates' 4th-round pick last June out of Tuscaloosa (Ala.) High School, is already considered one of the organization's brightest low-level power prospects. The 6-1 Evans batted .279 with three homers and 20 RBI in 32 games with Bradenton in the rookie Gulf Coast League.
Pointer, acquired from the Atlanta Braves last August in the Denny Neagle trade, has many in the Bucs organization excited about the future. Pointer belted 14 homers and drove in 39 runs with the Braves' Class A Northwest League affiliate in Eugene, Ore., last season.
"I like our lineup a lot, and I'm pretty excited about this club," Richardson said. "I know what a lot of them can do, that's why you say pitching is the key. You don't know what they're going to do until they get out there in the game and do it."
NOTES: Good seats still remain for Thursday's opening day and the remainder of the opening series against Cape Fear. Friday is Holiday Inn/WBBQ Little League Bat night, with the first 1,000 fans 14-and-under receiving a free bat. Saturday features a post-game fireworks display, sponsored by Jones Dealer Group ... Cape Fear changed names and also switched affiliations for the 1997 season from the Detroit Tigers to the Montreal Expos ... Following the Cape Fear series and an off-day Monday, the Jackets host the defending SAL champion Savannah Sand Gnats in a 6 p.m. doubleheader on Tuesday. Because the doubleheader falls on the second day of practice rounds at the Masters, the Jackets' ticket office expects the remaining seats to go quickly. Tuesday is also two-for-Tuesday beverage night.
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