About 20 months after last taking the field, minor league baseball gets underway – albeit later than normal – this week. That includes the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and their Southern League brethren.
The Blue Wahoos are in Pearl, Mississippi to open their 9th season in the Southern League against the Braves this evening. Kevin Randel is the new manager, coming here after managing the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp — now Miami’s Triple-A club. Over Zoom, he said a season in the COVID-19 era will provide additional challenges, starting with pregame.
“Pre-COVID, we just show up at the field, kinda hang out and do a little work and play games and hang out after the game,” said Randel. “Now, we are encouraging our guys to come in as late as possible, get your work in right away [and] stay away from each other, get the game in and go home.”
The idea, says Randel, is to get the baseball in and develop the players as best they can. They had a taste of the new protocol during spring training, such as separate groups coming in at different times to get in their workouts.
“Now at the beginning of our season it’s kind of the same thing; I’ve got to stagger the bus times, we’ve got to stagger the arrival times, we’ve got to stagger the work groups, smaller work groups,” Randel said. “We really don’t know what to expect yet, hopefully we can get through it and get these games in without any issues at all.”
On to baseball. Under the reshuffling of the minors by Major League Baseball, Pensacola is now the Miami Marlins’ Double-A affiliate. There’s talk about the level of talent in the Marlins organization, and Randel says they’ll provide weekly or bi-weekly progress reports to the big club.
“The reports, making contact with the hitting coaches in Triple-A and the big leagues; all these guys are keeping close eyes on them [and] they’ll want to move them as quickly as possible,” Randel said. “I have no doubt in my mind that they’re going to perform well at this level; they’re all ready for it, and just keeping the lines of communication open is very key.”
That talent level on the Wahoos’ roster, says Randel, is similar to his Jacksonville club in 2013 and 2014, with many of the prospects then – now major leaguers.
“Christian Yelich, [Marcel] Ozuna, Jason Resnick, J.T. Realmuto; and then on the pitching side Anthony DeSclafani,” said Randel. “You get to watch them perform right in front of your eyes, and a few years down the road you’re just like, ‘wow, those guys were just here a couple of years ago.’”
The 2021 edition of the Blue Wahoos, Randel contends, is a very well-rounded ball club, on the mound, at the plate, and in the field.
“I think we’re going to hit a little for average; we’re going to get on base, we can run a little bit, we can hit the long ball at times,” said Randel. “Our catching crew is very good, and the starting rotation is solid. The bullpen, we have some guys who have been there before, and we’ve got some new faces in there for this year in Double-A.”
Right-hander Max Meyer, the fourth overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft last June out of the University of Minnesota, is the opening night starter for Pensacola.
“I can’t wait for it; I can’t wait for there to be some fans there and it’s a real game setting,” Meyer said on Zoom. “The last time I feel like I pitched a real game was back in college.”
Meyer was asked his biggest takeaway from spring training, heading into the season.
“Working on my command a lot; getting a feel for the change-up,” Meyer said. “I feel really locked into the third pitch, knowing I trust every one of my pitches now on every count. So I can’t wait to get out there and use that in a game.”
After a six-game series with Mississippi, the Blue Wahoos return to Bayfront Stadium for the home opener May 11, against the Birmingham Barons. Per instructions from Major League Baseball, the stadium capacity will max out at 98%, and face coverings will be mandatory.