‘Salty’ Zephyrs begin season in Nashville

METAIRIE — The New Orleans Zephyrs begin this season excited, with a reason to be motivated perhaps more than usual.

The parent Miami Marlins traded big-name players and contracts and now have a more untested lineup. As the Zephyrs open their Pacific Coast League season Thursday night at Nashville, the theme this season, more than most, is this: “Be Ready.”

“It’s a very experienced team,” Zephyrs manager Ron Hassey said. “And it was built that way because of the fact that in Miami, we have a lot of young players up there, and if they happen to get into some type of slump or hurt, you have guys who have major league experience here in (Class) AAA.”

Sixteen players on the Z’s 25-man roster have major league experience, led by pitchers Tom Koehler, the opening-day starter, left-hander Brad Hand and outfielder Bryan Petersen.

That’s why Petersen said the team has adopted as its nickname “Salty,” a nod to the Zephyrs’ seasoning, he said.

All 11 of the team’s pitchers have thrown in the big leagues, one of the reasons they are considered the Zephyrs’ strength. The bullpen could determine how good the staff can be.

“We’re not sure about our some of the guys in our bullpen, because I haven’t seen them that much,” he said. “But if you look at their numbers and where they’ve been, most of them have major league experience, and I’m pleased about that.”

With velocity on his fastball, if Koehler’s control also is good, his stay in New Orleans could be short. He had a promising spring.

“The big club told me once I get the command on my to fastball where I want it to be, good things will happen,” said. “The goal is to hit my spots, get ahead in the counts, then work everything else.”

The Z’s appear to have the potential to be a good hitting team, although the lineup is not one with a lot of power.

“It’s probably a team that’s going to hit for average more than we did last year,” Hassey said. “I don’t think we’ll have the home-run power that we did last year, but I think you’ll see a lot more consistency out of our hitters.”

Petersen sees the Z’s being two different teams offensively, depending on whether they are at home or on the road.

“(Zephyr Field) plays pretty big, and we don’t have that guy who is going to hit 25 home runs,” he said. “I think we can do some damage on the road (as far as power), and then when we’re here, hit in the gaps and try to manufacture runs, whether it’s through bunts, hit-and-run or banging down the walls.”

Petersen hit .321 in 64 games with the Zephyrs last season before being called up to the Marlins, where he hit just .195 in 84 games. Another player to watch may be first baseman Ben Lasater, although he hit just .268 last season. He played in 10 games, then was injured and spent 10 weeks on the disabled list.

“He was swinging the bat real well most of the first month,” Hassey said.

Lasater certainly started last season strongly. On opening day against Nashville, he doubled in a run, then hit a grand slam in the eighth to propel the Z’s to a 6-2 victory.

With a corps of infielders who can play several positions, the defense is expected to be solid and back up a good pitching staff.

The Sounds are the opposite of the Z’s, boasting a lineup of top young prospects. They have four who are in the top 10 of Baseball America’s rankings: right-hander Tyler Thornburg (No. 2), slugging first baseman Hunter Morris (No. 4), right-hander Johnny Helweg (No. 6) and second baseman Scooter Gennett (No. 6).

Morris, 24, was the Southern League MVP last year at Class AA Huntsville after leading the league in six offensive categories. He finished second in the minors with 113 RBIs, won a Gold Glove Award, and was chosen the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization’s Player of the Year.

Right-hander Hiram Burgos, one of nine players returning to Nashville, was the organization’s Pitcher of the Year after having a 1.95 ERA in 28 games, advancing from Advanced-A Brevard County to AA Huntsville to Nashville last season. He is said to have the best change-up in the Brewers’ minor-league system.