By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
Connecticut Sports Online
NEW BRITAIN, April 5, 2001 -- Less than seven months ago, the New Britain Rock Cats limped across the finish line of the 2000 Eastern League season a squad that has been battered, bruised, stripped down and declawed.
The Rock Cats, who began the season with a four-game win streak and youthful optimism, ended the campaign with a franchise-record 17 game losing streak, a team with a record 40 games under .500 (51-91) and a squad with only five wins in its final 33 games.
But third baseman Michael Cuddyer, one of three No. 1 draft picks of the parent Minnesota Twins on this Rock Cat team, said that 2001 will not be a repeat of the last season.
He said the team won 15 of the 21 games it played in during spring training against other similar minor league squads.
"We're going to come back here and win this year. We have a lot of winners here and they're used to winning (with other teams)," Cuddyer said.
Cuddyer came to New Britain a year ago with high expectations but didn't play up to his potential, hitting .263 with only six home runs and 61 RBI. He has something to prove along with veteran pitchers Brad Thomas, an Australian Olympian, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Mills and Juan Rincon.
Thomas was 6-6 in New Britain but Lohse was 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA and Mills was 0-7 with a 9.28 ERA. Rincon pitched well at Fort Myers a year ago (5-3, 2.12 ERA) but stumbled once he came to New Britain (3-9, 4.65 ERA).
"We have a lot of veteran pitchers who were here last year, they know what to expect and how to pitch in this league," Cuddyer said. "We're going to be a good team."
Nine of Minnesota's top 30 prospects are on the squad, including Minnesota's most recent No. 1 draft pitcher, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher Adam Johnson and Mills, a No. 1 pick in 1998. Cuddyer was drafted No. 1 in 1997.
"It's a big challenge but a rewarding challenge," said new Rock Cats skipper Stan Cliburn on managing a team with so many highly-rated prospects underfoot. "We have the talent. Sparky Anderson once told me to control the clubhouse and once the game starts, everything will take care of itself. Control the attitudes and egos if we can do that we'll get the most out of the talent."
Cliburn is a firm believer in getting his players the innings they need to develop and progress towards the major leagues. He has seven years of managerial experience, including two years in Class AA with the Tulsa Drillers (1993-94). He was 64-75 with the Twins' Class A Quad City Bandits squad a year ago.
Johnson, who owns a 94-mph fastball, begins the season at the No. 1 starter. He will be followed by Thomas, Lohse, Mills and Rincon. Saul Rivera and Lee Marshall will take turns as the closers.
On the infield, Cuddyer and first baseman Tommy Peterman are looking to regain some power that abandoned them last year. Kevin Hodge, who hit 10 home runs and 56 RBI at Fort Myers a year ago, will battle with Juan Lorenzo for the starting shortstop position.
"Hodge was real impressive to (Twins manager) Tom Kelly at spring training," Cliburn said. "He played quite a few times with the big league club."
Among the outfielders, Michael Restovich was the organizational player of the year in 1999. He is listed as the Twins' No. 3 prospect in the latest Baseball America.
The Rock Cats will have a pair of minor league veterans behind the plate in Jeff Smith, playing in New Britain for the fifth time and Brandon Marsters, who caught for Reading in 1998 and played 11 games with Class AAA Salt Lake in 1999. Marsters was rated the best defensive catcher in the Class A Florida State League a year ago.
Reasons to smile in 2000
It wasn't all doom and gloom in 2000 for the Rock Cats.
1. Manager John Russell set a new franchise record for victories with 193 wins, breaking the old record set by Jim Pankovits from 1992-94 of 169-251.
2. T.R. Marcinczyk, the Plainville native who starred at now-defunct St. Thomas Aquinas in New Britain, returned home and homered in his first at-bat as a Rock Cat against Trenton off Jin Ho Cho.
3. Marcinczyk also hit a game-winning home run in his first game in a Rock Cats uniform in the 10th inning of a win over Trenton on June 25.
4. Catcher Jeff Smith tied a single-game record for most RBI in a single game with seven RBI in a 12-7 win over New Haven in April.
5. Third baseman Michael Cuddyer, who began the season as a big-time prospect along with seven hits and five RBI in his first 19 at-bats. But an 0-for-16 slump near the end of April cooled his progress.
Still, Cuddyer had his moments such as a two home run effort including a game-winner HR and all four RBI in a 4-2 win over Norwich on Aug. 10. He had a game-winning one-out single in the 10th inning of a 6-5 win over New Haven on June 28.