Shuckers have a hard time keeping cool in photo shoot
BILOXI -- The Biloxi Shuckers gained a minor national following in 2015 thanks to a 54-game road trip that inspired ESPN and several national publications to tell their tale.
On Thursday, the 2016 Shuckers will begin to write their own story.
A year after coming up one win short of the Southern League title, the Shuckers open their season at MGM Park at 6:40 p.m. on Thursday against the Chattanooga Lookouts.
While top prospects like shortstop Orlando Arcia and right-hander Jorge Lopez have moved up to Triple-A, there's no lack of talent on this year's squad.
Center fielder Brett Phillips is ranked No. 57 on Baseball America's list of the top 100 prospects in Minor League Baseball and newly-acquired catcher Jacob Nottingham seems likely to join him soon on that list.
Phillips and Nottingham both hit homers in Saturday's exhibition contest against the Brewers at MGM Park. That likely won't be the last time both men go deep in the same game.
"I think we've got a really deep team again offensively," Shuckers infielder Nathan Orf said. "We've got some young guys. Nottingham is a young guy and the sky is the limit for him. We'll have Phillips for a while year this year. It's an exciting time for fans. I think playing in this ballpark will also help us put up a few more runs."
Phillips batted .309 with 16 homers and 77 RBIs between Single-A and Double-A last season. He was traded from Houston to Milwaukee on July 30. After hitting .250 in 80 at-bats at Biloxi last season, his numbers should see a big bounce this season.
Nottingham, who was acquired by the Brewers from Oakland in February, batted .316 with 17 homers and 82 RBIs at Class A last season.
Nottingham, who turned 21 Sunday, has built a reputation as a solid power hitter, but he's no slouch behind the plate either.
Daniel Tillman, who will share closing duties with Jaye Chapman early in the season, had the chance to throw to Nottingham a couple of times in the spring.
"To be honest, I was really surprised at how good he was," Tillman said. "Most young catchers stink. That's just the way it is. They're just immature behind the plate. He is a big kid. He sucks it up real well and keeps the ball inside of his body when he blocks it. I haven't seen anything he does bad yet."
Corner infielder Garrett Cooper, who batted .552 in 29 at-bats at Biloxi last season, also adds some pop to the Biloxi lineup.
Victor Roache hit 18 homers total while splitting last season between Single-A and Double-A and will again be inserted into the middle of the lineup.
When the Shuckers were at their best early in the season in 2015, Kyle Wren was the man at the top of the batting order. He's back at Biloxi this year after hitting .300 in 227 at-bats with 20 stolen bases for the Shuckers last year.
Orf also proved a good run producer near the top of the lineup last season, batting .274 with 65 runs scored.
In the pitching rotation, left-handed ace Josh Hader and right-hander Adrian Houser both had sub-3.00 ERAs last season in seven starts a piece at Biloxi.
Six-foot-4 right-hander Javier Salas, who went 8-8 with a 4.13 ERA in 24 games at Class A Brevard County (Fla.) last season, will also likely be near the top of the rotation.
Biloxi replaces its top two starting pitchers from 2015 in Lopez and Tyler Wagner, who was traded to Arizona, but the Shuckers staff is confident it has the pitching depth necessary to compete in the Southern League.
"With Hader and myself returning and the three guys we've got with us, I think we can be pretty good," Houser said. "We're all trying to do the same thing and help the team win. I think we've got a chance at being really good, maybe even matching what we did last year."