[This article was written by Nick Hanson. Nick lives near the Port Charlotte facility and will be a Charlotte Stone Crabs, GCL Rays, and Extended Spring Training correspondent.]
Fresh off hosting its first season of Rays spring training, the city of Port Charlotte welcomes an affiliated minor league team for the first time since 2002. The Charlotte Stone Crabs will begin their first season as the Class A Florida State League affiliate of the Rays.
The Rays and Stone Crabs have been warmly welcomed already. 103,255 fans saw spring training action this spring at Charlotte Sports Park, easily an all-time record for the American League champion Rays. The Stone Crabs home opener against Fort Myers has been sold out for weeks, with only general admission seating remaining. The team has reportedly sold about 1,000 season ticket packages. Fan attendance was a serious problem for the former Vero Beach Devil Rays franchise, but that should not be a problem this season.
The Stone Crabs pitching staff is led by 2006 draft pick Alex Cobb, who has been named the starter for Thursday night's opener. Cobb pitched for Columbus all of last season, compiling a 9-7 record with a 3.29 ERA. He struck out 97 and only walked 35. His WHIP was 1.06, a good improvement from a 1.34 WHIP in 2007. Also in the rotation is 2007 draft pick David Newmann, who has yet to make his professional debut after missing all of last season with injuries. Kevin Boggan, Jesse Darcy, Darin Downs, Brian Flores, Justin Garcia, Matt Gorgen, Jeremy Hall, Austin Hinkle, Craig James, and Jose Mejias are also members of the Stone Crabs pitching staff.
The batting order is anchored by outfielder Ryan Royster, who is a surprise holdover from the Vero Beach club of 2008. Royster's prospect status shot up in 2007, when he hit 30 home runs and drove in 98 for Columbus, while maintaining a .329 average. Royster was expected to break spring camp with the Montgomery Biscuits, but will at least begin the season in Port Charlotte. His numbers took a sharp decline for Vero Beach in '08, posting a .265/9/58 line. He needs to cut down on the strikeouts, going down by way of the K 231 times in 2007/2008 combined.
Reid Fronk will also be an offensive threat for the Stone Crabs. A 7th round selection in 2007, Fronk came out swinging in his first full season of ball, hitting 17 home runs and driving in 83 for Columbus. He also walked 74 times.
The rest of the Stone Crabs offensive players include Nevin Ashley, Stephen Vogt, Shawn Williams, Cody Cipriano, Matt Fields, Omar Luna, Shawn O'Malley, Greg Sexton, Pedro Powell, and Emeel Salem.
The Stone Crabs kick off their inaugural season on Thursday night against the Fort Myers Miracle, with first pitch scheduled for 7:35 p.m. Team owner Cal Ripken Jr. is scheduled to be in attendance.