My minor league baseball adventures continued this past Friday, as I visited yet another stadium – Regions Field in Birmingham, AL, just a little over an hour drive south from my house in North Alabama. In support of my local minor league team, Double-A Rocket City Trash Pandas (Angels affiliate), my girl friend and I was blessed with mid-40s temperatures and even spitting rain at one point. The Trash Pandas versus the Birmingham Barons (White Sox affiliate). Opening Day baseball. Crappy weather couldn’t ruin this.
First off, I have to say, Regions Field was much nicer than I anticipated. I believe it’s only eight or nine years old, and the location was great, plus there seemed to be quite a few things to do surrounding the stadium. Friday’s game didn’t draw a huge crowd (nothing like what will be at the Trash Pandas home opener this Tuesday), but 3 or 4,000 fans wound up attending the game, which made it a decent environment, despite a rather chilly first pitch.
But on to the actual Trash Pandas players that I was impressed with…
Rocket City Trash Pandas
For the visiting Trash Pandas, I was impressed with starter RHP Brett Kerry, who isn’t really considered a prospect in the Angels system, but as a former fifth-round pick in last year’s MLB Draft (out of the University of South Carolina), he has posted some strong numbers so far as a pro, including a 1.26 ERA in five starts combined at Single-A Inland Empire and Rocket City in 2021. The 22-year-old worked quickly and was super efficient in his outing on Friday, needing just 68 pitches (49 strikes) to get through five innings of five-hit ball. All five hits were just singles, and the righty never looked like he was in any danger. Altogether, Kerry struck out eight – a very impressive start to kick off his 2022 campaign. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything that displayed pitch speeds, so I have no idea how hard any of the pitchers were throwing.
Pre-game, while I was looking through both team’s starting lineups, 3B Kevin Maitan caught my eye. If you don’t remember, Maitan was one of the international signees from the Coppy scandal that the Braves eventually lost due to penalties by MLB. I knew he was in the Angels system, but didn’t realize what class he was in. It’s a bit disappointing, but Maitan has had quite an underwhelming pro career so far. As a 21-year-old last season, the Venezuelan infielder posted just a 41 wRC+ in 32 games at High-A, after going 3 for 11 (.273 AVG) in five games with the rookie club. Maitan is a big, sort of a stocky-built guy, and I can definitely say that his listed weight of 190 pounds is probably at least 10-15 pounds too low. He obviously appears athletic, but there wasn’t anything that stood out to me in Friday’s game. Maitan was hitless in three tries at the plate, with one strikeout, though he did draw a walk and score a run.
The top-half of the Trash Pandas lineup was really fun to watch. Lead-off hitter OF Aaron Whitfield looks like a really athletic guy with plus speed. He started in left for Rocket City and kicked off the game with a solidly-hit, first-pitch line drive to left for a base-hit, then a batter later stole second with ease (he later stole another bag to finish with two for the night). He also drew a pair of walks in the game and recorded an assist when he threw out a Birmingham runner trying for second. Altogether a great performance for Whitfield, who actually played in a few Twins games last year, though he only managed to get one at-bat. The 25-year-old Whitfield – who was born in Australia – had been in the Minnesota system since the 2015 season, and is coming off perhaps the highlight of his pro career so far, when he hit .257 with 22 XBH (6 HR) and 36 stolen bases in 111 games for Double-A Wichita in 2021. He doesn’t have much power for a corner-guy, but his athleticism allows him to be an ultra-productive player and he should be a leader for the Trash Pandas in 2022.
I’m saving the best for last, but the Trash Pandas DH on Friday was by far the star of the game. 1B/OF Trey Cabbage single handedly carried Rocket City to victory, finishing 3 for 5 with a homer, a double, a stolen base, five RBI (!) and two runs scored. The fourth-inning dinger he hit was impressive, as Cabbage barreled a ball to dead center, right on a line, to put the Trash Pandas ahead.
Cabbage is a big guy, listed 6-3, 204 pounds, but his size doesn’t hold him back at all when it comes to being athletic. And his bat speed is incredibly fast from the left side of the plate. From the little bit of research I was able to do while I was at the game Friday, it appears Cabbage had become a rather popular player in the Twins system as many were calling for Minnesota to give the 24-year-old a chance at the big league level. It makes sense too, considering he hit .264 with 27 homers, 82 RBI and six stolen bases in 108 combined games at the High and Double-A level last season. This guy appears to be the real deal, and with that meme-worthy name he’ll no doubt be a fan favorite at Toyota Field for the Trash Pandas this season.
I also noticed that former Brave OF Tyler Neslony was starting in left and batting sixth for the Barons on Friday. If you can remember, the Braves traded Neslony to the White Sox back in July of last year in exchange for cash. The former ninth-round pick by Atlanta (2016) was never much of a star while in the Braves minor league system, but he had become quite a productive player for Double-A Mississippi, topping out at a .292 AVG and 18 XBH (5 HR) in 58 games with the M-Braves in 2019. Neslony was struggling in Double-A during the first-half of last season, but following the trade, the then-27-year-old went on to post a 1.121 OPS (.355 AVG) with seven homers and 16 doubles in 40 games with Birmingham in the second-half. The change of scenery evidently helped. Neslony went 0 for 3 with a walk and three punch outs in Friday’s game against the Trash Pandas.