After two last place finishes, the Columbia Fireflies enjoyed their first winning season since becoming a Royals affiliate, with a record of 66-65. The Carolina League was heavy on steals - every team but one stole at least 150 bases, with the Fireflies finishing second with 252 swipes. But power was lacking with only one team topping 100 dingers, and Columbia finished seventh with 76 home runs. The league batting average was just .237 with a .352 slugging percentage, not surprising considering the lack of pro experience and youth for many hitters.
Finish: 3rd (tied), South Division of the Carolina League (Low-A)
Manager: Tony Peña Jr.
Runs scored-per-game: 4.37 (10th out of 12 teams)
Runs allowed-per-game: 4.33 (3rd out of 12 teams)
Like most Low-A teams, the team that began the season looked different than the team that ended it. One constant was first baseman Brett Squires, who played in a team-high 122 games. The former Oklahoma Sooner was an undrafted free agent a few years older than most of his teammates, but he anchored the lineup with 15 home runs (third in the league), 32 steals (eighth in the league) and a .381 on-base percentage that was fourth-best in the league for anyone with at least 300 plate appearances.
The double play combination of second baseman Lizandro Rodriguez and shortstop Daniel Vazquez also spent the entire season in Columbia. The switch-hitting Rodriguez came on at the end of the year to finish at .235/.325/.347, near league-average. Vazquez showed some on-base skills - his 13.2 percent walk rate was eighth-best in the league. But he had little power with a .288 slugging percentage.
Brennon McNair began the season as the third baseman, but he struggled to get his average over the Mendoza Line and he had a lot of defensive issues. He was taken off the roster in August, leaving Austin Charles and 2023 draftee Trevor Werner to man the hot corner the rest of the year. Werner was terrific right out of the gate, hitting .352/.450/.703 with nine home runs in 35 games, earning Carolina League Player of the Month honors in August. Charles showed some flashes of brilliance, but slumped as the season went on, not surprising considering his youth and inexperience.
This Trevor Werner HR — his third in two games — was hit 109 mph off the bat and went 431 feet. pic.twitter.com/zxKw57aecJ— Preston Farr (@royalsminors) August 23, 2023
Erick Peña was the big name among the outfielders to begin the year, but he struggled mightily with a line of .133/.276/.296. He hit 10 home runs in 75 games and had a walk rate of 16.2 percent, but his 52.8 percent strikeout rate was the highest among all minor leaguers with at least 250 plate appearances,
Jean Ramirez had a solid season in his third stint at Columbia. The 22-year-old led the team with a .298 batting average, but he was caught stealing 17 times in 45 tries, a 38 percent fail rate. Roger Leyton and Levi Usher failed to hit much in the outfield, and by mid-season they were replaced by 2023 draftees Spencer Nivens, Carson Roccaforte, and Jared Dickey. Dickey hit the best of the the three, hitting .347/.434/.463 in 28 games, while Roccaforte and Nivens showed strong good plate discipline.
Fireflies pitchers had the fifth-highest strikeout rate and the fifth-lowest walk rate in the Carolina League, and had the lowest ERA in the first half out of all minor league teams. Former first round pick Frank Mozzicato was the most notable player for the Fireflies to begin the year. His walk rate was high (5.6 per-nine-innings) but he otherwise impressed early on with a 3.04 ERA in 12 starts, with 85 whiffs in just 56 1⁄3 innings before being promoted. Ben Kudrna would be promoted the next week after putting up a 3.56 ERA in 14 outings and a much lower walk rate than Mozzicato.
College pitchers drafted in 2022 - David Sandlin, Steven Zobac, and Ryan Ramsey - excelled with the Fireflies. Sandlin and Zobac posted two of the top five strikeout-to-walk ratios in the league for pitchers with at least 50 innings. Zobac’s 2.09 ERA was the lowest in the league for anyone with at least 10 starts, earning him a promotion. Ramsey set a club record with a 30 2⁄3 inning scoreless streak and lasted just seven starts with a 0.54 ERA before heading up to Quad Cities.
This is pretty cool. #Royals 2022 4th-round pick, Steven Zobac, has faced 10 batters in his professional career.— Preston Farr (@royalsminors) April 21, 2023
He has 10 strikeouts. He's through 1.1 innings tonight with 4 SO. pic.twitter.com/5ff5IVNA3z
Former second-round pick Ben Hernandez missed the first half of the season with injury, then returned with mixed results, posting a 4.71 ERA but with terrible peripherals. Shane Panzini and Mauricio Veliz also filled out the rotation, but struggled with an ERA well above the league average of 4.14, although Veliz had a decent walk rate and Panzini missed some bats.
Reliever Cooper McKeehan was a Carolina League All-Star, leading the league with a 1.08 ERA before he was promoted. McKeehan, Ben Sears, and Oscar Mayo were among the top six pitchers in the Carolina League in lowest walk rate. Lefty Chazz Martinez and righty Eduardo Herrera each had a strikeout-per-nine-innings rate of 12 or higher, but with high ERAs. Former Clemson pitcher Mack Anglin had a solid 2.09 ERA but with a high walk rate.