The Fayetteville Woodpeckers closed the 2023 Carolina League Class A minor league baseball season on a four-game winning streak.
That leaves team officials very optimistic about the 2024 campaign, which will be the Woodpeckers’ fifth playing at the $40 million Segra Stadium in downtown Fayetteville.
It was the first season for both General Manager Michelle Skinner and Manager Ricky Rivera, and both admit they went through some growing pains along the way. They both also enjoyed their experience and are looking for better days ahead.
Though the Woodpeckers finished with a 60-72 record, it was their first 60-win season since the inaugural season in Fayetteville, when they were 72-67.
And between the two of them, they accomplished what minor league teams are supposed to do: Help players move up the ranks toward major-league status while providing an enjoyable experience for fans.
Moving on up
Rivera, who has been in the Astros organization since 2020 and is the fourth manager in Woodpeckers history, said the team had “14 or 15 players” move up to the organization’s High Class A affiliate, the Asheville Tourists, this season.
“The forefront of our goals throughout the year is getting guys as close as you can to the big leagues and create value for the big-league team, and I think it was a really solid year for us,” said the 30-year-old Rivera, who managed the Florida Complex League Astros for two seasons before coming to Fayetteville. “Generally, we had 15 guys that moved up and stayed up.
“All 15 of them ended up finding a home there in Asheville, and hopefully they’ll keep moving up and hopefully we can get the next wave of guys up there. Obviously, that’s our main goal. Going into opening day, that’s half our (30-man) roster right there, so that’s pretty cool to see.”
One of those players who moved up was 23-year-old outfielder Zach Cole. Cole, who bats left-handed, led the Woodpeckers in home runs (11) and RBIs (46) while batting .265 in 70 games. After moving on to Asheville, he had an overall .258 batting average in 111 games with 19 homers, 65 RBI and 37 stolen bases.
Another was outfielder Ryan Clifford, a left-handed batter who hit .337 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 25 games before being traded to the New York Mets organization in the deal that brought future Hall of Fame right-handed pitcher Justin Verlander back to the Astros. Clifford finished the season with the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets’ High Class A affiliate. Overall while playing for three teams, he batted .262 with 24 homers and 81 RBIs in 115 games.
Those were just two of the 15 who advanced their careers this season, and Rivera said there could have been more if there had been enough roster spots with other Astros affiliates.
“There were guys that have developed here that had really, really good seasons, but those guys all understand there’s a process and nobody has a specific timeline,” Rivera said. “That’s the beauty of it, and they’ve been pretty good at this level and I hope they continue that success throughout the next level for us.”
A minor league baseball team operates a lot like the Army as people come and go, sometimes at a rapid pace.
One of those players who stayed the entire season with the Woodpeckers was Andrew Taylor, a 6-foot-5, 190-pound right-handed pitcher who had a 4-8 record with a 4.61 ERA, ranking third on the team with 126 strikeouts in 84 innings. He also had one save in his first professional season after playing collegiately at Central Michigan.
“It’s a big step up mentally, especially from going your whole life working out, just results, results, results vs. once you get here it’s all about the process,” Taylor said. “Sticking to the process and the results will kind of take care of themselves.
“It was kind of nice to be on my own kind of learning what that’s like while living with some of the guys, like a college experience almost that we have here especially. A day or two, it was gloomy outside and I missed home, but it was also good to kind of be on my own and start to build my own path.”
Taylor did have to say a few goodbyes, and hellos, to teammates throughout the season.
“There were many guys that were promoted throughout the year,” he said. “We were just sticking closely together. There were guys that went up, there were guys that came back down, so it’s kind of tough to establish the relationships that we’ve all built together.
“Whether there was a language barrier (between the American and Latin players) or not, we always found a way to overcome that. I feel like we may not be super successful with the record that they put out there, but I feel like we had a good clubhouse.”
One of those players who joined late in the season was outfielder Cam Fisher, who was drafted by the Astros in the fourth round of the Major League Draft in early July. He was signed by the Astros on July 18 and added to the Woodpeckers’ roster on Aug. 1.
After a slow start, the 6-2, 210-pounder finished with a .265 average with five homers and 15 RBIs in 113 at-bats. He played in 32 games.
“Honestly, you dream about it as a kid,” the 22-year-old who played collegiately at North Carolina Charlotte. “It’s one of those things where you think you know what you’re getting into, but you really don’t. It’s way more than exceeded every expectation that I had for pro ball. I’ve had a blast. We’re surrounded by some great people here, a great fan base, and, I mean, this stadium is unbelievable. It really is tough to complain.
“I’ve learned so much in these last six weeks just on how to be a professional, how to handle yourself. It’s been fun but it’s been a huge, huge learning process. It’s been way more than I ever expected.”
The front office
General Manager Skinner had little time to get acclimated to Fayetteville, starting on March 1. The Woodpeckers’ season opener was April 7 against the Carolina Mudcats at Segra Stadium. That game was suspended because of rain and finished on April 9. The Woodpeckers lost 5-3.
“I learned a lot. My favorite part of the beginning of the season is just getting to know the fans —you know, planning the promotions from that side,” said Skinner, who spent the previous 13 seasons with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the Frontier League, the last seven as assistant general manager. “A lot of those were set when I came in so we kind of worked with that plan. We’re looking to just make some small tweaks here and there on those and how we can just enhance the overall experience and make sure we’re focusing on the fun.”
Rain and heat played havoc with the schedule this season, Skinner said.
“We had some rain challenges this year, which always stinks,” she said. “And the heat. I have to learn how to deal with that coming from New York.”
Skinner said in an email that the Woodpeckers’ home attendance exceeded 189,000 this season despite having two rainouts, numerous delays and a handful of games called early. She said the team is working to build back to 2019 home attendance numbers of 240,000.
“If we break it down, that is about 750 more tickets per game, which is absolutely within reach,” she said. “We really had a good year on par with last year attendance-wise. We’re looking to get that higher. We want to get closer to those 2019 numbers moving forward, and I think we have the team in place to do that. So we’re tweaking some things, hoping for a little better weather next year.”
She noted that 2021’s home attendance after the pandemic-canceled 2020 season was 177,662.
A season-high 5,177 fans attended the season’s final Friday night game on Sept. 8 against the Charleston RiverDogs, which was Fan Appreciation Night. The Woodpeckers won 5-4.
“I was trying to learn and learn this community, learn this market, learn how we’ve done things in the past while trying to lead and you put that spin to things and use some of my experience of this is a great idea and here’s how I’ve seen it work,” Skinner said. “Let’s make a few changes and actually enhance it. Everyone has been great, listening to feedback and adjusting to what we do so that’s been a pretty easy process.”
She’s not ahead of the learning curve just yet.
“I just found out the light panel today that shows where to turn on the conference (room) lights,” she said with a laugh.
Pitching was a strength for the Woodpecker this season as the staff finished fourth in the Carolina League in earned run average (3.93) and posted five shutouts. The staff also led the league with 1,455 strikeouts, finishing 86 strikeouts ahead of second-place Myrtle Beach. Right-hander Trey Dombroski led the team with 148 strikeouts with 36 walks. He also led the team in wins, posting a 7-9 record with a 3.71 ERA while pitching in 26 games with 15 starts.
The Woodpeckers also had some control problems at times, placing second in the league with 627. Myrtle Beach walked the most batters, 711.
The Woodpeckers recorded 30 saves in 43 opportunities. Leading the way in the bullpen was Jeremy Molero, a right-hander who had a 2-0 record with a 0.93 ERA and was 8-for-8 in save opportunities.
Hitting was not a team strength, however. The Woodpeckers batted .226 as a team with 90 homers and 476 RBI, scoring 538 runs while allowing 590.
“It is a big adjustment coming into pro ball,” Fisher said. “Obviously in college, you get a Friday night starter (usually the team’s ace pitcher). Once the lights are on, that’s a big deal. You get to pro ball and every starter is a Friday night starter, so you go out, you’ve got to lock in, you can’t take days off.
“Everybody is at the top of their game. They’re the best baseball players in the world, so you have to be on your game every night.”
Taylor said most of the players grew up together as the season progressed.
“I would say all in all for the team and personally it was a great learning experience for all of us,” he said. “For a lot of us, it was our first year in professional baseball, so it was kind of learning what was expected of you and what you can do on a daily basis.”
At this level, winning definitely isn’t everything.
“This year was good, a lot of learning opportunities, growth opportunities for myself, for the guys, for the rest of the coaching staff. We had a good group throughout the whole year,” Rivera said. “We come in every day. We’re trying to develop big leaguers here one by one.
“We do have to make some exceptions or take a blow here and there to attempt things that we are trying to develop, but those are things that in the bigger picture are way more important than the result right now. Once the game starts, we’re trying to win, we’re playing to win; nobody plays to lose here. Winning is a skill you have to develop as well. Obviously, development trumps (winning) at this level.”
Rivera said he felt at home right from the beginning in his first season as manager.
“This group was a lot of fun. Legitimately, I truly do mean it. I couldn’t ask for a better first and full-season experience like the one I had here,” he said. “This office that I’m in right now feels like home.”
Rivera realizes that minor-league managers, like the players, can live a nomadic experience and that he is not guaranteed a return to the Woodpeckers, depending on the Astros’ needs for the 2024 season.
“Until (the beginning of next season), I have no clue. Obviously, you like to be any place you feel comfortable, but that’s not up to me to decide,” Rivera said. “I’m much like a lot of these guys. I’m living my dream; I’m not going to be picky. At the end of the day, I’m being paid to play professional baseball.”
Now that the season is over, Rivera said he will take a week or so off and watch a few Houston Astros games live before getting “back to work wherever I’m needed after that.”
Skinner and her staff are already planning promotions and selling tickets for next season.
“I’m always going to want more people here,” she said. “You know we can have a strong night and I’ll always say, ‘Oh, we could have sold three or four more groups. We could have had that. So my goal is to have at least 3,000 people in the ballpark every night. We were there; I would have to look, at least half the time this year.”
One way she is trying to boost attendance is changing game times.
She plans to move weeknight games from 7 p.m. to 6:35.
“The big challenges for us are those weekday games,” Skinner said. “How do we draw more people here on Tuesdays and Wednesdays? Those are our lightest games.”
Friday and Saturday games will start at 7 p.m., and Sunday games at 5, Skinner said. Right now, Saturday games start at 5 and Sunday’s games is at 2.
“I think there’s something to be said with baseball under the lights on the weekends,” Skinner said. “It’s just so hot on Sundays at 2 o’clock out there.
“We saw that we would have decent presales and then the show rate would only be 30 to 40% on Sundays when it was over a hundred degrees. So we’re hoping the later start time will get some more people out here and be a more enjoyable experience than just roasting in the sun.”
Skinner is looking forward to putting her stamp on the Woodpeckers next season, with help from her staff.
“We’re excited to have an offseason with the team, and we really get to plan some cool stuff for next year,” she said. “We feel we have a pretty solid group. We already have next year’s schedule; we’ve already had some meetings about promotions and themes, stuff that worked this year and things that maybe kind of fell flat or weren’t as entertaining for the fans.
“Our main focus planning next season is to really look at the fan experience and atmosphere. We want to provide a consistent experience for the fans every game, whether it was Tuesday night or Saturday night.”
On the diamond, Rivera said, the Woodpeckers should only get better.
“The clubhouse atmosphere we have here is pretty unique. All of our Latin guys and American guys blend in together, mixed in, which was pretty cool for me,” the manager said. “The product continues to get better here on the field.
“There’s a lot of talent that has run through here and a lot of talent that will keep coming through here, so I obviously invite more people to continue to come out and support us because my kids appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.”