By JAMES COOK
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Rob Benedict had never been to Michigan before taking the 13-hour drive from suburban Philadelphia.
But when he arrived, he saw a familiar face.
Benedict and Beach Bums backup catcher Chris Cowell played against each other during high school.
“It was nice to see someone I knew,” Benedict said. “I had someone to talk to right away.”
Benedict is expected to be the team’s starting second baseman after playing for the New Jersey Jackals and Camden River Sharks in Can-Am League last year.
“I saw the woods, and I was like, ‘This is going to be great,’” Benedict said of his first drive through Michigan. “It’s quieter than what I’m used to in the Philadelphia area and the guys on the team are great.”
He’ll also have to adjust to not having to adjust to the field. He hasn’t played on a home field with artificial turf before.
“The ball gets true hops,” Benedict said. “And you’re faster naturally on turf. I’m looking forward to that.”
TWO FIRST ROUNDERS: When the Beach Bums were at the Frontier League’s tryout, they identified two pitchers they really wanted to select in the first round.
They targeted Tanner Tripp and Will Rankin. But they only had one first-round pick.
As it turns out, the choice was easy. Rankin didn’t stay for the second day of workouts, and therefore wasn’t eligible to be drafted. The Bums drafted Tripp, who’s expected to be one of the team’s starting pitchers.
Then they ended up signing Rankin as well.
“The two guys we wanted were the two guys we got,” Traverse City manager Dan Rohn said. “It was some goof up; (Rankin) didn’t come back for the second half of the tryout, so nobody could draft him. He ended up calling us afterwards, so we signed him. It worked out great.”
Rohn anticipates using Rankin as a late-inning reliever.
PLAYOFF EXPANSION: The Frontier League playoffs have expanded from four to six teams for the 2014 season. The league’s postseason will feature the bottom four seeds (three through six) playing a one-game playoff to advance. The No. 6 seed will play at No. 3, and No. 5 at No. 4. The top two seeds are the division winners. The second round will then consist of a best-of-three series and the championship is best-of-five.
WOODWARD’S AVENUE: Scott Woodward arrived at training camp a little late due to an exam while finishing his college degree.
But the good news is the speedy outfielder is “100 percent” healthy, according to Rohn.
“He’s chomping at the bit,” Rohn aid. “He’s texted or called me every day, saying ‘What’s going on? What’s going on?’ He’s excited to get going.”
Last season, Woodward was a spark plug at the top of Traverse City’s batting order, hitting .360 in his first eight games with nine runs and four steals before a string of injuries derailed his season.
BARBER MAKES CUT: George Barber excelled in Australia this winter, putting him back on the prospect map.
Barber was drafted in the 43rd round by the Los Angeles Angels after two seasons at Broward Community College. He played just seven games for the Angels’ Rookie team, hitting .235 before taking two years off from baseball to go to medical school.
“If he doesn’t make it as a player, he’ll make it as a trainer,” Rohn joked.
Last year, he returned to the diamond and was signed by the Baltimore Orioles, playing in 46 games at three different levels. He hit .234 for Class A Delmarva and earned a promotion to AA Bowie, where he batted .333 in nine at-bats.
Then this winter, Barber hit .423 in seven games with the Melville Braves of the Western Australia State League with an on-base percentage of .500, stealing three bases, scoring nine runs and hitting a home run in that span. He went on to play for the Perth Heat in the Australian Baseball League, hitting .322 in 29 games, belting three homers, scoring 22 runs and stealing nine bases.
CATCHING ON ELSEWHERE: The Beach Bums parted ways with designated hitter/catcher Zach Kometani when they traded him to River City for a first-round pick in the 2015 Frontier League draft.
The decision to deal Kometani came down to health.
“When he came into camp, he had to be able to throw and he couldn’t throw, and I don’t have any room for him to DH with (Jovan) Rosa, (Yazy) Arbelo and (Jose) Vargas being our main three at first and third and DH,” said Beach Bums manager Dan Rohn.
Kometani was coming off Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm in before last season. River City signed Kometani to a contract extension soon after the trade, in which the Rascals sent the Bums their first-round pick in next year’s draft.
Last season, Kometani hit .270 with eight home runs and 58 RBIs as the team’s primary DH.
CHECK SWINGS: Outfielder Jeff DeBlieux’s last name is pronounced “W.” As in the letter. And that’s it. ... Every player on the team is between the ages of 23 and 26. ... Only eight current players were with the Beach Bums last year. That includes outfielder Shaun Cooper, who spent the entire season on the disabled list, and relieve Vladimir Camacho, who pitched in just two contests late last season. ... Several other Beach Bums have Frontier League experience, however. Jovan Rosa (Washington), Casey Delgado (Frontier Greys), Nate O’Bryan (Rockford) and Drew Rossi (Washington) have previously played in the league.
Staff writer Chris Dobrowolski contributed to this report