New spring, new roles for Lowcountry Major Leaguers

Baltimore Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, a Stratford High School product, missed most of last season with an elbow injury. He is expected to begin spring baseball as a designated hitter. AP Photo/File

The Goose Creek kids are each at a career crossroads of sorts. Gardy is now a Yankee elder statesman, and this could be the year that Wojo makes his Major League Baseball debut.

As spring training gets cranked up, here’s a look at how the season shapes up for Lowcountry players who are on MLB rosters or are non-roster invitees to spring training camps:

The Stratford High School product missed most of his sixth major league season with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He hit .308 with five home runs in 26 games before he was hurt and underwent surgery last June.

The big question heading into spring training is, how soon Wieters will be able to return to catching? He will likely serve as the Orioles’ designated hitter early in spring training, manager Buck Showalter told reporters. The earliest he is projected to catch in a spring game is March 1; the Orioles’ opening day game is set for April 6, and Wieters said this weekend his goal is to catch that game.

“It should be plenty of time if we can get those two weeks in before opening day. This whole year is going to be a matter of how the body feels,” said Wieters, who is entering the last year of his contract with the Orioles. “The big part of it is getting to know your pitchers and what they like to do, and thankfully we have a lot of guys who I’ve caught in the heat of the battle.”

Wieters’ high school teammate at Stratford is getting a new start to his star-crossed major league career after signing a one-year deal with Toronto as a free agent. The big first baseman is entering his eighth season after five largely disappointing years in Seattle, where his best season came in 2013 with .238 average, 20 homers and 50 runs batted-in.

Smoak, 28, is on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster heading into the spring, and the hope is that escaping Seattle’s Safeco Field can revive his career. Last year, Smoak hit .248 away from Safeco Field, and just .148 at the Mariners’ home park.

Entering his eighth season with the Yankees, the former College of Charleston standout from Holly Hill is now a veteran presence in a clubhouse that no longer includes Derek Jeter. Gardner, 31, is one of only four Yankees left from the 2009 World Series championship team, and signed a four-year, $52 million extension last spring. He’s now a team leader along with veterans such as Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann.

“I don’t think one guy can (replace Jeter’s leadership),” Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. “I think it’s on me, Tex, Gardy, Mac, the guys that have been here, to step up and kinda try to fill that void.”

Gardner hit .256 with a career-best 17 home runs last season, with 21 stolen bases. He had surgery in October to repair a core muscle near his ribs, but should be 100 percent as spring training starts.

The former Charleston Southern standout is trying to regain his job as the Mets’ closer after undergoing Tommy John surgery almost a year ago. Parnell, beginning his eighth major league season, was 5-5 with a 2.16 ERA and 22 saves two years ago, and will probably start this season on the disabled list.

The Tommy John surgery was Parnell’s second operation in two years; he had surgery on a herniated disc in his neck in 2013 and has pitched only one inning since the 2013 season.

“I don’t really want to know my time schedule,” Parnell said. “I just want to go from check mark to check mark, and the reason being is if I don’t make a check mark, I don’t want to be upset with myself and start pushing. I’m letting them make the decision off what they see. I feel great. I feel confident in the way I’m going.”

This could be the year that the former Citadel pitcher from Beaufort, a first-round pick of the Blue Jays in 2010, cracks a major league rotation. The 6-4, 240-pound right-hander is on the Astros’ 40-man roster as Houston begins spring training, and a stretch of good health could help him start the season with the big club.

Last year, Wojciechowski suffered a lat strain at the start of the season and ended up with a 4-4 record and a 4.74 ERA at Class AAA Oklahoma City. He pitched in the Dominican Republic over the winter, and enters the spring with a shot at the fifth spot in the Astros’ rotation.

“I’m just going in there trying to compete,” Wojciechowski said. “I’m just looking forward to actually pitching this spring. I’m definitely excited to be able to throw a baseball.”

The former College of Charleston standout, who now makes his home in Mount Pleasant, signed with the Braves in the offseason after four seasons with the Angels. The hard-throwing right-hander was 5-6 with a 3.67 ERA in 126 appearances with the Angels, and hopes to find a role in the Braves’ bullpen as a non-roster invitee this spring.

Kohn will be battling with the likes of James Russell, Arodys Vizcaino and Luis Avalon for a role in the bullpen behind closer Craig Kimbrel. His odds might have improved with an injury to reliever Shae Simmons, who underwent Tommy John surgery last week.

The former Citadel and James Island High School star got a taste of the big leagues in 2013, playing 10 games with the Texas Rangers. He spent last year in the Pirates’ organization before signing as a free agent with the Phillies in December, and will be a non-roster invitee in spring training.

At 26, the left-handed hitting first baseman has a .259 average with 71 homers and 329 RBI in 580 minor league games.

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg recently said veteran Ryan Howard will start at first base, and Philadelphia also has veteran Darin Ruf and slugging prospect Maikel Franco, 22, on the 40-man roster.

Former College of Charleston pitchers Brian Schlitter (Cubs) and Heath Hembree (Red Sox) begin the spring on 40-man rosters; Schlitter made the team out of spring training last year, while Hembree was traded to the Red Sox from the Giants last year ... Ex-Charleston Southern pitcher Tyler Thornburg is on the Brewers’ 40-man roster and is being considered for a starting role this season. He worked out of the bullpen last season before an elbow injury ended his season in June.