Trea Turner leads impressive group of NC products on major league rosters

NC State, UNC and ECU are well-represented as opening day nears

Former NC State star Trea Turner, who signed an 11-year, $300 million contract with the Phillies this offseason, will make his regular season debut with his new team when Philadelphia opens its season at the Rangers on Thursday. (Mark Taylor / The Canadian Press via AP)

One of the biggest stories of the World Baseball Classic was new Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Trea Turner. Among the biggest free agency signings in the offseason, Turner showed what all the offseason fuss was about by setting Team USA records with five home runs and 11 RBIs in six WBC games, earning a spot on the All-WBC team.

The NC State product is just one of the big storylines as this year’s Major League Baseball season begins this weekend, and many of those storylines have roots in North Carolina.

Turner’s NC State teammate, pitcher Carlos Rodon, was another big offseason pickup, signing with the New York Yankees. While Turner signed with the Phillies for 11 years and $300 million, Rodon inked a six-year deal with New York for $162 million. He will start the season on the injured list, however, although it appears the arm trouble is not serious and will just result in a slight delay for his Yankees debut.

The Wolfpack will likely have a third alumnus on opening day rosters as Andrew Knizner is poised to be the backup catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals.

UNC is also expected to have three players in the big leagues when play begins. Zac Gallen has been named the opening day pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and catcher Jacob Stallings will be splitting catching duties with the Miami Marlins. Daniel Bard is also expected to be in the Colorado Rockies’ bullpen, although his WBC experience wasn’t as positive as Turner’s. The control problems that caused a long delay in his MLB career appeared to return as he broke the hand of Houston’s Jose Altuve with an errant pitch. He has continued to struggle with command back in Rockies camp.

The other school that can boast three big leaguers is East Carolina. Like NC State, one of them will start the year on the injured list as Tampa’s Shawn Armstrong has been sidelined all spring with neck problems. Slugger Alec Burleson has been told he’ll make the Cardinals’ opening day roster, and Jeff Hoffman is battling for a spot in the Twins’ bullpen.

Four other colleges in the state are expected to have multiple big leaguers. Cedric Mullins will be a bright spot on an up-and-coming Baltimore Orioles team after starring alongside Turner in the WBC. He’s joined by fellow Campbell Camels alumnus Ryan Thompson, who will be a factor in the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen.

Elon will be represented by a pair of promising pitchers. Reliever John Brebbia hopes to follow up on a breakout 2022 season with the Giants, while George Kirby looks ready to earn a spot as a starting pitcher for the Mariners.

UNC Wilmington will also have two big leaguers. Ryan Jeffers is expected to split time at catcher with the Twins, while Evan Phillips will continue to be a high-leverage reliever in the Dodgers’ bullpen.

Wake Forest rounds out the N.C. schools that could end up with more than one major leaguer on opening day. Gavin Sheets is a power threat for the White Sox, although he’s recently been rumored to be involved in a possible trade to Philadelphia. Outfielder Stuart Fairchild is in the running for the final spot on the Cincinnati Reds’ roster.

Other products of North Carolina colleges include Duke’s Marcus Stroman, who will start for the Cubs on opening day; App State’s Jeffrey Springs, who will be in the Rays’ rotation after signing a large offseason contract extension; Belmont Abbey and Gardner-Webb product Emilio Pagan, who is expected to be in the Twins’ bullpen, although a rough spring has put his spot in a bit of jeopardy; and UNC Greensboro’s Andrew Wantz won the final spot in the Angels’ bullpen.

Several players who grew up or played high school ball in North Carolina but didn’t attend a college in the state are also expected to make a big splash in MLB this season. Catcher Cal Raleigh (Sylva) was a breakout star for the Mariners in last year’s postseason. Wil Myers (Thomasville) is with a new team after joining the Reds over the winter. Corey Seager (Concord) is in his second year with the Rangers after he was one of the top free agent shortstops prior to last season. Madison Bumgarner (Hickory) will continue to be one of the key components of the Diamondbacks’ starting pitching rotation. Alex Wood (Charlotte) will start for the Giants.

Whit Merrifield (Mocksville) will be a veteran presence on a promising young Blue Jays team. Other North Carolina products on big league rosters are Washington starting pitcher MacKenzie Gore (Whiteville), teammate and reliever Hunter Harvey (Catawba), Brewers reliever Bryse Wilson (Durham), Pirates reliever Duane Underwood (Raleigh) and Joel Kuhnel (Goldsboro), who is in the running to make the Reds’ bullpen.