FREDERICK -- They have a new manager, but 10 of the same players from a team that nearly made the Carolina League playoffs last season and two more from the preceding summer.
Ticket sales, which drooped in 1996, have improved and favorable weather could push the Frederick Keys back into the 300,000-fan neighborhood they usually inhabit.
The roster is not loaded with big-name prospects, but contains an interesting mix of Single-A veterans, newcomers from independent leagues, line-drive hitters and solid fielders.
It should be an intriguing year for a solid franchise, which launches its home season tomorrow night against the Salem Avalanche.
Manager Dave Hilton will spend the first few weeks experimenting with the lineup, getting acclimated himself and letting the players develop.
"The organization must think something of them," he said of the experienced group. "They're not going to stay with guys unless they think they have ability.
"So, we're going to allow them the chance to establish themselves. From the start, we'll let them compete."
The top name is pitcher Mark Seaver, last summer's fourth-round draft pick, who has been bothered by tendinitis in his arm after working more than 260 innings last year.
Seaver fits into a rotation that includes returnee Todd Dyess, Dan Reed, Eric Estes (who made the team through a tryout) and Joey Rhodes.
Left-hander Radhames Dykhoff should be a force in the middle and the closer's role will be shared by holdover Francis Hernandez and Andy Markham, another free agent who missed last season after elbow surgery.
In the everyday lineup, Hilton expects "decent speed and good hitting, but I haven't seen a lot of home run power. I do think we have ability to hit for extra bases."
What long-ball prowess the team has should come from catcher Jim Foster, who is bouncing back from a hand injury that hampered his hitting, Ryan Hendricks (son of Orioles coach Elrod) and Ryan Luzinski (son of ex-major-leaguer Greg), who has been on loan from Rochester.
Veteran Lincoln Martin has been shifted from second base to the outfield to take advantage of his bat and speed.
"I think they felt we had strength at shortstop and second base at Double-A and more pure shortstops than was needed. That's why David Lamb was moved to second base," said Hilton.
Two other key players are Rick Short, transferred from second to third, a .312 batter with last year's Keys, and center fielder Carlos Akins, who flashed a lot of promise in half a season.
The speediest of the group is outfielder Tony Kurtz, who spent his first year with the Newark Barge Bandits, an independent team.
Off the field, Frederick has made few physical changes -- except for expanded play and picnic areas -- because as general manager Joe Preseren said "we didn't expect too many after doing a lot last year. What we want is to do a better job with game-day events so we can get back up to the 300,000 level [in attendance].
"We really feel this franchise will continue to grow with the population boom in Frederick County and we're going more and more into Montgomery County and up into lower Pennsylvania."
Pub Date: 4/10/97