The various affiliated minor leagues will all be playing within the next week, marking the unofficial start of summer. Prospects far and wide will look to impress their organizations, while independent leaguers will try to make the jump as more teams open their doors. Brandon Magee discusses the rebirth and renewal of several minor leagues across the country.
At the upper-most level of the baseball hierarchy, a bad couple of months can define a season. The Atlanta Braves didn’t leave their fans with room for even unreasonable hopes of a playoff spot after their first 66 games placed them 21 games behind the Washington Nationals. The Minnesota Twins and their eight road victories? Already time to think about how to compete in 2017. The same holds true in the upper minors. The Portland Sea Dogs may soon get an infusion of talented youth from high-A Salem, but being 15 games behind the Trenton Thunder for the wild card berth leaves a playoff run a virtual impossibility.
But, full-season single-A ball is a different story. As the season officially changes from spring to summer, leagues hand teams a mulligan; the celebration of the first-half achievements end and the records reset back to zero. For the Brevard County Manatees, no longer will they be double-digit games behind the Tampa Yankees. Once again they will be in a tie with the entire league, as the second-half gives them a new lease on life. The Dayton Dragons can dream of winning 50 games as their second-half begins instead of fighting to avoid 50 losses. Kannapolis can be intimidating once again, no longer sitting with 20 more losses than victories.
While the full-season leagues don’t reboot until next Thursday, this weekend marks the renewal of the domestic short-season and rookie leagues. Today, the short-season New York-Penn League brings more baseball to the the northeast, while the Pioneer and Northwest Leagues begin in the Pacific Northwest. On Monday, the 2016 draft class will start their indoctrination into professional baseball, as play begins in the Arizona Rookie League. The Mid-Atlantic region will receive talented youngsters on Thursday with the start of play in the Appalachian League, and extended spring training in Florida becomes the Gulf Coast League on Friday, with the official start of league play.
Rookie play also kicks off the inevitable speculation over where the first round draft picks will begin their seasons. Will the Philadelphia Phillies send Mickey Moniak to Florida to begin his ascent, or keep him close to home by beginning his career in Williamsport of the NYPL? Will the Boston Red Sox begin Jason Groome’s career in Lowell? Will the Seattle Mariners eschew the short-season leagues and begin Kyle Lewis’ with the Clinton LumberKings?
The 2016 Draft is fresh on our minds, but what about the prospects of the 2015 draft class? After Mike Nikorak’s underwhelming debut with Grand Junction, where he walked 32 in under 18 innings, will the Colorado Rockies return him to the Pioneer League or challenge him with a move to Boise? Tampa Bay’s Garrett Whitley will seek to improve on his .174/.293/.312 line from his first professional season, likely beginning anew in Hudson Valley. Nick Plummer spent his first season with the Cardinals’ affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, will he be bringing his spikes to State College this year? Tristan McKenzie struck out 17 in only a dozen innings of work with the Arizona Rookie League Indians in 2015, does he switch to scrapping for outs in Mahoning Valley this season?
There will also be players beginning their first seasons stateside after competing in the Dominican or Venezuelan Summer Leagues last season. Will the New York Yankees place Ricardo Ferreira (who reached base in over 50% of his plate appearances last season in the DSL) with one of their two GCL squads in Florida , Virginia, or close to the mothership on Staten Island? Does Jean Carlos Arias begin his American journey with the GCL Twins or in Elizabethton, Tennessee? Victor Concepcion put up a ridiculous 0.42 ERA last season in the Dominican, will the San Francisco Giants place the hot prospect with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes or send him to the Arizona desert? What about the last prospect class from the Venezuelan Summer League? Will Tampa Bay send Eleardo Cabrera to Florida, West Virginia, or New York? Will Sergio Velis be striking out batters as a Phillie in Florida or a Crosscutter in Pennsylvania?
With the final six MLB-affiliated leagues beginning next week, the merely fanatical following of prospects will move to the obsessive. From coast to coast and border to border, baseball will be played. Careers will begin, take off, and for the unfortunate, come to an end. Young players heretofore unknown to the majority of fans will become the next great stud prospects. And we will watch with great hope, forever picturing that 18-year-old striking out the side in the Pioneer League or the 20-year-old powering home runs in the New York-Penn League as our team’s next Hall of Famer.
Brandon Magee is our minor league expert; he has written about minor league travel, ranking prospects, a first round draft pick, and the MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Follow Brandon on Twitter @cuzittt.