03/28/2008 12:10 PM ET
Southern League preview
Carolina, defending-champion Montgomery boasting strong rotations
By Steve Conley / Special to MLB.com
If there's such a thing as a dynasty in the Minor Leagues, the Montgomery Biscuits are the closest team to it. The Tampa Bay affiliate will look to become the first team to win three straight Southern League titles since the Montgomery Rebels won three in a row from 1975-77, and claimed five of six league championships from 1972-77.
A ninth-inning rally gave the Biscuits the title over Huntsville for the second straight year in 2007, but the Stars won't be the only club looking to alter the balance of power this time around. A potentially lights-out rotation in Carolina, as well as up-and-coming offensive prospects sprinkled throughout the circuit promise to give the Biscuits a run for their money in 2008.
Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the Southern League in 2008:
2007 Results: 62-78
2008 Manager: Rafael Santana
Things to look forward to: The Barons are coming off two straight losing seasons after seven straight winning campaigns, and won their last league title in 2000. With plenty of talent in the mix for 2008, the club figures to revert back to its winning ways. ... 2006 first-round pick Kyle McCulloch had a 3.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts in 121 innings for Class A Advanced Winston-Salem a year ago before making three starts with the Barons. The 23-year-old right-hander will occupy a spot in the Barons' rotation this season. ... Aaron Poreda, the 25th overall pick in 2007, went 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 46 1/3 frames in his debut with Rookie-level Great Falls in 2006. The 21-year-old left-hander has approached 100 mph on the radar gun, and may reach Birmingham at some point this season. ... New this year to Regions Park will be a state-of -the-art video scoreboard for improved live and recorded video images as well as animation and graphics.
2007 Results: 60-80
2008 Manager: Matt Raleigh
Things to look forward to: The MudCats are primed to bounce back from two straight disappointing seasons and will sport what figures to be the best rotation in the league. ... Brett Sinkbeil, a first-round pick in 2006, posted a 3.42 ERA in 14 starts in the Florida State League in 2007. The right-hander then went 3-1 with a 1.64 ERA in 33 innings while honing his craft in Hawaii Winter Baseball. ... Left-hander Aaron Thompson had a 3.37 ERA with 84 strikeouts in 115 innings for Jupiter in 2007 and could continue to move up the organizational ladder. ... Ryan Tucker, another right-hander, throws hard and is expected to improve upon a 2007 season in which he had a 3.71 ERA and fanned 104 in 138 Florida State League innings. ... 21-year-old right-hander Chris Volstad could potentially round out this highly touted group of hurlers, at least to start the season. Volstad went 4-2 with a 3.16 ERA in seven starts with the MudCats in 2007. ... Outfield prospect Cameron Maybin is being labeled as the Marlins centerfielder of the future, but for now the speedy 20-year-old, who had a cup of coffee with Detroit last fall before being sent to Florida in the deal for Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera, will report to Double-A. ... Raleigh is the first to ever play, coach and manage for Carolina in the franchise's history. ... The MudCats will host the 2008 Southern League All-Star game at Five County Stadium on July 14. ... Fireworks light up the sky after every Friday night home game and kids can run the bases after every Sunday home affair.
2007 Results: 67-73
2008 Manager: Mike Goff
Things to look forward to: Considering the Lookouts have not won a Southern League title since 1988, the longest drought in the league, it's a shame top prospect Jay Bruce moved up the ranks so quickly -- he played in only 16 games in Chattanooga a year ago and will begin 2008 in Triple-A. A few prospects are there however, who could help the club put together a bounce-back year. ... Third baseman Adam Rosales hit .286 with 18 homers, 41 doubles and 79 RBIs between Class A Advanced Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga in 2007. The 25-year-old also turned heads with a strong showing as a non-roster invitee at camp this spring and should provide plenty of offense. ... Right-handed closer Josh Roenicke led the organization with 24 saves last season, 16 for Sarasota and eight for the Lookouts, and could continue to hone his craft with Chattanooga this year.
2007 Results: 75-62; First and second-half North Division titles; Southern League runner-up.
2008 Manager: Don Money
Things to look forward to: After losing in the Southern League Finals to Montgomery two years in a row, fans are hoping the 'Stars' will align in 2008 and the third time will prove to be a charm for Money's club. The 2007 Southern League Manager of the Year and longest tenured manager in Huntsville's 23 year history is just 28 wins shy of becoming the all-time winningest manager in club history as he enters his fourth season. ... New Huntsville GM Buck Rogers, known for his creative and wacky promotions, joins the club in 2008. ... The Stars also unveiled a new logo for this season, which features an animated rocket and flame. The team will sport new home jerseys with 'STARS' written in red on the front with a blue sphere and an orbiting baseball. New caps feature the traditional 'H' logo with a star across the middle. ... Hernan Iribarren will make the move from second base to the outfield after hitting .307 with 23 doubles, 12 triples and 18 stolen bases for Huntsville in 2007. The Venezuela native could get a shot with Triple-A Nashville before long...Another former infielder who has made the move to the outfield is Matt LaPorta, who hit .318 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs in just 23 games with West Virginia last year. The former Florida Gator figures to start the year with the Stars.
2007 Results: 80-60
2008 Manager: John Shoemaker
Things to look forward to: Shoemaker has guided the Suns to the playoffs three times and won two Southern League titles (2001, 2005) in his four years at the helm. With over 1,000 Minor League wins and more victories -- 328 -- than any other manager in the club's Southern League history, Shoemaker has the pieces to make a run at another title in 2008. ... Left-hander Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2006, had 134 strikeouts to go along with a 2.77 ERA in 97 innings with Class A Great Lakes in 2007 before posting a 3.65 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings with the Suns. The 20-year old Texan, already a favorite of Dodgers skipper Joe Torre, figures to be a vital part of that rotation in 2008. ... Right-hander James McDonald will help form a formidable 1-2 punch with Kershaw. The 23-year-old converted outfielder went 7-2 with a 1.71 ERA in 10 starts with the Suns last year while striking out 168 and walking just 37 in 134 2/3 total Minor League innings. ...Third base prospect Blake DeWitt batted .292 with 14 homers, 42 doubles and 66 RBIs between Class A Advanced Inland Empire and Jacksonville in 2007 and is rapidly ascending the company ladder.
2007 Results: 67-72; First-half South Division title; lost in first round of Southern League playoffs
2008 Manager: Phillip Wellman
Things to look forward to: Wellman returns for his second summer with the M-Braves after leading the club to its first Southern League playoff appearance a year ago. Last year's team set a club record and led the league with 159 stolen bases. This year's squad could be just as dangerous on the base paths. ... Top prospect Jordan Schaefer batted .312 with 49 doubles, 15 homers and 23 stolen bases in 136 games with Class A Rome and Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach and could start the year in Mississippi. ... Outfielder Carl Loadenthal, who hit .300 and swiped 40 bases for the club a year ago, figures to see some more action with the M-Braves in 2008.
2007 Results: 71-68
2008 Manager: Hector de la Cruz
Things to look forward to: After sending Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds and Emilio Bonifacio to the Majors last season, the BayBears will look to a fresh crop of prospects to keep them competitive in '08. Outfield prospect Greg Thomson, who hit .285 with nine homers, 22 doubles and 52 RBIs in 112 games with Class A Advanced Visalia a year ago, could make the jump to Double-A. ... Third baseman Brandon Burgess had 40 extra-base hits and 56 RBIs in 90 games with Visalia, while fellow infield prospect Yunesky Sanchez could spend significant time with the club after hitting .282 with 16 doubles in 110 games for Class A South Bend last year. ... de la Cruz managed Arizona's Rookie Level club, the Missoula Osprey, to the Pioneer League championship in 2006 and took Visalia to the California League playoffs.
2007 Results: 81-59; Southern League champions
2008 Manager: Billy Gardner Jr.
Things to look forward to: The Biscuits did what no other team had done since the 1975-77 Montgomery Rebels: repeat as Southern League champs. After being named MiLB.com's Double-A Team of the Year for a second consecutive season in 2007, the Biscuits could have a few key contributors back in the mix in '08. ... First baseman Chris Nowak hit .304 with a .396 on-base percentage in 104 games a year ago and was named Most Valuable Player of the championship series in '07. ... Right-hander Wade Davis went 7-3 with a 3.15 ERA in 14 starts with the Biscuits a season ago after dominating for Class A Advanced Vero Beach in the Florida State League and he should be joined by fellow stud Jake McGee. ... Gardner, Jr. has managed in the Minor Leagues since 1995 and has compiled 846 wins as he enters his second season with the Biscuits.
2007 Results: 73-65; lost in first round of Southern League playoffs
2008 Manager: Buddy Bailey
Things to look forward to: The Smokies returned to the playoffs in 2007 for the first time since their 2004 co-championship and will field a roster capable of taking it a step further in 2008. ... Highly touted right-hander Jeff Samardzija went 3-3 with a 3.41 ERA in six starts after a promotion to the Smokies at the end of last season. The former All-American Notre Dame wide receiver is expected to continue his progression to Wrigley. ... Outfielder Ryan Harvey exhibited some power with 11 homers in 59 games with Daytona in '07 and will be challenged with a move to Double-A this spring. ... Left-hander Donnie Veal had a 4.97 ERA but struck out 131 in 130 innings for the Smokies last year. Veal will look to refine his arsenal and gain more control with Tennessee this year. ... Bailey, entering his first season as skipper of the Smokies, began his managerial career in 1983 and has collected 1,263 wins. ...A new HD-X video scoreboard will adorn Smokies Park in 2008. The 612 square-foot scoreboard is one of the first and largest HD-X displays in the Minors.
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
2007 Results: 60-79
2008 Manager: Scott Steinmann
Things to look forward to: The Diamond Jaxx look to return to the playoffs for the first time since their finals appearance in 2005 and will do so with a new skipper and a promising young backstop. ... Steinmann has spent 10 years in the Mariners organization and managed in the California League at High Desert in 2007. ...Catcher Adam Moore hit .307 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs for Steinmann's club in a year ago and will be given a chance to prove he belongs with a promotion to the Southern League in 2008. ... First baseman Thomas Hubbard showed some promise last year, hitting .270 with 15 homers and 78 RBIs.
Steve Conley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.