Highly touted farmhands who could suit up in the circuit at some point this season include Dustin Ackley (Mariners), Mike Stanton (Marlins), Dee Gordon (Dodgers) and Matthew Moore (Tampa Bay), to name just a few. But prospects, essential as they may be, are only part of the story.
In 2010, the Southern League will host two of the Minor Leagues' most anticipated events, both of which are dripping with history. The Mobile BayBears will open the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum on April 14, the culmination of an ambitious project that involved the relocation and renovation of the legendary slugger's first place of residence. At the Rickwood Classic on June 2, the Birmingham Barons will celebrate the 100th anniversary of their former stomping grounds. The game will be played at the oldest active ballpark in professional baseball.
Here's a team-by-team look at what else to expect in the Southern League in 2010:
2009 record: 92-47, First-half South Division champs
2010 manager: Ever Magallanes
What's on deck: The Barons posted the best record in the Southern League last season and the goal in 2010 will be for the White Sox system to provide equivalent levels of Double-A-ready talent. This year, one of the biggest names to watch is 3B Brent Morel. The soon-to-be 23-year-old impressed at Class A Kannapolis last season, thanks to a combination of average (.281), power (16 home runs) and speed (25 stolen bases)....Circle June 2 on the calendar as the annual Rickwood Classic is slated to be a star-studded celebration of the venerable stadium's 100th birthday. Harmon Killebrew will be in attendance and the Barons will sport uniforms from the 1910 season.
2009 record: 65-74
2010 manager: David Bell
Several prospects in the Reds system (1B Yonder Alonso and 3B Juan Francisco) already have advanced beyond the Double-A level, while others (SS Billy Hamilton and OF Yorman Rodriguez) need more seasoning at Class A. Still, some intriguing names should suit up for the Mudcats. RHP Neftali Soto is coming off a disappointing campaign at Class A Advanced Sarasota and enters 2010 looking to display the talent that prompted the Reds to select him in the third round of the 2007 Draft. RHP Jordan Smith looks to build on the 5-3 record and 3.44 ERA he posted in 13 Double-A starts last season. LHP Philippe Valiquette figures to be a bullpen mainstay; the Quebecois southpaw posted a 2.76 ERA in 27 appearances with the Mudcats in '09.
2009 record: 65-74
2010 manager: Carlos Subero
After managing Class A Advanced Inland Empire in 2009, Carlos Subero will get the chance to work with many of the same players at Chattanooga. This could include RHP Kenley Jansen and fireballing 2007 first-round pick RHP Chris Withrow. The former is a converted catcher who struck out 19 over just 11 2/3 innings, while the latter fanned 131 over 113 innings. And let's not forget megaprospect Dee Gordon, a speedy sweet-swinging shortstop slated to start at Inland Empire who could wind up in Chattanooga by season's end.
2009 record: 63-75, first-half Northern Division champs
2010 manager: Mike Guerrero
Supporters of Alabama's northernmost Minor League club will have plenty to cheer about in 2010. Rifle-armed C Jonathan Lucroy again will assume catching duties while looking to improve on his .267 average from a year ago. Former first-round pick 2B Brett Lawrie got a cup of coffee with the Stars last season, but the powerful and speedy former catcher figures to get a longer audition this season. The pitching staff could be formidable as well, with rotation candidates including 2009 Minor League Player of the Year RHP Amaury Rivas (13 wins and a 2.98 ERA at Class A Advanced Brevard County) and hard-throwing RHP Cody Scarpetta.
2009 record: 82-58, Southern League champions
2010 manager: Tim Leiper
The Suns, by definition, are expected to shine, and last year they burned their way all the way to another Southern League title. Those expect to contribute as the club works toward a repeat include 2007 first-round pick 3B Matt Dominguez, a wizard at the hot corner with emerging power. Dan Jennings and Corey Madden could make a great lefty combo out of the bullpen. The former ended the season with a 13 1/3-inning scoreless string, while the latter compiled an 0.82 ERA in an injury-shortened '09. But perhaps no one will arrive with more hype than 20-year-old OF Mike Stanton, who has smashed 68 homers over the past two seasons.
2009 record: 65-73
2010 manager: Phillip Wellman
One of the more intriguing players to suit up for Mississippi this year is OF Cody Johnson. The 21-year-old slugged 32 homers last year for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach but struck out 171 times. He expected to join a lineup that included Freddie Freeman, but the Braves decided to move him up to Triple-A Gwinnett. LHP Mike Minor, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 Draft, looked more than ready to challenge Double-A hitters, despite making only four professional appearances last season. He could be joined in the rotation by Jacob Thompson, a 6-foot-6 righty who put up solid numbers at Myrtle Beach last season.
2009 record: 66-74
2010 manager: Rico Brogna
It's going to be a season of memorable firsts for the BayBears. The club has moved the childhood home of Mobile native Hank Aaron to the grounds of the stadium and will open it as the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum during a star-studded ceremony on April 14. The home crowd also will witness the on-field debut of new uniforms while welcoming new skipper (and former Major Leaguer) Rico Brogna into the fold. As for the roster, look for an outfield that could include lightning-quick Ollie Linton, five-tool former first-rounder A.J. Pollock and 5-foot-8 spark plug Collin Cowgill.
2009 record: 65-74
2010 manager: Billy Gardner
As one would surmise from their name, the Biscuits are a team full of players on the rise. Montgomery fans are clamoring to see SS Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 Draft who hit .275 with 63 RBIs in 2009 at Class A Bowling Green. RHP Nick Barnese will look to improve on a solid 2009 in which he posted a 2.53 ERA at Bowling Green. He could be joined by LHP Matthew Moore, who struck out 176 batters over only 123 innings at Class A. And let's not forget LHP Alexander Torres, who led the hitter-friendly Class A Advanced California League with a 2.74 ERA.
2009 record: 71-69, second-half North Division champs
2010 manager: Bill Dancy
Last year's Smokies made it to the Southern League Championship Series. This year's squad may have what it takes to win it all. Keep an eye on OF Brett Jackson, a five-tool Cal product who was selected with the 31st overall pick in last year's Draft. He should be joined in the outfield by Brandon Guyer, a well-rounded speed demon looking to improve on last season's shaky Double-A performance. The corner infield positions could feature intriguing names as well. Oklahoma State product Rebel Ridling should get some time at first, while former first-rounder Josh Vitters may get a chance to anchor the hot corner.
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
2009 record: 62-78
2010 manager: Tim Laker
Simply put, the Diamond Jaxx are one of the most talented squads in the Minor Leagues. 2B Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in the '09 Draft, will make his professional debut in a D-Jaxx uniform. He'll be joined by 1B Joe Dunigan and 3B Alex Liddi, a pair of infielders looking to prove that their big seasons in the thin air of Class A Advanced High Desert were no fluke. RHP Michael Pineda, who posted impressive numbers in the hitter-friendly California League, will be in the starting rotation, with former first-rounder RHP Josh Fields leading the bullpen crew.