The Jacksonville Suns appear set to have a banner season in the Southern League. Not only is the club hosting the circuit's All-Star Game for the first time since 2003, but the Miami Marlins' offseason fire sale has significantly deepened their prospect pool, providing the Suns with several top young hitters, particularly in the outfield.
With Christian Yelich, Jake Marisnick and Marcell Ozuna in the outfield, the Suns have the Marlins' No. 2, 3 and 7 prospects respectively. Unfortunately they won't be ready to go on Opening Day. Top prospect Jose Fernandez (who ranks No. 7 overall in the Minor Leagues) was slated to begin the season in Jacksonville, but injuries at the big league level have prompted Miami to name him its fifth starter. The 20-year-old has never pitched above the Class A level, however, and will likely be subject to strict pitch counts. He may well see time in the Southern League as the season progresses.
Though it's tough to predict team success with prospects moving up and down, this firepower bodes well for the Suns: Many of their players were members of the Jupiter Hammerheads club that lost in the Florida State League Finals last year and the Greensboro Grasshoppers team that won the South Atlantic League crown in 2011. Jacksonville has had significant success of its own, winning back-to-back titles in 2009-'10, its first two seasons as a Marlins affiliate.
Bragan Field at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville features a new scoreboard with a 58-foot by 25-foot 10-mm high-definition screen in preparation for the All-Star Game on July 17 as well as future events like the ACC Baseball Tournament. The $1.2 million project was funded by the Jacksonville Tourist Development Council with revenue generated from the City's Occupancy Tax, which is applied to all hotel rooms in the city.
Home sweet home: Last season the Huntsville Stars got an MVP performance from hometown boy Hunter Morris, who hit .303 with 28 homers and 113 RBIs. While Morris has deservedly moved up I-65 to Triple-A Nashville, the Stars may get to cheer for another north Alabama native this summer.
Left-handed prospect Jed Bradley, the 15th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, was born in Huntsville and pitched his senior year at Huntsville High before moving on to Georgia Tech. The 22-year-old Bradley is slated to return to Class A Advanced Brevard County (where he posted a 5-10 record with a 5.53 ERA in his pro debut last year), but could rejoin 2012 Manatees rotation mates Taylor Jungmann and Jimmy Nelson in Huntsville later in the season.
"He looks really confident out there," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke told MLB.com after one of Bradley's spring outings. "I think he's feeling pretty good about himself, and that's what we're after. We're working so hard to get that in these guys' heads."
Double defense: The Mobile BayBears have captured the Southern League crown the past two seasons. With several key figures from those playoff runs such as Paul Goldschmidt, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, Adam Eaton and A.J. Pollock having moved upward and onward, the BayBears don't look like favorites for a three-peat.
Nevertheless, skipper Rico Brogna will have an intriguing roster to deal with in his return to Mobile after a two-year absence. Starter Zeke Spruill and shortstop Nick Ahmed, both former second-round selections, join the BayBears after coming over from Atlanta in the Justin Upton deal. The latter will battle for time with Chris Owings, the D-backs' No. 5 prospect, who hit .290 with 17 homers and 12 stolen bases between Class A Advanced Visalia and Mobile in 2012. Pitcher Eric Smith, who like Spruill is on the D-backs' 40-man roster, will return to Mobile to continue his transition to the bullpen.
New hands on helms: Brogna, a nine-year big-league veteran, won't be the only new face in Southern League dugouts this season. Julio Vinas takes over in Birmingham after guiding the White Sox's affiliates in Winston-Salem and Kannapolis in 2011 and '12 respectively. After managing the AZL Dodgers to a league title last year, Jody Reed is Chattanooga's new skipper, while Delino DeShields jumps to Pensacola after two years in Class A Dayton.
Huntsville's Darnell Coles, Jackson's Jim Pankovits, Jacksonville's Andy Barkett, Mississippi's Aaron Holbert, Montgomery's Billy Gardner and Buddy Bailey of Tennessee are all back with their clubs for the 2013 campaign.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Southern League.
- Last season's championship: Mobile over Jackson in four games. MiLB.com coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Mobile BayBears, 2011-'12
- Last perfect game: Chad Gaudin, Orlando vs. Jacksonville, July 15, 2003
- Last no-hitter: Jimmy Nelson, Dan Merklinger, R.J. Seidel, Darren Byrd and Brandon Kintzler, Huntsville vs. Chattanooga, Aug. 2, 2012. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Brian Barnes (213), Jacksonville, 1990
- Last cycle: Kyle Skipworth, Jacksonville vs. Chattanooga, May 26, 2012. MiLB.com coverage »
- Last three-homer game: Mark Saccomanno, Jacksonville vs. Carolina, June 4, 2010. MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Paul Goldschmidt (30), Mobile and Neftali Soto (30), Carolina, 2011