The Billings Mustangs have been a Minor League franchise since 1948, but the 2013 campaign is particularly significant because it marks an important milestone in what has been the team's most prosperous era.
This season is the 40th anniversary of Billings' affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds and is a continuation of one of the longest-standing partnerships between a farm club and a Major League parent franchise in all of baseball.
The Mustangs will commemorate the occasion throughout the summer, complete with a special logo that will be prominent at Dehler Park.
"Much of the success that we've enjoyed is a direct result of, and attributable to, our partnership with the Reds," said longtime Mustangs general manager Gary Roller. "The Reds commitment and dedication to a standard of excellence has not only provided our organization with an invaluable stability and consistency, but also Mustangs fans with the opportunity to see many Major Leaguers, both past and present, play in Billings."
In 2013, the Mustangs will try to return to the Pioneer League postseason for the first time since 2008. Pat Kelly is back for his third season as manager.
The 57-year-old skipper guided the Mustangs to first-place finishes in the Pioneer League's North Division in each of the previous two seasons, but due to the league's split-season format, they did not make the playoffs either year.
The Mustangs are 86-66 (.566) in Kelly's two seasons.
Kelly's "experience and leadership are assets both on and off the field, particularly as they relate to teaching and developing the younger players," Roller said. "He has been successful at every level of professional baseball, including here in Billings the past two seasons, and under his direction we believe 2013 will be another successful season."
As a Reds affiliate, Billings has won eight Pioneer League titles, including a string of six championships between 1992 and 2003. In October, the Reds and Mustangs extended their partnership through the 2016 season.
"Player development is the backbone of any great Major League franchise," said Reds general manager Walt Jocketty. "We owe a great deal of our success to the Billings Mustangs and the people of Billings for [their] continued belief in our quest to be the best."
Ready for prime time: Last season, Grand Junction was bolstered by outfielder David Dahl, the No. 10 overall pick by Colorado in the 2012 Draft. Dahl showed flashes of brilliance and won Pioneer League MVP while helping the team make the playoffs.
This year the Rockies are sending right-handed power pitcher Jonathan Gray to Grand Junction. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Gray was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 Draft in June out of the University of Oklahoma. He signed a contract reportedly worth just under $5 million.
Gray will be the highest-drafted rookie in the Pioneer League.
"It feels great to be here and I can't wait to get going in pro ball," Gray told The Denver Post. "They didn't give me an innings limit. I am sure they aren't going to over-throw me. My arm feels good."
As a junior at Oklahoma in 2013, Gray went 10-3 with a 1.64 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 126 1/3 innings.
Rose Jr.'s new Voyage: Great Falls will have some pretty big name recognition in their dugout this season with Pete Rose Jr. as their manager.
Rose, of course, is the son all-time Major League hits leader Pete Rose. He was named the Voyagers' new skipper in December and takes over for Ryan Newman, who guided the Voyagers to the playoffs last year.
The 43-year-old Rose managed at Bristol in the Rookie-level Appalachian League the past two seasons. A former infielder, Rose had a brief stint in the big leagues with Cincinnati in 1997 but played the majority of his professional career in the Minors with the Orioles, Indians, White Sox, Reds, Pirates and Phillies, plus several years in independent ball.
The O's have it: Ogden has advanced to the Pioneer League championship series in three consecutive seasons but failed to win each time. The Raptors lost to Missoula in three games last year.
Ogden and Orem have been the beasts of the South Division. The teams, which are based in Utah, have represented the South in the league championship series for the last six seasons. Orem went three years in a row from 2007-09, winning twice.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Pioneer League.
Last season's championship: Missoula over Ogden in three games
Last season's attendance leader: Ogden Raptors, 123,625
Last back-to-back champion: Orem Owlz, 2004-05
Last no-hitter: Scott Snodgress, Blake Drake and Joe Dvorsky, Great Falls vs. Casper, Aug. 18, 2011
Last perfect game: Jason Robbins, Billings vs. Medicine Hat, Aug. 1, 1994
Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Greg Smith, Missoula, 2005
Last .400 season: Travis Vetters, Ogden, and Roberto Lopez, Orem, 2008
Last 20-home run hitter: Brandon Waring, Billings, 2007
Last three-homer game: Robert Maddox, Billings vs. Helena, July 4, 2012
Last cycle: Daniel Pulfer, Missoula vs. Helena, June 27, 2012
Last triple play: Jake Lamb, Daniel Pulfer, Tyler Bream, Missoula vs. Billings, Aug. 11, 2012
Last alum to win NL MVP: Ryan Braun 2011 (Helena '05)
Last alum to win AL MVP: Jose Canseco 1988 (Idaho Falls '82)