On the surface, the 2014 season might appear to have been a bleak seventh season for the IronPigs. Lehigh Valley finished at 66-78 and in last place in the North Division, 15.5 games back of the Syracuse Chiefs. In fact, the team's final record snapped a three-year run of finishing with a .500 mark or better.
Then again, the Pigs were alive in the playoff hunt until late July while battling in a North Division - 80 of their 144 (56%) games - that featured four of the top five teams in the International League. They were forced to withstand a franchise-record 168 transactions in the process while promoting 20 players to Philadelphia during the IL season.
And yet, they still managed to bring home the IronRail trophy - taking the annual series from in-state rival Scranton-Wilkes Barre, 10-6. But perhaps the biggest win for second-year manager Dave Brundage and his coaching staff was the development of several key prospects - none more significant than the improvements made by 3B Maikel Franco.
One of the most-hyped prospects in Minor League Baseball to begin the season, Franco parlayed early season struggles into a tremendously strong second-half. Just 21 years old for all but the final two weeks of the season, the Dominican batted .324-11-47* in his final 55 games beginning July 2 (*led the IL during span). He finished 2014 ranked third in the IL in RBI (78) and extra-base hits (53) and placed fifth in total bases (223) while leading the Pigs in home runs (16), RBI, doubles (33) and TB.
All within the final 33 games of the season, Franco had two ninth-inning, game-winning HR (July 30, Aug. 17), the second cycle in franchise history (Aug. 23) and a game-winning Grand Slam on his 22nd birthday (Aug. 26).
In addition, Franco proved that his defense was on par with his offense, finishing third in fielding percentage among qualifying IL third basemen at .961 (10 errors in 254 chances). For his efforts, Franco had his contract purchased by the Phillies following the IL season for his first career trip to the majors.
Whereas Franco was named as the IronPigs Hitter of the Year, flame-throwing RHP Luis Garcia was the team's Pitcher of the Year. Additionally, Garcia was the lone Lehigh Valley representative at the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game. The 27-year-old closer became the first Pigs pitcher to lead the league in saves (22) - tying for the top spot with Buffalo RHP Bobby Korecky (who was selected reliever of the IL postseason All-Star team, despite Garcia boasting a significant edge in ERA, 0.96 to 1.97). Over parts of two seasons with the Pigs, the Santo Domingo native is a combined 2-1 with a 0.94 ERA in 47 games; and his 25 career saves ranks second in team history behind Scott Mathieson's 31.
The Opening Day starter, RHP David Buchanan, went 6-2 in just 12 total starts with the IronPigs, showing enough polish to join the Phillies rotation and post solid numbers as a MLB rookie. RHP Ken Giles also zoomed as quickly through the IL as his 100-mph fastball - posting a 2-0 mark in 11 games while going five-for-five in save opportunities to immediately carve out a significant role in the backend of the Philadelphia bullpen by mid-June.
By season's end, the bullpen had certainly become a huge strength for the IronPigs. Cuban defector and intriguing prospect RHP Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez made his Triple-A debut on Aug. 2 and finished unscored upon in his final 12.2 IP over eight appearances - including a span of 7.0 consecutive innings without allowing a hit (Aug. 15-25).
Gonzalez wasn't the only Triple-A rookie to finish strong. RHP Hector Neris, who earned a victory in his first/only career MLB game on Aug. 5, went 2-1 with a 1.35 ERA in his final 16 games - with a 15.0 IP scoreless streak over nine IL games between July 12 and Aug. 7. Meanwhile, RHP Tyler Knigge posted a 3-0 mark with a 0.84 ERA over his final seven games while not allowing an earned run in eight of his final 10 outings.
Then, there was veteran LHP Jeremy Horst, who ended his season of a 15.1 IP scoreless streak - the fourth longest by a Pigs pitcher in 2014.
While Franco shouldered a bulk of the load offensively, it is imperative to note that his hot finish corresponded with the addition of local product and cleanup hitter, OF Russ Canzler. From the time he joined the team (June 26) until the end of the season, the Berwick native had the IL's eighth best OPS (.904) - while leading the Pigs in home runs (11), doubles (20) and runs (32).
Despite a couple of stints on the Disabled List, SS Freddy Galvis joined the Pigs for 35 games in 2014. The slick-fielding prospect was able to show improvement at the plate to go along with his tremendous glove, as 50% (18 of 36) of his hits in the IL went for extra bases.
Although the season lacked the excitement of a true pennant race, there were many magical moments. Along with the Franco heroics mentioned above, there were a total of five walk-off victories at Coca-Cola Park, including a franchise-record fourth career walk-off hit from OF Leandro Castro on July 2. There was 3B Cody Asche, who arrived on a MLB rehab assignment for two games and went a combined 5-6 with a game-winning, two-run HR on June 18. There was former three-time American League All-Star OF Grady Sizemore, who hit a leadoff home run on July 2 - a game that also featured seven scoreless innings from RHP Jason Marquis, a former National League All-Star who owns 121 ML victories over his impressive career.
At the gates, the Pigs drew 614,888 fans to Coca-Cola Park during the 2014 season - continuing as the only minor league franchise to eclipse 600,000 fans annually since 2008. The 9,042 per-game average for the club's official 68 home games - which included 24 consecutive sellouts to culminate the year - marked the sixth-straight season Lehigh Valley has averaged more than 9,000 fans per game. Limited to 68 home games due to rain, the Pigs were on a pace to surpass their all-time, single-season attendance mark of 645,905 (2010) if not for the postponements.