With just over a week remaining in most of the Minor League seasons, we're closely watching a handful of exciting races for playoff spots.
No, it's not summer reruns. It's the second half of the split season.
Of the 10 full-season leagues in the Minors, three (the Triple-A International and Pacific Coast Leagues and the Double-A Eastern League) compete over the course of one season (144 games in Triple-A and 142 for the Eastern League).
The remaining seven split their schedules into two halves to determine their postseason participants.
This latter phenomenon, the split season, has its fans and its detractors among Minor League enthusiasts and aficionados.
I am definitely one of the fans, for many reasons, but I can also see why it would have its downside (because, you know, if I wasn't a baseball writer I'd be a judge or something).
The most obvious argument against the split season is quite simple: that's not the way they do it in the Majors. If the Minors is supposed to be about developing players for the big leagues, then why not do things the way the big boys do? Make the players grind it out, with only the strongest surviving.
The problem is, that is not always in the best interest of the players. And it's definitely not in the best interest of the fans.
"It's a long season and it can be a grind from a physical and mental standpoint, so breaking up the season gives the younger players an opportunity to shoot for something and see the finish line more often, and I think there is a benefit to that," said Ben Cherington, vice president of player personnel for the Boston Red Sox, a team that has two full-season teams in Pawtucket and Portland (Maine), and two split-season teams in A ball in Wilmington (Del.) and Greenville (S.C.).
"We think it's important for our Minor League players to play in as many meaningful games as possible in a stretch run."
Most of the time.
The second-half winners will have the upper hand over the first-half winners. For one thing, there is that intangible factor of having the "hot hand." The ever-popular "being on a roll."
But the most obvious reason is much more tangible: promotions. No, not Thirsty Thursday or Bobblehead Night, but bumping players up the Minor League ladder.
It's just the way of the baseball world that a majority of players who are doing well over the first part of the season will get promoted to the next level. Providing there is a spot for them one -- or even two -- steps up, that's how it is and that's the way it should be. But that doesn't mean that those who are left behind don't feel the pain.
"If you win the first half and you're playing well, the organization will move guys up and you'll go into the playoffs without all your guns," said Lansing Lugnuts hitting coach Charles Poe, who has seen his Midwest League club lose 11 players who paced the team to a 40-27 first-half record and fall to 25-33 in the second half. "But it's good for the guys who have performed well that they get moved up. Those things happen."
Kinston Indians (Cleveland/Carolina League): The Indians set a franchise record for wins in a half, going 47-23 in the first half. This half, they are a respectable 32-27, but are 6 1/2 games behind division-leading (and red-hot) Salem (Astros). Kinston took its big hit in the heart of its lineup, losing outfielders Ryan Goleski (.331, 10 HR, 43 RBIs before being promoted to Akron), Brian Barton (.308-13-57) and Trevor Crowe (.329, 29 SBs) as well as catcher Wyatt Toregas (.336, which led the league when promoted). The quartet is helping pace Akron to the Eastern League playoffs.
Wilmington Blue Rocks (Boston/Carolina League): A wild eight-game winning streak brought the Blue Rocks up to .500 at 35-35 on the final day of the first half, as they edged Lynchburg for the North Division title. This half, they're 26-32. Paving the way for that playoff slot were outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (.299, 25 SBs) and pitchers Tommy Hottovy (2.80 ERA) and Andrew Dobies (3.98), all of whom are with Double-A Portland, which is vying for a spot in the Eastern League playoffs.
Dunedin Blue Jays (Florida State League): The Jays battled it out in a tough West Division to win a playoff slot at 38-32 but are in last place in the second half at 26-32. They lost their two key All-Stars, shortstop Ryan Klosterman (.287-12-64-19) and OF Ryan Patterson (.288-19-69), the Home Run Derby champion at the Florida State League All-Star Game.
The two first-half South Atlantic League qualifiers, the Lexington Legends (Astros) in the North and Rome Braves in the South, both took big hits to load up the organizations' respective Carolina League clubs. Lexington, 44-25 in the first half, limps into the playoffs at 24-35 with a week left, having lost pitchers Tip Fairchild (10-3, 1.66) and Raymar Diaz (2.36) to the Avalanche, which in turn lost its three top starters to Double-A Corpus Christi. Rome, 42-28 in the first half, is 23-34, having lost its two primary All-Stars in pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes (8-1, 2.99) and slugger Kala Kaaihue (.329-15-49) to Myrtle Beach.
Of course, the degree of the "hits" those first-half teams have taken vary. For example, while Kinston lost the heart of its lineup with the promotions of Goleski, Barton, Crowe and Toregas, the Indians left the club's remarkable pitching rotation surprisingly intact for the postseason, so Kinston heads into the three-game semifinals against Salem with a 1-2-3 punch of Chuck Lofgren (15-5, 2.46), fellow left-hander Scott Lewis (a Minor League-best 1.59 ERA) and unheralded but consistently effective right-hander Joe Ness (3.68).
When talking about "the grind," it's really more mental than physical. After all, 140 games is 140 games, whether or not you're playing two halves of 70.
So the concept of a split season is more of a psychological boost than anything.
Longtime Minor League manager Buddy Bailey, who took the helm of the Class A Advanced Daytona Cubs for the second half of the season, is a proponent of the split season for that reason.
"You have so many changes coming and going, you get new life, a new attitude," said Bailey, whose team was 35-35 and in fourth place in the Eastern Division in the first half but is 32-25 this half, just a game out of first place. "And you have that second chance to create a winning attitude."
And that fresh start, that clean slate, that new attitude benefits not just the players.
The split season also is a boon for fans, especially those whose teams that did not qualify for the playoffs with first-half championships (which, needless to say, is most of them).
Let's face it. If your team is 10 games or even 20 games out of contention at midseason, it can be harder for the more casual fan to get all fired up about his or her team. But the split season keeps hope alive for so many more fans.
I admit to some bias here because my first Minor League season went from being a bust to a beauty, thanks to the split season. In 1989, I got my first taste of the Minors as a Carolina League beat writer, covering the team then known as the Prince William Cannons, a New York Yankees' affiliate (they're now the Potomac Nationals).
In the first half in the Northern Division, quite frankly, the Cannons stunk. They were the worst team in the league. If there was a way to lose, they found it. Try coming up with creative ways to describe loss after loss after loss. It was depressing and demoralizing, not just for the players, and not just for me, but for the fans.
The manager was fired, there was a huge shakeup in the lineup and they finally got a reliable closer from their other Class A team. And, remarkably, over the second half they started to win. And win some more. And lo and behold, the playoffs rolled around and guess who was in first place in the Northern Division that half?
That Cinderella team upset first-half champion Lynchburg, which boasted the league's MVP and a prospect-laden lineup, and went on to shock heavily favored Durham in the finals to win its first and only Carolina League championship.
Sometimes I wonder whether, if there had not been that second half for redemption, if the players had all been morose, bitter and miserable with nothing to play for, would I have been so enamored with my introduction to the Minors that I would want to make it my life's calling?
Thank you, split season. You get my vote.