The Eastern League's best talent is guaranteed to assemble this summer in Reading. Much of it may even arrive before July 11.
Reading, the Phillies' popular Double-A affiliate, has dubbed the annual event "Baseballtown All-Star Classic at America's Classic Ballpark," with nearly a week's worth of events, luncheons, derbies and, of course, an All-Star Game to be played at FirstEnergy Stadium.
The Phillies should be well represented at their own event, especially if Philadelphia opts to send some of the organization's rising talent to the Eastern League this spring. Trevor May, the No. 1 prospect in the Phillies' system, should make his Double-A debut and anchor a rotation that could include fellow right-hander Jonathan Pettibone (No. 10 in the system) and Julio Rodriguez (No. 16).
Lefty Jesse Biddle is slated to begin the season at Class A Advanced Clearwater but could potentially join the Reading rotation sometime later this summer.
May will be the center of attention and likely the R-Phils' Opening Day starter. The 22-year-old sports a fastball around 95 mph and throws a good curveball and change-up, a combo that helped him strike out 208 batters in 27 starts last year at Clearwater, where he finished 10-8 with a 3.63 ERA. Philadelphia will look for him to continue trimming his walk rate.
May will be reunited with Sebastian Valle, the Phillies' No. 6 prospect and the No. 8 catching prospect in baseball entering 2012. Valle has been progressing through the system alongside many of the Phillies' top arms, so the path continues this spring. The 21-year-old had a big first half of 2011 and went to the Futures Game, but cooled off in the second half and finished with a .284 batting average, five homers and 40 RBIs at Clearwater.
Other notable Phillies prospects likely headed to "Baseballtown" include second baseman Cesar Hernandez (No. 14) and outfielder Jiwan James (No. 19), a switch-hitter with speed (31 steals in 2011) who will look to cut down on his strikeouts.
As for the league's showcase event, Reading has a schedule of All-Star-themed happenings to celebrate hosting the game for the first time since 1974. Events include a gala, an auto-graph party, luncheon and related road trips, which have yet to be detailed.
Can the Sea Dogs take the next step?
Boston's Double-A club in Portland should feature some interesting names from the Red Sox system, which has struggled getting its top talent to the higher levels in recent seasons. Bryce Brentz, Boston's first-round pick in 2010, lit up the Class A Sally League last season and finished the year at Class A Advanced Salem, where his average dipped from .354 to .274. The overall numbers were huge: he hit .301 with 30 homers and 94 RBIs, oftentimes overshadowing a certain other Bryce in the South Atlantic League. Ranked No. 2 in the Sox's system this spring, Brentz should be a big part of Portland's lineup in 2012.
"Making the big leagues is the No. 1 goal, of course, but you can't control when things like that happen," Brentz told MiLB.com in February. "I mainly want to stay healthy, try to establish some consistency and keep learning."
Another first-round pick, Anthony Ranaudo, faces a challenge with a bump to Portland -- the Red Sox will watch closely as the LSU product aims to progress following an up-and-down 2011 campaign.
"I definitely went through some struggles," Ranaudo said of his 2011 season, in which he finished 9-6 with a 3.97 ERA and 117 strikeouts over 127 innings. "I hit a wall in July -- my velocity fluctuated a lot and I saw the results were a lot different. I wouldn't change it though. I learned a lot about myself -- how to pitch with three pitches, using my command and using it to your advantage. I had some ups and downs -- it was my first full year and I made though injury-free, so that was my biggest goal. I was successful and learned a lot and I'm ready to turn the page and get ready for this season."
Ranaudo ranks No. 5 in the Boston system and is considered the organization's top arm.
"I hope I start off [at Portland], I hope I make the most of it," he said. "I'm coming in as prepared as I've ever been. I'm in the best shape of my life, I'm really excited. I'm coming in strong and hopefully I'll make a good name for myself and earn a spot at Double-A -- that'd be real fun."
Third baseman Kolbrin Vitek, another 2010 first-rounder, ranks No. 9 in the Red Sox system and should make his Double-A debut. Shortstop Oscar Tejeda could start the year again at Portland after struggling in his first Eastern League campaign last year.
Stolmy Pimentel, whose stock has dropped in recent seasons, will likely get another chance at Portland after going 0-9 with a 9.12 ERA in 15 starts there last summer.
Senators ride out the floods
Harrisburg earned home-field advantage in its first-round playoff series last season, but that edge was washed out when heavy rains turned the Senators' ballpark into a brown pool of muddy water and sent the series to Richmond.
"We had 24 feet of water right before the playoffs, and once the water receded, it left behind an unbelievable amount of mud and silt -- very dense, thick and nasty stuff," said Kevin Kulp, the Senators' president. "All over the place."
Metro Bank Park, located near the flooded Susquehanna River, was so bad that the wooden bat rack in one dugout floated out into right field. Kulp said the team's priority was removing the mud from the field's playing surface, a process that took three weeks. The clubhouse was also seriously damaged -- Kulp estimated that eight feet of water filled the locker rooms that had recently hosted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
"We painted a lot, did a lot of seeding and fertilizing and the field's come back almost 100 percent," said Kulp. "It looks so good right now you wouldn't believe it. The rest of the ballpark, we took a lot of water in the clubhouse and had to replace some drywall, cabinets, ceiling tiles. Some fencing got destroyed, electrical outlets."
Kulp said the team used fire hoses to blast away the layers of mud on the field.
"There was no easier way to do it," he said. "The ground was so saturated, it was fire hosing, dawn to dusk."
Harrisburg's parent affiliate, the Washington Nationals, checked in on the damage, but Kulp said it was up to the team's staff to fix the ballpark.
"My whole staff pitched in and we worked incredibly hard," he said. "It's a long process."
The stadium will be ready for Opening Day, which is good news for the front office and prospects like Eury Perez, a center fielder who earned All-Star Futures Game honors in 2010 and should advance from Potomac this year.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Eastern League.
- Last season's championship: New Hampshire over Richmond in four games MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Trenton Thunder, 2007-08
- Last perfect game: Jeanmar Gomez, Akron vs. Trenton, May 21, 2009
MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last no-hitter: Shairon Martis, Harrisburg vs. New Hampshire, Aug. 26, 2011 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Dave Leonhard, Elmira (209) and Ed Barnowski, Elmira (207), 1965
- Last cycle: Josh Satin, Binghamton vs. Bowie, June 24, 2011
MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last three-homer game: Danny Espinosa, Harrisburg vs. Binghamton, Aug. 3, 2010 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Shelley Duncan, Trenton, 2005