Minor League Baseball kicks off the season on April 3 and leading up to Opening Day, MiLB.com will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each league. Here's a team-by-team analysis of what you might find in the Florida State League.
The only sport more ubiquitous in Florida than baseball in the summer is football in the fall. This year in the Florida State League, fans will get to see a little bit of both.
Four clubs in the 12-team circuit feature players who turned down a shot at a college football career for a chance to play baseball under the Florida summer sun in front of a slightly more subdued crowd.
Pitching usually dominates FSL action, but with players as athletic and powerful as these, the balance could shift to the offense. Here's a team-by-team look at the Florida State League in 2008:
Brevard County Manatees
2007 Results: 74-62; first-half East Division Champions, lost to Clearwater in league championship
2008 Manager: Mike Guerrero
Things to look forward to: Had he made a different decision two years ago, 6-foot-2 shortstop Brent Brewer would still be playing games in Florida, but he'd be catching passes instead of chasing grounders up the middle. The Tyrone, Ga. native turned down an offer to play wide receiver for Florida State University when Milwaukee drafted him in 2006. ... Mike Guerrero left his post with the South Atlantic League's West Virginia Power to replace John Tamargo at Brevard County. Both managers took their respective teams to the league championship series but failed to bring back a title.
2007 Results: 83-57; second-half West Champions, defeated Brevard County in league championship
2008 Manager: Razor Shines
Things to look forward to: Like fellow Georgian Brent Brewer in the Milwaukee organization, Dominic Brown also turned down college football in Florida for life on the diamond. The University of Miami wanted him to play wide receiver, but the 6-foot-5 outfielder from Redan, Ga. is now drawing comparisons to Darryl Strawberry as Philadelphia's top outfield prospect. ... After spending 2007 as the Chicago White Sox's third-base coach, Razor Shines takes over as manager for Clearwater. As a manager in Chicago's farm system, Shines took his teams to the playoffs from 2003-2006 and won the Carolina League Championship with Winston-Salem in 2003. ... Baseball in Florida during the middle of the summer can get really hot. That's why the Threshers are holding two Wet and Wacky Days -- July 13 against Daytona and Aug. 3 against Dunedin -- to help fans escape the oppressive heat. Water slides, water guns, water balloons and misters will be spread throughout the park for these afternoon games.
2007 Results: 57-80
2008 Manager: Jody Davis
Things to look forward to: When Chicago selected third baseman Josh Vitters with the third overall pick in last year's draft, they were hoping to get the next Ron Santo ... or better. Vitters was tabbed as the best pure hitter in the Draft and has impressive power to boot. He will probably start the year at Class A Peoria, but could well move up to Daytona during his first full pro year. ... Tony Thomas may provide the Cubs with a future table-setter for Vitters. The former Florida State second baseman batted .308 and had a .948 OPS in 46 games with short-season Boise in 2007. Chicago has ticketed Thomas to start his first full season at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona.
Dunedin Blue Jays
2007 Results: 72-68
2008 Manager: Omar Malave
Things to look forward to: Left-hander Brett Cecil looks to continue his transition from relieving at the University of Maryland to starting in Toronto's system. In 14 games -- 13 starts -- with short-season Auburn last year, Cecil never allowed more than two runs. He will bring a mid-90s fastball, a plus-slider that hits the upper 80s and a developing changeup that could turn into another swing-and-miss offering to Knology Park this spring. ... Dunedin fans may not get a chance to see one of the top hitting prospects in baseball as 2006 first-rounder Travis Snider is slated to make the jump from Class A to Double-A New Hampshire at the start of the 2008 season. ... Off the field, the Blue Jays will have Thirsty Thursday's and Jr. Jays Saturdays, where kids will have the opportunity to read lineups, throw out the first pitch and participate in other gameday activities.
Fort Myers Miracle
2007 Results: 70-70
2008 Manager: Jeff Smith
Things to look forward to: Add Joe Benson's name to the list of FSL prospects who could have been in college football spring sessions rather than Spring Training. Minnesota's second-round selection in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft walked away from a scholarship offer to play running back at Purdue, and is the Twins' best hitting prospect. Benson has been timed running from home to first in 4.0 seconds, a mark that had he made while running the 40-yard dash, might have kept him on the gridiron. ... "Thirsty Thursdays" are a common promotion in the Minor Leagues, but the Miracle added a softer touch by inviting the Professional Pillow Fighting League to stage a bout after its April 17 game against Clearwater. ... In an effort to reach the college-aged crowd, Fort Myers is starting to advertise on Facebook.com.
2007 Results: 63-76
2008 Manager: Brandon Hyde
Things to look forward to: Second baseman Chris Coghlan is slated to bring his superb batting eye to Jupiter this season -- he's drawn 75 career walks against 72 strikeouts. Coghlan suffered a hernia during the second half of last season, but should be ready for the start of 2008. ... After a year lost to Tommy John elbow surgery, Sean West looks to resume the progress he was making with Class A Greensboro in 2006. A 6-foot-8 left-hander with a low three-quarters delivery, a mid-90s fastball and two types of slider, West evokes a smaller Randy Johnson. ... Jupiter and National City Bank are sponsoring a Kids FREE Admission Program promotion where all children until 12 years old can see a Hammerheads game for free.
Lakeland Flying Tigers
2007 Results: 53-87
2008 Manager: Andy Beckett
Things to look forward to: His stay might not be very long, but Rick Porcello may make a few starts with Lakeland in 2008. The 19-year-old right-hander from New Jersey already has a mid-90s fastball, two plus breaking pitches and a developing changeup. It is easy to see why Tigers fans have visions of him teaming with Justin Verlander in the Detroit rotation this year. ... After three innocuous years in Detroit's lower Minor League teams, James Skelton caught fire last year with West Michigan, batting .309 with a .402 on-base percentage and 33 extra-base hits. The 22-year-old backstop, who threw out 43 percent of baserunners in 2007, will probably be in charge of calling pitches for Porcello.
Palm Beach Cardinals
2007 Results: 71-69
2008 Manager: Gaylen Pitts
Things to look forward to: FSL groundskeepers aren't looking forward to Cardinals right-hander Clayton Mortensen, actually. The highest-drafted player in Gonzaga University history has a hard low-90s sinker and tough slider that induced 3.3 groundouts for each fly-out last season. Only one Major Leaguer posted a ratio over three last year -- Los Angeles Dodgers righty Derek Lowe (3.30). ... Mortensen may be joined at Roger Dean Stadium by right-hander Tyler Herron, who grew up less than 30 miles away in Wellington. Like Mortensen, Herron throws a hard sinker, but is more of a strikeout artist thanks to a solid changeup and curve that helped him fan 130 Midwest League batters last year. ... Like its co-tenant, Jupiter, Palm Beach will hold multiple Kids FREE Admission Program games at Roger Dean Stadium.
2007 Results: 81-59; first-half West Division Champions
2008 Manager: Joe Ayrault
Things to look forward to: Lost in the shadow of Cincinnati's "Fab Four" of Jay Bruce, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Joey Votto is outfielder Drew Stubbs. The eighth overall selection in the 2006 Draft, Stubbs is considered the second-fastest prospect in the Reds' system next to Chris Dickerson. Of course, Dickerson has the advantage of being NFL Hall-of-Famer Eric Dickerson's cousin. ... Rutgers University career home run leader Todd Frazier should join Stubbs in Sarasota for his first full professional season.
St. Lucie Mets
2007 Results: 68-71; first-half East Division Champions
2008 Manager: Tim Teufel
Things to look forward to: Right-hander Brant Rustich is yet another of the power right-handed relievers in the Mets' system. The former UCLA Bruin closer showcased a mid-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider at Rookie-level Kingsport and Class A Short-Season Brooklyn last year, striking out 21 in 22 innings while issuing just two walks. ... Manager Tim Teufel hopes to be the third manager in as many years to take St. Lucie to the FSL playoffs. Gary Carter led the Mets to a FSL Championship in 2006 and Frank Cacciatore guided St. Lucie to a playoff berth last year. ... Prior to the April 24 game against Daytona, the American Cancer Society will be holding a Relay 4 Life fundraising race at Tradition Field.
2007 Results: 83-56
2008 Manager: Luis Sojo
Things to look forward to: A playoff berth would be nice. Despite finishing with the league's best overall record last year, Tampa missed the playoffs by finishing second in both halves of the season. ... What was known as Legends Field has been renamed for someone who has become a legend in his own right. The New York Yankees announced this offseason that Tampa Yankees' home will now be called George M. Steinbrenner Field after the Yankees' principal owner since 1973. ... Two possible heirs to Mariano Rivera may start their season in Tampa. Right-handed fireballers Mark Melancon and Humberto Sanchez are both recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery and may begin the rehabilitation process on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Vero Beach Devil Rays
2007 Results: 59-79
2008 Manager: Jim Morrison
Things to look forward to: If his recent elbow problems turn out to be a false alarm, left-hander David Price will bring his 99-mph fastball to Holman Stadium. Last year's No. 1 overall Draft pick may help Vero Beach fans forget about last year's aces, Jake McGee and Wade Davis. ... Outfielder Desmond Jennings is the third player in the FSL who could have been seen catching touchdowns on autumn Saturday afternoons instead of deep flies on July evenings. The Alabama Crimson Tide could have used his speed at wide receiver: Jennings has stolen 77 bases in his two-year Minor League career. ... Be careful if you attend Awful Night on June 5 when Vero Beach hosts Sarasota. The Devil Rays promise to deliver the worst possible music and promotions for the whole night, so be prepared.