The Southern League kicks off the season on Thursday and leading up to Opening Day, MiLB.com will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each team:
The 2008 Southern League season came down to a decisive fifth game in the Championship Series, with the Mississippi Braves pulling out a one-run, extra-inning victory over the Carolina Mudcats at Trustmark Park to secure the first title in team history. Will 2009 offer more of the same excitement?
Judging from the level of new talent on the field and in the dugout, it should.
While highly touted prospects like Gordon Beckham (White Sox), Andrew Lambo (Dodgers), Jeremy Jeffress (Brewers), Yonder Alonso (Reds) and reigning Florida State League MVP Logan Morrison (Marlins) could be among the top stories in the 10-team circuit, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg arrives in Tennessee as one of seven new managers in the Southern League.
Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the Southern League in 2009:
2008 results: 74-63, First-half South Division champions
2009 manager: Ever Magallanes
What's on deck: The Barons will enter 2009 with a new manager as Ever Magallanes was tabbed skipper last November. He joins the White Sox organization after three years as a manager in the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim system. ... Though they failed to advance past the opening round of the playoffs, the Barons received the Bob Freitas Award last year. The award, named after the longtime Minor League promoter and ambassador who died in 1989, is given annually to a team from each of the four baseball classifications based on a sustained display of excellence, including steady attendance, long-term consistency and contribution to the surrounding community. ... The 14th annual Rickwood Classic will take place on May 27 at Rickwood Field when the Barons host the defending-champion Mississippi Braves. ... Rickwood Field also will host the Southern League Home Run Derby and Celebrity Softball game on July 13. The event will be part of the festivities leading up to the Southern League All-Star Game at Regions Park on July 14. "Being able to showcase one of the finest modern-day baseball stadiums, Regions Park, along with America's oldest ballpark, Rickwood Field, will be something special for baseball fans and the coaches and players participating in the All-Star Week festivities," said Barons general manager Jonathan Nelson. ... Highly touted C Tyler Flowers will be a regular in the Birmingham lineup after batting .387 with 12 homers and 23 RBIs in 20 games in the Arizona Fall League. ... He'll be joined by former No. 1 pick SS Gordon Beckham.
|10 PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Here's a look at 10 Southern League prospects you should keep an eye on in 2009:
- Yonder Alonso, 1B -- Carolina
The Reds' first-round pick will start his year in the Florida State League, but is expected to advance quickly and join the Mudcats in 2009.
- Gordon Beckham, SS-- Birmingham
The eighth overall pick in last year's Draft got a long look in Spring Training after impressing in the South Atlantic and Arizona Fall Leagues.
- Tyler Flowers, C -- Birmingham
A relatively new addition to the White Sox organization, Flowers impressed his new team in the Arizona Fall League.
- Juan Francisco, 3B -- Carolina
One of the Reds' top power prospects is coming off an All-Star season, and he continued his success in the Dominican Republic.
- Evan Frey, OF -- Mobile
The former 10th-round pick stole 37 bases across two levels last season while ranking among the Minor League leaders in hits and runs scored.
- Jeremy Jeffress, RHP -- Huntsville
The Brewers' 2008 Minor League Pitcher of the Year can hit triple digits on the radar gun. He struck out 115 over 94 innings at two levels last summer.
- Logan Morrison, 1B -- Jacksonville
All he did last season was win the FSL batting title and MVP honors. He worked in the outfield a bit during Spring Training to accelerate his climb.
- Daniel Schlereth, LHP -- Mobile
The son of former NFL Pro Bowler Mark Schlereth notched 20 strikeouts over 12 innings at two levels in a brief Minor League debut last summer.
- Carlos Triunfel, SS -- West Tenn
He'll probably be one of the youngest players in the circuit, but he could be ready for the Jaxx after a strong AFL season.
- Clay Zavada, LHP -- Mobile
MLB.com's Class A Reliver of the Year allowed just six total hits last year for a 0.51 ERA. Is it even possible to improve on that?
80-60; Second-half North Division champions
What's on deck:
After finishing with the top overall record in the Southern League and falling just short of capturing the championship in a tough five-game series with Mississippi, the Mudcats have a new affiliation and a new manager in 2009. ... The Mudcats signed a two-year player development contract with the Cincinnati Reds in January, ending their six-year stint with the Florida Marlins. ... David Bell, 36, will skipper the Mudcats in his first season as a Minor League manager. He retired as a player following the 2006 season after 12 years and 1,403 games in the Major Leagues with the Indians, Cardinals, Mariners, Giants, Phillies and Brewers. ... The Reds also named former Major Leaguer Tom Browning as Carolina pitching coach. The 47-year-old won 123 games during a 12-year big league career and tossed the only perfect game in Cincinnati history in 1988. ... Highly touted prospects who could spend significant time in Carolina this summer include: 1B Yonder Alonso
, 3B Juan Francisco
, OF Drew Stubbs
, SS Chris Valaika
and INF Todd Frazier
2008 results: 67-72
2009 manager: John Valentin
What's on deck: Hoping to end the Southern League's longest current championship drought -- 20 years -- the Lookouts entered into a two-year player development contract with the Dodgers, completing a 21-year run with the Reds. "We are proud to be affiliated with such an instrumental, classy organization. The commonalities between the Dodgers and us made a lot of sense for both organizations on several different levels," said Lookouts owner Frank Burke. ... Former Major Leaguer John Valentin will be at the helm for the Lookouts after making his managerial debut in 2008 with Class A Advanced Inland Empire -- his first season as a coach in the Dodgers organization. The 41-year-old, who played in the big leagues from 1992-2002, guided Inland Empire to a 68-73 record, including a 38-34 mark in the second half to earn a California League playoff berth. ... Top-rated Dodgers prospect OF Andrew Lambo will try to pick up where he left off at the end of last year with Double-A Jacksonville, where he went 14-for-36 (.389) with three homers and 12 RBIs in eight games. ... Another top prospect who may see time with the Lookouts is RHP Joshua Lindblom.
2008 results: 73-67
2009 manager: Bob Miscik
What's on deck: The biggest change in Huntsville will be in the dugout, where Bob Miscik replaces longtime skipper Don Money. Money, the winningest manager in Stars history, was promoted to Triple-A Nashville. Miscik, who spent nine seasons in the Minors as a player, has been coaching, managing and coordinating for the Orioles, Rangers and Reds since 1990. ... The Stars also announced a two-year extension of their player development contract with the Brewers through 2010. ... RHP Jeremy Jeffress, Milwaukee's first-round pick in the 2006 Draft, figures to be back in the Huntsville rotation after going 2-1 with a 5.52 ERA in four starts to close out last season. ... Other highly touted prospects expected to see time in Huntsville include: 3B Taylor Green and C Jonathan Lucroy.
2008 results: 68-72
2009 manager: Brandon Hyde
What's on deck: It's only logical that the Marlins would want their Double-A affiliate much closer to home after a six-year affiliation with Carolina. Jacksonville, which completed an eight-year run as a Dodgers affiliate in 2008, will try to bounce back from a fifth-place finish in the South Division. ... Former Suns OF Brandon Hyde (1992) will be Jacksonville's new skipper after going 269-284 during previous managerial stints, including a one-year gig with the Mudcats in 2007. "Brandon is an upper-level manager with a big league future ahead of him," Marlins Director of Player Development Brian Chattin said. "He is a great leader and motivator and will polish players to get them ready for the Major Leagues." ... Jacksonville fans should get a look at 1B Logan Morrison, who earned Florida State League MVP honors in 2008 after hitting a circuit-best .332 with 13 homers, 38 doubles and 74 RBIs in 130 games for Class A Advanced Jupiter. ... Expected to join Morrison in Jacksonville at some point are LHP Sean West and OF Scott Cousins.
2008 results: 73-66; Southern League champions
2009 manager: Phillip Wellman
What's on deck: Why mess with a good thing? Wellman returns for a third season at the helm in Mississippi after guiding the Braves to back-to-back playoff appearances and last year's Southern League title. Entering their fifth season in Mississippi, the Braves had not reached the postseason until Wellman's arrival in 2007. ... The Braves expect to greet the one millionth fan at Trustmark Park in late April or early May. ... Although he'll start with Myrtle Beach, Mississippi fans could see OF Jason Heyward sometime this season after he finished third in the South Atlantic League in batting (.323) at 18 last summer. ... Other prominent prospects expected to spend time with the Braves are OF Gorkys Hernandez, SS Brandon Hicks, RHP Craig Kimbrel and 3B Eric Campbell.
2008 results: 58-79
2009 manager: Hector De La Cruz
What's on deck: Hector De La Cruz, the seventh skipper in franchise history, returns for a second season in Mobile and his ninth as a coach or manager in the Diamondbacks organization. He led Class A Advanced Visalia to the California League playoffs in 2007 after capturing the 2006 Pioneer League title with Rookie-level Missoula. ... BayBears fans will have a chance to take in more than a ballgame when they visit Hank Aaron Stadium this summer. They'll also get a peak at where Mobile's most famous resident grew up. The BayBears have transported Aaron's childhood home to the grounds of the stadium. After extensive renovations, it will open later this season as the Hank Aaron Museum. "We've been very fortunate in that Hank was born in Mobile and his family lived here, so we've gotten a chance to know him and his family," said BayBears president Bill Shanahan. "The house was built by Hank's father in 1942 and his mother lived there until shortly before her death." ... RHP Jarrod Parker, touted as the Diamondbacks' top prospect, might reach Mobile this season, but 2008 first-rounder LHP Daniel Schlereth definitely will start the year with the BayBears.
2008 results: 69-70
2009 manager: Billy Gardner
What's on deck: Though the Biscuits failed to win their third straight championship, Billy Gardner returns for his third season as manager, along with third-year pitching coach Neil Allen. Ozzie Timmons, a veteran of 16 Major League seasons, will take over hitting coach duties from ex-Brewers slugger Ben Oglivie. ... RHP Jeremy Hellickson, who went 11-5 with a 2.96 ERA in 27 starts with Class A Advanced Vero Beach and the Biscuits last year, could see some more time in Montgomery in 2009. ... Another notable Rays pitching prospect upon whom the Biscuits may rely is RHP Heath Rollins, who was 1-1 with a 2.88 ERA in four August starts with Montgomery. Rollins went 5-11, despite a solid 3.30 ERA in 23 outings, including 21 starts, at Vero Beach before a promotion.
2008 results: 62-77
2009 manager: Ryne Sandberg
What's on deck: Though he's only one of seven new managers in the Southern League, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is the most famous of the group. The Cubs icon earned a promotion following two seasons at the helm at Class A Peoria. His managerial career follows a legendary one as a player. The 1984 National League MVP hit .285 with 282 homers and 1,061 RBIs over 16 big league seasons. "For me, it's an excellent opportunity advancing up the ladder with what I'm doing now in baseball," Sandberg said. "I appreciate the opportunity the Cubs have given me these past two years and I am looking forward to the challenges in taking this next step and being successful in Tennessee." ... New hitting coach Tom Beyers is no stranger to the Southern League as he held the same post with West Tenn in 2006, when the Diamond Jaxx were the Cubs' Double-A affiliate. ... Though he'll start the season at Peoria, top prospect Josh Vitters -- the third overall pick in the 2007 Draft -- could wind up in Tennessee at some point this summer. Vitters, who turns 20 in August, batted .322 with five homers and 38 RBIs for short-season Boise and Peoria last year. "He definitely should touch one of the A clubs to start," Beyers said of Vitters. "Now whether he ends up coming to the Double-A level somewhere down the road will depend on how he does." ... Highly regarded RHPs Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson, both of whom pitched for Florida State League champion Daytona last season, also could wind up bolstering the Tennessee rotation.
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
2008 results: 70-68; First-half North Division champions
2009 manager: Phil Plantier
What's on deck: It was a tale of two seasons for the Diamond Jaxx in 2008 as they won the first-half North Division title with an impressive 41-29 mark before stumbling to a last-place finish in the second half. Former Major Leaguer Phil Plantier hopes to enjoy a more consistent campaign in 2009 after being promoted from his post as hitting coach. "I'm excited. It will be a new challenge this year," he said. "Fortunately, I will have two experienced coaches in (batting coach) Terry (Pollreisz) and (pitching coach) Tom (Dettore) that bring a lot of experience to the table." ... The Diamond Jaxx will host the 2011 Southern League All-Star Game, marking the second time in franchise history Pringles Park will be the setting for the annual event. "It will be a huge event for our entire community," said Diamond Jaxx GM Tom Hanson. The Jaxx also hosted the 1999 midsummer classic. ... Top-rated Mariners prospect OF Greg Halman could be back in West Tenn, but perhaps only briefly after hitting 29 homers and stealing 31 bases between Class A Advanced High Desert and the Jaxx. ... Speedy SS Carlos Triunfel also is looking to climb to Double-A after hitting .287 with eight homers, 49 RBIs and 30 steals in 106 games at High Desert last year.
John Torenli is a contributor to MLB.com.