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Top prospects preparing for bigs in IL

Game's best to begin 2009 in International League
April 6, 2009
The International League kicks off the season on Thursday and leading up to Opening Day, will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each team.

Whether it's Matt Wieters (Orioles) in Norfolk, David Price (Rays) in Durham or Tommy Hanson (Braves) in Gwinnett, the International League is stocked with top-shelf talent that will more than likely make an impact on Major League pennant races this summer.

While Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shoots for a second straight championship, the team formerly known as the Richmond Braves will try to get accustomed to their new environs and uniforms in Gwinnett County, Ga.

These are only some of the stories that are bound to capture fans' attention as the International League kicks off yet another chase for the coveted Governors' Cup.

Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the International League in 2009:

Buffalo Bisons
2008 Results: 66-77
2009 Manager: Ken Oberkfell
What's on deck: After inking a new two-year player development contract with the New York Mets following three separate runs with the Cleveland Indians -- the last of which ran from 1995-2008 -- Buffalo hired Ken Oberkfell to manage the team. Oberkfell is entering his 13th season as a Minor League skipper and his fifth at the helm of a Mets' Triple-A affiliate. ... The Bisons also revealed that Dunn Tire Park will be called Coca-Cola Field for the next 10 years after reaching a naming rights agreement with the Coca-Cola Bottling Company in January. ... While change has been the major theme of the offseason, some things will remain the same for the 2009 Bisons. Namely, OF Jason Cooper. The 28-year-old fan favorite holds the Bisons' modern-era record for games played with 410, a mark he set last season. He also ranks in the top 10 in virtually every offensive category in team history. ...Players you're likely to see with the Herd this season include highly touted Mets OF prospect Fernando Martinez and LHP Jonathon Niese. Martinez, heralded as one of the Mets' stars of the future, has struggled through injuries the past several seasons. "He has to play. He needs to stay healthy before we can know (what we have in him)," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said of Martinez. ... Niese, 21, went 1-1 with a 7.07 ERA in three starts for the parent club last year in his first taste of big league action. ... The Bisons also revealed new road, home and alternate uniforms for the upcoming campaign. ... An offseason loss of note took place on Dec. 27, when Buffalo's long-time official scorer Mike Kelly lost a 10-year battle with prostate cancer at age 62.

Here's a look at 10 International League prospects who you should keep an eye on in 2009:

  • Tommy Hanson, RHP -- Gwinnett
    The Braves righty catapulted onto the prospect scene and Atlanta's radar with an eye-popping 2008 and Arizona Fall League season.

  • Austin Jackson, OF -- Scranton/WB
    The Yankees like the look of Jackson, but want to give the five-tool outfielder a little more seasoning in Triple-A before he's ready for the Bronx.

  • Matt LaPorta, OF -- Columbus
    What better way for the Clippers to begin their new affiliation with the Indians than with one of the club's best hitting prospects?

  • Lou Marson, C -- Lehigh Valley
    Between the Olympics and spending time with Philly, Lou Marson will be bringing plenty of experience to Lehigh Valley, where he'll start behind the plate.

  • Fernando Martinez, OF -- Buffalo
    The 20-year-old Mets prospect may be one of the youngest players in the circuit, but he should be ready after two Double-A stints.

  • Justin Maxwell, OF -- Syracuse
    The Nationals outfield prospect missed a good chunk of the season last year due to a wrist injury. Look for him to bounce back with Syracuse.

  • Andrew McCutchen, OF -- Indianapolis
    The Pirates' top outfield prospect, Andrew McCutchen, returns to Indianapolis for a bit more seasoning before debuting in Pittsburgh.

  • Aaron Poreda, LHP -- Charlotte
    The first-round pick entered Spring Training as a fifth-starter candidate for the White Sox, but he'll start the year with the Knights.

  • David Price, LHP -- Durham
    The No. 1 overall pick in 2007 won't be in Durham for long, so make sure to see him pitch with the Bulls before he finds a permanent home in Tampa Bay.

  • Matt Wieters, C -- Norfolk
    Like Price, the top position prospect in baseball will start with the Tides. But his time there will be short and he'll be up with the O's before you know it.

Charlotte Knights
2008 Results: 63-78
2009 Manager: Chris Chambliss
What's on deck: Former Major League first baseman Chris Chambliss replaces Marc Bombard as manager of the Knights this season. Chambliss, who was a part of two World Series championship teams with the Yankees in 1977-'78, also served as hitting coach in the Bronx for title-winning teams in 1996, '98, '99 and 2000. Chambliss spent the 2008 season as hitting coach for the Richmond Braves. ... LHP Aaron Poreda, the White Sox's first-round pick in '07, could see time in Charlotte after going 8-9 with a 3.13 ERA in 27 starts between Class A Advanced Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham in '08. ... The White Sox signed Cuban teenager Dayan Viciedo to an $11 million deal this offseason, and he could reach Charlotte after beginning the year in Double-A Birmingham.

Columbus Clippers
2008 Results: 69-73
2009 Manager: Torey Lovullo
What's on deck: After a three-year stint as manager of the Buffalo Bisons, Torey Lovullo will enjoy a homecoming of sorts during his first campaign as Columbus' skipper. The former Clipper was named to the International League All-Star team in 1992 and was a member of the '91 and '92 Governors' Cup championship teams for Columbus. He will lead the Clippers into their new facility, Huntington Park, for the home opener on April 18 against Toledo. ... The playing surface of the new park will be in stark contrast to Cooper Stadium, the cavernous home of Columbus baseball since 1932, as the new dimensions will be 325 feet to the left-field foul pole (as opposed to 355 at the Coop), 400 feet to dead center and 318 feet with a 22-foot wall in the right-field corner. ... The Clippers finished off a two-year player development contract with the Washington Nationals in 2008, but will kick off a new four-year agreement with the Cleveland Indians in their new stadium. "It's not quite hit home yet," Clippers general manager Ken Schnacke admitted. "It's going to be a dramatic change. Everybody is gearing up for what will be a major change in operation." ... Reigning Eastern League Rookie of the Year Wes Hodges is likely to be the Clippers' Opening Day third baseman. ... Power-hitting OF Matt LaPorta, acquired in the deal that sent former Cleveland ace C.C. Sabathia to Milwaukee last July 7, will make the jump to Triple-A after hitting a combined .279 with 22 homers, 74 RBIs and 62 runs scored in 101 games at Double-A Huntsville and Akron.

Durham Bulls
2008 Results: 74-70, South Division champion
2009 Manager: Charlie Montoyo
What's on deck: Third-year manager Charlie Montoyo is hoping his Bulls finally win it all in 2009 after losing in the Governors' Cup Finals in each of the previous two seasons. "We're still fighting to win a championship," Montoya said after falling to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in four games last September. ... Montoya will be joined again this season by pitching coach Xavier Hernandez. Durham led the International League in ERA in Hernandez's first year (2007) working with the staff and posted a league-best 15 shutouts last season. ... The first overall pick in the 2007 Draft, LHP David Price, made a meteoric rise to the Majors last season, helping Tampa Bay capture the American League pennant with his clutch relief performance during the AL Championship Series. Price will start the season at Durham this year and will continue to be developed as a starter, whether he eventually pitches for Tampa or the Bulls. He made four regular-season starts with Durham last year and two more in the postseason. "David will help us win games in 2009," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. ... Other notable prospects expected to see time with the Bulls include: RHP Wade Davis, SS Reid Brignac and (at some point) RHP Jeremy Hellickson.

Gwinnett Braves
2008 Results: 63-78
2009 Manager: Dave Brundage
What's on deck: Manager Dave Brundage will return as skipper of Atlanta's Triple-A affiliate for a third season as the team known as the Richmond Braves from 1966-2008 moves into a new stadium in Gwinnett County, Ga. "We have known that Gwinnett County was interested in building a baseball stadium for about a year, coupled with the fact that we have had some challenges getting a new Triple-A ballpark built in Richmond, made this attractive to have them in our backyard," said Atlanta CEO Terry McGuirk. ... Gwinnett County Ballpark will be ready for the Braves' home opener on April 17 and will feature 22 luxury suites as well as many other amenities not usually found in the Minor Leagues. ... Hoping to follow in the pantheon of Atlanta pitching legends such as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, top Braves pitching prospect RHP Tommy Hanson is likely to begin the year with Gwinnett after going a combined 11-5 with a 2.41 ERA in 25 starts at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach and Double-A Mississippi last season. Hanson also became the first pitcher to earn Arizona Fall League MVP honors after going 5-0 with an 0.63 ERA in seven outings for the Mesa Solar Sox on the exclusive circuit. ... OFJordan Schafer skipped over Gwinnett and went straight to Atlanta, where he manned center field and homered in his first at-bat Opening Night.

Indianapolis Indians
2008 Results: 68-76
2009 Manager: Frank Kremblas
What's on deck: After leading Triple-A Nashville to three straight division titles and a Pacific Coast League championship over the past four years, Frank Kremblas will try to help the Indians rebound from a disappointing 2008 campaign. A former Indianapolis player, the 42-year-old Kremblas spent eight seasons in the Cincinnati Reds farm system (1989-1996) as a C/INF, including four with the Indians (1993-'96). ... Former Indian Jeff Branson joins the Tribe field staff as hitting coach after managing Class A Advanced Lynchburg for the past two seasons. ... Indianapolis could see several top rated Pirates prospects on their roster in 2009, including the possible return of OF Andrew McCutchen, who's been one of Pittsburgh's top prospects for a few seasons. Other top prospects who could see time with the Indians at some point in 2009 include: OF Jose Tabata, INF Neil Walker, RHP Jeff Sues, INF Shelby Ford and RHP Daniel McCutchen.

Lehigh Valley IronPigs
2008 Results: 55-89, first season
2009 Manager: Dave Huppert
What's on deck: After a league-worst finish in their inaugural campaign, the IronPigs are expecting to have plenty of new faces in the clubhouse this year. However Dave Huppert, who ranks third among active Minor League managers in wins, will be back to guide Lehigh Valley for a second consecutive season. Huppert's 20th victory this season will be the 1,500th of his career. ... There is a chance that only three everyday players (DH Mike Cervenak, 1B Andy Tracy and CF Rich Thompson) will return to the IronPigs in '09 and potentially just three returning pitchers (RHP Jason Anderson, RHP Carlos Carrasco and LHP J.A. Happ) could appear on the Opening Day roster. ... C Lou Marson, widely considered Philadelphia's backstop of the future, probably will begin 2009 with the IronPigs. He spent '08 with Double-A Reading, leading the Eastern League and all of Double-A with a .433 on-base percentage. ... OF John Mayberry Jr. will make his Philadelphia debut with the IronPigs after being traded from the Rangers for Greg Golson in November. Philadelphia's 2008 World Series championship trophy will be on display at Coca-Cola Park during the IronPigs' game with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees on April 10.

Louisville Bats
2008 Results: 88-56; West Division champions
2009 Manager: Rick Sweet
What's on deck: Reigning International League Manager of the Year Rick Sweet is back for his fifth season at the helm after guiding the Bats to the most wins in franchise history last year before a disappointing showing in the playoffs. "I am very excited to come back," Sweet said. "Very seldom are you able to stay in one place in baseball for a long period of time." Sweet also became the winningest manager in Louisville history in 2008, setting the mark in a 9-8 home victory over Durham on Aug. 19. ... For the first time since the stadium opened, the Bats will be playing on a new field surface in 2009. Kentucky Bluegrass was installed last October after the drainage and irrigation systems were redesigned. ... The Bats and Cincinnati Reds extended their player development agreement for an additional two years, keeping Louisville as the Triple-A home for Reds baseball through 2012. The Reds have been the parent club of the Louisville franchise since 2000. ... Battling for the fifth and final spot in the Cincinnati rotation this spring, RHP Daryl Thompson could see some time with the Bats after going 5-0 with a 2.76 ERA in seven starts for Louisville in 2008. ... SS Chris Valaika may be on the fast track to the Majors, but will likely spend time with the Bats this year after being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008. Homer Bailey will also return to the Bats in 2009 after narrowly missing out on a Reds rotation spot.

Norfolk Tides
2008 Results: 64-78
2009 Manager: Gary Allenson
What's on deck: Gary Allenson returns to manage the club for a third consecutive year, while Dallas Williams once again serves as hitting coach. Mike Griffin, who worked as pitching coach at Double-A Bowie last season, will join Allenson's staff in the same capacity in 2009. ... Allenson will have phenom C Matt Wieters starting behind the plate for the Tides, but he'll likely be called up to Baltimore before long. Wieters hit .355 with 22 doubles, 27 homers and 91 RBIs in 130 games between Class A Advanced Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2008. ... RHP Chris Tillman is also projected to pitch for Norfolk this season after going 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA in 28 starts at Double-A Bowie last year. ... Harbor Park will host the Bank of the Commonwealth Classic for the second time in three years on April 3 as the Orioles take on the Washington Nationals in an exhibition contest. ... The Tides have added a new right-field party deck at Harbor Park. The deck will push the right-field fence in 20 feet from 338 to 318 and will be open to the public.

Pawtucket Red Sox
2008 Results: 85-58, Wild-Card champions
2009 Manager: Ron Johnson
What's on deck: Ron Johnson will be back for his fifth season with the Red Sox after guiding the team to a wild-card berth. Though Pawtucket fell to the Yankees in the opening round of the playoffs, Johnson is looking forward to building on his team's success in 2009. "Everything's going really good," Johnson said during the early days of Boston's Spring Training camp. "It's been really interesting for me so far, as far as the talent of players we have out here. We had a really good ball club last year in Pawtucket, and we had a good ballclub in the Major Leagues." ... Johnson has to be relishing the opportunity to have 1B Lars Anderson in the lineup. The top-rated position player in Boston's system hit .317 with 13 home runs and 50 RBIs in 77 games with Class A Advanced Lancaster and .316 with five homers and 30 RBIs in 41 games with Double-A Portland last year. He'll begin the year back with Portland but his promotion to Triple-A is expected to be soon. ... RHP Michael Bowden, who made his Major League debut with the parent club last Aug. 30, went 9-4 with a 2.33 ERA in 19 outings for Portland, but was 0-3 with a 3.38 ERA in seven games, including six starts, for the PawSox. ... Hard-throwing RHP Daniel Bard is likely to give Johnson a big arm out of the bullpen at Pawtucket, as he went a combined 5-1 with a 1.51 ERA in 46 relief outings for Class A Greenville and Portland.

Rochester Red Wings
2008 Results: 74-70
2009 Manager: Stan Cliburn
What's on deck: Stan Cliburn will begin his fourth year as manager of the Twins' Triple-A affiliate. He and the rest of the Red Wings will be the subject of a 13-episode public television series this season called Minor League. Taping of the series will be conducted throughout the campaign with the world premiere of the series to debut in Rochester in February 2010. "To be selected out of all the other Minor League Baseball teams is a great honor and we are excited about the international exposure," said Red Wings general manager Dan Mason. ... Highly touted LHP Jose Mijares will wind up with the Red Wings after falling short of the Twins' Opening Day roster. The 24-year-old Venezuelan posted an 0.87 ERA in 10 relief outings during his Major League debut last September, but manager Ron Gardenhire isn't handing him a roster spot with the parent club just yet. "I don't want to put too much pressure and say that's his job," Gardenhire said. "It's not his job. He can go out there and earn that job." ... 3B Danny Valencia could be on the climb to Rochester after hitting a combined .311 with 15 homers and 76 RBIs in 129 games at Class A Advanced Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain in 2008. ... RHP Kevin Mulvey, one of the players the Twins picked up in the Johan Santana deal last offseason, figures to be back in the Red Wings' rotation. ... SS Trevor Plouffe, a former first-round pick, will play shortstop for Rochester.

Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees
2008 Results: 88-56; Governors' Cup Champions
2009 Manager: Dave Miley
What's on deck: Manager Dave Miley and the Yankees will raise their first championship banner in the 20-year history of the franchise prior to the home opener on April 17. Miley is entering his third season as manager with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and his fourth as the Yankees' Triple-A skipper. "Any time you can bring back a manager who led your team to a championship as well as the best record in the league, you can't help but be excited," said Yankees general manager Jeremy Ruby. .... The Yankees have posted the International League's top regular-season record in each of the previous two seasons. ... New York's top-rated prospect, OF Austin Jackson, will be a regular in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lineup after hitting .285 with nine homers, 33 doubles, five triples, 69 RBIs and 19 steals at Double-A Trenton last year. ... Other Yankees who figure to be shuttling between Moosic, Pa. and the Bronx are RHPs Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and returning Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Pitcher of the Year LHP Kei Igawa. ... 1B Juan Miranda will also continue to bolster the lineup after earning the Yankees' Player of the Year award last year. Miranda hit .287 with 12 homers, 22 doubles and 52 RBIs in 99 games in '08.

Syracuse Chiefs
2008 Results: 69-73
2009 Manager: Tim Foli
What's on deck: After ending their 31-year affiliation with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Chiefs will now produce players for the Washington Nationals organization. Manager Tim Foli, who guided the parent club's previous Triple-A affiliate, the Columbus Clippers, will lead Syracuse in 2009. ... The Chiefs will have a trailblazer on their field staff this season after promoting certified athletic trainer Beth Jarrett to Syracuse from Double-A Harrisburg in January. Jarrett, 33, becomes the first female trainer in the history of the International League after spending the past seven seasons in the Nationals organization. ... OF Justin Maxwell will see some time with Syracuse after an injury-plagued 2008 season. ... After reaching three levels last year, 1B Bill Rhinehart could make the Chiefs roster at some point, but he'll begin the year with Harrisburg.

Toledo Mud Hens
2008 Results: 75-69
2009 Manager: Larry Parrish
What's on deck: Larry Parrish returns for his sixth full season as Toledo's skipper after leading the Mud Hens to their fourth straight winning season, albeit without a playoff appearance. Toledo has not had five consecutive winnings seasons since accomplishing the feat six years in a row from 1896-1901. ... The Mud Hens and Detroit Tigers extended their player development contract two years through 2012 this offseason, continuing a partnership that began in 1987. ... While the Hens' roster is still taking shape, top prospects SS Cale Iorg, 2B Scott Sizemore, SS Danny Worth and IF Will Rhymes are all expected to spend some time in Toledo this summer. ... Toledo fan favorite Mike Hessman will return to the Mud Hens after hitting 34 home runs in 2008. ... Toledo hopes to build on a record season at the gate in '08. The Mud Hens enjoyed 36 sellouts last year and passed the four-million mark in attendance in only seven seasons at Fifth Third Field.

John Torenli is a contributor to