The Midwest 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.
What's better than baseball in the heartland of America? How about baseball in the heartland of America between teams stocked with some of the best developing talent in the game?
After Burlington outscored the Silver Hawks, 18-0, in the first two games of a rain-shortened playoff series to claim the Midwest League championship, the Bees may have a target on their uniforms. But new blood -- including seven new managers and an influx of top talent on the field -- makes success possible this season for even the clubs that struggled the most last year.
Many top prospects typically get their first look at full-season ball in the Midwest League, and this year will probably bring in at least four 2008 first-round Draft picks. They'll be joined by several top 10 picks and two of last year's league MVPs also figure to be headed for the Midwest League.
The 2009 season comes with affiliation changes too, as the LumberKings are now the Class A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are with the nearby Brewers organization. The TinCaps also have big news, as they'll open the year with a new identity and christen a new ballpark on April 16 . As is the case every spring, though, the biggest news has yet to be made.
Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the Midwest League in 2009:
2008 Results: 71-67
2009 Manager: Nelson Prada
What's on deck: Prada welcomes new hitting coach Rich Miller to his staff, and pitching coach Gary Lucas will return for the 2009 campaign. Miller comes to the Snappers in his fifth year with the Twins -- last year he was a roving baserunning/outfield coach at the Double- and Triple-A levels. ... Aaron Hicks, the Twins' 2008 first-round Draft pick, will most likely play in Beloit this summer after hitting .318 with 27 RBIs in 45 games for the Gulf Coast League Twins in 2008. ... RHP Shooter Hunt will probably need to make a few impressive starts here first, and power-hitting OF Angel Morales will bring his act to town as well. ... Fans may be able to look for a little more pop and a few less injuries out of the Snappers this year: the team has added a strength and conditioning coach, Ben Peterson. ... As a final note, Paul Molitor is scheduled to appear in Beloit on July 12, which happens to be Paul Molitor Bobblehead Day.
|10 PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Here's a look at 10 Midwest League prospects that you should keep an eye on in 2009:
- Tyler Chatwood, RHP -- Cedar Rapids
The Angels' second-round pick began his career in the Arizona League, and he'll likely see time on the mound for the Kernels this year.
- Cutter Dykstra, OF -- Wisconsin
The second-round Draft pick and son of Lenny Dykstra enters his first full professional season with the Timber Rattlers.
- Aaron Hicks, OF -- Beloit
He won't be starting the year with the Snappers, but the first-round pick will undoubtedly end up there at some point this year.
- Eric Hosmer, 1B -- Burlington
Ranked 29th on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list, Hosmer has just three professional games under his belt, but will get a full year in with the Bees.
- Brett Lawrie, C-- Wisconsin
The top Draft pick, who played for Canada in the WBC, will make his professional debut with the Timber Rattlers.
- Roberto Lopez, 1B -- Cedar Rapids
Lopez burst onto the prospect scene by hitting .400 and finishing just one home run short of a Triple Crown for Orem in 2008.
- Ethan Martin, RHP -- Great Lakes
Martin, a 2008 first-round pick, will make his pro debut with Great Lakes after injuring his knee after the Draft last year.
- Adam Reifer, RHP -- Quad Cities
Reifer wowed onlookers with his blazing fastball in the New York-Penn League, and he'll bring that to the Swing this year.
- Dan Robertson, OF -- Fort Wayne
Robertson was named the Northwest League MVP after setting a league record for hits in a season with Eugene last season.
- Josh Vitters, 3B -- Peoria
The highly touted Cubs prospect rebounded from his pro debut with the Hawks last year, and he'll continue to improve with Boise.
2008 Results: 73-65, MWL champions
2009 Manager: Jim Gabella
What's on deck: After leading the Pioneer League's Idaho Falls Chukars in 2008, Gabella comes back to Burlington. He managed the Bees from 2004-2007, and his 245 wins for Burlington are the most in team history. ... Chances are Eric Hosmer, the 2008 No. 3 overall Draft pick, will spend some time with Bees. ... Mike Montgomery, who posted a 1.69 ERA last year in the Rookie-level Arizona Summer League, is likely to work his way into the Bees' rotation, along with Tim Melville. Melville, who's just 19-years-old, already throws a fastball that's been clocked in the nineties. ... 3B Jason Taylor, who belted 17 home runs and 17 doubles for the Bees last year, and Sam Runion, who made five starts here in 2008, are likely coming back for more. ... RHP Kelvin Herrera probably will return as well, although he may be promoted before too long. Look for Salvador Perez to end up behind the plate for Burlington.
Cedar Rapids Kernels
2008 Results: 72-66
2009 Manager: Bill Mosiello
What's on deck: Mosiello is not only new to Cedar Rapids but also to the Angels organization. He's spent recent years coaching at the college level, including stops at Auburn University, Cal State-Fullerton and Arizona State University. He also amassed a 129-98 record in two season at the helm of the South Atlantic League's Charleston RiverDogs. ... Kernels fans should expect Angels 2008 second-round pick Tyler Chatwood to make a stop in Cedar Rapids at some point during the 2009 season. Chatwood allowed 13 earned runs over 11 starts and racked up 48 strikeouts in 38 innings in the Rookie-level Arizona Summer League last year. ... Two of last year's Pioneer League stars, Luis Jimenez and Roberto Lopez, will likely make their full-season debuts with the Kernels after combining to lead the league in every major offensive category last year.
2008 Results: 78-59, First-half Western Division champions
2009 Manager: Scott Steinmann
What's on deck: The LumberKings went through one of the biggest offseason changes in the Midwest League; formerly an affiliate of the Texas Rangers, Clinton will now serve as the Seattle Mariners' Class A entry. ... Skipper Scott Steinmann, who managed Wisconsin in 2005, comes to town after helming the Double-A West Tenn Diamond Jaxx of the Southern League last season. This marks his 14th year with the Mariners organization. ... Mario Martinez, who hit .319 in the Appalachian League last season, and Jharmidy De Jesus, who hit .309 at two levels in 2008, are likely to split time playing third. Look for 18-year-old Gabriel Noriega to play directly to their left at short. ... OF Denny Almonte, who hit .249 with Wisconsin last year, will probably stick around for some more Class A seasoning. ... Brett Lorin, who made six Midwest League starts last season, is a strong candidate for the Clinton rotation, and Aaron Pribanic, the Mariners' 2008 third-round choice, could spend his first full season as part of the pitching staff here. ... The LumberKings will host the 2009 Midwest League All-Star Game on June 23.
2008 Results: 66-72, First-half Western Division champions
2009 Manager: Todd Benzinger
What's on deck: Many fans recognize Benzinger's name but may not be able to place it right away. The new manager was an integral part of the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati but has been away from baseball since his 1995 retirement. Benzinger won't be short on young talent to work with. ... Kyle Lotzkar, who made 10 starts for the Dragons last year, may return to the rotation to start 2009, and Neftali Soto, who played in 52 games here in 2008, is another likely candidate to return. ... C Devin Mesoraco could be back, too, after hitting .261 in 83 Dragons games last year. ... Fresh faces Alex Buchholz will probably work their way into the Midwest League this year. Buchholz is likely to work at both second base and shortstop. RHP Sulbaran is coming off the World Baseball Classic, where he played for the overachieving team from the Netherlands.
Fort Wayne TinCaps
2008 Results: 71-69
2009 Manager: Doug Dascenzo
What's on deck: With a new home at state-of-the-art Parkview Field, the TinCaps -- formerly known as the Wizards -- have lots to be excited about. ... Fort Wayne appears to have a very strong outfield; Jaff Decker, the 2008 Arizona League MVP and one of the top prospects in the Padres system, is likely to spend his first full season here in left field. ... Last year's Northwest League MVP, Dan Robertson, will probably patrol center and Blake Tekotte, who hit .285 in the Northwest League last season, is poised to join them. ... OF Sawyer Carroll, who played in 18 Northwest League games last year, may also see a decent amount of time. ... Look for hard-throwing RHP Simon Castro to work his way into the rotation here. ... SS Drew Cumberland and 2B Cole Figueroa are likely to make up the middle infield in Fort Wayne. ... Adam Zornes and Robert Lara should split time behind the plate. ... The tried-and-true trio of manager Doug Dascenzo, pitching coach Tom Bradley and hitting coach Tom Tornincasa returns for another season to work with the new crop of talent.
Great Lakes Loons
2008 Results: 54-85
2009 Manager: Juan Bustabad
What's on deck: Having finished at the bottom of the Midwest League barrel last season, the Loons will have the talent in 2009 to improve a great deal. Skipper Juan Bustabad returns for his ninth year in the Dodgers organization and second year at the helm of Great Lakes. Pitching coach Danny Darwin will also be back, but the Dodgers have promoted a new hitting coach -- Michael Boughton, who makes the leap after coaching for the Rookie-level Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League last year. ... RHP Ethan Martin, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2008, will make his pro debut with the Loons, as he injured his knee after the Draft last year. ... Kyle Russell and Devaris Gordon, the No. 3 and No. 4 Dodgers picks in the same Draft, respectively, are also probable Loons. Gordon hit .331 last year in the Pioneer League, and Ogden teammate Russell knocked 11 home runs and collected 46 RBIs in 61 games. ... Nathan Eovaldi will work to be in the rotation from the start of the season through the end, and Daigoro Rondon will probably be on the Loons pitching staff for his second straight year. ... 3B Pedro Baez is also set to return to Great Lakes.
Kane County Cougars
2008 Results: 72-66
2009 Manager: Steve Scarsone
What's on deck: The Cougars are proud to host the A's top Draft picks -- a team spokesperson says, "Oakland's first - fifth round picks all played for the Cougars at one point or another in 2008." ... Steve Scarsone, who played in seven big league seasons for five teams, comes to Kane County as a new face in the Athletics organization. ... OF Rashun Dixon, who will be 19 on Opening Day and had 42 RBIs in 42 games in the Arizona League last year, may end up in the Cougars lineup by the start of the season. ... Either Dusty Coleman or Jason Christian, two of Oakland's most exciting prospects, will play shortstop for Kane County. ... Changes have also come to Elfstrom Stadium; in the offseason the Cougars added a second deck with luxury suites, including a "Super Suite" available for year-round events, and rooftop decks.
2008 Results: 76-64, First-half Eastern Division champions
2009 Manager: Clayton McCullough
What's on deck: Twenty-eight-year-old manager Clayton McCullough returns for his second year as Lugnuts skipper. He'll be supported by Justin Mashore as hitting coach and new pitching coach Antonio Caceres. McCullough earned last year's Bobby Mattick Award, which is given to the person in the Blue Jays organization who does the most for player development. The 2009 season will be Mashore's fifth in the Blue Jays system. Caceres comes to Lansing after coaching the staff of the New York-Penn League's Auburn Doubledays to a team ERA of 3.33 in 2008. ... The staff may end up working with IF John Tolisano and Balbino Fuenmayor, two highly appraised prospects in the Blue Jays systems. ... Oldsmobile Park will also once again host the annual "Crosstown Showdown," an exhibition matchup between Michigan State University and the Lugnuts, set for April 16.
2008 Results: 60-78
2009 Manager: Marty Pevey
What's on deck: While Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg has been promoted to the Southern League's Double-A West Tenn Smokies, the hopes of Chiefs fans are now in the able hands of new manager Marty Pevey. ... Josh Vitters, who was third with 85 hits in the Northwest League and is a top prospect in the Cubs system, is likely to start the season with Peoria. ... RHP Andrew Cashner, the Cubs' 2008 first-round Draft pick, will start the season either for the Chiefs or in the Florida State League. ... Ryan Flaherty may play shortstop in Peoria, but he may quickly climb the ladder. ... This will be Matt Cerda's first full season, and he's probably going to spend all of it with the Chiefs. ... Jay Jackson, who made 13 appearances -- five starts -- across three levels in 2008, should be a valuable staff member in Peoria. ... Chris Carpenter and Aaron Shafer will also aim to be part of the Chiefs rotation. ... Outfielder Kyler Burke, who hit .247 with 49 RBIs in 102 games across two levels last year, stands to spend the 2009 season here.
Quad Cities River Bandits
2008 Results: 68-66
2009 Manager: Steve Dillard
What's on deck: Skipper Steve Dillard is poised to become the franchise's win leader, needing just 29 victories to reach that mark. ... Likely players to end up in the Quad Cities include RHP Adam Reifer, who posted a 2.97 ERA over 32 appearances to help lead Short-Season Class A Batavia to a New York-Penn League championship in 2008. ... Reifer will be joined by Lance Lynn, who will probably serve as a starter, and Richard Castillo, who won nine games over two levels in 2008. ... Nineteen-year-old OF Frederick Parejo, who played for Batavia last season, is a strong candidate for the Quad Cities outfield. ... Deryk Hooker, who put up a 2.77 ERA between the Appalachian League and the Midwest League last year, is a probable starter for the River Bandits. ... Curt Smith spent 11 games with the River Bandits last year and could spend most of the year with them this season. ... Niko Vasquez also was in the Quad Cities briefly last season and stands to return for more time here this year. ... Modern Woodman Park's new 80-foot LED ribbon board will play highlights from the right field wall.
South Bend Silver Hawks
2008 Results: 43-27, Eastern Division Winner
2009 Manager: Mark Haley
What's on deck: Mark Haley returns to the Silver Hawks for his fifth straight year, and why not? Last year South Bend finished with the second-best record in the Midwest League and made it to the Finals in the postseason. ... Time will tell if young talent like RHP Kevin Eichhorn, who was picked in the third round of the 2008 Draft, 19-year-old SS Reynaldo Navarro, switch-hitting C Rossmel Perez and 2008 second-round pick RHP Bryan Shaw can lead the Silver Hawks to repeat in 2009. ... RHP Trevor Harden, who put up a 1.91 ERA for the Missoula Osprey in the Rookie-level Pioneer League last year, will look to crack the Class A rotation. ... LHP Wade Miley, who appeared in just seven Northwest League games in 2008, will also pitch here. ... OF Tyrell Worthington, who struggled with Missoula in 2008, may wind up with the Silver Hawks in 2009. ... Lastly, South Bend fans will be happy to have Silver Hawks games on the radio again -- on ESPN Radio 1490 -- after a four-year quiet period.
West Michigan Whitecaps
2008 Results: 72-65
2009 Manager: Joe DePastino
What's on deck: In addition to a 40-foot plunger that will let loose a gush of water when an opposing hitter strikes out and a 1.67-pound burger, the Whitecaps may see one of the most promising prospects in the Tigers system -- LHP Casey Crosby. Crosby spent most of last year rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery, but the left-hander did throw 4 2/3 innings over three appearances in the Gulf Coast League, having allowed only one unearned run to record a perfect ERA. ... Look for Mauricio Robles and Brandon Hamilton to return to the Whitecaps staff. ... Manager Joe DePastino, pitching coach Mark Johnson and hitting coach Benny Distefano will all return for the 2009 season.
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
2008 Results: 56-80
2009 Manager: Jeff Isom
What's on deck: The Timber Rattlers' home is less than 70 miles from Milwaukee, so the newly crowned Brewers affiliate should enjoy an even more passionate fan base in 2009 than they did in years past. ... Brett Lawrie, who was called "the system's most promising power prospect" by MLB.com's Lisa Winston, will most likely start the season in Wisconsin but could be quickly promoted depending on his production. ... Cutter Dykstra, son of three-time National League All-Star Lenny "Nails" Dykstra, also appears to be on the fast track through the ranks but will spend some time in a Timber Rattlers uniform. ... Jacob Odorizzi fanned 19 in 20 2/3 innings in the Rookie-level Arizona League last year and has shown he's ready for full-season action in the Midwest League. ... Power pitcher Cody Scarpetta, who racked up 58 strikeouts during twelve appearances between the Arizona League and the Rookie-level Pioneer League, probably will join Odorizzi, as will LHP Efrain Nieves. ... Cody Adams, who put up a 3.48 ERA in the Pioneer League in 2008, could round out the rotation. ... OF Logan Schafer stands to be a regular in the Timber Rattlers' lineup after hitting .272 between two levels last year. ... Jeff Isom, who managed the Class A West Virginia Power of the South Atlantic League in 2007 and 2008, is stepping into the job for Wisconsin this season. ... On April 24, the Timber Rattlers will play a home game at Milwaukee's Miller Park against the Peoria Chiefs.
Josh Jackson is a contributor to MLB.com.