NYPL preview: ValleyCats look to pounce

Astros affiliate hopes to leverage winning ways; new skippers abound

Tr-City secured their second New York-Penn League title in four seasons in 2013. (Mark Olson/MiLB.com)

By Craig Forde / Special to MiLB.com | June 12, 2014 10:00 AM ET

After their second New York-Penn League title in four seasons, the Tri-City ValleyCats are looking to continue their successes on and off the field with a championship brand that has satisfied both the Houston Astros organization and a loyal fan base for 12 seasons.

"There is a benefit to the following season," said Tri-City general manager Rick Murphy on building off a championship. "The old adage is 'Everyone likes a winner.' What we found after we won in 2010, we were fortunate enough to gain some momentum going into the 2011 season."

The momentum of any new season is enough to ride high at the start, but having the added bonus of being defending champs is something that's helping the ValleyCats stick to the philosophies of the parent club, stressing team success on top of development.

The talent-rich Astros prospects who will get the opportunity to play in Troy this season will also get the chance to hone their skills under manager Ed Romero, who returns for his second season at the helm.

"[Ed's a] former Major Leaguer -- he really understand what it takes to instill in the young ballplayer with what they need to do to play at the professional level. He understands matchups and the importance of player development."

For a franchise stuck somewhere deep in the midst of a Mets, Yankees, Red Sox triangle of fandom, selling the general public on an Astros farm team has been part of Tri-City's challenge over the years.

The ValleyCats have done a great job at putting themselves out there to promote the product, working endlessly in the community and continuously upgrading the experience for the fans.

"Our marketing strategy is that you can still have your loyalty to your Major League affiliate, but you can also be a ValleyCats fan," said Murphy.

This season the team will unveil a new, interactive video board and a portable wood-fired pizza oven that can produce personal pizzas in 90 seconds at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium. The ValleyCats are also going to increase their spotlight on the veterans of U.S. armed forces.

The anticipation and excitement of a new season will come to a head at Friday night's season opener against Connecticut, when the team will raise the championship flag and then begin their defense of it.

"I've been in the game 26 years, and my adrenaline starts flowing knowing we're opening up the season on Friday," said Murphy. "The reward is creating that memorable experience and seeing fans leave with a smile on their face, that's really what it's all about."

Influx of top talent expected: The league, as always, benefits from a pool of players either freshly selected in last week's First-Year Player Draft or prospects who have been working things out in extended spring training. This season's crop of incoming talent looks to include a much larger presence of prospects on their respective team's Top 20 list than in year's past.

On the pitching side of things, 2012 first-rounder Mitch Gueller (Phillies No. 18 prospect) could return to Williamsport after making 14 starts for the Crosscutters last season. Also, Sean Brady (Indians No. 17), Dillon Overton (A's No. 8), Stephen Tarpley (Orioles No. 10) and Jose Mujica (Rays No. 17) are strong candidates to be on their team's starting staffs.

In the positional player category, the likes of catcher Francisco Mejia (Indians No. 6), outfielder Cord Sandberg (Phillies No. 11) and shortstops Riley Unrue (Rays No. 16), Oscar Mercado (Cardinals No. 13) and Domingo Leyba (Tigers No. 7) are all on the table as options to represent their club in the short season.

Teams continue to round out their Opening Day rosters, but a great group of top prospects, including most if not all of the names mentioned, should be expected to play in the league this season.

More new faces: Along with the fleet of new young talent, the league will also welcome eight new managers to the mix this season. Slated to be the hitting coach for the Crosscutters, Shawn Williams was bumped up to the managerial position after Nelson Prada was promoted to Clearwater for the same position.

"I'm excited about returning to Williamsport and starting my managing career in a town that has such long baseball history and great fans," said Williams, who served as a coach for the club last season.

The Lowell Spinners are another of the eight teams to welcome a new manager, bringing in former World Series-winning catcher Joe Oliver to become the 11th skipper in franchise history.

"I'm very excited and appreciative to return to the game and begin this chapter, especially with Lowell," Oliver said in a press release.

Rounding out the rest of the new bench bosses are Brooklyn's Tom Gamboa, Connecticut's Mike Rabelo, Hudson Valley's Tim Parenton, Jamestown's Brian Esposito, Staten Island's Mario Garza and Vermont's Dave Newhan.

All-Star wonder wheels into Coney: The Brooklyn Cyclones and MCU Park will play host to the 10th annual New York-Penn League All-Star Game on Thursday, Aug. 19. It will be the second time that the league's midsummer classic has come to Coney Island, where the inaugural affair was held back in 2005.

"The New York-Penn League All-Star Game has always showcased the finest talent in professional baseball," said league president Ben Hayes. "The 2014 All-Star Game will be no different, except that it will also showcase one of the finest franchises in professional baseball."

Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the New York-Penn League.

Last season's championship: Tri-City defeated State College, two games to one
Last season's attendance leader: Brooklyn Cyclones, 232,224
Last back-to-back champion: Staten Island Yankees, 2005-2006
Last no-hitter: Luis Gomez, Carlos Melo, Kerry Doane, Mahoning Valley vs. Batavia, September 1, 2013
Last perfect game: Guillermo Moscoso, Oneonta vs. Tri-City, July 14, 2007
Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Anibal Sanchez, Lowell, 2004
Last .400 season: Jack Maloof, Auburn, 1971
Last 20-home run hitter: Marcell Ozuna, Jamestown, 2010
Last cycle: Jimmy Bosco, Mahoning Valley vs. State College, June 26, 2013
Last triple play: Sebastian Vader, Jared Breen, Trey Mancini, Aberdeen vs. Mahoning Valley, July 31, 2013
Last alum to win NL MVP: Andrew McCutchen, 2013 (Williamsport '05)
Last alum to win AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera, 2013 (Utica '00)
Last alum to win NL Cy Young: Chris Carpenter, 2005 (St. Catharines '99)
Last alum to win AL Cy Young: C.C. Sabathia, 2007 (Mahoning Valley '99)

Craig Forde is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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