The 2016 Minor League Baseball season begins Thursday. But in order to best understand what lies ahead, we must first look at what came before. This article seeks to do just that, via a fast-paced and mostly thorough recap of the Minor League offseason that was.
Hello, and welcome
The 2015 season saw two new teams emerge onto the Minor League landscape: the Biloxi Shuckers and West Virginia Black Bears (replacing the Huntsville Stars and Jamestown Jammers, respectively). Two more join the scene in 2016, representing Hartford, Connecticut, and Columbia, South Carolina.
Hartford's franchise is the Yard Goats (formerly the New Britain Rock Cats), who were christened as such more than a year ago. Since then the Eastern League team has unveiled logos, launched an irreverent Twitter presence and endured stadium funding setbacks that resulted in the team's home of Dunkin' Donuts Park not being ready for Opening Day. The Yard Goats -- Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies -- will play their first 17 home games on the road before opening their new digs May 12. To find a precedent for such a situation, one doesn't need to look very far. The Biloxi Shuckers opened 2015 with an extended road trip, as did the El Paso Chihuahuas in 2014.
Columbia, meanwhile, is set to welcome the Fireflies. This South Atlantic League franchise replaces the similarly insectian Savannah Sand Gnats and will serve as the Class A affiliate of the New York Mets. The Fireflies are playing in brand-new Spirit Communications Park, sporting a uniform that includes glow-in-the-dark elements.
No new Minor League ballparks are slated to open in 2017, and if this remains the case, it will mark the first such instance in at least three decades. Still, there are plenty of new stadium storylines to keep an eye on. These include:
• The Washington Nationals have just completed their last-ever Spring Training at Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida. In conjunction with this move, the U.S. Specialty Sports Association is slated to take over the ballpark lease. This leaves the Brevard County Manatees in limbo, as the Florida State League Milwaukee Brewers affiliate also calls Space Coast Stadium home. Meanwhile, a new Spring Training complex (hosting the Nationals and Houston Astros), is currently being built in West Palm Beach. Should the Manatees leave Brevard County, might this become their new home? As it does with all things, time will tell.
• The High Desert Mavericks are currently embroiled in an ugly dispute with the city of Adelanto, California, which owns the team's home of Heritage Field. This situation, coupled with a longtime inability to replace Bakersfield's dilapidated Sam Lynn Stadium, could see a renewed round of rumors revolving around the relocation of these California League franchises to an expanded Carolina League.
• Cities in various stages of new ballpark planning include (but are not limited to) Augusta, Georgia; Woodbridge, Virginia (home of the Potomac Nationals); and Kannapolis, North Carolina. The cities of Fayetteville, North Carolina; Macon, Georgia; and Amarillo, Texas, have also expressed interest in one day hosting a franchise of their own. ,
• The Pawtucket Red Sox's quest to have a new downtown stadium built in neighboring Providence was instantly controversial, and in September the team abandoned the plan. They have since shown a renewed commitment to Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium, while contemplating longer-term relocation options.
• The Binghamton Mets have been the subject of various relocation rumors through the years, but new ownership has clearly stated a desire to remain in the city. The team is set to launch a "Name the Team" contest, which will be part of a larger rebranding project slated for 2017.
• The Hagerstown Suns have long wanted to get out of aging Municipal Stadium, but attempts to relocate to a triumvirate of nearby Virginia municipalities have proved fruitless. Thus, the team renewed its lease with the city of Hagerstown and should remain there for the foreseeable future.
Frisco Lazy Riders
From a ballpark improvement standpoint, the offseason's biggest story came courtesy of the Frisco RoughRiders. The Double-A Texas Rangers affiliate announced that it is building an outfield "Lazy River," a massive aquatic installation spanning nearly 175 feet from end to end. The Lazy River quickly became a viral phenomenon, spurring RoughRiders owner Chuck Greenberg to state that "[T]his may be the one where I just drop the mic and walk away."
Tacos versus Cheesesteaks
From a promotional standpoint, the offseason's biggest story came courtesy of two Triple-A teams operating on opposite sides of the country.
After a successful one-day rebranding as the "Tacos" last season, the Fresno Grizzlies announced that they will suit up as "The Tacos" during all "Taco Tuesday" home games. The Triple-A Astros affiliate also unveiled new "twist of lime" Tacos jerseys, and announced that Tito, a new Tacos mascot, would be revealed at a later date.
Not be outdone, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs let it be known that they are changing their name to the "Cheesesteaks" during June 10's "Salute to Philadelphia" promotion. As part of the lead-up to the event, the Triple-A Philadelphia Phillies affiliate is asking fans to vote on whether the "Cheesesteak" cap should be "wit" or "witout" onions. "Wit" is the correct choice.
And speaking of food…
As has become customary, the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers made an impact on the culinary landscape with the announcement of a new gut-busting concessions item. This is the "Meat Lover's Pizza Burger," in which a sausage, pepperoni and bacon-topped pizza is used as a burger bun.