Class A ball isn't necessarily the first stop for baseball's finest prospects, but being the game's lowest full-season level, it's often where they first learn the real challenges of what it takes to be a full-time professional ballplayer. In its simplest form, it's where they're truly allowed to grow.
One player who thrived under the rigors of the South Atlantic League last season was Nationals' No. 11 prospect Matt Skole, whose OPS jumped from .820 in 72 games in the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League in 2011 to 1.013 in 101 contests for Hagerstown last year.
With that in mind, MiLB.com takes a look at a team trying to repeat without its key pieces, another with a whole new look for the new year and some of the fresh faces in the dugouts as we preview the 2013 season in the Sally League.
Finals destination: After a 28-year drought, the Tourists are hoping to make the South Atlantic League winner's circle a more regular destination.
MiLB.com's Best Team captured the Southern Division first-half title before finishing 88-52 on the year. Its .629 winning percentage was best among baseball's 30 Class A affiliates and second among all Minor League squads. (Class A Advanced Winston-Salem was tops at 87-51, .630.) The season came to a perfect ending when Asheville, which dropped Game 1 of the Finals to Greensboro, won three in a row to clinch the circuit title -- its first since 1984.
As often happens in the lower levels of the Minors, the core of that historic club has moved on.
Rockies' No. 3 prospect Trevor Story, who hit 18 homers with a .872 OPS and earned post-season All-Star honors, has understandably moved up to Class A Advanced Modesto. Fellow All-Stars Harold Riggins, a first baseman, and lefty Tyler Anderson have also advanced to the California League.
But arguably the most important loss of the bunch was that of manager Joe Mikulik. The skipper -- now an outfield coordinator in the Rangers system -- left after a record 13 seasons with the club and many an entertaining meltdown.
Fred Ocasio takes over in Mikulik's stead, looking to earn his first title as a bench boss. The 42-year-old comes to Asheville from Class A Short-Season Tri-City in the Northwest League, where he we went to three championship series in seven seasons only to be shut out.
Barring injury, he has a roster to finally seal the deal.
The Tourists will feature the Rockies' two first-round picks from last June's Draft -- outfielder David Dahl and right-hander Eddie Butler. The Rockies' top prospect, Dahl excelled with Rookie-level Grand Junction last season, putting together a .379 average, 1.048 OPS and 57 RBIs in 67 games en route to the Pioneer League MVP Award. Butler also put together a strong rookie campaign, going 7-1 with a league-leading 2.13 ERA at Grand Junction.
No. 12 prospect Rosell Herrera, who returns for a second season in the South Atlantic League, and Julian Yan (20) round out the Rockies' top prospects on the Asheville roster to start the year.
New-look Legends: The big news out of Lexington was supposed to be that the franchise was switching affiliates from the Astros to the Royals. Then, the Legends unveiled their new look.
The team's road uniforms will include a kelly green hat with a royal blue mustache proudly displayed on the front. Part of a brand redesign that coincided with the affiliate change, the hairy move was meant as an homage to the team's mascot, Big L.
"Minor League Baseball is all about the 'wow' factor, and we wanted to go beyond the normal stuff you'd see at the ballpark," Legends director of creative services and graphic designer Ty Cobb told MiLB.com. "And we wanted to be the team to do this first, to have a mustache on a hat. Our mascot, he actually has a mustache, so we're not just hopping on a fad. ... We're going to be easily recognizable when on the road. Fans can just look at the mustache."
Some of the Legends that will don the new look this season include Royals' No. 1 prospect Bubba Starling, Raul Mondesi (6), Cameron Gallagher (13) and Humberto Arteaga (14).
New faces, new places: Along with Asheville, eight other South Atlantic squads will have new managers in their respective dugouts to begin the Minor League new year.
Six of the nine new skippers -- Jorge Hernandez (Greensboro), Brian Buchanan (Lexington), Mike Goff (Augusta), Tripp Keister (Hagerstown), Corey Ragsdale (Hickory) and Ocasio (Asheville) -- have moved up from the lower depths of their respective systems to take the new posts.
Two others -- Luis Pujols (Delmarva) and Al Pedrique (Charleston) -- have held Major League positions before arriving in the SAL. The former held stints as first-base coach with the Expos and Giants and bench coach/interim manager with the Tigers, while the latter was a D-backs interim manager and most recently a bench coach with the Astros.
West Virginia's Michael Ryan is the lone one in the bunch making his managerial debut.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the South Atlantic League.
- Last season's championship: Asheville over Greensboro in four games
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- Last back-to-back champion: Lakewood BlueClaws, 2009-'10
- Last perfect game: John Purdin, Salisbury vs. Lexington, Aug. 8, 1964
- Last no-hitter: Chris Devenski, Lexington vs. Rome, Sept. 1, 2012
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- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: John Stephens, Delmarva, 1999
- Last cycle: Bill Rice, Kannapolis vs. Greensboro, July 15, 2012
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- Last three-homer game: Ross Wilson, Kannapolis vs. Augusta, April 27, 2012 MiLB.com coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Corey Dickerson, Asheville, 2011