The new season is shaping up to be a year of firsts and lasts in the Southern League.
The West Tenn Diamond Jaxx are no more, with the Mariners' affiliate changing their name to the Jackson Generals. The Carolina Mudcats will wrap up their final season in the league before moving to Pensacola, Fla., though it's worth noting that the Mudcats' name will live on as the Carolina League gains a new team in 2012.
Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Suns will seek to become the first team since Montgomery in 1977 to win three consecutive championships. The Suns are one of six Southern League teams with a new manager, with Andy Barkett taking the reins from Tim Leiper, while Rocket Wheeler, who is ninth among active Minor Leaguers with 1,121 wins moves up to Mississippi. Brian Harper, fresh off guiding San Jose to the California League title, will take over in Tennessee, which has lost to Jacksonville in the Finals the past two seasons.
MLB Parent Club: Chicago White Sox
2010 record: 53-87
2011 manager: Bobby Magallanes
What's on deck: The Barons should benefit from the return of Eduardo Escobar and the addition of Brandon Short, whom are considered two of the White Sox's better prospects. Magallanes takes over for his older brother, Ever, who was added to the White Sox Player Development Staff. Bobby will be looking to recapture family magic as the Barons missed the playoffs a year after finishing with the best record in the Southern League. Josh Phegley, a 2009 first-rounder, will try to continue the success he had in a brief cameo in Birmingham, where he hit .292 with 13 RBIs in 18 games.
MLB Parent Club: Cincinnati Reds
2010 record: 58-79
2011 manager: David Bell
What's on deck: 2011 represents the Mudcats' final season in the Southern League as the team will move to Pensacola, Fla., in 2012. Brad Boxberger, a 2009 first-rounder, will likely head back to Carolina after posting an 8.49 ERA in 22 games in the Southern League in an attempt to regain the form that made him a Carolina League All-Star last June. Former Major Leaguer David Bell should benefit from the offense of Cody Puckett, who hit 18 homers and stole 17 bases for Lynchburg.
MLB Parent Club: Los Angeles Dodgers
2010 record: 65-74
2011 manager: Carlos Subero
What's on deck: Things are looking up for the Lookouts in 2011, with the return of Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands, the organization's Minor League Hitter of the Year. De La Rosa and Aaron Miller, who pitched in six games for the Lookouts, should provide a boost to a pitching staff that finished last in the Southern League in ERA (4.54) and WHIP (1.53). Sands, who blasted 17 homers in 68 games with the Lookouts, may only be with the club for a short after impressing new Dodgers' skipper Don Mattingly in Spring Training.
MLB Parent Club: Milwaukee Brewers
2010 record: 67-73
2011 manager: Mike Guerrero
What's on deck: Eighty-six wins shy of 500, Guerrero should inch closer to that mark in 2011 with the help of pitchers Cody Scarpetta and Dan Merklinger. The offense will benefit from the return of Taylor Green and Lee Haydel, who was second on the team with 22 stolen bases. Erik Kamatsu, second in the organization with a .323 average, will make the jump to Double-A.
MLB Parent Club: Seattle Mariners
2010 record: 73-65, Wild Card
2011 manager: Jim Pankovits
What's on deck: Hoping to change their recent luck, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx became Jackson Generals, looking to reach the postseason for the first time since 2005. The addition of slugger Johermyn Chavez could go a long way to helping Pankovits' chances. The 22-year-old Venezuelan hit .315 and was second in the California League with 32 homers. Setting the table will be Mavs' teammate Kyle Seager, who paced the Cal League with a .345 average.
MLB Parent Club:
81-59, Southern League champions
What's on deck:
With the graduation of several top prospects, it may prove difficult for new manager Andy Barkett to guide the Suns to a three-peat. Former second-rounder Brad Hand
should anchor the Suns' staff after showing off his stuff in the Southern League playoffs, where he went 2-0 without allowing a run in either start. On Aug. 6, Jacksonville fans will get another glimpse at slugger Mike Stanton as the Suns will give away bobbleheads bearing the likeness of the Marlins' rightfielder.
MLB Parent Club: Atlanta Braves
2010 record: 63-74
2011 manager: Rocket Wheeler
What's on deck: Veteran manager Rocket Wheeler will look for his 1,200th career win in his first season with Mississippi. A pitching staff headed up by Randall Delgado, who was a Carolina League All-Star before earning a promotion to the M-Braves, and J.J. Hoover should bolster Wheeler's chances. Shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, acquired in a deadline deal last July, should return to Mississippi to begin the year after batting .254 with 15 RBIs in 38 games. Jesus Sucre will be a strong defensive presence behind the plate for the Braves.
MLB Parent Club: Arizona Diamondbacks
2010 record: 75-62, Wild Card
2011 manager: Turner Ward
What's on deck: Ward, the team's hitting coach for the past three seasons, should benefit greatly from the addition of A.J. Pollock, Marc Krauss and Ryan Wheeler. Pollock, a first-rounder in 2009, missed all of last season following surgery on his right elbow, while Krauss is coming off an All-Star season, slugging 25 homers for Visalia. Paul Goldschmidt, who led the Cal League with 35 dingers, should resume his usual position batting in front of Krauss.
MLB Parent Club: Tampa Bay Rays
2010 record: 72-66
2011 manager: Billy Gardner
What's on deck: The presence of top pitching prospect Matt Moore, MLB.com's No. 27 prospect, should help alleviate the loss of Alex Torres, who will make the jump to Durham. Moore, the Minor League leader in strikeouts with 208, will be joined by reclamation project Matt Bush, who is making the conversion from shortstop to pitcher. Former top pick Tim Beckham continues his rapid ascent up the Rays' Minor League ranks, reaching Double-A at age 21. Cole Figueroa, who was acquired from the Padres in a deal that shipped Jason Bartlett to San Diego, will provide a boost to the offense after batting .302 and drawing 81 walks in 2010 for Lake Elsinore.
MLB Parent Club: Chicago Cubs
2010 record: 86-53, Southern League runner-up
2011 manager: Brian Harper
What's on deck: Harper will be making the jump to Double-A after guiding the San Jose Giants to a California League title. Headlining the offense will be former first-rounder Brett Jackson, who will return to the Smokies after a whirlwind 2010 in which he was a Futures Game selection. Jackson was a spark in Smokies lineup, posting a .366 on-base percentage and stealing 18 bases in 61 Double-A games. He's be reunited with Trey McNutt and Josh Vitters, two of the Cubs' top prospects. Both are seeking to improve on their numbers in brief appearances with the Smokies, who finished with the second-best record in the Minors among full-season teams.