With less than three weeks to go in the 2012 season, the New Orleans Zephyrs were only two games back of the Albuquerque Isotopes for the top spot in the American Southern division. The Zephyrs headed into their last four-game series against the Isotopes with the goal of taking back the division lead. New Orleans dropped three out of four games to the Topes and was unable to catch Albuquerque for the division lead after suffering an abrupt and unexpected end to their season.
On August 26, Hurricane Isaac began to bear down on New Orleans and forced the Zephyrs to move their four-game home-stand against the Round Rock Express to Dell Diamond in Texas. New Orleans felt the effects of being away from home and got swept by Round Rock. After playing the Express, the Zephyrs were scheduled to return home to play the Iowa Cubs in their last series of the year, but the destruction left by Hurricane Isaac forced Zephyrs General Manager Mike Schline to cancel the team's remaining games.
Due to the cancelation of the team's last four contests, the Z's ended the season with a 73-67 record, five games back of the Isotopes. Despite the disappointing end to the team's year, New Orleans still finished with their best record since becoming the Miami Marlins' Triple-A affiliate in 2009. One of the players instrumental to the team's success was third baseman Mike Cervenak. The 35-year old journeyman finished fifth in the PCL in batting average at .340 and also had 13 home runs and 57 RBIs in 101 games.
Pitcher Brad Hand will turn 23 before the season starts, but was one of the team's aces in 2012. Hand won 11 of his 27 starts with a 4.00 ERA and struck out a team-high 141 batters. Pitcher Elih Villanueva also pitched like an ace at times for New Orleans. The righty saw the field in 32 games and started in half of those contests, winning nine games and compiling a 3.90 ERA.
This year the Zephyrs are hoping an influx of new and young talent will help them win their franchise's first division title since 2007. During the offseason the Miami Marlins traded away Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, John Buck, Emilio Bonifacio, and Mark Buerhle to the Toronto Blue Jays for some of the games top prospects. In the deal the Marlins received four players under the age of 23 including outfielder Jake Marisnick, infielder Adeiny Hechavarria, and pitchers Justin Nicolino, Anthony DeSclafani and Henderson Alvarez. The blockbuster trade added even more depth to the Marlins already deep farm system.
Two of the Marlins' top recent draftees, Jose Fernandez and Christian Yelich, ended 2012 with the Class-A Advanced Jupiter Hammerheads, but could see time with New Orleans late in the season. Fernandez is one of the top right-handed pitching prospects in the game and had a stellar sophomore campaign. The future ace started the season with the Single-A Greensboro Grasshoppers. While with the Hoppers Fernandez did not lose a game, winning seven games in 14 starts. He continued his success when he was promoted to Jupiter in June. Even though he did lose a game, Fernandez had a 1.96 ERA and did not allow a home run in 55 innings pitched.
Yelich played in 106 games with the Hammerheads in 2012 and showed why he is being hailed as a five-tool prospect. The outfielder led his team in average at .330, steals with 20, doubles with 29, and hits with 131. He also finished second on the team in runs with 76 and home runs with 12.
Fernandez and Yelich might not help the Z's right away, but infielder Derek Dietrich could make an immediate impact. Dietrich spent last year in the Tampa Bay Rays' organization and spent the latter part of the year with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. The 2010 second rounder was acquired by the Marlins in the same trade that sent veteran shortstop Yunel Escobar to the Rays. While with the Biscuits Dietrich only played in 34 games, but had 36 hits and four home runs.
New Orleans hopes to have some of their top prospects up in August when they face the Sky Sox at Zephyr Field. From July 30 to August 2, the Sox will look to continue their success against New Orleans on the road. In their 15-year history against the Z's the Sox have fared well at Zephyr Field, winning 32 out of 56 total games.
Last year the Sox won three out of four against the Zephyrs at Security Service Field in Colorado Springs. Sox outfielder Hernan Iribarren was an integral part in the Sky Sox winning the series. In four games Iribarren had seven hits and three RBIs.
Next Tuesday the Sky Sox series, "Previewing the PCL", will take a look at the Oklahoma City RedHawks who finished three and a half games above the Zephyrs and one and a half games back of the division champions, the Albuquerque Isotopes.
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This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.