The International League is celebrating an anniversary this season.
When the campaign started late last week, the league kicked off its 130th season. There were some minor upsets in the schedule’s first few games, but as anyone involved in the game will say, it’s very early.
Pawtucket, which finished last season with six wins in seven games to claim its first Governors’ Cup championship in 28 years, started the season spoiling the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders’ inaugural game at reconstructed PNC Field. They will open their home season at McCoy Stadium later this week against Rochester. If Pawtucket is going to repeat as league champions it will do so with a new manager. Gary Disarcina took over the club being named skipper in December taking over for Arnie Beyeler, who was promoted to be Boston’s first base coach. Jeremy Hazelbaker is one of the key players for the PawSox. The 25-year-old slugger finished the season with the team in 2012 after bashing 19 home runs for Double-A Portland.
You already know just about everything about the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, so here’s a look around the rest of the International League.
LOCALS TAKING THE FIELD
Hazleton Area grad Russ Canzler had a whirlwind of an offseason technically being a part of four organizations before even putting on a uniform. First, he was pulled away from Cleveland’s organization by Toronto. After being designated for assignment by the Blue Jays, the Indians reclaimed the outfielder/first baseman/third baseman. But that didn’t last too long as he was again designated for assignment by Cleveland and immediately claimed by the New York Yankees. For the longest time it seemed as if he was going to be playing in his own backyard for the RailRiders. But New York needed room on its 40-man roster and he had to go. Canzler, who will celebrate his 27th birthday Thursday, was then claimed by Baltimore. He is currently residing in Norfolk for the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate. The Tides and Canzler play at PNC Field June 21-23.
Montrose grad Rich Thompson, who finally made his Major League debut last season for Tampa Bay after being in the minors for what seemed like an eternity, remains in the Rays’ system with Triple-A Durham. The Bulls travel to PNC Field May 23-26.
Disarcina isn’t the only new general on the field in the league as there are a total of five new faces.
Jim Riggleman, a manager with several years of experience as a manager in the Major Leagues, takes over in Louisville. The Lehigh Valley IronPigs also have a new manager with veteran I.L. manager Dave Brundage taking over for Ryne Sandberg, who is now Philadelphia’s third base coach. Brundage managed Gwinnett last season. The Braves’ new skipper is Randy Ready, who once donned a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons’ uniform. Another new face is Chris Tremie at Columbus, who takes over for Mike Sarbaugh, who was called up to Cleveland as a coach after three seasons with the Clippers.
AROUND THE I.L. NORTH
The defending North Division champion is Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In fact, the franchise has won five of the last six division titles. So until some team can dethrone the RailRiders from that reign, they should be considered the favorite to claim the title again – especially with a roster full of players who have succeeded at other levels or in another organization. When New York gets fully healthy, SWB will also get more talent.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s main competition in the division the last few seasons has been either Lehigh Valley or Pawtucket. But there are other teams that could contend this season. Last season, the IronPigs became a team that was plucked by players throughout the season due to Philadelphia’s rash of injuries. Lehigh Valley consists of top prospects in catcher Tommy Joseph and 2012 minor league home run champion Darin Ruf.
Buffalo, the Blue Jays’ affiliate, is led by speedster Anthony Gose and power hitter Moises Sierra. Former SWB Yankee Ramon Ortiz is also on the team’s roster. The Blue Jays made what seemed like a million moves over the offseason and the Bisons should benefit from that. The Blue Jays are back in the I.L. after residing in Las Vegas for the last several years.
Don’t forget about Syracuse, Washington’s top affiliate. The Nationals, expected to be one of the National League’s top teams this season, have benefitted from high draft picks over the years. That’s also going to benefit the Chiefs.
AROUND THE SOUTH DIVISION
Charlotte, the affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, won the division title last season and reached the Governors’ Cup finals. The top prospect on the team this season is shortstop Carlos Sanchez, who is the third-ranked prospect by Baseball America in the organization. Last year, he led the Carolina League (High-A) in batting average before being promoted to Double-A and finally ending the season with Charlotte.
You can’t forget about Durham either when being led by former Red Baron player Charlie Montoyo. They finished 17 games behind Charlotte last season, but with powerful outfielder Wil Myers in the lineup he’s a game-changer. Last season, he bombed 37 longballs between Double-A and Triple-A and is the No. 4 prospect in the organization according to Baseball America.
Norfolk could be a top team this season with a veteran lineup including Canzler and shortstop Jonathan Schoop, who is Baseball America’s No. 3 prospect in the organization. The team’s top prospect, pitcher Dylan Bundy, could also see time after starting the season at Double-A. The Gwinnett Braves always seem to be a tough competitor for opponents as well.
AROUND THE WEST DIVISION
Columbus was overthrown as division champs last season by Indianapolis. The Clippers, who claimed Governors’ Cup championships in 2010 and 2011, may be headed for another second-place finish. That’s because defending division titlist Indianapolis is slated to have the Pirates’ top two prospects this season in pitchers Gerrit Cole and James Taillon; Cole is currently on the roster, while Taillon is currently with Double-A Altoona. The Indians also have a veteran group who could be tough to beat.
Toledo and Louisville finished in third and fourth in the division, respectively. The Bats, however, now consist of Cincinnati’s top prospect in speedy Billy Hamilton, who broke the minor league record for stolen bases last season and has piled up 258 over the last two seasons. Louisville also has Mike Hessman in the lineup. The infielder is the active leader in career minor league home runs with 384.
The Mud Hens’ lineup consists of former SWB Yankee Kevin Russo along with the Tigers’ top prospect in Nick Castellanos and speedy Quintin Berry, who spent a large chunk of last season with Detroit.