Every week during the minor league season, we’ll take a look at the best matchups of the week, from a prospect and a promotions standpoint. Our first The Week Ahead is an abbreviated look as we take you from Opening Day, April 3, to April 6.
What To Watch (From Home)
Thanks to the development of milb.tv, prospect-watchers can see multiple elite prospects every night from their own couch. Each week, Baseball America will take a look at some of the best games to watch.
Thursday, April 3: Portland vs. Reading. Opening Day has a lot of good matchups, including one that will send Fightin Phils LHP Jesse Biddle to the mound against Red Sox LHP Henry Owens. The Fightin’s lineup isn't all that impressive, but the same can't be said for Portland. The Sea Dogs are strong up the middle with Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero as a double-play combination and Blake Swihart at catcher.
Friday, April 4: Wilmington at Winston-Salem. There are a number of interesting games on Opening Day, but getting the chance to see a loaded Wilmington club in one of its rare milb.tv appearances is worth checking out. Raul Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Bubba Starling and Zane Evans make the Blue Rocks a prospect-watcher’s dream and they'll be going up against a very solid Winston-Salem lineup that includes 2012 first-round pick Courtney Hawkins and 2013 first-round pick Tim Anderson.
Saturday, April 5: Tennessee at Pensacola. Rehabbing righthander Mat Latos will start the season opener for Pensacola, along with rehabbing catcher Devin Mesoraco. But once Latos steps aside, Pensacola will field one of the best prospect rotations in the minors, with all five spots filled by members of the Reds’ Top 30 Prospects list. The Smokies have the best lineup in the minors, with Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. And on days C.J. Edwards pitches, you get a rare chance to see three Top 100 Prospects on one team.
Sunday, April 6: Memphis vs. Iowa. Yes, we're picking another Cubs team, but an infield including Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez is outstanding. Memphis fields an incredibly deep outfield of Oscar Taveras, Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk.
WHAT TO WATCH (AT THE PARK)
If you’re in California, go check out the Lancaster Jethawks’ opening series with the Lake Elsinore Storm. The Jethawks have arguably the most loaded roster in the minors, with No. 1 overall picks Mark Appel and Carlos Correa highlighting a roster that also includes Lance McCullers, Rio Ruiz, Vincent Velasquez, Josh Hader (deep breath), Kyle Smith, Teoscar Hernandez and Danry Vasquez. If you weren’t keeping track, that’s the Nos. 1, 3, 5, 6, 11, 14, 16, 22 and 29 prospects on our Top 30 Prospects list.
If this were three days of intrasquads, that would be interesting enough, but the opposing Lake Elsinore Storm also bring their fair share of prospect heat to The Hangar. The Storm are fronted by outfielder Hunter Renfroe, the Padres’ first-rounder from last June. He’s complemented by righthanders Joe Ross and Zach Eflin, the team’s first two picks from the 2012 draft. Storm third baseman Gabriel Quintana ranked No. 16 on our list.
With their stacked roster, Lancaster could find itself in this spot of the The Week Ahead many times this season, especially when it faces similarly stacked Rancho Cucamonga and Stockton squads.
REHAB ALERT: Injuries and late signings have peppered the early slate with major leaguers working their way back.
If you're in Pensacola this weekend, you'll get rehabbing Reds righty Mat Latos, who'll take the ball on Thursday against a stacked Tennessee lineup that includes top 100 prospects Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. The Blue Wahoos are bolstered this weekend by the presence of catcher Devin Mesoraco and reliever Jonathan Broxton.
Latos is recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee and a second operation to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. Mesoraco is dealing with a strained oblique, and Broxton had surgery last August to repair a strained flexor mass in his right forearm.
Up in Durham, the Braves will send rehabbing starters to the hill on consecutive nights. Righthander Gavin Floyd, who had Tommy John surgery last May, starts the season against the Bulls, and Ervin Santana takes the hill on Friday at the freshly renovated Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Santana isn't hurt, but he signed late and didn't get a full spring training.
Atlanta's Mike Minor will make a rehab start on Thursday when Mississippi takes on the Mobile BayBears at TrustMark Park in Pearl, Miss. Minor is recovering from a sore shoulder and didn't pitch in spring training.
Taijuan Walker, the No. 11 prospect on our top 100, will start on Friday for the Mariners’ high Class A affiliate High Desert. Walker dealt with shoulder soreness toward the beginning of spring and was brought along cautiously. Seattle also sent out reliever Stephen Pryor, who had shoulder surgery this offseason, to begin a rehab assignment with Double-A Jackson.
PRIME PROMOTIONS: The Reading Fightin Phils, one of minor league baseball's masters of promotional creativity, are pulling out all the stops for opening weekend.
On Thursday, fans will not only receive a Chase Utley bobblehead, but will have the chance to win one of 25 autographed, game-worn jerseys fresh from the backs of that night's roster.
A night later, the team will honor its long history and give away Reading Red Sox hats, a nod to the team's 1963-64 affiliation with Boston and the current team's opening opponent, the Portland Sea Dogs.
On Sunday, they'll conclude the series by giving away chocolate baseball gloves (better eat them before they melt) to the first 2,000 fans 14 or younger.
Elsewhere around the country, the Syracuse Chiefs, who sadly hold no sway with the decision-makers in Washington, will hold Deport Justin Bieber Night. Petitions will be available at every entrance, and a fan vote on the controversial teeny-bopper's citizenship will be held during the game.
And if Syracuse weren't cold enough to begin with, one lucky fan through the turnstiles at NBT Bank Stadium will go home the proud owner of a new refrigerator.
Want to see the ZOOperstars!? (Yes, you do.) If you watch your baseball in the Southern League, you're in luck. You can check out Cow Ripken, Harry Canary, Centipete Rose and Monkey Mantle at the Chattanooga Lookouts game on Saturday.
In addition to the rehab appearance from Minor, the Mississippi Braves will have the world's most amazing avian, BirdZerk, on hand for their first two games of the season. On Saturday, the team will also give away a bobblehead of the man who never bobbles anything, Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons.
The 2013 International League champion Durham Bulls will celebrate their crown on Saturday night. Team members will receive their championship rings, special jerseys will be worn and the commemorative banner will be raised at the newly renovated DBAP.