Four Minor League Storylines From 2016 And Four For 2017

With the exception of the Pioneer League, the minor league regular season is over. Most other leagues begin their playoffs this week (the Mariners are the Arizona League champions, and the Phillies and Cardinals are battling it out for the Gulf Coast League crown), which makes now a perfect time to look back on some of the key storylines from this past year and point an eye toward a few more that could come up in 2017.

1. The Yard Goats’ Nightmare Is Over … For Now 

After a season of delay after delay on the construction of Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the Eastern League finally gave in and succumbed to the reality that the Yard Goats would spend all year as nomads. The closest they got to a home series this year were a few games in Dodd Stadium in Norwich, Conn.

With the Goats eliminated from the Eastern League playoffs, the remaining players can finally head home and get a much-needed sense of stability in their lives. Those players who could wind up in Double-A next year, however, might want to invest in a good, solid set of luggage.

The city fired the stadium’s original developer, Centerplan, early in the summer and brought in Arch Insurance to assess the work that remained. Four months later, no work has been done. The stadium is still padlocked while Arch Insurance continues its process.

Eastern League president Joe McEacharn made a speech late last month, along with Hartford Stadium Authority’s I. Charles Mathews and Yard Goats owner Josh Solomon, threatening that if work didn’t resume quickly, the 2017 season—and baseball in Hartford as a whole—would be in jeopardy.

Whether McEacharn’s threat is legitimate is up for debate, but the class of incoming Yard Goats probably don’t want find out.

2. Minor League Realignment Finally Happened

After years of rumors, the minor league landscape shifted drastically in 2016. The California League lost two of its teams—the High Desert Mavericks (Rangers) and Bakersfield Blaze (Mariners) to the Carolina League.

Kyle Glaser wrote earlier this year that the atmosphere and landscapes surrounding both cities made them slam dunks for contraction. Adelanto, Calif., High Desert’s home city, didn’t want the team there this year.

The city brought legal action against the team and its ownership group, Main Street California, before the season in an effort to give them the boot from Heritage Field on the grounds that their lease with the city for just $1 a year was tantamount to a gift of public funds. The courts sided with the Mavericks, and the team will play next season in Kinston, N.C., at Grainger Stadium.

3. Reading’s Bash Brothers Dominate The Eastern League

It wasn’t hard to predict that Dylan Cozens and Rhys Hoskins, two of the more powerful prospects in the Phillies’ system, were going to have a fun summer at Reading’s cozy FirstEnergy Stadium. Most Eastern League sluggers enjoy their time there.

What the pair did, however, was well beyond the bounds of what could have been predicted. Cozens smashed 40 home runs and drove in 125 and Hoskins added 38 homers and 116 RBIs. Combined, that’s 78 home runs and 241 RBIs.

For perspective, that means the pair outhomered 38 full-season minor league teams, or 31.6 percent of all clubs. Cozens on his own hit more homers than 50 short-season or Rookie-level clubs, and Hoskins turned the same trick for 49 teams.

The only team that outhomered Hoskins but not Cozens was the New York-Penn League’s Lowell Spinners, which hit 39 home runs.

4. Mariners Win Everything

Seattle’s system ranked 28th in our organizational talent rankings entering the year, but that hasn’t stopped its system from dominating the minor league standings.

All of its minor league clubs, from the Dominican Summer League to Triple-A Tacoma, made their league’s playoffs. Combined, their six minor league affiliates went 451-304, good for a winning percentage of .597, or an improvement of 162 percentage points from last year, when their clubs had the second-worst winning percentage in the sport.

Their system as a whole might not fare much better in this year’s organizational talent rankings, but they have a clear Top 100 prospect for next year in Tyler O’Neill and turned out a shutdown reliever in Edwin Diaz.

They also snagged one of the draft’s top talents in Mercer’s Kyle Lewis, the College Player of the Year, who was tearing up the short-season Northwest League before a grisly knee injury ending his season.

With all of their minor league clubs playing in October, it’s a little easier for fans in Seattle to think the big club might soon follow suit.

An Eye Toward 2017

1. So, where is the 10th Carolina League team going to play?
There will be 10 teams in the Carolina League next year. That much we know. We also know that one of those teams, the club formerly known as the High Desert Mavericks, will play its home games in Grainger Stadium, in Kinston, N.C.

What we don’t know is where that 10th team will play, and that means its city and its stadium. It seems a good bet that the team will eventually make its home in Fayetteville, N.C., and will be affiliated with the Astros. The two entities signed a memorandum of understanding on Aug. 17 outlining as much.

The plans are to build a stadium in downtown Fayetteville, but the financing isn’t secured and if it is, the stadium won’t be completed until 2019, anyway.

J.P. Riddle Stadium, current home of the Coastal Plain League’s Fayetteville SwampDogs, doesn’t seem to fit, and there are no other obvious choices in the area. A split-stadium scenario similar to what happened in Danville, Va. in 1998, when a Carolina League and Appalachian League affiliate shared the same park for a year, could be on the table, but exactly where is unclear.

The temporary home would likely have to accommodate two clubs for two seasons (unless Minor League Baseball decides to find a taker in both 2017 and 2018), which complicates matters.

2. What’s In A Name?

At least six teams will rebrand for next year, following the current trend in the minors that allows a club to sell even more merchandise.

The Binghamton Mets, New Orleans Zephyrs, Staten Island Yankees, Brevard County Manatees, High Desert Mavericks and Bakersfield Blaze will each play next season under new names. The last three on that list are each moving to different locations, so name changes are obvious.

Binghamton, New Orleans and Staten Island, however, are staying put but rebranding anyway. Staten Island hasn’t released its finalists, but the other two clubs, as well as Kissimmee, Fla., which will replace Brevard County, have come up with six choices apiece for their 2017 identity.

New Orleans: Baby Cakes, Crawfish, King Cakes, Night Owls, Po’Boys, Red Eyes, Tail Gators

Binghamton: Timber Jockeys, Rumble Ponies, Gobblers, Stud Muffins, Bullheads, Rocking Horses

Kissimmee: Dragonflies, Toucans, Mud Kickers, Fire Frogs, Sorcerers, Rodeo Clowns

Will the minor leagues feature Stud Muffins, Sorcerers and King Cakes next year? Stay tuned.

3. Will Tim Tebow Play In The Minors?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that former Florida and NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has decided he wants to try to become a professional baseball player. He was a standout high school player and would likely have been drafted had he turned in his pre-draft paperwork.

Now, a decade after graduating from high school and four years after his last snap in the NFL, he’s looking to kick off the rust and trade in his microphone for a bat and glove. He held a well-attended tryout last week at Southern California’s Dedeaux Field, and reviews were mixed.

Reports peg the Braves as having interest in signing Tebow to a deal, and the Aguilas de Zulia of the Venezuelan Winter League have already made clear their interest in bringing Tebow south. Independent teams, too, will line up for the chance to bring that kind of cash cow into their market.

If a major league club steps up and signs Tebow, even for a look in spring training, it will undoubtedly be the biggest story of the minor league season, for better or worse.

4. What Will Teams Come Up With Next
The minor leagues, as ever, were a font of creativity and off-the-wall fun this year.

• Fresno put forth even more taco-based merchandise (they’ve essentially done a rebrand without re-branding), and had a giant yellow bear officiate weddings at the ballpark.

• Binghamton came up with a new menu to coincide with its team rebrand.

• Greensboro’s bat dog matriarch, Miss Babe Ruth, unretired to lend a helping paw to her ailing colleague, Miss Lou Lou Gehrig.

• Staten Island and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre each released bobbleheads themed around Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, and Wilmington came up with one that put the Moose in Moustakas.

• Frisco opened a Lazy River in right-center field, and Reading unveiled a dugout suite

• Columbia opened Spirit Communications Park, the sprawling, shiny new home for the Columbia Fireflies that will also house high school football in the fall and doubles as a public park during the times when it’s not in use.

This year was a mixed bag for the minor leagues, but a few things coming together behind the scenes in the Carolinas and Hartford could lead to a much brighter 2017.

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