Ready to open up the farm

The Minor League season is upon us, with all full-season circuits getting under way today. For the first time in several years, I’ll be at one of those games. I’m heading down the Turnpike to Trenton, where the SeaWolves and Thunder will face off at Waterfront Park.

It could be a prospect-filled spring in the Northeast, with the South Atlantic, Eastern and International leagues not just filled with top-tier talent for those levels but stocked with the two biggest players to watch who didn’t make their organizations’ Major League rosters: Stephen Strasburg and Aroldis Chapman. They’ll both be making their professional debuts on Sunday, when Strasburg’s Harrisburg Senators are in Altoona, Pa., and Chapman’s Louisville Bats are in Toledo, Ohio. That sets up each one to pitch at home for the first time next Friday, not a bad night to show off the organization’s top talent down on the farm. I’m sure the Senators and Bats front offices are giddy over that good fortune. True, the first Friday night home game of the season would probably draw well, but both teams open their home schedules the night before, so the two prospects will provide an enticement for game No. 2. Plus, it lines them up to pitch five days later, when both teams finish homestands with morning getaway games. That’ll be sure to tempt some folks to take a long lunch.
I’ll be tracking the Senators’ and Bats’ schedules closely, hoping the dates line up so that I might catch Strasburg or Chapman pitching before they’re called up to the Majors. The window for Strasburg seems to be tight — everyone fully expects to see him with the Nationals sometime in June, and as Ben McGrath points out at the end of his Spring Training piece in The New Yorker, the schedule has Washington in Atlanta at the end of the month, and there’s no telling what kind of physics experiments might develop from a Strasburg vs. Jason Heyward matchup. Harrisburg, Pa., is just about two-and-a-half hours from where I live, and I’ve driven further for games. That Wednesday morning outing by Strasburg is tempting, because it’s the only guaranteed chance I may have. The Senators don’t come to Trenton before June, and though their visit to Reading the following week is likely to have a Strasburg start included, all three games are scheduled for nights I work. Decision to come.
The Eastern League is stocked with top stars, including Strasburg’s teammate and potential future closer in Washington, Drew Storen. The Reading Phillies have three of those 10, including Philadelphia’s No. 1 name to know, Domonic Brown, though I have to think it’s a longshot that he’d still be wearing Reading’s powder blue when the R-Phils make their only trip to Trenton July 15-18. Of course, Austin Romine, the Yankees’ No. 2 prospect and reigning Florida State League MVP, is likely to be catching for the Thunder all season because the only player listed ahead of him on Baseball America‘s list of Yankees farmhands is catcher Jesus Montero, a Thunder star last year.
Back to Chapman: The Bats have a four-game series at Scranton to close out April, but if Chapman pitches every fifth day and there aren’t any rainouts (which will be a big key to all of this tentative pre-planning), he’ll be the one starter who doesn’t face the Yankees at PNC Field. The Bats are back in Eastern Pennsylvania from May 18-21 to play the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, so his starting dates will be worth watching.
The SWB Bombers boast two of the IL’s top 10, Montero and right-hander Zach McAllister, plus several other names to know — or known, as the case may be with Columbus Clippers catcher Carlos Santana (wanna bet the DJ at PNC plays “Oye Como Va” when he comes to bat during the Clips’ visit from May 10-13?). There’s also Chapman’s teammate, 2008 first-round pick Yonder Alonso, and Rays No. 1 (and potential Carl Crawford replacement) Desmond Jennings. He’s joined on the always-stocked Durham Bulls (they have to love their relationship with Tampa Bay) by right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, whom I saw pitch for Hudson Valley in 2006.
As for the third league to touch New Jersey, the Lakewood BlueClaws open their South Atlantic League campaign tonight in Asheville, N.C., and won’t open at home until next Friday. If I’m not away that night, I’ll probably make that drive, too. Prospects at the low-Class A level are longer shots to gauge, but it can’t be a bad sign that Lakewood boasts three of the top 10 to watch. Also on that list: Seton Hall grad and Yankees prospect Sean Black with the Charleston RiverDogs (in Lakewood May 3-6), Mets prospect Wilmer Flores with the Savannah Sand Gnats (who follow the RiverDogs at FirstEnergy Park from May 7-10), fifth-overall pick by the Orioles Matt Hobgood with the Delmarva Shorebirds (in Lakewood for two five-game series July 8-12 and August 12-16) and two Astros prospects, outfielder J.D. Martinez and first-round pick shortstop Jiovanni Mier with the Lexington Legends (in town June 14-16).
Summer can’t come soon enough, can it?

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