It's been a long, cold, wet winter and much like Rogers Hornsby, I've been staring out my window waiting for spring. Fortunately, spring officially arrived for me last Thursday when I took in my first game of the year, an Eastern League showdown between the Reading Fightin' Phils and the Portland Sea Dogs. I carefully selected this game to begin my 2014 season because of the premier pitching matchup that pitted Philadelphia's Jesse Biddle against Boston's Henry Owens. Some proverbial April showers limited the game to just six and a half innings, but it was enough to get a good look at some of the top prospects at the Double-A level.
One of the best things about living in the Mid-Atlantic is the proximity to several big cities. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, Baltimore and Washington D.C. are all well within driving distance. This means that we have access to six major league teams and, consequently, a slew of minor league stadiums. With twenty minor league teams across every level so close, I've decided to see as many games as possible this summer. Of course, I had to get the blessing from my wife (you know what they say - happy wife, happy life) and as soon as she signed on, I started compiling a comprehensive schedule for all teams close enough to visit. With that, I started to plan out my summer to maximize the number of prospects I'll be able to see with the intention of writing up each game I attend.
The main objective of these articles will, of course, be providing notes and fantasy analysis on the prospects in the games, but I hope that they can be more than that. Minor league games are about more than just the players; each one features a venue, an atmosphere and a host concession items that aren't found at big league games. While I don't normally pay much attention to the t-shirt cannons and dizzy bat races taking place between innings, the overall atmosphere and experience is what attracts so many people to the minor leagues. Thankfully (and not entirely coincidentally), my wife is a baseball fan so it's not difficult to get her to hop in the car and drive to a game. But the people in your life might take a little more convincing than she does. With that in mind, I decided to include some analysis on the ancillary aspects of minor league games to arm you with information that might help in persuading someone to join you for a game. If you like to attend games by yourself and/or are only interested in the baseball portion of the article, feel free to skip ahead.
Photo credit: Elsa
After more than 40 years as the Reading Phillies, Philadelphia's Double-A Club has undergone a fairly large rebranding effort over the last two seasons. They are now known as the Reading Fightins or Fightin' Phils and have adopted an ostrich as the team's mascot. Minor League teams often have silly or outlandish mascots, but the Fightin' Phils or Fightin' Ostriches or Fightin' whatever they are is a little too wacky for me (I guess it's better than the Akron Rubber Ducks). The mascot comes from the "crazy hotdog vendor" who dresses up in an ostrich-riding costume and hurls free hotdogs into the crowd between innings. The team went all out with the change, even buying two ostriches - Judy and Ruth (Ruth named as a tribute to Berks County native, Ruth Hartman who was featured in A League of Their Own) - that greet fans outside the entrance of First Energy Stadium. Nicknamed "Baseballtown, USA", the stadium does a great job honoring it's past and present players and has very close ties to the fan base located just a short hour and a half trip down the turnpike.
The stadium is old and would benefit from a few updates but it has a certain feel that brings back memories of going to baseball stadiums as a kid. The venue plays off of that nostalgia in several ways. They have a bleacher section up the first base line and the guess-your-pitch speed game that we all tried to impress girls with at carnivals and fairs in high school. They have batting cages and even a beer stand labeled "Your Dad's Beer" with a selection that includes Schmidt, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee and the champagne of beers, Miller High Life. If you've never heard of these beers, you're probably not from the area and suffice it to say there is a reason they are half the price of the other beers available.
There are several mascots and multiple between-innings promotions including two different races and the kids around us seemed to have a blast. Overall, the stadium and team are about what you would expect at a minor league game. I would describe the venue and atmosphere as "very baseball". There aren't a ton of bells and whistles but the area and the team are rooted in their history. Think of the 1993 Phillies and you should get a good sense of what's offered in Baseballtown.
Left field features the Yuengling Deck where you can find Pennsylvania's most popular export since oil and steel, Yuengling Lager. True to the Philadelphia fan base there is always a crowd and you can hang out with the other "deck heads" at the game. The deck and a few other locations also offer craft brews from an ever growing craft beer market in the area. My wife and I each had a hot dog - I had a Philly cheesesteak dog featuring onions, peppers and cheese whiz, she had a Flyin' Hawaiian dog, topped with pineapple and bacon bits. The hot dogs were good but the toppings left something to be desired.
There were some great things that happened on the offensive side of the game but it was the pitchers that stole the show on opening night. To be honest, I started off the night more impressed with Jesse Biddle than Henry Owens. That changed by the fourth inning when Biddle really started to lose his stuff but I thought he showed a lot of promise in the first three innings. Biddle's fastball sat in the low 90s and he was able to reach back for a 94 mph heater to strike out Sean Coyle for the third out in the 1st inning. He elevated the pitch well and did so all night getting several hitters to chase balls up for strikeouts. His curveball was also impressive and Baseball America notes that some evaluators have compared it to Barry Zito's. I didn't think it was quite as loopy as Zito's, looking a little tighter with less vertical break. The conditions were less than ideal but Biddle was inconsistent in commanding the pitch. The command issues were most evident when he threw a beauty of a curve that froze Travis Shaw in the first inning before hanging a pitch that the cleanup hitter roped down the left field line immediately after. Biddle also added a changeup in the third inning that came in around 84-85 and showed good movement. There have been questions around Biddle's command and he started to lose it in the third inning. All-in-all, I thought Biddle showed a lot of promise and it was a good start to the season despite how his stat line looked.
Henry Owens picked up right where he left off from 2013, a year in which he put together a sting of 19 1/3 hitless innings in High A before dominating Double A for six starts. He threw six no-hit innings with nine Ks and two walks in the pouring rain on Thursday night. He's listed at 6'7", although I've seen 6'6" and he looks very imposing on the mound. He's huge and his long arms and legs look never ending during his windup. He has a methodical, clean delivery in which he stays straight up with a high leg kick before breaking toward the plate. The ball gets on hitters quickly, helping his high-80s/low-90s fastball play up. The fastball also plays up thanks to a wicked change up that he throws with the same arm speed as his fastball but had as much as a twelve mph difference. I'm a sucker for a pitcher with a fastball-changeup combo, especially when we're talking about lefties. Owens got stronger as the game went on, not walking a batter after the first inning and striking out six batters in innings three through six. Baseball Prospectus notes Owens' ceiling as a number three starter but if he can maintain the stuff and control that I saw Thursday night to go along with his bulldog mentality, it could be higher.
Sea Dogs second baseman, Mookie Betts started the game off with a bang as he hit the sixth pitch he saw over the fence in left center field. The home run was a no doubter, a line drive that I almost missed blinking the rain out of my eyes. Betts' power broke out in 2013 and he wasted no time showing that the breakout was for real. Lauded for his speed and approach at the plate, power is the aspect of Betts' game that scouts are not sold on. He did not attempt a stolen base but he worked the count and it he tracked pitches well. He has excellent bat speed and it was on full display as he went four for four with two line drives back up the middle to go along with the home run. He also added a bloop single that dropped in center field just behind the second baseman. Betts got jammed on the pitch inside but kept his hands back and was able to fight it off. He was the best player on the field that night and I came away very impressed despite somewhat unenthusiastic expectations when I arrived at the ballpark.
The Sea Dogs have several position prospects including Blake Swihart, Sean Coyle, Travis Shaw and Devin Marrero. Marrero is primarily thought of as a glove-first shortstop but he went two for four in the game with two doubles. Both doubles were hit to right field, one on a line and the other had more arc to it but neither were hit particularly hard. Coyle and Shaw were both hitless in the game and with a strike out a piece and did not show much at the plate.
As impressed as I was with Betts, I came away loving Red Sox catching prospect Blake Swihart. Almost every scouting report you read will tell of Swihart's makeup and his athleticism. The athleticism is obvious and visible almost immediately. He's slapped together and looks like what we in central Pennsylvania would call "country strong". He doesn't wear batting gloves and takes a simple approach at the plate. In the first inning, he didn't put a particularly good swing on an offspeed pitch from Biddle but beat out a soft ground ball to the third baseman. He later smoked a ball to the right-center field gap that he legged out for a triple, again showing off rare athleticism for a catcher. His power is said to be average but many evaluators believe he will have an above average hit tool in the major leagues. Siwhart is a switch hitter but batted only from the right side in this game and the swing looks more geared for line drives than for over-the-fence power.
The Fightin Phils' lineup included a few notable prospects though none of them were of the caliber of Betts or Swihart. Their 3-4-5 hitters pack some punch with Cameron Perkins, Kelly Dugan and Tommy Joseph. Cameron Perkins looks to be the best of the bunch as he has the fewest questions about his hit tool although he struck out twice in the game. Dugan might have the most power projection but I wonder if he'll be able to hit enough or whether or not the power will play as he moves up the ranks. He has a big hitch in his swing that is evident even when he is taking pitches and his load looks like it is almost nonexistent. The hitch will leave him susceptible to good breaking balls and the lack of a load coupled with a physique build more for the beach than the ball field raises questions about his ability to hit premium fastballs. Skinny legs and the fact that he doesn't seem to incorporate his lower half much lead me to believe his power will struggle to show in games at higher levels. Joseph has big power for a catcher but he looked lost against Henry Owens, striking out twice.
The Red Sox have one of the most talented and deepest farm systems in the league and the Portland squad lived up to that billing in their first game of the 2014 season. The team dominated the Phillies in all aspects of the game and Biddle was the lone bright spot for the home team. If Mookie Betts continues to hit for power, he could become a monster and a perennial top ten second baseman. I often shy away from young catchers because the bat takes so long to develop but Swihart's defensive prowess should allow him to focus on his bat earlier than other backstops. Outside of the pitchers, these two are the only players that seem fantasy relevant to me right now, with the obvious caveat that it was six innings in one rain-soaked game in the beginning of the season.
You can follow Zack on Twitter at @FantasyNinja8.