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Minor League Preview - The Southern League

Today's installment of our Minor League Preview series features the Double-A Southern League.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week our prospect writers previewed the 2016 Pacific Coast League, International League, and Eastern League. Today our Minor League Preview series continues with a look at the Double-A Southern League.

The Basics

Ten teams comprise the Southern League, one of three leagues with a Double-A classification and Major-League affiliates. From a prospect's perspective, the jump from High-A to Double-A is often regarded as the most challenging stage of development, for the competition consists almost exclusively of grown men, as opposed to the teenagers scattered across all levels of A-ball. Southern-League competition promises to be especially fierce in 2016, for its membership includes affiliates of MLB organizations that boast some of the strongest farm systems in baseball, including the Twins, Braves, Brewers, Cubs, and Rays.

The Southern League encompasses four states of the old Confederacy. The ten teams reside in cities situated along the Gulf Coast, in the old Cotton Belt of central Alabama and Mississippi, in the mountains of Tennessee, and on Florida's Atlantic shoreline.

Though geographically attached to the soil of the Old South, the Southern League's history belongs to the New South. The original Southern League dates to 1885. Its first president was Henry Grady, famous editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper and leading proponent of a "New South" vision. To say that Grady hoped to remake the post-Civil-War South in the image of the North would be a bit of an exaggeration, but when Grady envisioned the southern city of the future, he had the northern city in mind. Industrialization was key to that vision; so was baseball. Atlanta and Birmingham, two cities leading the late-nineteenth-century South's supposed renaissance, fielded teams in the Southern League. In this respect, the Southern League is as much tied to America's larger history as is the North's National League.

The 2016 Southern League

Back to the present day, the Chattanooga Lookouts (Twins) will attempt to defend their 2015 championship against nine determined competitors: the Biloxi Shuckers (Brewers), Birmingham Barons (White Sox), Jackson Generals (Mariners), Jacksonville Suns (Marlins), Mississippi Braves (Braves), Mobile BayBears (Diamondbacks), Montgomery Biscuits (Rays), Pensacola Blue Wahoos (Reds), and Tennessee Smokies (Cubs).

Meanwhile, fantasy players looking to build their dynasty-league teams or simply plan for the future will have plenty of prospects to watch.

Hitters

Graduating the likes of Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler will make it difficult for the Lookouts to repeat in 2016. Instead, the deepest lineup might belong to Pensacola, where four of the Reds' top seven position-playing prospects (according to MLB.com) will begin the season: OFs Jesse Winker and Phil Ervin, 2B Alex Blandino, and 3B Eric Jagielo. Winker had a down year in 2015 but has an outstanding batting eye, some power potential, and still projects as a long-term starter in Cincinnati.

The Blue Wahoos will not have the Southern League's only potent lineup. Brewers fans can look forward to watching OF Brett Phillips and C Jacob Nottingham begin their first full seasons with the organization at Biloxi. Phillips was the centerpiece of last summer's Carlos Gomez trade to Houston, and Nottingham came over from Oakland during the offseason in exchange for Khris Davis. 3B Jeimer Candelario anchors a Smokies lineup that also includes Cubs OF prospects Billy McKinney and Mark Zagunis.

Elsewhere, fans will enjoy watching young stars-in-the-making such as Birmingham SS Tim Anderson, Mississippi SS Ozzie Albies, and Montgomery 1B Jake Bauers. Anderson and Albies enter the season as consensus Top 50 prospects overall.

Pitchers

As strong as the lineups appear to be, Southern League pitching should prove equally impressive, if not more so. Two rotations in particular have the potential to smother opposing hitters.

In addition to boasting the league's top lineup, Pensacola features a starting rotation whose top three hurlers could be the league's most dominant triumvirate. Cincinnati's #3 overall prospect, LHP Cody Reed, heads a group that includes #4 Amir Garrett and #12 Rookie Davis. Reed came to the organization as part of the Johnny Cueto trade with Kansas City, and Davis arrived this offseason from the Yankees in exchange for Aroldis Chapman. All three have at least mid-rotation potential.

The other top rotation belongs to the Mississippi Braves. Sean Newcomb, Atlanta's top pitching prospect, will lead a deep rotation filled with Top 30 organizational prospects Lucas Sims, Chris Ellis, and Mauricio Cabrera. Newcomb projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter in the Majors; in fact, he might be the Southern League's top overall pitching prospect.

Other top pitchers include Biloxi's Josh Hader, Jackson's Edwin Diaz, Jacksonville's Jarlin Garcia, and Montgomery's Taylor Guerrieri.

Prediction

Pensacola will run away with the South Division and regular-season title and will defeat North Division champion Jackson to win the 2016 Southern League.

4/7 Correction: Cincinnati has sent OF Jesse Winker and LHP Cody Reed to Triple-A Louisville, not Double-A Pensacola.