The Minors in the Teens: A Decade in Review
In the span of time that elapsed between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2019, a bunch of stuff happened in the minor leagues. I thought it would be a good exercise to break it down year-by-year, looking at things like team relocations/identity changes, future MLB standouts, affiliation switches, memorabilia, and other notable minor league goings-on during the decade.
Three new team identities were created for the 2010 season. The Eastern League’s Connecticut Defenders moved to Virginia and called themselves the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The New York Penn League’s Oneonta Tigers relocated from upstate New York to Norwich, Connecticut, occupying the park that the Defenders had vacated and becoming the Connecticut Tigers. In the Florida State League, the Sarasota Reds moved up the Gulf Coast a bit and settled in as a Pittsburgh affiliate, playing in the Pirates’ spring training complex. The new team was the Bradenton Marauders. Also in 2010, new ballparks were opened for the Tulsa Drillers, Eugene Emeralds, and Winston-Salem Dash.
A great many future MLB standouts were playing in the minors in that summer of ’10. At Triple-A, the battery duo of Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey were polishing up their game with the Fresno Grizzlies. Josh Donaldson was an Oakland farmhand, playing with the Sacramento River Cats. Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana spent that year with the Columbus Clippers. Jake Arrieta was with the Norfolk Tides. Justin Turner started the season with the Tides but was traded from the Orioles to the Mets mid-season–finishing 2010 with the Buffalo Bisons. Down south, Freddie Freeman was slugging it out with the Gwinnett Braves. Stephen Strasburg started the season at Double-A Harrisburg, and earned a promotion to the Syracuse Chiefs by season’s end. Chris Sale jumped two rungs, going from the High A Winston-Salem Dash to the Triple-A Charlotte Knights. Lorenzo Cain was promoted from the Huntsville Stars to the Nashville Sounds. Corey Kluber started the year with Double-A San Antonio Missions, but the Padres traded him to Cleveland, where he pitched a few games for the Akron Aeros before ascending to Columbus. Giancarlo Stanton (then known as “Mike”) was turning heads as a member of the Southern League’s Jacksonville Suns. Anthony Rizzo was in Boston’s farm system, starting the season with the Salem Red Sox and finishing it with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs. Dallas Keuchel jumped up from the High A Lancaster JetHawks to get his first taste of Double-A ball with the Corpus Christi Hooks. Joining him was J.D. Martinez, who skipped Lancaster–going from the Low A Lexington Legends right to the Texas League. Elsewhere in the Astros’ system, a young Jose Altuve was promoted from the Sally League’s Legends to the Cali League’s JetHawks. A young prospect named Mike Trout started the season in the Midwest League with the Cedar Rapids Kernels and finished it in California with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. Paul Goldschmidt spent that year with the Visalia Rawhide in the Cali League. Nolan Arenado had a full season at Low A with the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League. Christian Yelich broke into the Sally League with the Greensboro Grasshoppers, having started the year with the GCL Marlins. Another GCL Marlin that year was catcher J.T. Realmuto. Manny Machado was in the GCL with the Orioles, but finished up with the Aberdeen IronBirds in the New York-Penn. Noah Syndergaard was throwing fireballs with the GCL Blue Jays. Meanwhile, his future teammate Jacob deGrom was in the Appalachian League with the Kingsport Mets. Also in the Appy League was Andrelton Simmons, flashing the leather for the Danville Braves. Finally, a college football player named Russell Wilson had his professional baseball debut in Washington State, batting .230 for the Tri-City Dust Devils.
2010 was an even-numbered year, so there was an open Player Development Contract (PDC) signing period in September, in which minor and major league teams can change affiliates and parent clubs. At Triple-A, the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers essentially traded their affiliates. The Round Rock Express went from the Astros to the Rangers, and the Oklahoma City RedHawks did the reverse. There were no changes at the Double-A level. At Class A-Advanced, the Rangers jumped from the undesirable Bakersfield Blaze to the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Atlanta Braves, who had previously been with the Pelicans, signed on with another Carolina League team in the Lynchburg Hillcats. The Cincinnati Reds, spurned by Lynchburg, ended up with the Blaze. In the California League, the two L.A. teams ended up switching local affiliates. The Rancho Cucamonga Quakes were able to count Mike Trout as an alum shortly before switching from the Angels to the Dodgers. In a concurrent move, the Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernardino linked up with the (then) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, making them the extremely rare “non-DimDer with incidental affiliation and pre-emptive affiliation.” In the Midwest League, the Royals stopped having two Burlingtons in their farm system (the other being the Appy League affiliate) when they switched from the Burlington Bees to the Kane County Cougars–linking up K.C. with K.C. In other pun-loving news, the A’s got the Bees, moving on from the Cougars. At the Class A-Short Season level, there was a three-team swap. The Toronto Blue Jays swooped in to claim an affiliate on the other end of their country, bringing the Northwest League’s Vancouver Canadians under their wing. This left the A’s to take over the New York-Penn League’s Vermont Lake Monsters from the Washington Nationals, who ended up with the Blue Jays’ previous club, the Auburn Doubledays.
There were other minor league goings-on that year as well. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but social media and brand flashiness were starting their meteoric ascent in the minor leagues. Brandiose and other companies were pushing the envelope with things like the Casper Ghosts’ glow-in-the-dark cap stitching, and Twitter was a new forum for people to say things like, “gosh, aren’t those minor leagues darned wacky?” Another major development was Topps trading cards jumping into the minor league game, securing an exclusive trading card deal with MiLB. In 2010, they released their first lines of Topps Pro Debut, a minor league prospect-based set that had the same design as the MLB lines and embraced the minors at all levels. That first year included cards like Mike Trout with the AZL Angels, Nolan Arenado with the Ghosts, and Russell Wilson with the Dust Devils. The 2010 set was released in a “Series 1” and “Series 2,” with the latter more closely reflecting the teams that the players played for in the same season, and the former using images from 2009. This practice would only last this one season before Topps switched to only one series of Pro Debut released in the spring.
Four new minor league team identities were created in time for the 2011 season. The Appalachian League’s Bluefield Orioles broke their very long affiliation with Baltimore and signed on with Toronto, becoming the Bluefield Blue Jays. Werner Park opened up in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Omaha Royals seized the occasion to take on a wacky, social media-friendly nickname: the Omaha Storm Chasers. In the Pacific Coast League, the Portland Beavers were moved to Tucson, Arizona, guided by the invisible hand of their parent club (the San Diego Padres) in an ill-fated effort to set up a Triple-A club in the San Diego suburbs. The placeholder team was called the Tucson Padres. In the Southern League, the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx of Jackson, Tennessee, changed their name to the Jackson Generals. No, not those Jackson Generals.
Who was playing in the minors in 2011? In the Pacific Coast League, Cain was with the Omaha Storm Chasers, Donaldson was still with the RiverCats, and Rizzo was playing for the short-lived Tucson Padres. Keuchel got a mid-season promotion from the Texas League to Oklahoma City. In the IL, Kluber was tuning up his game with the Clippers. Double-A was flush with talent, starting with Trout on the roster of the Arkansas Travelers. Goldschmidt was with the Mobile BayBears. Altuve got a mid-season bump up to join J.D. Martinez in Corpus Christi. Bryce Harper made his pro debut with the Low A Hagerstown Suns but ended the season with the Eastern League’s Harrisburg Senators. Machado started with the Sally League’s Delmarva Shorebirds but ended in the Carolina League with the Frederick Keys. Simmons was also in the Carolina, playing for Lynchburg. Over in California, Arenado was cracking with the Modesto Nuts. In the South Atlantic League, Yelich and Realmuto were with the Grasshoppers, Xander Bogaerts was with the Greenville Drive, and Russell Wilson (for what it’s worth) was with the Asheville Tourists. In the short-season leagues, the late José Fernández was with the Jamestown Jammers, Eugenio Suárez was with the Connecticut Tigers, George Springer was with the Tri-City ValleyCats, and Francisco Lindor was with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Both Javier Báez and Willson Contreras were with the Boise Hawks. Kyle Hendricks spent most of the season with the Spokane Indians. Syndergaard ripped through three leagues that year, playing for the Bluefield Blue Jays, Vancouver Canadians, and Lansing Lugnuts. Trevor Story was in the Pioneer League with the Casper Ghosts. Blake Snell entered the fray with the Gulf Coast League Rays. Lastly, a youngster named Mookie Betts had his pro debut with the GCL Red Sox.
Topps trading cards rolled out its first edition of Topps Heritage minor league, with then-current minor leaguers appearing on cards that copied the iconic wood-grain-wall-paneling-with-peeling-poster design that was first used for the 1962 Topps major league set. The Heritage set was released in the fall, which more easily allowed them to use images of prospects with the team they played for in the same season, rather than Pro Debut’s default practice of using images gathered in the previous season. The minor league version of Heritage would prove to have staying power, with new lines produced every fall through the decade, bookending the season that starts with Pro Debut in the spring. Topps finally did what many trading card companies tried and failed to over the history of the minors: make minor league baseball card sets with consistent regularity over a long period of time.
There were a few minor league team switcheroos going into the 2012 season. The Casper Ghosts, despite widespread brand recognition, couldn’t scare up enough ticket sales in a mid-size Wyoming city. Their parent club in Colorado bought them up and moved them home to the Centennial State, becoming the Grand Junction Rockies. Meanwhile, there was a bizarre juggling act playing out in the southeast. The Southern League’s Carolina Mudcats of Zebulon, North Carolina moved to the Florida panhandle and called themselves the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. In a concurrent move, the Carolina League’s Kinston Indians were moved to Zebulon, where they took on the Mudcats name and brand identity, continuing the team identity as a multi-level mover in a new league.
On the diamond, the great Mike Trout began the season in the Pacific Coast League, playing twenty games for the Salt Lake Bees before being spirited away to Anaheim. Bryce Harper had a similar arrangement in the International League with the Syracuse Chiefs. J.D. Martinez was also in Triple-A, taking hacks for Oklahoma City. In Double-A, Arenado was with the Tulsa Drillers, Machado was with the Bowie BaySox, and Simmons was with the Mississippi Braves. Anthony Rendon was put on fast elevator coming out of Rice University. He began the summer in the Gulf Coast League, then had brief stints with the Auburn Doubledays and Potomac Nationals before finishing up with the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. Gerrit Cole, having sat out the previous season, went through three levels, going from the High A Bradenton Marauders to the Altoona Curve to the Indianapolis Indians. Marcus Stroman made a similarly dramatic leap coming out of college, starting the summer with the Short-Season Vancouver Canadians and ending it with the Eastern League’s New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Bogaerts started with the Salem Red Sox before a promotion to the Portland Sea Dogs. Springer went from the Cali League’s Lancaster JetHawks to Double-A Corpus Christi. Yelich and Realmuto were with the Jupiter Hammerheads that year. José Fernández made a stop at Greensboro before going to Jupiter. America got its first taste of Yasiel Puig, who suited up for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. The Cubs’ dynasty was starting to percolate, with Báez splitting time between the Peoria Chiefs and Daytona Cubs. Hendricks started the season with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans but a mid-season trade landed him in Daytona. In the Midwest League, Suárez was with the West Michigan Whitecaps, Lindor was with the Lake County Captains, and Syndergaard was a Lansing Lugnut. Jacob deGrom started the season with with the Savannah Sand Gnats of the Sally League, but was promoted mid-season to the St. Lucie Mets of the FSL. Story was with the Asheville Tourists. José Ramírez split his season between the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the New York Penn League and Lake County. Betts was also in the NY-Penn, slugging it out for the Lowell Spinners. Contreras was in the Northwest League, working behind the dish for the Boise Hawks. Corey Seager made his pro debut with the Ogden Raptors of the Pioneer League. Snell was in the Appalachian League with the Princeton Rays. Top draft pick Carlos Correa started the season with the GCL Astros before shifting over to the Appalachian League’s Greeneville Astros.
2012 was another PDC open-signing season, and it was a quiet one overall. It kicked off with a move that was well-expected at the time: the International League’s Buffalo Bisons broke their allegiance with the in-state New York Mets in favor of the geographically-closer Toronto Blue Jays. The Mets, meanwhile, were stuck with the Jays’ previous Triple-A affiliate, the Las Vegas 51s. Both Double-A and Class A-Advanced were untouched. Things were busier in the Midwest League. There was a three-way switcheroo that saw the Cedar Rapids Kernels link up with team from the state neighboring them to the north, the Minnesota Twins. Minnesota’s old affiliate, the Beloit Snappers, signed on with their fellow green-and-yellow wearers in Oakland. The A’s had jumped to Beloit from the Burlington Bees, who began an affiliation with the Angels, the team that had previously been with Cedar Rapids. The pun-tastic A’s and Bees combo was replaced by the fun fact of the Angels having two teams (Burlington and Salt Lake) called the Bees. Meanwhile, the Cubs ditched the Peoria Chiefs in favor of the nearby Kane County Cougars. The Chiefs signed on with Chicago’s rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards left the Quad Cities River Bandits behind, who then signed on with the Houston Astros. The Kansas City Royals (who lost their serendipitous K.C./K.C. alliance with Kane County) aligned with the Sally League team that the Astros had left behind, the Lexington Legends. There was one final carousel to follow down in the Short Season New York-Penn League. The Pittsburgh Pirates, telegraphing a future relocation, signed on with the Jamestown Jammers. In doing so, the Pirates jumped ship from their regional affiliate, the State College Spikes. The Spikes were scooped up by the St. Louis Cardinals, who dropped the perennial unwanted puppy of the minors, the Batavia Muckdogs. The Marlins, who had been with Jamestown, adopted Batavia in time for the 2013 season.
On the “stuff” front, 2012 was the first year that Oyo Sportstoys began producing minor league mini-figures. The first run of minor league Oyo included Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon when they were top pitching prospects for Bradenton, a poorly executed retroactive Derek Jeter for the Columbus Clippers, and a handful of prospects of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Pawtucket Red Sox–most of whom never panned out as major league regulars. Oyo would go on to crank out a bunch of minor league mini-figures over the following years, with production peaking in 2014 and 2015.
There was one team that relocated after the 2012 season. The Northwest League’s Yakima Bears were whisked away south to a suburb of Portland, Oregon, which had been without pro ball since the Beavers left a few years prior. The team’s identity was announced wholemeal, without any teasing or pretense, and they took to the sparkling new astroturf at Tonkin Field in summer 2013. The Hillsboro Hops have been a mainstay of the NWL ever since. In Pennsylvania, two teams changed their identities. The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees finally had their stadium completed, and to mark the occasion, they went through a lengthy name-the-team process and ended up with the unwieldy Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. One of the other names in the contest was the “Porcupines,” and the critter was incorporated into the new brand’s trolley-car motif. In Reading, the long-standing Reading Phillies were slightly altered to become the incomprehensible Reading Fightin’ Phils. This was something of a coming-out party for Brandiose, as they defied convention in several ways. It was originally unclear if the team would be called the “Fightin’ Phils” or just the “Fightins.” Muddying the waters even more was an alternate “Baseballtown” identity that was deeply confusing in the era before alternative identities became mundane minor league promotions. Also, there was an ostrich involved. In my opinion, this was the first major gauntlet-throwing in what would become the contentious branding norm of the decade. One other note is that the Birmingham Barons opened up a new ballpark in the ‘burbs, going from playing at Regions Park to Regions Field.
Nolan Arenado had ascended to Triple-A in 2013, playing in the thin air with the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. Rendon started with Harrisburg at Double-A before a mid-season promotion to the Syracuse Chiefs. Bogaerts jumped from the Portland Sea Dogs to the PawSox. Springer went from Corpus Christi to OKC. Yelich started in the Florida State League with the Jupiter Hammerheads, but was quickly promoted to Jacksonville before making his MLB debut. Realmuto was also on the Suns that season. Elsewhere in the Southern League, Puig was a Chattanooga Lookout. Marcus Stroman spent the season in the Eastern League with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. José Ramírez was with the Akron Aeros, joined there mid-season by Lindor, who received a promotion from the Carolina Mudcats. Báez went from the Daytona Cubs to the Tennessee Smokies. Suárez went from the Lakeland Flying Tigers to the Erie SeaWolves. Jacob deGrom went three levels, from the St. Lucie Mets to the Binghamton Mets to the Las Vegas 51s. Syndergaard merely went from St. Lucie to Binghamton. Story spent the season in the Cali League with the Modesto Nuts. Mookie Betts jumped from Low-A (Greenville Drive) to High-A (Salem Red Sox). Corey Seager went from the Great Lakes Loons to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. In the Midwest League, Correa was with the Quad Cities River Bandits, Snell was with the Bowling Green Hot Rods, and Contreras was with the Kane County Cougars. A top draft pick named Kris Bryant began the season in the AZL, but got a few swings in with the Boise Hawks and Daytona Cubs before season’s end. Cody Bellinger also made his pro debut, suiting up in the Arizona League with the AZL Dodgers.
2014 gave us three new identities. The Bristol White Sox were sold to the Pittsburgh Pirates and became the Bristol Pirates. The other two, in my mind, officially marked the beginning of the Brandiose era, or whatever you want to call it. Wacky names have always been a part of the minors, but Jason and Casey at Brandiose really started pushing the envelope in the mid-teens. One change came out of leftfield, when all of a sudden the Akron Aeros were renamed the Akron RubberDucks and we all had to just get used to it. The other unveiling (in the same week as Akron) was the new name of the recently-relocated placeholder team previously known as the Tucson Padres. After a lame-duck name-the-team contest, the El Paso Chihuahuas barked their way into the world, playing in a brand new stadium in west Texas. Speaking of new stadiums, the Charlotte Knights opened their new downtown ballpark, ratcheting up the stakes for Triple-A facilities in metro areas. The Knights redesigned their visual aesthetic to go with the new park.
2014 was a strong year for Triple-A. José Ramírez was with the Columbus Clippers, and Lindor joined him there after a stint with the RubberDucks. Stroman was throwing heat with the Buffalo Bisons. Suárez went from the SeaWolves to the Toledo Mud Hens. Betts was with the Pawtucket Red Sox by season’s end, dipping down the coast from Portland. Báez and Hendricks spent the year with the Iowa Cubs, joined by Bryant after a spell with the Smokies. In the Pacific Coast League, both deGrom and Syndergaard were in Las Vegas with the 51s and Springer had a stint with the Oklahoma City RedHawks before making his debut with Houston. In Double-A, Realmuto was with Jacksonville again. Aaron Nola was in Reading with the “Fightins” after a bump up from the Clearwater Threshers. Corey Seager started with the Quakes but finished in the Southern League with Chattanooga. Story split the season between Modesto and the Tulsa Drillers. Correa was in the Cali League with the Lancaster JetHawks. Contreras was playing in the Florida State League with the Daytona Cubs. Snell was was also in the FSL with the Charlotte Stone Crabs, after a promotion from Single-A Bowling Green. It was a similar track for young Aaron Judge, who made his pro debut with the full season Charleston RiverDogs before a mid-season call-up to the Tampa Yankees. Matt Chapman made his debut with the AZL Athletics, but saw two promotions that year: first to the Beloit Snappers and then a game with the Midland RockHounds at Double-A. Bellinger split his year between the Arizona League and the Ogden Raptors. Gleyber Torres broke in with the AZL Cubs, but received a promotion to the Boise Hawks. Ozzie Albies also had his debut, appearing with both the GCL Braves and Danville Braves that season.
The open PDC season was a wild one top-to-bottom, and big changes came for the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in particular. Two opening moves set things in motion. Despite sticking with the Nashville Sounds through several years at dilapidated Greer Stadium, and despite having MLB team brass wield shovels at the groundbreaking for the new stadium, the Milwaukee Brewers were spurned by the Sounds in favor of the new-park-loving Oakland Athletics. The A’s had previously enjoyed a regional relationship with the Pacific Coast League’s Sacramento River Cats, but player development trumps all else these days. The Giants swooped in and grabbed Sacramento, abandoning the Fresno Grizzlies, who had been their top-level affiliate since their inception in 1998. Meanwhile, in the other “opening move,” the Los Angeles Dodgers ownership group purchased the former Oklahoma City RedHawks and made them their Triple-A team. This displaced the Houston Astros, who latched on with Fresno. In the process, the Dodgers had abandoned the Albuquerque Isotopes, and in a surprise twist, the Colorado Rockies pounced on the ‘Topes. The Rockies heartlessly left behind the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, who had been their Triple-A team since the 1993 NL expansion. The relationship was Colorado Springs’s raison d’etre, and this severance quickly led to the Sky Sox’s demise a few years later. Who was stuck with the thin air and high offensive stats in Colorado Springs? The Milwaukee Brewers. And that was just the Pacific Coast League! At Double-A, there was a three-way change-up. The Dodgers, who had just settled into the Sooner State at Triple-A, latched on with the Texas League’s Tulsa Drillers. The Rockies, who had previously been with Tulsa, affiliated with the Eastern League’s New Britain Rock Cats. New Britain’s long-time parent club, the Minnesota Twins, were left with the Dodgers’ old Double-A team, the Chattanooga Lookouts. At Class A-Advanced, things got weird. You can’t talk about the 2014 PDC season without talking about Theo Epstein and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were clearly building a juggernaut, and even a few years before their World Series victory, the buzz was palpable and everyone wanted a piece–giving Chicago plenty of leverage to pick and choose their affiliates. Shortly after the opening bell, they abandoned the Daytona Cubs, severing a decades-long relationship with a team that only a few years prior opened their pocketbook to get new bear cub-based logos and uniforms. Chicago signed on with the Carolina League’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The Pelicans had been with the Texas Rangers, and the Rangers signed on with the oft-derided High Desert Mavericks of the California League. The Seattle Mariners, who had been with High Desert, shifted over to the similarly undesirable Bakersfield Blaze. The Blaze had been with the Cincinnati Reds, who jumped down to the Florida State League with Daytona. One other (very inconsequential) switch-up at this level was the Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves swapping their Carolina League affiliates–the Carolina Mudcats and Lynchburg Hillcats. There was only one change at the Low A level, and it had Theo Epstein’s fingerprints all over it. The Cubs ditched the Kane County Cougars, letting go of a vital team in the Chicago ‘burbs in favor of the local-ish South Bend Silver Hawks, presumably due to more desirable facilities. South Bend had been with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who subsequently signed on with Kane County. At the short-season level, there was a three-way swap initiated by (you guessed it) the Cubs. Chicago cut loose the Boise Hawks in favor of the new stadium of the Eugene Emeralds. Boise signed on with the Rockies, who left the Tri-City Dust Devils in the dust. The San Diego Padres, who had been with Eugene for several years, were obliged to form a bond with the Dust Devils. 2014 was the most dramatic PDC signing period I’ve yet to witness, and the take-home lessons were very pertinent to the baseball trends of the decade: tank-and-rise teams like the Cubs and Astros hold a lot of bargaining power and MLB teams value player development/facilities above anything else the minors can throw their way.
There were a few new identities created in the wake of that wacky PDC season. Since the Daytona Cubs were abandoned by, well, the Cubs, they were obliged to take on a new nickname. They went unique/wacky, and chose Daytona Tortugas as their nickname, referencing the Spanish word for turtles. In sort of a reversal of that phenomenon, the South Bend Silver Hawks chose to align with the new parent club by rebranding as the South Bend Cubs. And the Silver Hawks weren’t the only hawks to fall from the sky. After the Los Angeles Dodgers purchased the Oklahoma City RedHawks, they slapped the chip-off-the-old-block moniker on the OKC–calling them the Oklahoma City Dodgers. The Appalachian League, being a league in which most teams are owned by the parent club, operates outside the normal PDC realm, but there was another switcheroo going into the 2015 that led to a new identity. The Pulaski Mariners were sold, re-affiliated, and rebranded as the Pulaski Yankees. And then there were the re-locators. The New York-Penn League’s Jamestown Jammers were moved to Morgantown, WV, where they became the West Virginia Black Bears. The Huntsville Stars (Double-A Southern League) were moved south to a new stadium on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, where they became the Biloxi Shuckers. Speaking of new stadiums, the Nashville Sounds opened their fancy new park in time for the 2015 season.
There was plenty of grist for the prospect mill in the 2015. Kris Bryant was famously held at Triple-A with the Iowa Cubs for a few weeks in order to have his service time delayed by a season. Lindor was also at Triple-A, slugging it out for Columbus en route to a summertime call-up to Cleveland. Plenty of players split time between Double-A and Triple-A. Corey Seager polished up his game at Tulsa and Oklahoma City before being called up by the Dodgers. Nola spent time with Reading and Lehigh Valley in the Phillies’ system. Correa jumped up from Corpus Christi to the Astros’ new Triple-A affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies. Judge started in Trenton and found his way to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Story tried out two of the Rockies’ new affiliates–New Britain and Albuquerque. Snell buzzed through three levels, going from Charlotte (High A) to Montgomery (Double-A) to Durham (Triple-A). Contreras held steady at Double-A with the Tennessee Smokies. The California League was rife with talent that year. Bellinger was in Rancho Cucamonga, Chapman was in Stockton, and Alex Bregman broke in with Lancaster not long after his pro debut with the Quad Cities River Bandits of the Midwest League. Gleyber Torres was in the Cubs’ system at the time, and suited up for two of their new affiliates–South Bend and Myrtle Beach. Albies spent the year in the Sally League with the Rome Braves, and his future teammate, Ronald Acuña Jr., split his first pro season between the Gulf Coast League and the Appy League’s Danville Braves.
There were only two new team identities rolled out in 2016, and in both cases, state capitals were granted minor league teams. In the South Atlantic League, the Savannah Sand Gnats were spirited to South Carolina and into a brand new stadium. The new team was dubbed the Columbia Fireflies. In the Eastern League, the New Britain Rock Cats of Connecticut were moved up the road to Hartford, despite the new stadium falling far behind construction schedule. The new team, the Hartford Yard Goats, had no home for the entire 2016 season and played all of their games on the road.
Some future MLB standouts were finishing up their minor league journey in Triple-A in 2016. Judge spent most of the season with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before getting the call to the Bronx. Contreras was with the Iowa Cubs before joining Chicago on their World Series journey. Snell was with the Durham Bulls. Bellinger spent time in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Chapman was with Midland and Nashville. Albies was in Mississippi and Gwinnett. Bregman in Corpus Christi and Fresno. Torres was in High A with Myrtle Beach, before a trade to the Yankees sent him to Tampa. Acuña spent most of the season with Rome of the South Atlantic League. Juan Soto broke into the minors, splitting the season between the GCL and the Auburn DoubleDays. The Blue Jays’ trio of sons-of-big-leaguers started their flight. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. hung out in the Appalachian League with the Bluefield Blue Jays, Bo Bichette was in the Florida complex with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays, and Cavan Biggio split the year between the Vancouver Canadians and the Lansing Lugnuts. Lastly, a young slugger named Pete Alonso spent the summer in Coney Island with the Brooklyn Cyclones.
2016 was a quiet year in the minors, and even the PDC season saw little action. Triple-A, low Single-A, and the short season/rookie leagues were unchanged. There was an undramatic three-way switcheroo at Double-A, with the Arkansas Travelers going from the Angels to the Mariners, the Jackson Generals going from the Mariners to the Diamondbacks, and the Mobile BayBears going from the Diamondbacks to the Angels. Class A-Advanced provided all the necessary drama. On the west coast, the Seattle Mariners announced their purchase of the California League’s Modesto Nuts, solidifying Seattle’s high-A team long-term. On the opposite corner of the country, the Atlanta Braves forged a tenuous alliance with the to-be-relocated Brevard County Manatees franchise. These two moves left two MLB teams (the Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers) without affiliates at that level, and two high-A teams left: the Carolina League’s Carolina Mudcats and the California League’s Lancaster JetHawks. The JetHawks had long been considered an undesirable affiliate due to their Coors Field-esque inflated offensive numbers, and had lost their parent club (the Astros) to a process I’ll explain in a bit. With the prospect of a JetHawks affiliation looming, news leaked out that the Rockies were trying to purchase the Mudcats. It quickly escalated into a bidding war. The Brewers had been saddled with Colorado Springs after the Rockies left the Sky Sox in ’14, and it’s tough for a team to have two higher-level affiliates that produce goofball stats due to high elevation and/or winds. At the eleventh hour, Milwaukee secured the purchase of the Mudcats, and the Rockies were left with Lancaster. But the biggest story of the year was the culmination of a long-anticipated move. The California League contracted by two teams and the Carolina League expanded by two. The Houston Astros took control of one of the transitional franchises and the Texas Rangers essentially rode the High Desert Mavericks out of dodge, taking control of the other new Carolina League club.
All that shake-up at Class A-Advanced led to three new team identities. The new Carolina League team owned by the Rangers (let’s say the spiritual successor to the High Desert Mavericks) set up shop in Kinston, North Carolina, and became the Down East Wood Ducks. The other new club, owned by the Astros (the former Bakersfield Blaze, sort of) was earmarked for Fayetteville, North Carolina, but the stadium still needed to be built. So Houston scouted temporary placeholder locations, and came up with Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. They dubbed the new temp team the Buies Creek Astros. The Brevard County Manatees franchise settled in (at least temporarily) in Kissimmee, Florida, where they took on the Florida Fire Frogs brand. There were three other new team identities rolled out in time for the 2017 season, and they represented the full flowering of the wacky-identity era, with all three new brands being designed by Brandiose. In a move that came totally unannounced, the historic Jacksonville Suns brand was casually shunted aside and replaced by the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. In the culmination of a (probably sham) name-the-team contest, the Eastern League’s Binghamton Mets were phased out in favor of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies. The last one really took the cake, pun intended. The Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs had announced a rebrand well ahead of time, and trotted out a name-the-team list including reasonable entries like Night Owls and Crawfish. The winning entry was the New Orleans Baby Cakes, and logos included a grimacing baby with eye-black. This moment in time may someday serve as the quintessential expression of minor league baseball in the Teens decade.
Baseball was also played in 2017. Bellinger played a few games of Triple-A with the Oklahoma City Dodgers before heading to Chavez Ravine. Chapman got the call-up midseason, after a spell with the Nashville Sounds. Albies spent most of the season with the Gwinnett Braves before heading to Atlanta. His buddy Acuña shot up from the Fire Frogs to the Mississippi Braves to Gwinnett by season’s end. Torres split the season between Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Alonso rose quickly, starting in high A St. Lucie and ending the year with the Rumble Ponies. Another future Rookie-of-the-Year, Yordan Álvarez, made his debut with Quad Cities before getting a bump to Buies Creek. The Jays’ trio were at the full season Single-A levels: Guerrero and Bichette split the season between the Lansing Lugnuts and Dunedin Blue Jays, while Biggio camped out in Dunedin all season. Soto saw limited action in 2017 due to an injured ankle, but most of his time was spent with the Hagerstown Suns in the Sally League. It also bears mentioning that former football player Tim Tebow broke into the minors in 2017, splitting the season between the Columbia Fireflies and St. Lucie Mets and creating something of a sensation along the way. There are surely other notable MLB players who entered the minors in 2017, but they had yet to present themselves as consistent standouts by the end of the decade.
One other noteworthy occurrence in 2017 was the founding of this website, Minor League Geek. And maybe that isn’t truly noteworthy, but it’s been a fun ride.
There were a couple of low-key rebrandings heading into 2018 season. The Appalachian League’s Greeneville Astros went up for sale, and Cincinnati won the bidding war, resulting in the creation of the Greeneville Reds. There was some other fishy business going on in the Deep South. The Gwinnett Braves (owned/controlled by Atlanta) went against the typical Braves branding and opted for the unique (if understated) Gwinnett Stripers. Their branding paid homage to the striped bass that are caught by anglers in the lakes of north Georgia. Speaking of fish, the Tampa Yankees came completely out-of-the-blue and rebranded as the Tampa Tarpons. The same name had been used in the Florida State League before, most recently as a White Sox affiliate in 1988. The 30-year gap gave me pause, but by the 3 of 4 Rule standards, I consider the new Tarpons to be a continuation of the old Tarpons. There was one new ballpark that opened in 2018. The Sally League’s Augusta GreenJackets cemented their place in the minors for another generation, and redesigned their brand to go with the occasion.
Acuña spent most of April with the newly-named Stripers before settling in with Atlanta. Soto spent most of the season with Washington, but also had brief stints with Hagerstown, the Potomac Nationals, and the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. Alonso split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies and Las Vegas 51s. Álvarez followed a similar track in the Astros’ system, going from the Corpus Christi Hooks to the Fresno Grizzlies. Since we have space, I’ll mention that Tebow continued his sham ascent through the Mets’ system, spending the season with the Rumble Ponies. Guerrero hurt his knee in 2018, so he ended up splitting time with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Dunedin Blue Jays, GCL Blue Jays, and the Buffalo Bisons. Bichette and Biggio simply spent the season in New Hampshire. As we move further into the Twenties decade, we will see which other notable youngsters were toiling in the minors in 2018.
2018’s September PDC season was very quiet. There were a few moves at Triple-A in the year before the season that dictated the major moves. First was the New York Mets’ purchase of the International League’s Syracuse franchise after the 2017 season. The Chiefs were still under a PDC obligation to serve at the Washington Nationals’ top-level farm club for 2018–creating a bizarre situation where a Triple-A team was owned by a division rival of their parent club. In September, the merger was fully consummated, with the Mets leaving Las Vegas in the dust. But this wasn’t the same old 51s-playing-in-an-old-park Las Vegas. A brand new stadium in the Vegas suburb of Summerlin was nearing completion and slated to open the following season. The Oakland A’s, who had jumped on Nashville’s new park four years prior, inked a deal with Las Vegas. Meanwhile, down in Texas, the Houston Astros and Round Rock Express finally consummated an agreement after years of rumors. This left the Rangers in search of a new Triple-A team, and they jumped on the Nashville Sounds. The team that Houston had left behind, the Fresno Grizzlies, were the last ones left at the dance with the Nationals, who had been with Syracuse. This was a rare coast-to-coast affiliation that underlined the weird things that can come out of a PDC season. At Double-A, there was a simple and largely inconsequential Southern League swap, with the Twins going from the Chattanooga Lookouts to the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and the Reds doing the reverse. I grew up associating the Lookouts with Cincy, so this felt like an improvement to the overall situation. The last change was a three-way swap at the Single-A level. In a surprise move, Pittsburgh abandoned the West Virginia Power, who relied heavily on the regionally-popular Pirates for their marketing and brand, in favor of the Greensboro Grasshoppers. The Mariners seized the Power, ditching the Midwest League’s Clinton LumberKings along the way. The Marlins, who had been with Greensboro previously, were left with the LumberKings.
After the 2018 season, Elmore Sports Group pulled off a wacky plan. They simultaneously moved three teams that they own at three separate levels of the affiliated minor leagues. Let’s start in the middle. A brand-new ballpark was erected in Amarillo, Texas, and Elmore moved the Texas League’s San Antonio Missions there, where they became the Amarillo Sod Poodles. But San Antonio is a giant city that is surely worthy of a high-level team, and at least for a time, there were hot rumors of a new park being greenlit. That didn’t happen (at least this decade), but Elmore moved the Pacific Coast League’s Colorado Springs Sky Sox to San Antonio, where they seamlessly took on the old Texas League identity, including their full visual aesthetic. The final move was sending the Rookie-level Pioneer League’s Helena Brewers to Colorado Springs, where they occupied the old park left behind by the Sky Sox. After a lengthy name-search, the new team was dubbed the Rocky Mountain Vibes. There were some other new identities that cropped up as well. After two seasons, the Buies Creek Astros fulfilled their destiny and were moved to the new ballpark in another part of North Carolina. The Carolina League welcomed the Fayetteville Woodpeckers. The Las Vegas 51s changed their name as they moved out of old Cashman Field and into the ‘burbs. The new Oakland affiliate, owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, paid homage to the old Spruce Goose operator–calling themselves the Las Vegas Aviators. In the International League, the New York Mets switched things up with their new team. The Syracuse Chiefs moniker was shelved after near continuous use for about eighty years, and they were renamed the Syracuse Mets.
It’s a bit foolish to try to consider who the best players were in 2019. Yordan Álvarez started the season with the Round Rock Express before being boosted to Houston for his Rookie-of-the-Year campaign. The “great” Tim Tebow was with the newly-renamed Syracuse Mets. Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio spent time with the Buffalo Bisons before crossing the border and taking flight with the Blue Jays. Other than that, we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe there were future all-stars and hall-of-famers toiling in the minors. I’m averse to talking about prospects, but maybe Wander Franco or Gavin Lux or Luis Robert or Adley Rutschman or MacKenzie Gore or Jo Adell or Casey Mize or Jarred Kelenic or Jesús Luzardo or Joey Bart or A.J. Puk or Brendan McKay or Sixto Sanchez will amount to something. Or maybe they’ll all be busts. Nobody can predict the future, baby.
Shortly after the 2019 season, rumors began trickling out that the 2020 Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) between MLB and Minor League Baseball would be contentious, and word leaked out that MLB’s initial proposal included radical restructuring of the minor leagues and reduction of total PDCs from 160 to 120. This private proposal boiled over into a very public and ugly war of words, going as far as presidential hopefuls weighing in. This is an ongoing story, and I’ve been keeping up every few months with articles responding to updates.
But in the wake of all that drama, there were a bunch of new team identities for a new decade. Three teams relocated: the Mobile BayBears moved to Madison, Alabama and took on the Rocket City Trash Pandas identity, the Potomac Nationals moved within-region and became the Fredericksburg Nationals, and the New Orleans Baby Cakes crawled up to Kansas and became the Wichita Wind Surge. There were also a whopping four brand redesigns. The Kannapolis Intimidators became the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers, the Missoula Osprey became Missoula PaddleHeads, the Fort Myers Miracle became the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, and and the Connecticut Tigers (a new team to start the decade) became the Norwich Sea Unicorns.
Hindsight is 2020, and as we move forward into this new decade, let’s find out how the Teens will be remembered.