Vin Sylvia: Tomorrow's stars are here today
ON JUNE 21, 2005, a promising Erie SeaWolves pitcher made his Double-A debut in Manchester against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats. Most of those who attended that night's game at what is now Northeast Delta Dental Stadium will never forget what they saw.
The Erie pitcher struck out the first six Fisher Cats he faced, his fastball topping out at 99 mph, according to the velocity registered on the center-field scoreboard. Then, all of a sudden, the scoreboard stopped showing pitch speeds.
Fans hoping to see a fastball register triple digits were disappointed, but the pitcher was undeterred. He struck out the next batter, too, and ultimately fanned 11 while allowing just one hit over seven innings.
That was New Hampshire's introduction to Justin Verlander.
There may be only one Justin Verlander (2011 MVP and Cy Young winner, career record of 125-65 with 1,461 strikeouts), but there are plenty of major-league All-Stars who have played minor-league ball in Manchester - with or against the Fisher Cats - since the Toronto Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate opened its first season here in 2004.
A sampling: the Jays' Ricky Romero, the Red Sox' Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia, the Yankees' Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, the Phillies' Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon, the Dodgers' Hanley Ramirez, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen, the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman, the Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera, the Mets' David Wright, the Orioles' Matt Wieters, the Diamondbacks' Aaron Hill, and the Tigers' Verlander and Alex Avila.
The conclusion to be drawn from that list is clear: Catch a game at The NEDD, and you're certain to see future big-leaguers. There's a good chance you'll even see a future MLB All-Star or two.
Of the players ranked among the game's top 50 prospects by Major League Baseball, six will open the season in the Eastern League and three others are likely to reach the EL before season's end.
The one with the best chance to become if not the next Verlander, at least a major-league ace is Altoona's Jameson Taillon, ranked the second-best prospect in the Pirates system and No. 15 overall. A 6-foot, 6-inch, 22-year-old right-hander, throws a mid- to high-90s fastball and a possible spot beside Conway's Jeff Locke in the Pittsburgh rotation in the not-too-distant future.
The two Red Sox minor-leaguers among the MLB's top 50 prospects (Jackie Bradley Jr. would have been on the list had he not played his way into the major-league lineup) will open the season in the Eastern League with the Portland Sea Dogs. Xander Bogaerts (No. 20), the Sox' 20-year-old shortstop of the future, is back after finishing last season with Portland and batting .326 with a .948 OPS and five home runs in 23 games. Matt Barnes (No. 38), a 22-year-old right-hander ranked Boston's top pitching prospect by SoxProspects.com, is set to make his Double-A debut.
It remains to be seen whether Bogaerts will still be with Portland when the Sea Dogs make their first visit to Manchester May 14-16.
Other top-50 prospects opening the season in the Eastern League include Harrisburg third baseman Anthony Rendon (Nationals, No. 28), and New Britain pitcher Alex Meyer (Twins, No. 40).
Among the prospects likely to play in the Eastern League in 2013 are outfielder Byron Buxton (Twins, No. 19), pitcher Noah Sundergaard (Mets, acquired from Toronto along with former Fisher Cats catcher Travis d'Arnaud in the R.A. Dickey deal, No. 29), catcher Gary Sanchez (Yankees, No. 36) and outfielder Mason Williams (Yankees, No. 41).
That's a whole lot of names we just dropped, but now worries - there won't be a quiz.
Do check back, though, to find out who'll be at The NEDD whenever there's an upcoming homestand.
And if one the aforementioned is in the lineup for a game you're attending, be prepared to save your ticket. One from that 2005 Verlander game would make a pretty nice souvenir.
Vin Sylvia is a New Hampshire Union Leader deputy managing editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @vinsylvia.