Vin Sylvia: On any given night, the future stars are out in Manchester
ON A pleasant spring night last May 16, shortstop Xander Bogaerts and starting pitcher Brandon Workman helped the Portland Sea Dogs trounce the host New Hampshire Fisher Cats, 15-4, in an Eastern League game at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. Few in the announced crowd of 4,780 at the NEDD that night could have imagined that 5 ½ months later, Bogaerts and Workman would play key roles in Game 6 as the Red Sox clinched their first championship at Fenway Park in 95 years.
That isn't to say fans who take in a game at the home of the Toronto Blue Jays' Double-A affiliate aren't aware they're catching glimpses of the future. During every series at the 9-year-old ballpark on the Merrimack River, future major-leaguers are on display — some of them potential MLB All-Stars.
In 2010 alone, 37 players selected for the MLB All-Star Game were Eastern League alumni, and 21 of the 50 players in that year's World Series had played in the EL at some point in their careers.Among the players named to an MLB All-Star team last season were Toronto's Brett Cecil, who played for the Fisher Cats as an up-and-coming pitcher in 2008 and as a rehabbing major-leaguer in 2012, and Jose Bautista, who also played for the Fisher Cats on injury rehab in 2012. All-Stars who had appeared in Manchester as a visiting player ranged from A (the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez) to Z (the Nationals' Jordan Zimmerman), with perennial selections Andrew McCutchen, Joe Mauer, Justin Verlander and David Wright in between.
Few doubt Bogaerts will be a major-league All-Star at some point — and maybe soon — which would have him following in the footsteps of fellow former Sea Dogs Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Hanley Ramirez, Jonathan Papelbon and Justin Masterson.
Plenty of current Eastern Leaguers are on their way, as well. According to MLB.com, no level of the minor leagues has more top-100 prospects than Double-A, and no league at that level has more top-100 prospects than the EL, with 12.
Tops among all those prospects — according to everyone — is the Twins' Byron Buxton, who, had he not injured his wrist during a spring training game last month, would be coming to Manchester with the New Britain Rock Cats for a three-game series beginning Monday.
A 6-foot, 2-inch 190-pound outfielder selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, Buxton last year hit a combined .334 with 12 home runs, 77 RBIs, 55 stolen bases and a .944 OPS at two levels of Single-A. After next week's series, New Britain is due back in New Hampshire from June 26-29. If Buxton is with the team then, you'll want to see him.
The Fisher Cats and Sea Dogs each have one player among MLB.com's top 100, which includes major-league rookies, such as Bogaerts, in its ranking. New Hampshire's Aaron Sanchez (No. 21) was excellent in the Fishers' season-opener, allowing one hit over six innings in a 6-0 victory at Trenton, while Portland's Henry Owens (No. 52) was even better: a rain-shortened no-hitter with nine strikeouts in a 5-0 win at Reading.
In addition to Owens, who it ranks No. 40, Baseball America has three other Sea Dogs in its top 100: catcher Blake Swihart and second baseman Mookie Betts. They should be in the lineup when Portland makes its first 2014 visit to Manchester, May 23-26.
Other Eastern Leaguers to watch include Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez (No. 47 on the MLB.com list), who had a grand slam for Trenton against the Fisher Cats on Sunday, and Dylan Bundy, the 21-year-old flamethrower who pitched for the Orioles in 2012 but missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. When he returns to action this year, it's expected to be with Bowie.
So whether you're attending Opening Night at the NEDD, catching a game this weekend, waiting for the Sea Dogs to come to town or holding out for summer weather, take some time to appreciate the caliber of players you're watching. Some of them may be future major-league All-Stars — and you might even see some one or two of them on baseball's biggest stage this October.
Vin Sylvia is a Union Leader Deputy Managing Editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @VinSylvia.