PRINCETON — Minor league baseball returns to Bluefield and Princeton next Tuesday even though both local teams do not know yet who will be playing for them in the 2019 Appalachian League season.
The rosters of both teams are still in flux as their parent organizations are deciding where to send all their players, including some players that remain unsigned since having been selected in the Major League draft on June 3-5.
Last year was a very successful year for both teams. Mercer Cup rivals Princeton and Bluefield met in the playoff after finishing as the top two teams in the East Division. The Rays also won the Mercer Cup last year but trail in the all-time series 14-12-1.
Princeton is the defending champion of the East Division. After beating Bluefield in a three-game series the Rays lost to Elizabethton in the Appalachian League championship series. Gone are all the top players from last year’s team but they will be replaced by another crop of youngsters ready to impress.
“Last year we had great team personality wise, just a good group of guys and I don’t think that’s going to change this year,” Princeton Rays General Manager Danny Shingleton said.
Former major league catcher Danny Sheaffer returns for his seventh season at the helm for the Rays after having won Manager of the Year last season.
Wander Franco was the league’s Player of the League and is playing well in Single-A as one of the top prospects in baseball.
In addition to developing the players on the field part of the job is to help the players learn about things off the field that they need to know that help them succeed on the field.
“Pretty much their lives is baseball when they’re here but we want them to have a successful season and be around different people,” Shingleton said.
There will be a new manager in charge of Bluefield with Dennis Holmberg deciding to manage the Toronto’s Gulf Coast League team back home in Florida and Venezuelanborn Luis Hurtado replacing him in Bluefield.
Hurtado managed the Blue Jays’ GCL team for the past two seasons and was in the Toronto organization as a player for seven years reaching Triple-A in 2012.
“He is a younger gentleman, very energetic and I look forward to working with him and his staff,” Bluefield Blue Jays General Manager Rocky Malamisura said.
The whole coaching staff is not new to Bluefield as hitting coach Paul Elliott was in the same job for the 2012 season but has spent the past six years as a coach in the GCL for the Blue Jays. Position coach Chris Schaeffer returns for his second season as a coach after playing for Bluefield in 2011.
“It adds a little peace of mind because they know the facility, they know the area, they know the pitfalls that fail minor league ball players in general,” Malamisura said.
There are always a number of future major leaguers on both teams rosters. Development of players in the minor leagues has always been a key focus for the Tampa Bay organization as it consistently has one of the lower payrolls in the MLB. Since Toronto became the parent organization for Bluefield in 2011 there have been 28 players that have played in the majors who called Bowen Field home at some point.
For most of the players this is their first time playing professional baseball outside of the spring training facilities for their respective teams. Some of them have never played games under the lights or in front of large crowds.
“These kids are really hungry right now which makes for excitement for them and it should also excite the fans because they’re seeing potential big leaguers,” Malamisura said.