I'm proud to announce that we'll be starting our team previews and what's a better way to start than with our reigning New York Penn League champion Tri-City Valley Cats? Of course, as we take our time and focus on each team individually, each team will get it's important attention. For now, it's the champs.
In 2010, the Valley Cats took a Bee-line through the playoffs and eventually beat the 51-24 Brooklyn Cyclones to be given the crown. They went 38-36 and miraculously edged the Connecicut Tigers by a half a game en route to winning the division, so only one can imagine how the post-season would have turned out had the Valley Cats been edged by Corey Jones and his Tigers. But it was a revelation to see these young guys -- many of them were 2010 draftees -- compete to the finish and win the crown such as Austin Wates and Tommy Shirley. Unfortunately for the Cats, Austin Wates has since been moved up to High-A Lancaster and he should be just fine there.
So let's take a look at what the Valley Cats look like entering this year. First and foremost, rosters are not set yet and certain players to whom the Astros expect to be in the NYPL may be moved to Low-A, kept in Extended Spring, or sent to the GCL depending on how things go over the next month. Also keep in mind that at least 1/3 of all players in the New York Penn League will hav been recently selected in the 2011 draft and quickly signed, so that's also extremely uncertain to make a decision on which players the Astros will select in the 20th round or so. However, there are players already certain to be with the Cats, which we will get to later. Back to what I was saying, the Valley Cats have a fairly simple schedule to start off the year.
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Of their first 18 games, six of them come from teams expected to have a significantly successful year. They play the Connecticut Tigers six of those 18 but the Tigs aren't expected to boast much talent especially with the likes of Dixon Machado and Corey Jones now in West Michigan and Nick Castellanos skipping the New York Penn League. The Valley Cats start off at home (Troy, New York) hosting the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Oakland A's organization in which their best player is probably Aaron Shipman. It's not yet known of the likes of A.J. Kirby-Jones or Renato Nunez will be with the Monsters, but it remains fairly unlikely. Every team plays one another so there's likely to be an even competition yet again, which should definitely be occurring no matter what.
Again, rosters are not set but Delino DeShields is currently playing in Lexington (and struggling) as are Austin Wates and Mike Foltynewicz (who nearly pitched a no-hitter against the Power yesterday), Vincent Velasquez is out for the year with Tommy John Surgery, and Bobby Doran is no longer in the NYPL either, so the top talent (excluding potential 2011 draftees) seems a bit thin for the 2011 Tri-City Valley Cats. However, although it's unlikely, top amateur signee Ariel Ovando, who has sky's the limit tools, may spend some time with the Valley Cats although he's yet to appear in a professional game and is really young, so that would be a reach.
The players who I know are already markes down to be on the Valley Cats this year barring any unexpected circumstances are the following:
- LHP Tommy Shirley -- 6'5/220
- LHP Travis Blankenship -- 6'1/185
- RHP Joan Belliard -- 6'2/185
- LHP Adam Champion -- 6'7/230
- RHP Ryan Cole -- 5'11/205
- LHP Brad Dydalewicz -- 6'1/180
- RHP Brandt Walker -- 6'1/190
- SS Jake Healey -- 6'2/180
- OF Wilton Infante -- 6'1/175
As you can see, this is probably 1/3 of the team to start, and it doesn't look too pretty. However, lots can change and there will be at least fifteenmore players added as the season nears. Stubby Clapp, the Valley Cats new manager looks to make a staple on what's already a storied team. Replacing Jim Pankovitz, who left the organization to become manager of the Jackson Generals, the Mariners Double-A affiliate, Clapp who was previously the hitting coach with the Lexington Legends should be fine for the job, especially with his offensive minded approach.
Entering their 10th season at Joseph Bruno Park, the Valley Cats look to still be able to compete in one of Professional Baseball's most exciting baseball leagues. Although they may regress a notch, they still look to put on a show of talent which is expected to become more than just fitting for Short Season Ball. That's obviously the expectation of the Astros franchise. While I'm still trying to get the news on who in Extended Spring will be on the Cats, it's early and there's lots of time to go. The first step towards creating this team is the draft, which the Astros were aggressive in last year and are looking to do much of the same this time around.