Ah, the Florida State League. My home for two seasons as I worked for the Dunedin Blue Jays. It’s our next stop as we move to the High-A portion of our Trip Around the Minors, and we move to arguably the most humid of leagues in all of baseball.
Beginning in 1919, the FSL sported six teams, including one in Tampa, the only place of the original six to house a Major League franchise. The initial run lasted through 1928 as a Class D league, and the closure stemmed from what came to be known as The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926, which caused real estate to become an issue statewide. The league resumed 8 years later once the Great Depression started to die down and aside from the World War II closure between 1942 and 1945, it never closed down again, becoming a bonafide Class A league in 1964.
It now houses 12 teams across two divisions, the North and the South. The divisions are as follows:
North Division: Brevard County Manatees (Milwaukee Brewers affiliate), Clearwater Threshers (Philadelphia Phillies), Daytona Cubs (Chicago Cubs), Dunedin Blue Jays (Toronto Blue Jays), Lakeland Flying Tigers (Detroit Tigers), Tampa Yankees (New York Yankees)
South Division: Bradenton Marauders (Pittsburgh Pirates), Charlotte Stone Crabs (Tampa Bay Rays), Fort Myers Miracle (Minnesota Twins), Jupiter Hammerheads (Miami Marlins), Palm Beach Cardinals (St. Louis Cardinals), St. Lucie Mets (New York Mets)
As you can see, half the teams keep their affiliate mascots, but the one that stands out is the Flying Tigers, who are named for a regimen of World War II pilots that were trained on the same grounds as where the Flying Tigers now play. The Miracle are so named due to the current ownership group that includes part-owners Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett. Legend has it that the name came about due to Mike Veeck’s involvement with the team. You might know Mr. Veeck as the man who helped make Disco Demolition Night a reality back in 1979, with the Miracle being named due to him still working baseball after the riots that occured that fateful night. The other four teams are popular animals you would find in the waters of Florida: Giant sea cows, manta rays, crabs with regenerative claws (that are certfied green food by the FDA) and, well…pirates that loot, rape and pillage.
The league itself has changed many times over the years, mainly due to the involvement of the city of Miami. They were a premiere part of the league for a while before they eventually were able to gain their Major League franchse in 1993 and from there, teams have moved around to split divisions amongst each coast or from north to south, as the current alignment shows.
The most unique development of the league is the fact that all but two teams, the Cubs and the Manatees, play at the Spring Training sites for their Major League affiliates. While the Cubs moved to Arizona long, long ago, the Manatees (stay with me now) are actually housed where the Washington Nationals host their Spring Training in Viera. They actually have split ownership, with a separate group owning the Mantees and using the facilities that the Nationals currently run. Perhaps the most famous site in all of the FSL was Dodgertown in Vero Beach, which closed down in 2008 after the Dodgers moved their Spring Training site to Arizona.
The league itself is not a huge money-drawing league, mainly due to the conditions the players play in for most of the season. The humid springs and summers of Florida lead to some of the more interesting games you’ll see in all of baseball, where a game can look and feel like it will be perfect for baseball…and then a thunderstorm springs up 10 minutes later. On the really humid days during the second half of the season, the temperatures can reach 85 degrees with 100 percent humidity at points, pushing the actual temperature to feel like you are in 105 degree heat WITH MOISTURE. At night. Which is ridiculous.
Due to the conditions, the league is one of the worst for offenses across baseball, with their 4.38 runs per contest ranking fourth lowest amongst the 11 leagues we’ll cover. They still have some good offensive players overall, hitting .262/.331/.386, but it’s mostly a league that lends itself to players that are more speed oriented than power due to park factors. The ballparks that they play in are normally set to Major League standards due to them also acting as Spring Training sites, so that combined with air so thick it can be cut with the proverbial knife leads to low run totals overall. For example, the FSL teams have the lowest home run rate per team in High-A ball at 87.9. This leads the way for pitching to shine, as the 3.92 league ERA is also fourth lowest amongst the 11 leagues. If you’re a fly ball pitcher, you can definitely shine in the FSL.
The FSL has seen some great players come through and prosper, most notably Cal Ripken, Jr., who now has an ownership with the Stone Crabs through his company, Ripken Baseball, when they bought the Rays affiliate in 2009. He played for the team that eventually became the Miracle when it was affiliated with the Orioles back in the 70’s. Derek Jeter won the league’s MVP in 1994 with Tampa, as well.
But in 2012, the FSL will be a hotbed (literally) for some of the game’s best young talent. Gerrit Cole definitely has a chance to play in the FSL this year and possesses one of the best arms in all of baseball. The Pirates will keep a close eye on the former UCLA star, but his ceiling is so high that he could move very quickly through the minor leagues, making his stay in Bradenton a short one. The same might be said for fellow Pirates prospect Jameson Tallion, but the Pirates will see if they will go here, or send their two possible rotation stalwarts to Low-A instead.
The list of players who could spend time in the FSL this year and are considered top prospects is a long one, including Oscar Tavares (Cardinals), Jake Marisnick (Blue Jays), Christian Yelich (Marlins), Javier Baez (Cubs, although he’ll start at Low-A), Nick Castellanos (Tigers), Kolten Wong (Cardinals) and Jesse Biddle (Phillies). Both Marisnick and Yelich have the chance to be five-tool players, Castellanos is only going to be 19 when the season starts in Lakeland, and Wong could be the second baseman of the future for the Cardinals if he continues to hit at the rate he is going at right now.
On a personal note, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the FSL. My times with the Blue Jays were absolutely life-changing and were some of the best times of my life when it came to my career. Even with me doing broadcasts in that humidity at night where the game time temperature was 87 but felt like 107 and I was sweating clear through my shirt, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. For our “Where We’ve Been” feature, I’ll be writing about all the ballparks I visited in the FSL in my two seasons there, along with the Trop, which should be an interesting endeavor, as well. Next, we’ll take a look at the Carolina League before finishing up with the California League.