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Published: 4/6/2011

Clippers defending International League champs

BLADE STAFF
Columbus Clippers first baseman Wes Hodges (8) waits for a ball off the bat of Cleveland Indians' Orlando Cabrera during an exhibition baseball game March 30 at Huntington Park in Columbus. Columbus Clippers first baseman Wes Hodges (8) waits for a ball off the bat of Cleveland Indians' Orlando Cabrera during an exhibition baseball game March 30 at Huntington Park in Columbus.
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If history is any guide, the International League's division winners for 2011 should be easy to pick.

Look for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to win the North Division title, Durham to take the top spot in the South and Louisville to finish first in the West.

Why? Those three teams all have a streak of IL division titles to defend. The Yankees have won five crowns in a row, while Durham has won four consecutive titles and Louisville three straight.

There are no guarantees, though. The injuries that can affect any team are magnified when an IL team's major-league affiliate calls up players to fill holes at the next level.

But the new season also gives some of baseball's top prospects a chance to sharpen their skills in preparation for the move to the major leagues.

As the Mud Hens prepare for the coming season, here's a look at the competition they will face around the International League in 2011:

WEST DIVISION

COLUMBUS CLIPPERS

Affiliate: Cleveland

Manager: Mike Sarbaugh

2010 record: 79-65

2010 finish: Second

Top prospects: The Clippers infield should include 3B Lonnie Chisenhall, the Tribe's top prospect, and 2B Jason Kipnis, who ranks as Cleveland's third-best prospect in rankings by Baseball America.

Worth noting: Last season Columbus won the Governors' Cup title as well as the Triple-A National Championship game. The Governors' Cup was the Clippers' eighth, tied for second with Syracuse and trailing only the 10 by Rochester.

INDIANAPOLIS INDIANS

Affiliate: Pittsburgh

Manager: Dean Treanor

2010 record: 71-73

2010 finish: Third

Top prospects: Among the Indians' position players should be shortstop Chase D'Arnaud, the Pirates' fifth-best prospect, as well as outfielders Andrew Lambo (11th prospect) and former Tiger farmhand Gorkys Hernandez (14th prospect).

Worth noting: Clay High School graduate Justin Thomas, a left-handed reliever with major-league experience in Seattle and the Pirates, is expected to be a big part of Indy's bullpen.

LOUISVILLE BATS

Affiliate: Cincinnati

Manager: Rick Sweet

2010 record: 79-64

2010 finish: First

Top prospects: The Bats should have a number of the Reds' top position prospects, including catcher Devin Mesoraco (third-best prospect), first baseman Yonder Alonso (fourth), shortstop Zach Cozart (eighth) and Todd Frazier (10th).

Worth noting: Louisville has won the last three West Division titles, while manager Rick Sweet has become the winningest manager in franchise history with 466 victories.

SOUTH DIVISION

CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS

Affiliate: Chicago White Sox

Manager: Joe McEwing

2010 record: 67-77

2010 finish: Tied for third

Top prospects: Shortstop Eduardo Ascobar, the fifth-best prospect in the White Sox organization, looks to continue Chicago's tradition of top-rate Venezuelan shortstops that includes Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Guillen.

Worth noting: Knights Stadium, one of the more notorious home-run parks in the IL, won't surrender as many long balls this year. The outfield walls have been raised from 10 to 30 feet except in center, where a new video scoreboard was installed.

DURHAM BULLS

Affiliate: Tampa Bay

Manager: Charlie Montoyo

2010 record: 88-55

2010 finish: First

Top prospects: Outfielder Desmond Jennings, the Rays' third-best prospect, is expected to start the season in center for Durham. Last year Jennings stole 37 bases in 109 games for the Bulls.

Worth noting: Durham has won the South Division each of the last four seasons, including a Governors' Cup title in 2009. In 13 International League seasons the Bulls have never finished lower than in second place in the division.

GWINNETT BRAVES

Affiliate: Atlanta

Manager: Dave Brundage

2010 record: 72-71

2010 finish: Second

Top prospects: The Braves' rotation should include right-hander Julio Teheran, a 20-year-old considered to be Atlanta's top prospect, and 23-year-old lefty Mike Minor, who is ranked as the fourth-best prospect.

Worth noting: The outfield should include a pair of faces familiar to Mud Hen fans in Brent Clevlen, who played here from 2007-09, and Wilkin Ramirez, who wore a Toledo uniform in each of the previous three seasons.

NORFOLK TIDES

Affiliate: Baltimore

Manager: Gary Allenson

2010 record: 67-77

2010 finish: Tied for third

Top prospects: The Tides will feature two of Baltimore's top pitching prospects in its rotation: LHP Zach Britton was ranked second in the organization, while RHP Wynn Pelzer stands fourth.

Worth noting: Among the familiar faces expected to play for Norfolk is former BGSU standout Nolan Reimold, who has hit 19 home runs in 125 games with the Tides, and former Mud Hen lefty Clay Rapada.

NORTH DIVISION

BUFFALO BISONS

Affiliate: New York Mets

Manager: Tim Teufel

2010 record: 76-68

2010 finish: Third

Top prospects: Jenrry Mejia, the Mets' top prospect, is a 21-year-old pitcher who throws in the mid-90s with a devastating cutter. Other top prospects include OF Fernando Martinez and RHP Dillon Gee.

Worth noting: The franchise made $4 million in improvements to Coca-Cola Field in preparation for hosting the 2012 Triple-A All-Star Game.

LEHIGH VALLEY IRONPIGS

Affiliate: Philadelphia

Manager: Ryne Sandberg

2010 record: 58-86

2010 finish: Fifth

Top prospects: The pitching staff includes starter Vance Worley, a starter who ranks as Philadelphia's 11th-best prospect, and reliever Scott Mathieson, last year's closer who is the Phillies' 13th-ranked prospect.

Worth noting: Among the former Hens who could be on the IronPigs' roster is 1B Jeff Larish, RHPs Nate Bump and Eddie Bonine, and C Dane Sardinha.

PAWTUCKET RED SOX

Affiliate: Boston

Manager: Arnie Beyeler

2010 record: 66-78

2010 finish: Fourth

Top prospects: Shortstop Jose Iglesias, a native of Cuba who defected in 2008, is Boston's top prospect. Others of note include 1B Lars Anderson and OF Ryan Kalish.

Worth noting: Former Detroit first-round pick Andrew Miller, a left-hander who was sent to Florida in the Miguel Cabrera trade, is expected to be part of the PawSox rotation.

ROCHESTER RED WINGS

Affiliate: Minnesota

Manager: Tom Nieto

2010 record: 49-95

2010 finish: Sixth

Top prospects: Pitcher Kyle Gibson, the Twins' top prospect, is expected to anchor the rotation, while outfielder Ben Revere, Minnesota's fifth-best prospect, probably will start in centerfield.

Worth noting: Minnesota signed 12 six-year free agents in an attempt to avoid last year's dismal finish, when the Wings had the IL's worth record.

SCRANTON/WILKES-BARRE YANKEES

Affiliate: New York Yankees

Manager: Dave Miley

2010 record: 87-56

2010 finish: First

Top prospects: Catcher Jesus Montero, one of the top prospects in baseball, should return to the Yankees this season, while right-handers Andrew Brackman and Hector Noesi anchor the rotation.

Worth noting: Since Scranton/Wilkes-Barre joined forces with New York four years ago, the Triple-A squad has won four straight North Division titles. The streak current stands at five titles when you consider the 2006 Red Barons won the division in the franchise's final season with Philadelphia.

SYRACUSE CHIEFS

Affiliate: Washington

Manager: Randy Knorr

2010 record: 76-67

2010 finish: Second

Top prospects: First baseman Chris Marrero is the Nationals' ninth-best prospect after hitting 18 home runs for Double-A Harrisburg, Pa., last season.

Worth noting: Former Hen outfielder Jeff Frazier hopes to lead the Chiefs to their first playoff appearance since 1998 and first Governors' Cup title since 1976, the longest drought in the IL.



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