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Fort Myers Miracle lefthander Pat Dean delivered a pitch in the fading light in a recent game against the Bradenton Marauders. Many ballparks in the Florida State League are used as spring training bases for major-league teams, so the parks tend to be bigger — and the pitchers happier.

Leah Millis, Special to the Star Tribune

Prospects search for power in pitching-rich FSL

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • July 2, 2012 - 11:13 PM

FORT MYERS, FLA.

Angel Morales jumped at the pitch as he swung, but the slider, thrown by former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole, appeared to dart away from the Miracle center fielder's bat just as quickly. Morales winced and, with an exaggerated exhale that asked "Why me?" trudged back to the Miracle dugout, his batting average melting a few points more, down to .212 with the strikeout.

"I tell these guys all the time -- this is a tough league. It's not easy, and it's going to take a while to adapt to it," said Jake Mauer, manager of the Twins' advanced Class A team and older brother of their franchise catcher. "You have to be ready to fail. Don't accept it, but don't let it overwhelm you, either."

That's always a danger in the Florida State League, perhaps the most difficult challenge most prospects face along the road to the major leagues. The Twins normally don't like to introduce a high draft pick, particularly a position player, to professional baseball in such a demanding environment, but they made a recent exception.

Levi Michael, the switch-hitting infielder from North Carolina who was drafted with the 30th pick of the first round in 2011, played three years of top-level college ball and was deemed ready to start at Fort Myers by the Twins.

"I'm glad I'm in this league," Michael said, but his reason is a reflection of what young ballplayers go through here.

"Struggling can be a good thing. It shows your weaknesses and what you need to work on," said the 21-year-old, whose debut season included a .168 average with 24 strikeouts in May. "From a mental standpoint, that's what separates some of the guys who will move up and eventually become big-leaguers from some guys who might fade out at this level."

There's plenty of fading out under the sunshine in this dream-killing league. Fort Myers is hot, humid, a million miles from big-league paydirt -- and really, really hard.

"There are some great pitchers down here," said Michael, whose recent 7-for-20 surge has pushed his average up to .230. "Seems like there's a lot of them."

That's been true for years; the FSL has long had a reputation as a pitcher's league. In the Miracle's previous 20 seasons as a Twins affiliate, only one Minnesota draftee has ever hit more than 20 home runs in a season, and that slugger -- since- released first baseman Brock Peterson, a 49th-round draft pick who smacked 21 homers in 2006 -- never made the major leagues.

Hitter unfriendly from way back

Justin Morneau, as an example, slugged .597 with a dozen home runs in a half-season at Quad Cities in 2001. But when he was promoted, he managed only four the rest of the way in Fort Myers. Trevor Plouffe, the same: He bashed 13 home runs in Beloit in 2005, then had only four in the same number of at-bats the next season in Florida.

"The Florida State League's got to be the least hitter-friendly league in baseball. Really, it's just tough on everybody," said Plouffe, who leads the Twins with 18 home runs this year. "You're drained because of the heat and humidity. The air is thick, and it's raining every single day, and the ball doesn't go at all. Big parks. Zero fans. It's a tough league."

Current Miracle third baseman Jairo Perez is coming off a 15-home run season at low-A, but has only five this season. "If this was Beloit, he'd have at least 15 by now," Mauer said.

It's not only the Twins, either. The FSL's records date back to 1936, and in those 76 seasons, only four players ever have managed to hit 30 home runs in a season; the league record of 33 has stood for more than 40 years, since cup-of-coffee Oriole James Fuller got there in 1971. Meanwhile, a dozen hitters in each major league reached 30 homers last season alone.

Fewer games, bigger parks, weather

Part of the discrepancy is because of the 140-game schedule, 22 games fewer than the majors. And part of the reason is that hitters who prove that they can hit here, don't stay here.

"Nowadays, if a guy hits 10 or 15 home runs, he's going to be out of there pretty quick," said Jim Rantz, the Twins' senior director of minor-league operations. "We're looking for power."

Florida State League hitters are, too; they've been searching for decades.

"Look at our gaps, our batter's eye [some 405 feet away in straightaway center field]," Mauer said. "I've seen a lot of balls that would be home runs in [lower Class A] Beloit turn into fly balls. We joke around that you've got to be a man to hit one out down here. You hit 20 home runs in this league, it's probably like hitting 30 or more in any other league."

Those fences are one reason. Most Florida State League parks double as spring-training homes for major-league teams, and are built with larger dimensions than plenty of minor-league parks around the country. The quality of pitchers tends to be high, too, with more college pitchers, armed with more than only a fastball, than in the lower levels.

Then there's the weather -- beautiful in April and May, but frequently blistering hot, with heavy humidity, once summer arrives. The temperature takes a toll on everyday players as the season wears on, until "you're so worn out by the end of the game," according to Morneau. "It's hard to maintain your strength."

It's hard to maintain your confidence, too, as Michael is learning. A hip injury kept him from playing after he signed with the Twins last summer, so "it's really a tremendous challenge for him to start his career at this level," Mauer said. "He's been good in the infield, and he seems determined, not discouraged, about improving at the plate."

He's also still learning the secrets to playing every day, with wood bats, and against nothing but pro-level pitching.

"In college, we played four games a week, so you had some days off to recover and work on things," the 21-year-old Michael said. "You usually see a good arm on Friday, and maybe Saturday too, but bullpens run pretty thin and [in] midweek games, you don't see those quality arms. So there are some times where you can just get by on talent alone. But that's not the case here. You've got to develop your skills and develop your focus and just learn to grind it out."

Don't the Twins worry about the effect a pitching league might have on their hitters' confidence and development?

Not really, Rantz said. It's an important stage in the development of future Twins, "and they figure it out pretty quick. It's a tough league, but it's part of the process," Rantz said.

"It's not easy," Mauer added, "but if you can get out of here with some success, you've got a chance to make the big leagues."

Staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this report.

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