It's been more than 600 days since the Arkansas Travelers have taken to Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock for game action, but that ends tonight when the Seattle Mariners' Class AA affiliate begins its 2021 campaign at home with an in-state series against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
In that time, inevitable change has come -- as has for nearly every minor-league organization, none of which played last summer as a result of covid-19.
There was a restructuring of the minor leagues, cutting the number of clubs down from about 160 to 120 (four affiliates per team). Major League Baseball then realigned the minors --creating four levels and moving many franchises to a new level as a result -- and it implemented different experimental rules for each level. All four infielders will have to have their feet on the dirt when a pitch is thrown at the Class AA level.
That's not to mention a modified 120-game schedule featuring six-game series to limit travel, with off days each Monday and games Tuesday through Sunday.
The Travelers have their own set of alterations. There's a new manager in first-time skipper Collin Cowgill and attendance, at least for the start of the season, will be limited slightly (although the Travelers expect to have at least 50% capacity).
But some things will stay the same. A third of the Travelers' initial 27-man roster have previously played in North Little Rock, and 15 of the 27 will enter the season with at least some Class AA experience.
Here's a look at some of the players to watch as the year begins:
SP Darren McCaughan
The reigning Texas League Pitcher of the Year, McCaughan struggled at the end of 2019 after getting called up to Class AAA Tacoma. In 9 starts, he went 0-6 with an 8.06 ERA in 41 1/3 innings. Although the Pacific Coast League is notoriously tough on pitchers, the Mariners' 12th-round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft saw his home runs allowed per nine innings jump from 1.1 to 2.4 and his walks per nine nearly triple from 0.9 to 2.4.
McCaughan returns to Dickey-Stephens Park, where he did some of his best work two years ago. McCaughan held opponents to two or fewer earned runs in 13 of his 17 appearances with the Travelers.
RP Jack Anderson
Anderson is one of three returning relievers to the Travs, and he excelled after getting the call-up from high-A Modesto in 2019. The righty out of Penn State logged a 1.50 ERA in 41 appearances, allowing just 1 home run in 54 innings.
Whether Anderson will be the closer, as he was in college, remains to be seen. None of the Travelers' top four saves leaders from 2019 are on this year's team, and Cowgill's managerial style is something that he'll figure out as his debut season goes on.
C Jake Anchia
One of the youngest players on the roster, Anchia is getting his first taste of Class AA ball. The Mariners took him with their seventh-round pick in 2018, sending Anchia to low-A Everett for the final part of that season before bumping him up to high-A Modesto the next season.
Although Anchia scuffled there, he wound up hitting 12 home runs with Class A West Virginia. But the 24-year-old struck out 107 times in 319 plate appearances in 2019, so that's something he'll need to cut down on if he's going to succeed in Class AA. The Mariners only have one catcher in their top-30 prospects, per MLB.com, so there's a path forward for Anchia if he can improve in 2021.
IF Jordan Cowan
Cowan was the third-leading hitter for the Travelers in 2019 among players with at least 300 plate appearances, hitting .264 with a .345 on-base percentage. Although the 37th-round pick has been in the Mariners' organization since being drafted in 2013, it was just his second time playing above Class A.
Cowan has managed to stick around with a good eye at the plate despite hitting only 10 home runs in his minor-league career. He may no longer be a prospect but he should be an important clubhouse presence for the Travs, and he's only 26 years old, so there's still room to grow.
OF Dom Thompson-Williams
The fifth-round pick of the New York Yankees in 2016 had some growing pains upon arriving in Class AA to start the 2019 season. Thompson-Williams slashed .234/.298/.391 with 151 strikeouts in 477 plate appearances.
Where he'll actually play is something to keep an eye on. Thompson-Williams started 44 games in center, 32 in right and 20 in left two years ago. The Travs have four outfielders listed on their roster, but three of them started games in center during their respective 2019 seasons.
Who's not here?
The notable names that are starting the season at Class AAA Tacoma are outfielder Jarred Kelenic and catcher Cal Raleigh. Kelenic, the No. 4 prospect in all of baseball, spent his final 21 games of 2019 with the Travelers but hit six homers in 92 at-bats and will likely reach the majors later this season.
The No. 5 overall prospect, Julio Rodriguez, will begin his third minor-league season just 30 miles north of Seattle with high-A Everett. If the 20-year-old keeps on the fast track, he could very well make it to North Little Rock during the second half of the 2021 campaign.
The same goes for No. 26 overall prospect Emerson Hancock. He'll start with the AquaSox but the No. 6 pick in the 2020 MLB Draft may soon need a new challenge.