It's easy to say that the Tri-City Valleycats, 2 years removed from winning the New York-Penn League title, are the surprise team in the league this year. The 'Cats sit atop the Stedler Division with a 38-14 record after dispatching Staten Island on Friday night, but before the game, they lost three key players to promotion within the Astros organizational chain.
Outfielder Andrew Aplin, among the league leaders in batting and stolen bases, and relief pitcher Kenny Long have been sent to Lancaster in the California League, while Catcher-DH Jobie Morales was promoted to Lexington of the South Atlantic League. Aplin & Morales were two of seven Valleycats selected to play in the NYPL All Star Game, set for Tuesday night in Niles, Ohio. So far, the 'Cats have made do with the changes, as, according to an article in today's Troy Record, manager Stubby Clapp indicated that Emilio King, returning to Tri-City after a stint in Lexington, and infielder Neiko Johnson, in his second season in Troy, would platoon in center field to replace Aplin. Catcher Cristian Moronta was transferred from Lexington to Tri-City to replace Morales on the roster in an even swap of backstops.
Given that there's less than a month left in the regular season, it's a surprise the Astros hadn't promoted a lot of these players sooner, and it's very, very likely that Aplin, Morales, Long, and others will eventually surface in the bigs in due course. In the Valleycats' 11 seasons, 26 players have eventually made it to "The Show", though a good number of them ended up with other teams in doing so.
And no matter how deep into the postseason the 'Cats go, there's no guarantee that Clapp will return for a 3rd year in Troy. His predecessor, Jim Pankovits, left for a job in the Mariners organization after winning the NYPL title 2 years ago. Clapp is following the same pattern as Pankovits. The 'Cats struggled in Pankovits' 1st year, then won it all. Then again, the Valleycats' better years usually are in even-numbered years, with division titles in 2004, 2006, and 2010, the latter being the championship year. Under Clapp, the 'Cats battled to stay out of the cellar last year, but got off to a stronger start this year, and so far, haven't looked back. That's more than can be said for the parent Astros, of course, once a perennial contender, but now struggling to get over .500 while preparing to switch leagues in 2013, moving from the NL Central to the AL West and a greater in-state rivalry with the Texas Rangers.
While they haven't gone public with plans, I'd not be surprised to read or hear of playoff tickets going on sale in the next two weeks, barring a total collapse on the order of the Braves and Red Sox of last year. That's the last thing fans in the home district want to hear, but the reality is that if there are more promotions in the final month of the season, that and not diminished play in the field might be what spoils the 'Cats' chances of a 2nd title in 3 years. We'll just have to see, because that's why they play the games in the first place.