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Thruway cities in the middle of the action

As far as the International League's 2012 season is concerned, New York State is the center of the universe. A look up and down the Thruway:

The Bisons, of course, will garner plenty of attention during their 25th anniversary season at Coca-Cola Field for hosting the Triple-A All-Star on July 11 (and the Triple-A Home Run Derby on July 9.).

The top positional prospect in all of baseball will be playing in Syracuse as the Chiefs' roster will feature 19-year-old outfielder Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Washington Nationals.

The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Harper hit just .256 in 37 games last year at Double-A Harrisburg but has been deemed ready for Triple-A after batting .333 with six home runs in the Arizona Fall League and .286 in big-league spring training. The Nationals say he'll spend most of his time playing center field.

Infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a flop last season in his first year of a $9.2 million contract with the Minnesota Twins, will be playing in Rochester. Nishioka, an eight-year veteran of Japan's Pacific League, broke his leg early in the year on a slide at second base by Nick Swisher of the Yankees and never really recovered as he batted just .226.

The biggest New York story will be how several cities will serve as patchwork homes for the vagabond Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, who will play a whole season without one.

For this year, the Yankees will be playing 37 "home" games in Rochester's Frontier Field and eight more against the Red Wings there as the visiting team. They will play 10 at Syracuse's Alliance Bank Stadium, seven at Batavia's Dwyer Field and six at Coca-Cola Field. Outside of New York, they'll have eight home games at Lehigh Valley and four at Pawtucket.

Several of the games within the North Division will be staged with Scranton batting as the home team, including six in Buffalo (May 24-27 and Aug. 20-21). It puts a strain on the operations of the local clubs, as the Bisons will be home, for instance, 16 of 17 days from May 15 to 31.

It's a major issue in Rochester, where the ballpark will host 109 games on a field known as one of the IL's worst surfaces. Scranton will have a dedicated clubhouse, the former visitors' room, and other visitors like the Bisons are getting shuttled to an auxiliary room for this season. The players will live in the Rochester area.

The folks in Moosic, Pa., are supposed to be completely renovating PNC Field this year to give the Yankees a new home for 2013. One problem. Demolition of the old park has yet to begin, so that means there's been no construction on the $40 million new one. Suddenly, you wonder about 2013.

Lackawanna County (Pa.), which owns the team, has been negotiating to sell it to the Yankees but those talks have not been going well and the renovation being is held up until they're complete because the funds from the proposed $14.5 million sale will go towards the new park.

Demolition was supposed to start March 20. So far, nothing. And the International League has made it very clear the barnstorming of 2012 is a one-year arrangement. Stay tuned.

On the field, the Yankees have two major pitching prospects with Scranton in Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos. They will be the first options for a spot start in New York. Veterans like outfielders Dewayne Wise and Jack Cust and infielder Bill Hall dot the roster and lefty Mike O'Connor, a standout the last couple of years for the Bisons, is in the bullpen.

Here's a look around the rest of the IL as we head into 2012:


Top non-Harper prospects

Gwinnett's Julio Teheran was the IL pitcher of the year last season after going 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA but didn't make the Atlanta rotation this spring. The G-Braves also return IL RBI champ Stefan Gartrell, who had 94. Pawtucket catcher Ryan Lavarnway had 32 homers last year between Double-A and Triple-A. Lehigh Valley OF Dominic Brown just needs a little more seasoning before becoming an everyday player in Philadelphia. Durham returns shortstop Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick from 2008. Louisville adds Neftali Soto, who hit .272 with 30 homers in 102 games in Double-A. But where is he going with Joey Votto entrenched in Cincinnati? Eastern League batting champion Starling Marte, a .332 hitter at Altoona, will patrol center field for Indianapolis on his way to Pittsburgh.


In the dugout

Hall of Famer Ryne Sandburg is back for his second season in Lehigh Valley after leading the IronPigs to the Governors Cup finals last year. Joel Skinner, who led the Bisons to a North Division title in 2000, is back in the league as the manager at Charlotte after several years in the big leagues as a coach in Cleveland and Oakland. Other former Buffalo players making their debut as IL managers are ex-Herd infielders Tony Beasley (Syracuse) and David Bell (Louisville).


IL items

There are no affiliation changes this year. Columbus (Cleveland) has won back-to-back IL titles and Triple-A titles. The Clippers will try for the IL's second three-peat after winning three straight from 1979 to '81. The Triple-A National Championship Game will be Sept. 18 in Durham; no team has won more than one except Columbus. Rochester has endured back-to-back 90-loss seasons for the first time in more than 100 years and the Twins need to put a winner on the field this year for the first time since 2006. Big-league veteran Dontrelle Willis will pitch out of the bullpen in Norfolk (Baltimore) Three-year Bison Jesus Feliciano is in Durham while Nick Evans is in Indianapolis.