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New park, speedy OF steal the IL scene

A speedy center fielder and a new ballpark dominate the headlines as the International League moves into the 2013 season.

On the field first, keep your eyes on Louisville Bats leadoff man Billy Hamilton – if you can move them fast enough across the diamond. The 22-year-old, who has been converted from shortstop, set a minor-league record last year with 155 stolen bases while playing between Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola. That was 12 more than former Cardinals star Vince Coleman had at Class A Macon in 1983.

All this came after Hamilton compiled 103 steals in 2011 at Class A Dayton. The 6-foot-1, 160-pounder was the Cincinnati Reds’ second-round pick in 2009 and has played mostly shortstop. With a need in the outfield at the big-league level, the Reds have opted for the conversion and hoped it wouldn’t hurt Hamilton’s bat.

Hamilton has a career .289 average in the minors and hit .323 last year at Bakersfield and .286 at Pensacola as national media attention built. The Reds are adamant he needs a full year in Triple-A but temptation will be great for a quick move if the parent club has a need.

Meanwhile, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees have had a huge need for years and finally fill it this season. PNC Field in Moosic, Pa., built in 1989 as a double-decker park to mimic Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, was completely demolished in the offseason but the field was kept intact.

A new stadium was built around it at a cost of $43 million and the team has been completely rebranded as the “Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders”. A name-the-team contest chose the new moniker and the logo is of a porcupine as a concession to one of the other names from the contest.

The park features a one-level arrangement with suites, party decks and a new HD scoreboard. Always one of the IL’s most picturesque settings at the foot of Montage Mountain, the ballpark had fallen into disrepair and crowds had dropped dramatically.

But after a full season with no baseball, as the team barnstormed homeless last season mostly around New York State, attendance is expected to bounce back this season. The park is about four hours from Buffalo and the Bisons make their first visit there June 8.

There are no affiliation changes in the IL for this season other than the Bisons’ switch from the Mets to Toronto. As for other ballpark news, this will be the 24th and final season for Knights Stadium, Charlotte’s antiquated facility that is actually across the border in Fort Mill, S.C. It will be replaced in 2014 by a downtown Charlotte facility to be called BB&T Ballpark.

And Syracuse’s ballpark has been re-named NBT Bank Stadium. It opened in 1997 as P&C Stadium and has been Alliance Bank Stadium the last few years.

Here’s a look around the IL:

Prospect Watch

Hamilton will get the bulk of the attention but this is a terrific year for young prospects in the IL. Wil Myers, the Omaha outfielder who was an MVP at last year’s Triple-A All-Star Game here, was traded to Tampa by Kansas City in the James Shields deal and will open at Durham. … Lehigh Valley will feature stud Phillies outfield prospects Daren Ruf and Tyson Gillies. Ruf led the entire minor leagues with 38 homers last year and was the Eastern League MVP at Double-A Reading. … Pitcher Trevor Bauer will start in the Columbus rotation after getting farmed out by the Indians. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft by Arizona, he was the Diamondbacks’ minor-league pitcher of the year last year after going 12-2, 2.42 ERA with 157 strikeouts in 130 innings for Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Reno. … Indianapolis will start with Gerrit Cole leading the rotation. The 22-year-old was the No. 1 overall pick by PIttsburgh in 2011 and went 8-7, 3.71 in his pro debut last year between Class A and Double-A, fanned 129 in 126 innings. Starter Jameson Taillon, picked No. 2 overall in 2010 (between Bryce Harper and Manny Machado), will open in Double-A but should be in Indy soon.

Names to know

Former Bisons slugger Mike Hessman is back in the league at third base in Louisville. He’s the active minor-league home run leader with 384. … Former Boston standout Daisuke Matsuzaka joins Bauer to start the season in the rotation at Columbus.

Pitcher of the year and Triple-A All-Star starter Tyler Cloyd is back at Lehigh Valley after going 12-1, 2.35. … The Lousiville rotation will include pitcher Armando Galarraga, the right-hander who lost his perfect game for Detroit in 2010 by the infamous botched call at first base from umpire Jim Joyce. … UB graduate Steve Geltz, who made his big-league debut last year out of the Angels bullpen, was traded to Tampa Bay late in spring training and will open in Durham. … Ryan Lavarnway (Pawtucket), Austin Romine (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) and Tony Sanchez (Indianapolis) give the Red Sox, Yankees and Pirates hope at catcher and look to break through with full-time duty in Triple-A. … Former Bisons catcher Chris Jimenez hit over .300 in Tampa’s big-league camp but had options left and will open in Durham. … Outfielder Russ Canzler, the 2011 IL MVP at Durham, will be in Norfolk. He shuttled through several organizations on waivers this winter, including Toronto.

In the dugout

Dave Miley (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) and Charlie Montoyo (Durham) are back for their seventh seasons as manager of their clubs, a rarity in Triple-A. … Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg is gone from Lehigh Valley after two years to perhaps become Charlie Manuel’s heir apparent in Philadephia. Dave Brundage moves from Gwinnett to Lehigh Valley. … Former Bisons Joel Skinner and Tony Beasley are back for their second years at Charlotte and Syracuse, respectively. Skinner managed the Bisons to the 2000 North Division title. … Jim Riggelman, who last managed in the big leagues for Washington, takes the helm in Louisville. … Gary DiSarcina takes over defending champ Pawtucket after Arnie Beyeler was promoted to Boston.