(ROCHESTER, MN) Thirty former Northwoods League players begin the season in the big leagues as opening day is celebrated throughout Major League Baseball. In fact, every opening weekend series will have at least one former Northwoods Leaguer in uniform as 22 of the 30 teams will be represented.
Most notably, the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals feature three players while the Detroit Tigers, one of the World Series favorites in 2012, have three and one other joining the team shortly.
St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Daniel Descalso (Wisconsin ’06) and outfielder Allen Craig (Alexandria ‘03/05) already earned their World Series rings and this year they are joined by newcomer outfielder Erik Komatsu (Brainerd ’06-07) who is a Rule-5 Draft player from the Nationals.
Infielder Danny Worth (Alexandria ’06) scored the game-winning run for the Tigers on Thursday. Worth, starting pitcher Max Scherzer (La Crosse ’04) and outfielder Andy Dirks (Brainerd ’06-07) will be welcoming rookie left-hander Drew Smyly (Duluth ’09) to the starting rotation as the team’s fifth starter. Smyly will become the first player from the NWL’s 2009 class to appear in the Major Leagues when he joins the Tigers in the second week of the season.
The Colorado Rockies with relief pitcher Matt Reynolds (Rochester ’06) and third baseman Jordan Pacheco (La Crosse ’05) are one of five teams with two NWL alumni on their opening day roster. The Washington Nationals have pitchers Jordan Zimmermann (Eau Claire ’06) and Tom Gorzelanny (St. Cloud ’01) on their staff. The New York Mets open the season with Lucas Duda (Alexandria ’06) as their everyday right fielder and pitcher Dillon Gee (Brainerd ’05) in the starting rotation. The Toronto Blue Jays have Eric Thames (La Crosse ’07) as their starting left fielder and pitcher Casey Janssen (Wisconsin ’01) in the bullpen. The Pittsburgh Pirates added veteran infielders Clint Barmes (Kenosha/Waterloo ’98-99) and Casey McGehee (St. Cloud ’01) in the offseason.
Four other players are with new teams in 2012. Pitcher Mark Melancon (Duluth ’04) will be one of the top set up men for the Boston Red Sox after an offseason trade from Houston. Relief pitcher George Sherrill (Kenosha ’97-98) is back with the Seattle Mariners, the team he broke into the Majors with in 2004, after signing as a free agent. Outfielder Juan Pierre (Mantiowoc ’96) extends his productive Major League career by joining the Philadelphia Phillies as free agent while fellow outfielder Josh Willingham (Austin ’98-99) signed as a free agent with the Minnesota Twins.
All-Star outfielders Curtis Granderson (Mankato ’01) of the New York Yankees, Andre Ethier (Rochester ’02) of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Ben Zobrist (Wisconsin ’03) of the Tampa Bay Rays are among ten other players that remain with the same team in 2012. Young lefty Chris Sale (La Crosse ’08) is now a starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox after working out of the bullpen the past two seasons. Veteran relief pitcher Mark Lowe (Wisconsin ’02-03) begins his first full season with the Texas Rangers. Pitchers Sam LeCure (Brainerd ’05) and Fernando Rodriguez (Duluth ’03) will look to stick in the big leagues for the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros, respectively, after spending time in the minors in 2011. Catcher Nick Hundley (Alexandria ’04), third baseman Jack Hannahan (Mankato ’99) and shortstop Brandon Crawford (Mankato ’05) all open the season as a starter. Hundley continues to improve with the San Diego Padres, Hannahan revived his career a season ago with the Cleveland Indians and Crawford gets his first chance to be a regular with the San Francisco Giants.
In the coaching ranks, former Duluth Huskies manager Terry Collins is in his second season as manager of the New York Mets. Meanwhile former Wisconsin Woodchucks manager Steve Foster begins his third season as the bullpen coach for the Kansas City Royals. Collins managed the Huskies for the final few weeks of the 2009 season. Foster managed the Woodchucks in 1998, 2002 and 2003.
After the debuts of Komatsu and Smyly, 88 former Northwoods League players will have appeared in the Major Leagues all-time. In 2011, 50 NWL alumni played in the big leagues.
The Northwoods League has more teams, plays more games, and draws more fans than any other Summer Collegiate Baseball League in North America. The League has 16 teams in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, and Ontario.