Fresno Grizzlies fans need not fret about an offseason change that turned the Triple-A franchise into a Houston Astros affiliate.
So said the featured guests at the Grizzlies’ annual Hot Stove banquet, who have few or no ties to the Astros — with the group including a former manager fired by Houston three years ago.
The Astros might not have finished with a winning record the past six years, but the Grizzlies could turn out to be the big beneficiaries moving forward with an infusion of good young talent progressing its way through the Astros system on the way to the big leagues.
“When you finish in the bottom of the division like they have the last few years, you get high No. 1 picks,” said Harold Reynolds, a former major leaguer turned national commentator who served as the Hot Stove keynote speaker Saturday night.
“They’re a team that’s on the rise, you hope, with all their No. 1 draft picks. I think that’s a direct effect on Fresno and why it’s going to be great for this (franchise). Fresno’s going to be that bridge for good players on their way to the bigs leagues and the Astros. It’s going to be exciting here in Fresno.”
Cleveland Indians bench coach Brad Mills, a Visalia native and Exeter High alum who managed the Astros from 2010-2012, also believes the Astros are developing star-level players who will reach Triple-A Fresno at some point, even if it might take a season or two. Mills was the major league manager when now-rising Astros stars George Springer and Jose Altuve were developing in the minors.
The latest wave of prospects working their way up includes shortstop Carlos Correa and starting pitcher Mark Appel.
“Fresno is going to be able to see a lot of talent come through,” Mills said. “I think it’s going to make it fun for everybody. These guys have won at the lower levels already. So you’re going to be able to see an organization with some pretty strong talent that is learning how to play.”
In addition to the players that will be arriving from a farm system that’s been ranked by some as having the best collection of talent in the minors, the Grizzlies will be managed by a three-time Pacific Coast League champion.
Tony DeFrancesco led the Sacramento Rivercats to PCL titles in 2003, 2004 and 2007 and has his sights set on leading the Grizzlies to their first PCL championship. The Grizzlies, who had been the San Francisco Giants’ Triple-A team the past 17 seasons, haven’t reached the playoffs, let alone challenge for a PCL crown, since their inaugural year in 1998.
If the Astros’ success at the lower levels is any indication — Class-A Lancaster won the California League last season — more wins could be in store for the Grizzlies.
“We’ve got some great players up and down the system,” DeFrancesco said. “And I think right about now is when they start peaking. You’ve got to pay your dues early when you draft them and you’ve got to develop them.
“And now it’s time for these guys to get to the upper levels of the minors and go and help out the major league team.”
That potential for an improved product on the field could offset some of the lingering pain fans might be feeling from Fresno and the Giants ending a long relationship that dated to when San Francisco had its Class-A team here from 1958-1987.
(Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the Fresno Giants played in town through 1984.)
“I kind of yelled at (Giants President) Larry Baer about that because I was disappointed as a longtime Fresno Giants fan,” said Heidi Watney, a host on the MLB Network and Fresno native. “But the Astros have a lot of great prospects. And the cool thing for the people in Fresno is you can care about your team and not necessarily base all the success to the big-league club.”
Prep stars honored
Hanford West High’s Makenna Young was named Female Player of the Year and Madera’s Alec Gamboa the Male Player of the Year when the Grizzlies handed out their annual honors to the best in local high school softball and baseball from last season.
The Clovis softball team was the Team of the Year and Fresno baseball coach Ken Papi was the Coach of the Year.
Radka to Ellsworth
Dick Ellsworth, a standout Fresno High pitcher who had a sterling major league career in the 1960s, was honored as the 2015 Al Radka Award winner.
The Radka, named for the man who created and hosted the Fresno Hot Stove League Dinner from 1948-79, is presented annually to an individual who gives back to the Fresno community through baseball.