This past season marked the rebranding of New Orleans' Triple A baseball team to the Baby Cakes.
Other than the new logo and uniforms, however, the team looked and played a lot like the team formerly known as the Zephyrs. For the ninth time in 10 years, New Orleans had a losing record. The Baby Cakes were 55-85, finishing tied with the 1999 Zephyrs as having the fewest wins since the franchise moved from Denver in 1993.
It was a very trying season that had manager Arnie Beyeler, whose two-year contract with the Marlins expired at the end of the season, wondering out loud about his job status. The Baby Cakes did not win any of their first 21 series, and only a post-All-Star break resurgence sparked by newcomers gave them any semblance of success.
“It's probably been the most inconsistent season I've ever seen from a standpoint of just different dynamics,” said Beyeler, who has coached in the Minor Leagues for 13 years and has Major League coaching experience. “We never really put it all together at one time.
“Sometimes we pitched well, sometimes we didn't. Sometimes we hit well, sometimes we didn't. Sometimes we played defense well, sometimes we didn't.”
After a strong late stretch of solid pitching, the Cakes finished third in the Pacific Coast League in earned-run average (4.25). However, for the third consecutive season, New Orleans was last in hitting (.255), hitting with runners in scoring position and home runs.
That the Cakes again would suffer at the plate was visible early on, as the team batted in the .230s. In the second year of a new management regime, the parent Miami Marlins' minor league system has yet to produce a wealth of baseball prospects. That resulted in another season of depending heavily on free agents with Major League Baseball experience. And, many of the young players brought up through the Marlins' system were not yet ready for Triple A primetime.
“At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of pressure,” said outfielder Moises Sierra, who became the first player in the New Orleans team's history to lead it in batting average (.294), RBI (68) and stolen bases (18). “When you are a free agent, there's more pressure you put on yourself.”
Beyeler said that with so many free agents, it took a while for everybody to get on the same page.
“The first two months of the season, we played uphill a lot,” he said. “We were giving up runs early in the game, and we're not good enough to play up hill. So that was frustrating early. A Triple A team needs more good home-grown prospects.”
The Cakes went into the All-Star break on July 9 with a 35-55 record. After the break, they went 20-28, even after losing six of their last eight games.
A group headed by former New York Yankees great Derek Jeter, who won five World Series rings, is awaiting approval from Major League Baseball of its purchase of the Marlins. That brings with it promise of an improved farm system.
The Baby Cakes had one glimmer of what the future may hold for them and of what other PCL teams often showcase. Third baseman Brian Anderson, the Marlins' top hitting prospect, came up from Double A Jacksonville on Aug. 15 and batted .339 in 33 games before being called up to Miami on Sept. 1.
The Baby Cakes also added two veterans who played well during their late show of improvement. Infielder Christian Colon was signed on June 29 and batted .295 in 48 games. Blazing fast outfielder Eury Perez hit a mind-blowing .375 after being obtained in a trade with Pittsburgh that brought him from Triple-A Indianapolis.
“Anderson drives the ball and drives in runs,” said outfielder Brandon Barnes, one of the team's leaders. “Perez gets on base and does his thing. Colon is a guy with a lot of big league experience. (Infielder) Mike Aviles also helped with his leadership.
“And, the other thing was that the younger guys had gotten experience.”
However, along with the continued development of prospects, the Triple A team exists to provide spare parts when the parent team is in need. Eight Cakes players, led by catcher Tomas Telis and pitcher Brian Ellinton, spent a significant number of games with the Marlins in helping them through another season hit hard by injuries.
On the business side, Baby Cakes owner Lou Schwechheimer said the team is on pace with its three to five year project.
“I'm thrilled with the advertising corporate partnership community,” he said. “That translates to more suites, signage in the outfield, group outings and season-long programs.
“Our attendance is up for the year (to 10th from 16th), even though we had rain in eight of our last 17 home games.”
“We made a very bold decision to change the team's name, and it wasn't met with 100 percent approval rating. But our brand identity is up. The Zephyrs were 28th to 30th in (Triple A) merchandise sales over the last decade. But we are going to finish in the top 20 of he nearly 200 (Minor League) teams in the country in merchandise sales.”
Schwechheimer said Cakes officials are in talks with the Louisiana Stadium & Exposition District to improve the drainage and the playing field at the Shrine on Airline and continue to add other amenities.