The RailRiders entered their 16th season as a New York Yankees affiliate with high hopes of returning to the International League playoffs. In 2022, the team fell just short of a worst-to-first run in the IL East, missing the postseason by three games. The Yankees named Shelley Duncan, the 2009 International League MVP, as the team’s manager for the 2023 season on January 20. Duncan, who holds the record for the second most home runs in an SWB career, was returning to the New York Yankees after time working within the Arizona Diamondbacks, Toronto Blue Jays and Chicago White Sox organizations.
“It means the world to me to return to the New York Yankees,” Duncan said. “The way I was taught the game of baseball at the professional level is the Yankee way. The values that have been instilled in me on how to play the game were established pretty much on day one after I got drafted. Everywhere I have gone since my time with New York, I have taken those values and details of what makes a winning baseball player with me. I let them shape who I was as a player and who I am as a manager. To be able to come back to the organization is extremely special. Not only do I feel nostalgic about it, but it gives me a good feeling inside to go back to a place that matches all of those values that make me who I am as a baseball person.”
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s Opening Day roster included five players on the Yankees 40-Man roster: Deivi García, Matt Krook, Oswald Peraza, Randy Vásquez and Greg Weissert. Weissert was the reigning Pitcher of the Year in the IL; the first RailRider to receive this award since 2002. Krook recorded 155 strikeouts in 2022 to set a new single-season franchise record. Fifteen players on the first roster had Major League service time.
The RailRiders opened the season in March, marking the earliest any International League season had begun. Jake Bauers homered twice as the SWB bested Buffalo 2-1 on Opening Night at PNC Field.
After dropping two of three to the Bisons over the weekend, the first road trip took the club to Lehigh Valley. After winning 4 out of 6 against the IronPigs over five days the team returned home but struggled against Syracuse. April concluded with a two-week road trip, sending the team back to Saint Paul, Minnesota, for a second consecutive year before capping the month in Worcester.
Over 26 games, SWB went 9-17, batting .241 over the first full month of the year. The pitching staff, like the rest of the International League, would struggle as offensive numbers rose, sporting a 5.14 earned run average. One high point that would ultimately be consistent during the season was the home run tally. The RailRiders hit 39 in April, which was only a precursor of things to come.
Despite the early offensive struggles, a few players stood out. After his Opening Night heroics, Bauers hit .284 over 20 games in April with seven additional home runs and a team-high 18 runs batted in, earning a big league call-up on April 29.
Andrés Chaparro started his Triple-A tenure by going hitless over his first 29 at-bats before unloading one 444 feet at Lehigh Valley for his first home run of the season. He would hit seven more in the month.
“Any time you jump a level, there is going to be a time to settle in,” stated hitting coach Trevor Amicone. “You saw it with Anthony Volpe here and then in the big leagues. You see it with most players. For Chaparro, it will be about his consistency and what is able to do on a daily basis to keep that consistency. Going through that first struggle helped him learn many things and create lessons to help him be more consistent over the course of this season and his career.”
Estevan Florial was designated for assignment by New York just a few days into the season and was eventually outrighted to the RailRiders. He homered twice in his first game with SWB and never looked back, reaching base in 50 of his first 51 games of the year.
“I mean, it a just tough moment,” Florial said in April. “I’m not going to say it was easy. It’s nothing like that. But for me, I believe in what I can do. Say ‘Alright. Stay prepared and be ready.’ I went to Tampa and kept training. Stay prepared because I know all those scenarios that can happen. I thought, if the worst thing to happen is that I come back to Triple-A, then for me that is alright. I will come back here and prove one more time what I can do.”
And prove it he would.
The club started May with a two-week homestand, taking four out of six against Rochester before splitting a series with Omaha. The Storm Chasers were making their first trip to Moosic since 1990 when they played as the Royals in the American Association. The Omaha series relied heavily on home runs and featured the first two walk-off wins of the season. Outfielder Michael Hermosillo hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth during a STEM School Day on May 10. Three days later, catcher Ben Rortvedt hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to cap a comeback from down three to steer an 8-6 win.
In mid-May, the RailRiders returned to Charlotte for the first time since the 2019 season. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre launched 20 home runs during the week, including 18 over the first four games. Florial alone would hit five out of the leadoff spot. This barrage vaulted the team to the top of the MiLB home run ranks, a position that they would hold or by just a few swings shy over the remainder of the season.
After taking four wins in Charlotte, the team kept winning the following week against the WooSox, garnering another four-win series. A victory on May 30 brought their record back to an even .500 for the first time since April 14.
The pitching staff settled in, shaving a full run and a half off their season ERA.
Starting pitcher Mitch Spence shined in May, going 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA over 36.2 innings of work. Spence was just two months into what would become a career year when he would set new personal bests in starts, strikeouts and innings pitched.
“Mitch is a really unique guy and you’re starting to see him take ownership on the execution of pitches,’ said Sam Briend, the Yankees Senior Director of Pitching. “He’s starting to tighten up his lines and dial them in and I think that’s going to be the separator for Mitch. As he continues to improve that, I think we’ll see him get better and better.”
Vásquez would make his Major League debut in May and has been a factor in various stints with New York during his rookie campaign. He allowed two runs on four hits in his big-league debut on May 26 while striking out six.
After 51 home runs in May, just two short of the single-month franchise mark, the RailRiders would soon become the first 2023 Minor League team to reach the 100 and 150 home run plateaus. The offense vastly improved, batting .298 in May, as part of a 17-9 month.
With all that clout and despite playing half their games in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, were the RailRiders a home run-hitting team?
“Heck yeah we are,” Duncan exclaimed. “You know what… You wouldn’t expect that out of a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre club. The ball doesn’t travel at PNC Field like it does in some of those PCL parks or small little places in our league. We have some guys that are really scary at the plate.”
After the two wins to close May and even their season mark out at 27-27, the RailRiders hit their worst skid of the season at the start of June, dropping seven straight. After four consecutive losses at Lehigh Valley, the club returned home to face Norfolk amidst air quality issues in the Northeast. The six-game series would ultimately have one game canceled; the lone cancelation in 2023 to date. SWB lost each of the first three games in the series against the eventual first-half champion Tides before an epic win during game two of a doubleheader on June 10.
After building a 5-2 lead thanks to a home run by Franchy Cordero, Norfolk battled back with three runs in the top of the seventh to tie the game. Each team plated their extra-inning runner in the eighth and were both held scoreless in the ninth. The RailRiders did not use another pitcher after 16 innings of play that day and instead turned to Wilmer Difo, an infielder with two prior appearances on the mound while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2022. Difo worked two scoreless innings and recorded one strikeout, keeping the International League’s best offense at bay. In the bottom of the eleventh, Jesus Bastidas singled in the game-winner in a 7-6 victory.
The remainder of June would be consistently inconsistent as Scranton/Wilkes-Barre would not win or lose more than three in a row at any point. The team average dropped to .244 for the month and the staff ERA was once again over five en route to a 9-15 record.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre closed the first half of the season with a 34-40 mark and finished 14 games behind Norfolk.
Pitching coach Graham Johnson, despite some bumps along the way, was generally pleased with the progression of the arms over the course of the first half.
“I think we did a lot of good things,” Johnson said. “Obviously, at this level, we play to win the games, but the most important thing is that we have guys ready to go up when they are called upon. [Jhony] Brito started the season with New York. [Randy] Vásquez went up. [Nick] Ramirez went up. Krook represented us well. The stat line may not have looked good, but in terms of what he was in control of, he did well. Weissert has gone up and down and handled it well. In that realm, I think we’ve done a good job and also have some guys that have put themselves on the radar that weren’t before.”
The second half began with a strong series in Syracuse as the RailRiders took four out of five from the Mets with a rainout.
Everson Pereira, the Yankees fourth-best prospect according to MLB Pipeline, joined the roster on July 4 and started his time with SWB in a big way. The 22-year-old would work a nine-pitch at-bat in his first Triple-A plate appearance, concluding with a three-run homer. The Independence Day game was the first sellout at PNC Field since August 2019.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre claimed three wins against the IronPigs that week, including a walk-off winner on a Difo home run on July 7.
Pitcher Clayton Beeter joined the roster from Somerset in late June, making a pair of starts before being selected to participate in the MLB Futures Game during the All-Star festivities in Seattle, where he pitched two-thirds of an inning during the annual showcase.
After a three-game series in Norfolk out of the Major League All-Star break, the team came back to PNC Field for a series with Worcester, which saw the introduction of catcher Austin Wells to the RailRiders lineup. Wells, the number two prospect at the time, was called up to replace Ben Rortvedt, who had been recalled to the Majors.
The RailRiders up-and-down play continued in July with 10 wins to 12 losses. The staff earned run average climbed, in large part, due to a tough road swing to Buffalo. The offense continued to click, though, with a .280 average and 35 more home runs.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre caught fire in early August during a two-week homestand. The RailRiders took four of six from Rochester and won another four games the following week against Syracuse. After splitting a series at Polar Park in Worcester, the team returned to PNC Field for a seven-game, six-day series against the IronPigs.
On August 22, Peraza and Pereira were recalled to the Yankees. Peraza hit .268 for the RailRiders with 14 home runs and 36 runs batted in over 68 games with a few stints in the Majors prior to this call. Pereira had appeared in 35 games for SWB since his July promotion, batting .312 with eight home runs and 33 runs batted in.
“Oswald Peraza had been working really hard with Trevor [Amicone] to really tune up his swing and work on some deficiencies,” said Duncan. “Being more aggressive with pitches in the zone helped put him in a position to drive the ball to the gaps and not be just a pull hitter. Defensively, he was really a human highlight reel. I’m excited to see him up there and hope it’s a good long stint so he can feel comfortable.”
“Everson had his best at-bats when the game was on the line,” Duncan continued. “He was able to make adjustments during at-bats. Even some mid-at-bat adjustments. He’s doing things that the average 22-year-old doesn’t do. This is a future middle-of-the-order bat in the big leagues.”
Jasson Domínguez would fill one of those roster spots in Moosic. The highly touted 20-year-old hit .254 for Somerset over 109 games with 15 home runs, 66 batted in and 37 stolen bases. He would quickly be a factor and was even faster to get promoted again.
The RailRiders won six games in that series, catapulting them into playoff contention. An 18-10 August put the team just two games out of first place.
Domínguez appeared in just nine games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, batting .412 with ten runs batted in and walking six times. He and Wells would be the Yankees two call-ups on September 1.
On September 3, infielder Jamie Westbrook would launch his 20th home run of the season, setting a new career single-season mark. He also set a personal best with 62 walks and still has a few weeks left to improve those tallies. He has also been a strong presence in the RailRiders clubhouse from day one.
“I just try to keep the vibes up. Make sure everyone realizes this isn’t life or death because the game will beat you down if you let it. And really just trying to get everyone to have fun, keep it loose because I think that’s when everyone plays their best,” Westbrook said. “Especially for me if I keep that environment every day, walking into the clubhouse with good energy, I think it’s going to translate on to the field, so I just try to be myself and hopefully that’s contagious.”
SWB was ultimately eliminated from playoff contention during the second-to-last series of the season. After a difficult two-week road swing through Rochester and Columbus, the team split the final homestand series with Buffalo before splitting the final six games of the year at Syracuse.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre finished the season with a 73-75 overall record and went 39-35 in the second half. The team was quite successful at PNC Field in 2023, going 42-32 in Moosic this season.
Chapparo and Florial continued to attack SWB’s home run history books. Both have set new career highs in the category. Florial finished with 28 when the Yankees selected him to the Major League roster. Chapparo hit his 25th of the season on the last day of the year.
Spence finished with 153 strikeouts, two shy of matching Matt Krook's franchise mark set in 2022.
The RailRiders closed the season out with 174 stolen bases, setting a new franchise record.
It was a fun and challenging year,” Duncan stated. “We had seven players that were with us from day one all the way to the end and 70 total that appeared in games for us. We had some players come and go. We had many tremendous players that we graduated to the big leagues, some for the first time and some back up. We had a bunch of Minor League free agents that were major contributors in helping us win. We made an impact here and we had a very big impact on the big-league club. I could go on and on about the contributions of our guys this season. I feel like we had success stories across the board and can’t wait to get rolling on 2024.”