Dickey-Stephens Park sits on the north side of the Arkansas river at one end of the Broadway Bridge that connects the state’s capital, Little Rock, to North Little Rock. The park is named after Hall of Fame New York Yankees catcher Bill Dickey, whose career spanned from 1928-1943 before serving two years in WWII and then retiring. Born in Bastrop, LA, Dickey’s parents moved to Kensett, AR when he was quite young and attended Searcy High School in Searcy, AR. He is buried in Memorial Park in Little Rock. Dickey is perhaps one of the most famed members of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, not to mention one of the greatest catchers in major league history. The Stephens part of the park’s name is the typical businessman insisting on memorializing himself.
The park by the river is home to the Double-A Arkansas Travelers. For thirty-five years the Travelers were an affiliate of the regional favorite St. Louis Cardinals. Then came an eight-year stint of affiliation with the Los Angeles Angels before signing a development contract with the Seattle Mariners in 2017.
This season the Travelers won the first half of the Texas League with a league’s best 43-25 record to qualify for the playoffs and currently sport a league’s best 26-19 record in the second half. The Travelers’ overall winning percentage of .611 bests AA affiliates for perennial major league powerhouses like the Los Angeles Dodgers (Tulsa Drillers), the Houston Astros (Corpus Christi Hooks), and the St. Louis Cardinals (Springfield Cardinals).
The Arkansas Travelers, a Seattle Mariners affiliate, have a very real chance of becoming the Texas League Champions in just a few short weeks.
A Rapidly Improving Farm System
Of the five Mariners in the top 100 prospects, according to MLB.com, three of them – RHP Logan Gilbert, 1B Evan White, and RHP Justin Dunn – are playing in Arkansas. The encouraging news for fans at the big-league level, two of them are actually the lowest ranked of the top prospects in the organization. At 74th in MLB and 77th respectively, White and Dunn are behind OF Jared Kelenic (24), Gilbert (51), and OF Julio Rodriguez (54). And, the list does not include former top prospect LHP Justus Sheffield who is also with the Travelers.
As frustrating sometimes as all of GM Jerry Dipoto’s moves can feel to fans in Seattle, he has fairly quickly transformed the Mariners’ farm system into one that MLB.com ranks 9th in all of baseball. Five of the top 10 in the organization according to MLB are playing in Dickey-Stephens Park.
The Players in Arkansas to Watch
Logan Gilbert is a 6’6”, 225-pound right hander out of Winter Park, FL who just turned 22 in May. He’s moved quickly, pitching in the Sally League in West Virginia, A+ at Modesto, CA, and now in AA with the Travs in Arkansas with his promotion in July. With 21 starts under his belt this season, he has a 2.15 ERA across all levels (3.80 in Arkansas) with 130 strikeouts in 108.2 innings. MLB.com expects Gilbert to hit the majors in 2022.
Twenty-three-year-old 1B Evan White started the season at AA and in 294 AB is hitting .289/.339/.476 with 13 HR. The Wildcat from the University of Kentucky was drafted in the 1st round by the Mariners (17th overall) in the 2017 Amateur Draft. His highest tool grade, according to Fangraphs, is his fielding, a skill woefully lacking on the current Mariners major league roster. White is expected to make the big leagues next year and he may see Seattle in September when the rosters expand.
Justin Dunn was one of the pieces of the trade with the New York Mets that sent Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to Queens while the Mariners snagged Kelenic. Dunn is by no means a throw in, however. Dunn was the Mets 1st round pick (19th overall) in 2016. In Arkansas the soon-to-be 24-year-old righty is roughly 1.3 years younger than his competition. In 20 starts over 105.2 innings, Dunn has pitched to a 3.75 ERA with 124 K. Dipoto has already said publicly that Dunn will be a call up in September.
Justus Sheffield will also return to the majors when rosters expand. After struggling at AAA Tacoma, Sheffield has been dominant at AA in the Texas League. Over 66.1 innings, the left-hander acquired from the New York Yankees in the James Paxton deal, is 5-2 with a 1.49 ERA while competing against competition 1.3 years older than he is. Command had been an issue with Sheffield earlier, but in Arkansas he has struck out 77 while only walking 14.
These Travelers Will be Mariners
A few things are going on in the South, in Arkansas, and specifically in North Little Rock. The heat and humidity are real, unlike the mild Seattle summer. There’s real BBQ, pork cooked low and slow over Oak or Hickory smoke. None of the applewood so prevalent in the Pacific Northwest. There are cicadas, strange little underground insects that emerge after 13 to 17 years to fill the night with a loud sonorous song. And, there is a championship caliber baseball team getting ready for the playoffs. While Seattle may not get (or want) the Summertime most Arkansans take for granted, Mariners fans may soon be enjoying going to the ballpark to watch Gilbert, White, Dunn, and Sheffield, from this season’s Arkansas Travelers, along with even higher ceiling, younger prospects like Kelenic and Rodriguez, bring playoff baseball back to the Emerald City.