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03/07/2006 8:00 AM ET
Cal League redefines hitter-friendly
Wood, Drew, Stewart, Kendrick among 2005 graduates
Former first-round pick Jeff Clement is expected to start the season with Inland Empire. (David Stoner)

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Players and managers come and go, and affiliations change in the California League. But there is one constant -- offense.

In 2005, 26 California League players batted .300 or better. Five drove in at least 100 runs, more than any full-season circuit in the Minor Leagues. The league-wide batting average was .286, with two teams -- the Lancaster JetHawks and High Desert Mavericks -- topping .300.

The Visalia Oaks averaged 5.1 runs per game and ranked last, a run-and-a-half behind the league-leading Mavericks. In short, the California League is not for the faint of heart and definitely not for pitchers.

"If you can pitch in the Cal League, if you can win here, you're probably a pretty good pitcher," said Lenn Sakata of the San Jose Giants, who won Manager of the Year honors after guiding his team to the league championship in 2005.

Again, the numbers back him up.

Sakata's team posted a league-best 4.24 ERA, with half the league allowing at least five runs per game. The Giants, in fact, were the only club that yielded fewer hits than innings pitched.

"Because of where we play, the majority of parks are more receptive to hitters. There's a higher elevation, the ball carries. That's just the way it is," Sakata said. "The overall caliber of play in our league is very, very good. Guys who play well at our level seem to be able to go up higher, sometimes in the same year. That speaks well for the organizations that comprise the league and the type of players that are in it."

Last year, those players included five of Baseball America's top 25 prospects -- Angels shortstop Brandon Wood (No. 3), Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew (No. 5), Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick (No. 12), Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart (No. 16) and Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (No. 25).

Who will be this year's attention-getters? The defending champions in San Jose could have two of their playoff heroes back. Outfielder Brian Horwitz and left-hander Jonathan Sanchez did not arrive until the postseason, but Horwitz hit .471 in six playoff games and Sanchez was 2-0 with a 0.77 ERA in two starts.

Horwitz and Sanchez came up from an Augusta GreenJackets' team that finished second in its division in both halves of the South Atlantic League season.

"You look at what happens at low (Class) A, and we had a pretty good low A club," Sakata said. "We feel we can measure up with anybody offensively. Because Augusta is a pitcher's park, you really don't know what kind of pitching we've got."

Judging by Sakata's criteria, the Inland Empire 66ers could challenge for a playoff spot in the Southern Division. Expected to start the season in the Cal League are Mariners prospects Jeff Clement and Matt Tuiasosopo, who helped the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers reach the decisive fifth game of the Midwest League Championship Series last September.

The Lake Elsinore Storm captured the first-half South Division title last year and could be well-stocked to duplicate the feat. Shortstop Matt Bush, the top overall pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, is expected to continue his deliberate climb through the Padres' system in the California League, where he'll be joined by 2005 picks Chase Headley and Nick Hundley.

Bush might not be the only former No. 1 pick in the California League. Depending on what unfolds during the rest of Spring Training, Justin Upton -- last year's top selection by the Diamondbacks -- could begin his professional career with Lancaster.

New JetHawks skipper Brett Butler is one of four former Major League players among the league's seven managerial newcomers. The others are Bobby Mitchell with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, Chad Kreuter with the Modesto Nuts and Gary Thurman with the 66ers.

The other rookie managers are Joe Szekely of the Visalia Oaks, High Desert's Jeff Carter and Carlos Subero of the Bakersfield Blaze. Rick Renteria is back for his third season as Lake Elsinore skipper, with Todd Steverson of the Stockton Ports the only other holdover.

Speaking of former big leaguers, Glenallen Hill (Modesto), Jeremy Bonderman (Modesto) and Dallas McPherson (Rancho Cucamonga) are among those who will be featured on bobblehead giveaways this season. The JetHawks will give away 1,500 Gen. Chuck Yeager bobblehead dolls on Aug. 18 at their third annual Aerospace Appreciation Night.

Daren Smith is a staff writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.