03/26/2008 8:00 AM ET
Texas League preview
Naturals set for inaugural season; Missions ready to defend title
By Steven Conley / Special to MLB.com
The Texas League, one of the oldest and most revered circuits in all of Minor League Baseball, has a history of churning out prospects to the Majors, and that trend figures to continue in 2008. Leading these rising stars will be a veteran corps of managers poised to push their club to the top and dethrone defending-champion San Antonio, owner of 11 league titles. Among the competition will be a new team in Northwest Arkansas known as the Naturals, and there will be no shortage of fireworks at ballparks throughout the season.
Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the Texas League in 2008:
2007 Results: 65-75
2008 Manager: Bobby Magallanes
Things to look forward to: Fans will be excited by some of the wacky promotions hitting Dickey-Stephens Park in 2008. L'il Kato makes an appearance for Midget Wrestling before the game on May 16, and Clunker Car Night returns Aug. 14, when one lucky fan will win a used car each inning. ... Postgame fireworks will light up the skies on May 30, July 1 and Aug. 30, and the ballpark will be open during downtown fireworks shows on May 25 and July 4. ... On June 28, baseball legends Brooks Robinson and Al Kaline will be in the house for a one-hour autograph session.
Corpus Christi Hooks
2007 Results: 67-73
2008 Manager: Luis Pujols
Things to look forward to: Giveaways galore will hit Whataburger Field in 2008, with everything from Nolan Ryan replica jerseys (April 6) and Craig Biggio figurines (May 3) to beach towels (May 21) and baseball cards (June 29). ... On June 8, the first 5,000 fans will receive a Hooks team photo along with access to an autograph session with the players. ... A postgame fireworks show highlights Fan Appreciation Night on Aug. 25. ... The Hooks, who won their only Texas League title in 2006, look to bounce back from a subpar 2007. Outfield prospect Ray Sadler, who led the league with 93 RBIs a year ago, figures to spend a good deal of time with the Hooks as he continues his trek toward the Majors. ... Right-hander Bud Norris posted a 4.75 ERA with 117 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings for Class A Lexington and allowed just one run over six frames in his only appearance for Class A Advanced Salem a year ago. The 23-year-old Californian could start the season with the Hooks, or at least see some time there in 2008.
2007 Results: 85-55; first-half South Division title
2008 Manager: Scott Little
Things to look forward to: It's no surprise that the RoughRiders have led the league in attendance the last three years. Dr. Pepper Ballpark, which opened in 2003, has received numerous awards for its unique design, feel and facilities. With a capacity of 10,600, the stadium could offer up an intense and exciting atmosphere for fans every night. ... The RoughRiders entered the Texas League in 2003 and have been winning ever since. A finals appearance in their first year was followed by a Texas League championship in 2004, while 2007 saw a first-half South Division title. ... Left-hander Kasey Kiker, the Rangers' top selection and 12th overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, could land in Frisco at some point in 2008. The 20-year-old Alabama native went 7-4 with a 2.90 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 96 1/3 innings for Class A Clinton last season. ... Second base prospect Jose Vallejo should see some time with the RoughRiders in 2008 after hitting .269 with 47 steals for Clinton and being named a Midwest League All-Star a year ago.
2007 Results: 67-70
2008 Manager: Webster Garrison
Things to look forward to: Following a losing season, the RockHounds look to revert back to the contending team that had more wins in 2006 than any other team in the league and won the championship in 2005. ... Garrison has spent seven seasons in the Oakland coaching system, including the last three as Midland's hitting coach and four years as a manager. He previously managed the club in 2004. ... Outfield prospect Richie Robnett, Oakland's first-round pick in 2004, will likely begin the year with the RockHounds after batting .279 with 18 homers, 39 doubles and 74 RBIs for Midland in 2007. A left-handed hitter, Robnett appeared in 10 games for Triple-A Sacramento and was a Texas League Midseason and Postseason All-Star as well. ... USA Softball will prepare for the 2008 Beijing Olympics by playing an exhibition game at Citibank Ballpark on June 27. ... Fans can enjoy Thirsty Thursdays during every Thursday home game, in addition to nine fireworks shows throughout the season.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals
2007 Results: 56-84 as the Wichita Wranglers
2008 Manager: Brian Poldberg
Things to look forward to: The Naturals first-ever game is a road affair on April 3 against defending-champion San Antonio. ... The team is scheduled to open brand-new Arvest Ballpark on April 10, also against the Missions. ... The addition of the Naturals to the Texas League is sure to spark an intrastate rivalry with the Arkansas Travelers. The two clubs will get that competition under way with a four-game series beginning April 17 at the Travelers' Dickey-Stephens Park. ... On April 11, Jake the Diamond Dog will make his first appearance at Arvest Ballpark. ... Fans can also enjoy fireworks following every Friday night home game. ... Steven Davis will be the first "Voice of the Naturals," and games can be heard on the new flagship station, KURM/AM 790.
San Antonio Missions
2007 Results: 73-66; second-half South Division title; Texas League champions
2008 Manager: Bill Masse
Things to look forward to: After claiming the championship last season, their third in six years, the Missions look to build on a squad that featured Texas League Player of the Year Chase Headley and Pitcher of the Year Josh Geer. ... Left-hander Wade LeBlanc went 7-3 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 starts for San Antonio after a promotion from the California League last year. The 23-year-old could see more action here in '08. ... Outfielder Kyle Blanks, who hit .301 with 24 homers, 31 doubles and 100 RBIs for Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore a year ago, figures to wind up in the Texas League at some point this year. ... Masse, who replaces Randy Ready, brings plenty of experience to the manager's seat. He spent six years as a coach and manager in the Yankees organization after four years in the Montreal coaching system. He managed Double-A New Hampshire last season.
2007 Results: 73-63; first- and second-half North Division titles
2008 Manager: Ron Warner
Things to look forward to: The Cardinals look to build on a season in which they won both half-season titles but were defeated by San Antonio in the Texas League Finals. ... Several prospects could spend more time in Springfield this season, including pitchers Jason Motte (2.20 ERA, 63 Ks, 49 innings) and Chris Perez (2.43 ERA, 62 Ks, 40 2/3 innings with Triple-A Memphis) and outfielder Joe Mather (.303, 18 homers, 46 RBIs in 64 games). ... Warner is entering his eighth season as a coach or manager in the Cardinals system and second as Springfield's skipper. ... The Cardinals will host the 2008 Texas League All-Star Game at Hammons Field on June 25. ... There will be 19 fireworks shows during the season, including 13 on Friday nights.
2007 Results: 69-69
2008 Manager: Stu Cole
Things to look forward to: Cole has led the Drillers to postseason appearances in each of his two seasons as skipper, collecting 144 wins in the process. ... Several prospects with speed to burn could make Tulsa as fast as any team in the league. Outfielder Dexter Fowler (.273, 20 steals in 65 games with Class A Advanced Modesto a year ago), second baseman Eric Young Jr. (.291, 11 triples and 73 steals for Modesto) and infielder Corey Wimberly (.268, 36 steals with Tulsa) are all expected to spend significant time with the club. ... Pitching should be a strength as well. Right-hander Greg Reynolds, Colorado's first selection in 2006 and the second player taken overall, was 4-1 with a 1.32 ERA in eight starts for Tulsa a year ago before shoulder surgery ended his season. He has an outside chance of starting the year with Triple-A Colorado Springs. ... Another highly touted arm belongs to right-hander Casey Weathers, Colorado's first pick (No. 8 overall) in 2007 out of Vanderbilt. He struck out 19 in 13 2/3 innings with Class A Asheville last year and is expected to close games for the Drillers in 2008.
Steven Conley is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.