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Previewing the PCL: Albuquerque Isotopes03/12/2013 7:31 PM ET
By Dan Kopf
In last week's Milb.com article, "Home is (Maybe) Where the Offense is: A Look into Minor League Park Factors and Run Environments", author Ashley Marshall examined the impact Minor League ballparks have on teams' offenses. In her piece, Marshall lists the Albuquerque Isotopes' ballpark, Isotopes Park, as the most hitter friendly park in Minor League baseball (the Sky Sox' Stadium, Security Service Field, was ranked as the third most hitter friendly park in the PCL). Despite their ballpark's hitter friendly confines and 5,300 ft elevation, it was Albuquerque's pitching that led them to an 80-64 record and the American Southern Division title.
In John Ely's first start of 2012, he gave up seven runs in only three innings. The Isotopes' pitcher seemed destined for a rough season at Triple-A, but rebounded from his abysmal start to have one of the best seasons in Isotopes' history. Ely finished the season leading the PCL with 14 wins, 165 strikeouts and a 3.20 ERA in 27 starts, giving the 26-year old the league's Triple Crown. His historical performance earned him the Triple-A Pacific Coast League's 2012 Pitcher of the Year and the Los Angeles Dodgers Branch Rickey Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The Isotopes will have to find a way to replace his outstanding numbers in 2013, as the righty was traded in the offseason to the Houston Astros for minor-league pitcher Rob Rasmussen.
Although he was overshadowed by Ely, Topes' pitcher Stephen Fife also had a successful year. In 24 starts, he posted a 4.66 ERA, but won 11 games and struck out 93 batters. The 26-year old also played an integral role in Albuquerque's divisional title. In his last ten starts he had five games in which he went six or more innings and gave up three or less runs. Fife is aiming for his numbers to improve even more in 2013, when the club becomes the second PCL team to install a humidor.
Last year left fielder Jerry Sands didn't have to worry about the humidor affecting his offensive numbers. Sands was the main cog in the Topes' offense in 2012, hitting 26 home runs and driving in 107 runs in 452 at-bats. Albuquerque will have to replace the slugger in their lineup as he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in the offseason. Hoping to fill in the void in the lineup left by Sands is right fielder Scott Van Slyke. Van Slyke hit .327 in 97 games and hit 18 balls over the fence.
Possibly joining Van Slyke in the outfield late in the season is top Dodgers' prospect Yasiel Puig. Last summer the Dodgers signed the 22-year old from Cuba to a seven-year $42 million contract. The outfielder immediately made a splash in the Dodgers' organization, hitting four home runs in just nine games for the Arizona League Dodgers. Puig moved up the ladder to the Single-A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes where he continued his success and had 17 hits in 14 games. The star prospect has only had 82 career minor league at-bats, but his talent could elevate him to Albuquerque sooner than expected.
Aside from Puig, the Dodgers are also expecting other top prospects to play at Isotopes Park this year. Former LSU quarterback Zach Lee has impressed Dodgers' brass with his talent. Lee started last season with the Quakes, but was called up to the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts where he started in 13 games and had a 4.25 ERA and 51 strikeouts. Lee's teammate at Chatanooga, Matt Magill, might also make an appearance in Albuquerque this year. The power throwing right-hander struck out 168 batters in only 146.1 innings. The 2008 draftee also posted a 3.75 ERA and won 11 games for the Lookouts.
Pitching is rarely the focus when the Isotopes and the Sky Sox meet. In four games last year the two teams combined for 59 runs at Security Service Field. The Sox managed to overpower the Topes in the series, winning three out of four games. Helping slug Colorado Springs to the three victories was Rockies' outfielder Michael Cuddyer, who was on a rehab assignment after suffering from a strained right oblique. In two games the savvy veteran had six hits, one home run, and three RBIs. Third baseman Brendan Harris also had an outstanding series, collecting an RBI in each game and belting two home runs.
This year Colorado Springs travels to Isotopes Park to test out the opponent's new humidor in a four-game series beginning on Monday, May 20 and ending on Thursday, May 23. The Sox have historically struggled against the Isotopes on the road, posting a 66-81 all-time record against Albuquerque.
Next Tuesday the Sky Sox series, "Previewing the PCL", will take its first look at the Sky Sox division, the Pacific Northern, beginning with the last place Tacoma Rainiers.
For updates during spring training regarding your favorite Sky Sox players, follow our PR department on twitter at @SkySoxGameDay or check out our blog at http://coloradospringsskysox.mlblogs.com/.