The California League may be a few notches below the Majors on the baseball flow chart, but it is a necessary stop for some of baseball's most promising prospects. For hitters, it's a place to flourish in an environment that has long been friendly to sluggers. For pitchers, it's a place to thrive or at the very least survive as they try to silent some of the most productive bats in the Minors.
Here is a breakdown by position of the some of the key California League players to watch this upcoming season.
Catcher: Andrew Susac, San Jose Giants
The Giants' 2011 second-round pick will have much to prove in his first professional season, as the team's No. 15 prospect finds himself in an organization ripe with catching prospects. (Tommy Joseph and Hector Sanchez rank ahead of Susac at Nos. 5 and 13 respectively.) Susac showed some power in the summer of 2010 in the wooden-bat Cape Cod Baseball League, batting .290 with six doubles, five home runs, 15 RBI and 13 walks in 29 games, before missing all of 2011 with a broken wrist.
Honorable Mention: Jack Marder, High Desert Mavericks
Marder, a former University of Oregon Duck, could challenge Susac, a former Oregon State University Beaver, for the title of best California League catcher. He already proved he can hit Class A Advanced ball after batting .324 over 18 games for High Desert a year ago.
First Baseman: C.J. Cron, Inland Empire 66ers
The No. 4 Angels prospect played extremely well in his pro debut for Rookie-ball Orem last season, hitting .304 with 13 home runs and 41 RBI in just 34 games. A knee injury forced the 16th overall pick of last year's Draft out of the lineup prematurely last August, but he looks to be healthy enough to start at first in 2012. He told MiLB.com in February that, although he hasn't played the first base bag since college, "I'm very capable of playing the position. I'll get the chance to play a full year at first base now, and I'm definitely looking forward to it."
Second Baseman: Cory Spangenberg, Lake Elsinore Storm
The 10th overall pick in last June's draft signed early and reaped the rewards early. He hit .384 in 25 games for Class A Short Season Eugene before earning a call-up to Class A Fort Wayne, where he cooled off a bit, hitting .286 over 47 games. He was rated as having the best strike-zone discipline in the Padres system and was ranked as the No. 81 prospect in baseball by MLB.com entering the 2012 season. Throw in his 25 steals a year ago, and Spangenberg should be dangerous for the California League defending champions this season.
Third Baseman: Adam Duvall, San Jose Giants
The former University of Louisville star made great strides in his second professional season last year, particularly in the department of plate discipline. His on-base percentage jumped from .318 in 2010 to .385 for Class A Augusta in 2011. Duvall displayed some power too, ranking in the top five of the South Atlantic League in home runs (22, fifth), RBIs (87, third), slugging percentage (.527, third) and OPS (.912, third). In a hitter-friendly league like California, those already stellar numbers have a chance to get even better for San Jose this season.
Shortstop: Billy Hamilton, Bakersfield Blaze
Look at Hamilton's 2011 stat line from Class A Dayton, and one thing immediately jumps out: his 103 stolen bases. He told MiLB.com, "My main goal was to double what I had [in 2010]. I had 48, so I knew I needed 90-something. When I saw I was getting close to 100, I was like, 'Man, I'm so close.'" That triple-digit number and the rest of his skill set helped place him at No. 34 overall on MLB.com's list of prospects and second in the Reds organization behind catcher Devin Mesoraco. His wheels are obviously fine, but the switch-hitter will be looking to improve his .340 OBP in Bakersfield. If he can do that, he should be the league's best leadoff hitter.
Honorable mention: Chris Owings, Visalia Rawhide
No one doubts that Owings could one day be a starting shortstop in the Majors, but that day may be slightly farther off than originally expected. The No. 4 D-backs prospect hit just .246 for Visalia in 2011, but a return to California could bring increased comfort and results for the 20-year-old.
Rymer Liriano, Lake Elsinore Storm
Baseball's No. 60 prospect has made two separate trips to the California League with subpar results, but 2012 should be the year he is finally able to break through in Class A Advanced ball. He performed well in all aspects of the game for Class A Fort Wayne last season (.310 average, .882 OPS, 65 stolen bases), and if he can finally put those tools together this year for Lake Elsinore, the Dominican right fielder may be the best all-around player in the California League.
George Springer, Lancaster JetHawks
The older Springer has less experience at the pro level than Liriano, but his skill set is more or less the same. The 11th overall pick of the 2011 draft and former University of Connecticut outfielder can hit for power, steal more than just the occasional base and roam the outfield with ease. He is prone to the strikeout at times -- he struck out once every 3.47 at-bats with UConn in 2010 -- but that became less of an issue last season. He'll most likely start out in center, although his game projects as a right fielder at the higher levels.
Domingo Santana, Lancaster JetHawks
Perhaps a change of scenery was all that the lanky right fielder needed last season. After being traded from the Phillies organization to the Astros as part of the Hunter Pence deal, Santana's numbers greatly improved even though he remained in the Class A South Atlantic League. In 17 games for Lexington following the deal, he hit .382 with five home runs and 21 RBIs. That's two fewer homers and 11 fewer RBIs than he had in 96 games for Lakewood. The JetHawks will hope that the post-trade magic continues for Santana this season.
Right-handed pitcher: Zach Lee, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
The 6-foot-4 hurler could be throwing footballs this spring as the quarterback for Louisiana State University instead of pitching baseballs for Rancho Cucamonga. But the 28th overall pick in the 2010 draft chose to sign with the Dodgers two years ago, and the move has resulted in the righty being named the organization's top prospect entering 2012. Lee features a fastball that can touch the upper 90s along with a curveball, slider and changeup that all keep opposing batters off-balance. After posting a 9-6 record with a 3.47 ERA for Class A Great Lakes in 2011, it'll be interesting to see how he handles the hitters in California.
Honorable mention: A.J. Cole, Stockton Ports
The A's acquired baseball's No. 88 prospect in the offseason as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade with the Nationals, and as a result, the 6-foot-4 fireballer could bring some serious heat to California this season. His fastball touches the mid-90s with a breaking ball and changeup to boot. His starts should become big-time events in Stockton.
Left-handed pitcher: Chris Reed, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
Joining Lee in the Quakes rotation will be Reed, the closer-turned-starter out of Stanford. The No. 5 Dodgers prospect was drafted 16th in the 2011 draft, and the organization immediately made Reed a starter. He only pitched three times as a professional starter last season, so he may still be in a transition period. But if he can maintain control of his plus fastball along with his steady changeup and slider, then he should be able to make said transition an easy one.
Honorable mention: Tyler Matzek, Modesto Nuts
The year 2012 could be one of redemptions for the No. 6 Rockies prospect. He struggled mightily with a 9.82 ERA in 10 starts for Modesto last season before taking some time off to work out the kinks with his personal pitching coach. The skills and the potential are there for Matzek, but whether the results come with it this season remains to be seen.