Minor League Baseball kicks off the season on April 3 and leading up to Opening Day, MiLB.com will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each league. Here's a team-by-team analysis of what you might find in the California League.
Diversity is the calling card of California, from its wide-ranging climates to the various ethnic groups that settled along the 1,000-mile-long coast.
The California League is no different.
Traditionally known as a hitter's circuit, with one ballpark having its center-field fence situated just 354 feet from home plate, the California League is expecting an influx of highly rated young pitching prospects in 2008. First-round picks from the 2007 First-Year Player Draft abound within the 10-team league, and previously unknown hitting talents could emerge as dominant sluggers.
Many clubs are also keenly aware of their proximity to Hollywood -- the entertainment center of the nation. Some teams have fun recreating their own versions of memorable baseball movie scenes. Others remember favorite TV shows and invite former stars to participate in the activities. One team even borrows an idea from "Seinfeld" and has a game that features absolutely nothing.
Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the California League in 2008:
2007 results: 57-83
2008 Manager: Damon Berryhill
Things to look forward to: Pitching will probably be a strength for the Blaze. Left-hander Kasey Kiker is one of the better young left-handers in the Minors, throwing in the low to mid-90s with his six-foot frame. He should be the ace of Bakersfield's staff. Right-hander Omar Poveda held Midwest League hitters to a .208 average last year with Clinton before a five-game stint with Bakersfield. The big Venezuelan also fanned 153 in as many innings. The young hurlers will have to learn how to keep the ball down in the zone as the center-field fence is just 354 feet from home plate. On the bright side for the pitchers, home plate faces west and puts the setting sun in the eyes of the batter, and the fans sitting behind home plate.
High Desert Mavericks
2007 results: 54-86
2008 Manager: Jim Horner
Things to look forward to: He may not start the year with the Mavericks, but 2007 first-rounder Phillippe Aumont could find himself in the desert at some point. The French-Canadian right-hander has a 98-mph fastball and a hard, lively sinker that should allow him to survive the hitter's haven that is the CAL League. ... Going from a hard-throwing righty of the future to one of the past, High Desert plans to honor alum Brad Penny on Saturday, July 12 with a Brad Penny Mavericks T-shirt Giveaway Night. Penny, originally drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks, had one of the best seasons in High Desert history in 1998, going 14-5 with a 2.96 ERA, striking out 206 in 164 innings. ... After three seasons behind the microphone, radio broadcaster Jon Rosen has left the desert, opting for a similar post with a minor league hockey team last August. Alex Freedman will begin his first full year of play-by-play duties on April 3 when High Desert starts the year against Lancaster.
Inland Empire 66ers
2007 results: 72-67; first-half South Division Wild Card
2008 Manager: John Valentin
Things to look forward to: The 66ers have a new manager, but he is a familiar face. John Valentin replaces Dave Collins after spending last season as the team's hitting coach. ... Left-hander James Adkins, a supplemental first-round pick by the Dodgers in 2007, may see some time in the CAL League. He left the University of Tennessee as the Vols' all-time strikeout king, fanning 380 in three seasons. ... Outdoor enthusiasts should be packing the stands at Arrowhead Credit Union Park on Aug. 2 as the 66ers will be giving away six four-wheel, all-terrain vehicles. ... Inland Empire and Curves fitness clubs will team up for Curves' Ladies Nights. Every second Tuesday of the month, the 66ers and Curves will honor one area woman for her hard work, dedication and determination to improve the quality of life in her community.
Lake Elsinore Storm
2007 results: 74-65; second-half South Division Wild Card, lost in league championship to San Jose
2008 Manager: Carlos Lezcano
Things to look forward to: Right-hander Drew Miller hopes to rebound from shoulder woes in the second half of 2007 when he starts the year with the Storm. The Padres want Miller, owner of a potent fastball-curve combo, to work on developing his changeup so he may move up the ladder faster. ... At the other end of the battery is catcher Mitch Canham. The Oregon State product saw limited time last year in his first season as a pro, but his reputation precedes him. Canham had testicular surgery in mid-July after being struck on his protective cup, but returned just two weeks later and helped the Storm during their playoff run. ... Former New York Yankees phenom Shane Spencer makes his coaching debut with the Storm as their new hitting coach. ... On July 7, all seats will be free on Nothing Night! But there's one catch: No music, no public address announcer, no concessions, no mascots. Nothing. A great promotion for baseball purists, but a potential nightmare for parents with small children.
2007 results: 83-57; first-half and second-half South Division Champions
2008 Manager: Chad Epperson
Things to look forward to: The idea of first baseman Lars Anderson playing as many as 70 games at cozy Clear Channel Stadium both delights fans and worries opposing pitchers. The 20-year-old slugger hit 10 home runs and 35 doubles with Class A Greenville, but is still learning to pull the ball. ... The JetHawks have ditched their old blue-and-gold scheme as part of their new identity. Lancaster now features darker and lighter shades of blue along with red trimmed with gold. The team has also changed their logo. ... Lancaster is doing its part to combat the obesity epidemic by running Weight-loss Wednesdays. Reserve section tickets will be priced according to staff members' weight, healthy menu items will be featured, weight-loss contests will be running throughout the season and before games, fans will be allowed to walk along the warning track.
2007 results: 76-64; second-half North Division Wild Card
2008 Manager: Jerry Weinstein
Things to look forward to: Right-handed reliever Casey Weathers may figure to be the Rockies' closer of the future, armed with an upper-90s fastball, a low-90s slider and an aggressive mound presence. Mike McKendry, who led Asheville in home runs, might be behind the plate. Asheville is a good-hitting park, but McKendry's 22 homers were eight more than his closest teammate. ... Every game at John Thurman Field will feature an Extreme Pizza Strike Out Batter. A player from the opposing team is chosen before the game for the contest, and if he whiffs, everyone in an entire section gets a free slice from Extreme Pizza. So no pressure on the home pitcher, whatsoever. ... Last season, Modesto Nuts staff, players and mascots tried to channel their inner Tom Hanks and Ron Howard as the team recreated several movie scenes and posted the results on YouTube.com. The Nuts remade several memorable moments from movies like The Sandlot, Bull Durham and Major League with varying degrees of success.
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
2007 results: 69-71
2008 Manager: Ever Magallanes
Things to look forward to: For catcher Hank Conger, the 2008 season may be something of a homecoming. The second-generation Korean grew up an hour south of Rancho Cucamonga in Huntington Beach. One of the pitchers Conger will be catching is righty Sean O'Sullivan, who won ERA titles in the Pioneer and Midwest Leagues. ... Hollywood has brought reality show-forerunner American Gladiators back to the airwaves, so the Quakes wanted to bring back one of the original cast members. Raye "Zap" Hollitt will be making an appearance before and during the May 17 game against High Desert while the team will wear special uniforms for the occasion. ... The Quakes have found a new radio home, with all 140 games being broadcast on KSPA-1510AM. KSPA previously carried games for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and is also the home station for the USC Trojans and the San Diego Chargers.
San Jose Giants
2007 results: 73-67; first-half North Division Champions, 2007 California League Champions
2008 Manager: Steve Decker
Things to look forward to: San Jose should see an influx of pitching talent this year. Among the new hurlers will be 2007 first-round pick right-hander Tim Alderson, who struck out 111 while walking just four in 73 innings during his senior year in high school. Joining him could be southpaw Ben Snyder, who led the Giants organization with 16 wins at Class A Augusta. ... The Giants already have Hawaiian Night and Japanese Heritage Night as regular promotions, and will now add a third ethnically themed evening: Italian Heritage Night. The date has yet to be determined, but Municipal Stadium will feature Italian-themed concessions, vendor booths and in-game promotions. ... Long-time Giants fans will see a familiar face in the dugout this year as Steve Decker takes over for Lenn Sakata as manager. Decker spent the last three years with Short-Season Salem-Keizer, winning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
2007 results: 64-76
2008 Manager: Darren Bush
Things to look forward to: Right-hander Trevor Cahill could bring both his pitching talent and intelligence to Stockton in 2008. Cahill, who had committed to Dartmouth before he was drafted in the second round by Oakland in 2006, tied for sixth in the Midwest League in wins (11) and fanned 117 in 105 1/3 innings with Kane County. ... Outfielder Jermaine Mitchell fits the Athletics' offensive profile as a high on-base percentage player with pop, but he also has the added dimension of speed. Mitchell stole 24 bases with Kane County last season. ... Among some of Stockton's unique promotions are Prom Gone Wrong Night on May 8 and Canadian Tuxedo Night on a date to be determined. Staff members will be dressed in tuxedos and prom dresses on May 8 and pictures from their own proms will be displayed on the video board while a cheesy cover band performs. On Canadian Tuxedo Night, fans and staff will wear denim clothing from head to toe, which is what forms the "Canadian tuxedo." Mullets are optional, but encouraged.
2007 results: 77-63; second-half North Division Champions
2008 Manager: Mike Bell
Things to look forward to: Visalia should see plenty of Arizona's top 2007 Draft picks. Right-handers Wes Roemer (sandwich pick) and Barry Enright (second round) both come from California colleges -- Cal State-Fullerton and Pepperdine, respectively -- and feature lively fastballs in the low 90s. ... Recreation Park will be "Reconstruction Park" for a while. After falling far below facility standards set by Major League Baseball in 1985, the Oaks began several upgrade projects on March 17, including a new outfield fence, dugouts, bullpens, concession stands, offices and both elevators and ramps for handicapped accessibility. ... The Oaks will celebrate the "birthday" of fictional slugger Casey Jones on June 3 as Visalia honors the timeless poem "Casey at the Bat" from Ernest Thayer.