What's the first thing that comes to mind when Shelby Miller considers pitching in the Pacific Coast League? The hitter-friendly ballparks? How about the big league-experienced batters he'll have to face? Or maybe the baseball-crazy cities like Omaha and Iowa that he'll get to visit?
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
"I'm just so close to the big leagues," Miller said. "After Triple-A, it's 'The Show.' I'm at the highest level I can be without being in the big leagues."
Of course, the St. Louis Cardinals' No. 1 prospect
thinks about that other stuff too. Forgive him and most Minor League hurlers with Major League talent who share the same mindset. A healthy amount of them on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects
list will be pitching in the PCL in 2012. To wit:
And that's leaving out the likes of other teams' potential aces: Eric Surkamp
(Fresno Grizzlies), Paul Clemens
(Oklahoma City RedHawks), Christian Friedrich
(Colorado Springs) and Wade Miley
(Reno Aces). So is this the Year of the Pitcher in a league known for high-run totals and even higher ERAs?
"There's a lot of great guys. Garrett Richards, the lefty for Texas, Perez. There's talent everywhere. That's when you start to bear down and watch more pitchers and get to know names, paying attention that much more, knowing that we're about to be in the big leagues," Miller said. "I think that brings out the best in everybody, knowing you're getting closer. There's a lot of great guys that will pitch in the PCL, and hopefully we all pitch in the big leagues someday."
Of the group, Miller seems to be the surest bet to get there and, in the interim, befuddle Triple-A hitters. The 21-year-old right-hander went 11-6 with a 2.77 ERA in 25 starts between Class A Advanced Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield in 2011. He said he hasn't changed much, not even his repertoire, since St. Louis made him the 19th overall draftee in 2009. When the club told him this spring he'd begin his fourth pro season at Memphis, he was advised to simply go about his business as he always has.
"There are going to be veteran hitters, guys who have played in the big leagues before. But I look at it as comparing Double-A and Triple-A, and it's not a huge step," Miller said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how it's going to be. The competition is going to be better. The higher the competition, the better it is for me. It brings out my best."
Matchup of matchups in the PCL: When we asked Miller, baseball's No. 5 prospect, about his plan of attack against Salt Lake center fielder Mike Trout, baseball's No. 3 prospect, the pitcher laughingly worried about giving away trade secrets. "Mike? I hope he's not listening," Miller joked. In all seriousness, Miller said he likes to keep away from Trout, employing his off-speed pitches, while stressing that he must put his best (read: fastball) against Trout's best. "Somebody who we've always noticed and somebody who always seems to be able to get a hit every single game is Mike Trout," said Miller, who faced the slugger when both played in the Texas League in 2011. "He's the ultimate player. He's one of a kind. He's just got a really quick bat. So anywhere you really throw it, he's going to get to it. It's just always a good show to put on when you're watching two prospects against each other."
Joining Miller in Memphis: One swinger Miller won't have to face this season will be teammate Matt Adams. Our first baseman to watch, Adams has steadily improved his output from season to season since being the Cards' 23rd-round pick in 2009:
- 2009: .355, 10 home runs, 52 RBIs in 63 games
- 2010: .310, 22 home runs, 82 RBIs in 121 games
- 2011: .300, 31 home runs, 101 RBIs in 115 games
Expect the batting average to perk back up in the PCL. Needless to say, Miller is happy to have Adams, whom he calls one of his best friends, on his squad. "I think he'll be somebody big someday," Miller said. "He's definitely a name that everybody in St. Louis should be looking for."
Defending their title: While the Redbirds have reason for optimism entering the 2012 season, what of the league's 2011 champions? Seventy-five percent of the more than 125 respondents to the PCL official site's poll question, "Will the Omaha Storm Chasers repeat as PCL champs in 2012?" answered "No." But Omaha is positioned for another strong season, as 14 of the 22 players on its initial roster (which will grow when the parent Royals set their 25-man unit) are returners. Chief among them is a trio of .300-plus hitters from 2011: Outfielder David Lough (.318), second baseman Johnny Giavotella (.338) and first baseman Clint Robinson (.326). On the other hand, only those three players are back from the Storm Chasers' Opening Day lineup a year ago.
Quad-A players and the 100-RBI club: Nobody wants to be know as the former, and everybody would like to join the latter, so how are these two groups connected? One would think driving in triple-digit total runs would result in a permanent callup. Turns out that of the eight PCL sluggers who accomplished the feat in 2011, five -- Chad Tracy (109), Brett Pill (107), Anthony Rizzo (101), Jeff Baisley (100) and Omaha's Robinson (100) -- will likely be back for more. Of the five, three will be playing for different clubs: Tracy (from Round Rock to Colorado Springs), Rizzo (Tucson to Iowa) and Baisley (Salt Lake to Albuquerque).
Experience on the bench: Five of the 16 league member clubs will have new skippers this season, but Dave Bialas (Iowa), Ron "Pop" Warner (Memphis), Mike Guerrero (Nashville), Bob Marian (Fresno) and Ron Hassey (New Orleans) have all managed elsewhere before. Omaha's Mike Jirschele, who notched his 1,000th victory last May, and Round Rock's Bobby Jones are the most tenured of the remaining 11: Jirschele enters his 10th consecutive season in the PCL, while Jones previously led Oklahoma City over two separate stints (2002-'05, 2007-'10) before joining the Express in 2011.
Worth noting: Offseason trades increased the talent pool in the PCL this season: Peacock and Derek Norris (Nationals to A's) and Yasmani Grandal (Reds to Padres) represent the biggest upgrades. Other winter deals led to Rizzo (Padres to Cubs) and Parker (D-backs to A's) merely switching PCL teams. ... There was a possibility that A's free-agent signee Yoenis Cespedes of Cuba would begin the season adjusting to quality pitching -- and life in America -- at Sacramento. So if he struggles mightily, don't be surprised to see him with the River Cats at some point. ... The International League's Buffalo Bisons will host the Triple-A All-Star Game this season, but the festivities will return to the PCL in 2013. Aces Ballpark, which opened in 2009, will become the center of attention for that midsummer classic.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Pacific Coast League.
- Last season's championship: Omaha over Sacramento in three games MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champion: Sacramento River Cats, 2007-'08
- Last perfect game: Brandon Hynick, seven innings, Colorado Springs vs. Portland, June 30, 2009 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last no-hitter: Jhoulys Chacin, Joel Peralta, Juan Rincon and Randy Flores, Colorado Springs vs. Oklahoma City, Aug. 18, 2009 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Juan Berenguer (220), Tacoma, 1979
- Last cycle: Caleb Gindl, Nashville vs. Albuquerque, July 10, 2011 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last three-homer game: Alex Liddi, Tacoma vs. Albuquerque, Aug. 4, 2011 MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last 30-homer hitter: Bryan LaHair (38, Iowa), Jai Miller (Sacramento, 32) and Liddi (Tacoma, 30), 2011