The California League is known as being hitter-friendly. Balls that already would carry well in the warm evening weather get caught up in the stiff summer winds and find themselves over the wall instead of in outfielders' gloves.
As a result, the 10 teams that comprise the Class A Advanced circuit averaged 5.58 runs per game in 2011, third-most in the Minor Leagues behind clubs in the Rookie-level Pioneer (5.89) and Arizona (5.82) Leagues and just ahead of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League (5.56). Cal League teams averaged at least 1.2 runs per game more than their Class A Advanced brethren in the Florida State (4.38) and Carolina (4.19) leagues.
Though the focus in the Cal League seems to be on offense, the biggest test may be applied to pitchers. Those who can thrive in places where balls fly like rockets should be able to repeat the results at higher, more pitcher-friendly levels.
That's the goal for all Cal League pitching staffs in 2012, but it's especially true for the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, who should boast five of the Dodgers' top 10 pitching prospects
to start the season.
Zach Lee (No. 1), Chris Reed (No. 5), Angel Sanchez (No. 6) and Garret Gould (No. 11) will occupy the first four spots in the rotation, while Juan Rodriguez (No. 12) will come out of the bullpen as the setup man and occasional closer.
Lee and Reed were the organization's first-round Draft picks in 2010 and 2011 respectively, and it's that 1-2 combination that has Rancho Cucamonga manager Juan Bustabad most excited.
The former Minor League shortstop has some experience working with a much-hyped first-round hurler. He was Clayton Kershaw's first professional manager in 2006 when the reigning Cy Young Award winner broke in with the Gulf Coast Dodgers. Bustabad already sees a little bit of the All-Star in both Lee and Reed.
"There's no doubt about it. They're special kids," said the 2011 Cal League Manager of the Year. "These guys are just like [Kershaw]. I don't see why they can't be right up there pitching next to him in a few years. It could be something like the Atlanta Braves from the '90s when they had [Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz]. That could be the future of the Dodgers."
In 2011, his first professional season, Lee went 9-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 24 starts for Class A Great Lakes while striking out 91 over 109 innings. His package of a mid-90s fastball along with a changeup, slider and curveball is "highly effective," Bustabad said. But the Quakes skipper thinks it's Lee's demeanor that will be his greatest strength.
"Nothing fazes him," the manager noted. "He was a high pick two years ago. He signed for a lot of money. That's a lot of pressure, all of which he's dealt with greatly. He's perfect to start our opener at this point."
Reed, a 21-year-old left-hander, tries to complete his transition to starter after relieving during three seasons at Stanford University. The 16th overall pick last June made three starts for Rancho Cucamonga in 2011, meaning 2012 will be his first full season pitching every fifth day. Bustabad and the rest of the Dodgers organization believe that an offseason spent preparing to be a starter should produce positive results for the power pitcher.
Sanchez (8-4, 2.82 ERA) and Gould (11-6, 2.40) both performed admirably at Great Lakes in 2011, as did Rodriguez (1.59 ERA, .105 OBA), who came to the Dodgers from the Red Sox as part of the three-team trade that sent Erik Bedard to Boston. All three will be making their Class A Advanced debuts.
For any of his five prospective stars, Bustabad has one piece of advice for pitching in parks that often resemble pinball machines.
"The key anywhere is to keep the ball down," he said. "That's what our pitching coach, Matt Herges, always tells our pitchers. Keep the ball down -- you'll get ground balls, and that's how you're going to be effective in this league. You still have to stay aggressive and have good command, too."
Don't forget the bats: As good as the Quakes pitching staff may be, two South Division clubs could possess explosive offenses.
The defending champion Lake Elsinore Storm boast two of MLB.com's top 100 prospects in outfielder Rymer Liriano (No. 60) and Cory Spangenberg (No. 81). After stealing 65 bases and producing a .383 on-base percentage last season for Class A Fort Wayne, Liriano could be an excellent top-of-the order option, while Spangenberg also (.316 average, .419 OBP across two levels) could work well at or near the top.
The Lancaster JetHawks also could do some damage, thanks to a roster that includes four of the Astros' top 20 prospects in first baseman Telvin Nash (No. 10), second baseman Delino DeShields (No. 8) and outfielders George Springer (No. 3, No. 84 overall) and Domingo Santana (No. 9). Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, will be making his full-season debut.
Race to the century mark: Shortstop Billy Hamilton stole 103 bases for Class A Dayton last year, becoming the first Minor Leaguer in a decade to total more than 100 steals in a season. If the Reds' No. 2 prospect eclipses that mark again this season for Bakersfield, he would be the first California Leaguer with at least 100 steals since Donell Nixon swiped 144 bases in 1983.
In a February Q&A with MiLB.com, Hamilton credited two former Major Leaguers who know a thing or two about the art of the steal with helping transform him into a beast on the basepaths.
"In high school, I didn't really steal too many bases," he said. "When I got into pro ball, my coaches -- like De[lino] DeShields and Joe Morgan -- were helping me out when I first got here. So I was like, 'I'm going to be a base-stealer.' Delino was my manager [at Billings in 2010]. He really helped me out stealing bases. It kind of shocked me a little bit in my first season [in 2009] because I had 14 in [43 games] and then, my second year, I got a little better, and then last year, I played for him again, so I kept getting better."
Odds and ends: San Jose this season will celebrate its 25th anniversary of being a Giants' affiliate. The team has unveiled a special logo and will wear special jerseys during Saturday home games to mark the occasion. ... Inland Empire renamed its ballpark San Manuel Stadium during the offseason to honor the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians' long-running support for the 66ers. ... Bustabad will be going for his third straight Manager of the Year award. He also was named top skipper in the Midwest League in 2010 at Great Lakes.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the California League.
- Last season's champion: Lake Elsinore over Stockton in four games
MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last back-to-back champions: San Jose, 2009-10
- Last season's attendance leader: Lake Elsinore, 225,769
- Last .400 season: Fran Boniar, Reno, 1957 (.436)
- Last 30-homer season: Michael Choice, Stockton, 2011 (30)
- Last 40-homer season: Brandon Wood, Rancho Cucamonga, 2005 (43)
- Last 50-homer season: Bud Heslet, Visalia, 1956 (51)
- Last three-homer game: Joe Dunigan, High Desert vs. Visalia, Aug. 25, 2011
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- Last cycle: Conner Crumbliss, Stockton vs. Modesto, Aug. 30, 2011
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- Last 20-game winner: Bob Knepper, Fresno, 1974 (20-5)
- Last 200-strikeout pitcher: Clint Nageotte, San Bernardino, 2002 (214)
- Last no-hitter: Robert Donovan, Edwin Walker, David Berner and David Carpenter, Jose Trinidad, Lancaster vs. Lake Elsinore, Aug. 25, 2010
MiLB.com Coverage »
- Last perfect game: Marcos Castillo, San Bernardino vs. Lake Elsinore, June 14, 1999
- Last triple play: Brandon Barnes,
Barry Butera, Lancaster vs. San Jose, July 3, 2010