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Something's gotta give in California

First-rounder Aumont, Sally League MVP Holcomb could star in Golden State
April 8, 2009
The Minor Leagues kick off the season this week and leading up to Opening Day, 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.

Traditionally a hitter's paradise, the California League could again be home to some big bats in 2009. Giants prospect Buster Posey, the fifth overall selection in the 2008 Draft, finished his first season getting a taste of the playoffs with San Jose and could be back for more this spring. Third baseman Darin Holcomb raked at Class A Asheville last summer and may be in line to pad his stats for Modesto. Holcomb was the 2008 South Atlantic League MVP and is a sure bet to make a stop with the Nuts before moving up.

Madison Bumgarner and his Minor League-best 1.46 ERA could find their way to San Jose while Diamondbacks prospect Jarrod Parker has joined the newly named Visalia Rawhide.

And there are plenty of new faces in the dugout around the state. Major League veteran Jason Wood will make his suddenly much-anticipated coaching debut -- he was actually announced as the hitting coach for both Bakersfield and Inland Empire -- apparently after a deal with the Dodgers fell through. The Fresno, Calif. native will, however, only be with the Blaze.

Here's a team-by-team look at what you can expect in the California League in 2009:

Bakersfield Blaze
2008 results: 62-78
2009 Manager: Steve Buechele
What's on deck: Bakersfield won five more games last season than in 2007 (57-83), but the Blaze want more in '09. Bakersfield will finally shoot for a winning record under new skipper Steve Buechele, a Lancaster, Calif. native who spent parts of 10 seasons in the Majors with Bakersfield's parent club, the Texas Rangers... David Chavarria, a 6-foot-7 lefty who pitched in the Cal League in 1999, returns for his fourth season as Bakersfield's pitching coach. Another Major Leaguer, Jason Wood, will serve as hitting coach... Blaze fans had to sweat it out last summer, worrying whether the team would relocate to the Carolina League this winter. Rumors circulated, but the team announced in August that it would return to aging Sam Lynn Ballpark for at least 2009... 3B Jonathan Greene could land in Bakersfield after leading Texas' Class A club, the Clinton LumberKings, with 21 homers last season... 1B Mitchell Moreland hit .324 and led Clinton with 99 RBIs in 123 games, so he's in line for a promotion as well... Nineteen-year-old OF Engel Beltre had 31 steals and 41 RBIs in the Midwest League last season and could get to take over in center for the Blaze.

Here's a look at 10 California League prospects who you should keep an eye on in 2009:

  • Tim Alderson, RHP -- San Jose
    Alderson dominated for San Jose last season (13-4, 2.79, 124 K) but will begin the 2009 season with the Giants. He may not stick around for long, though.

  • Phillippe Aumont, RHP -- High Desert
    Aumont fanned 50 in 55 2/3 innings in the Midwest League despite elbow trouble last season. He'll show what he can do healthy this year.

  • Engel Beltre, OF -- Bakersfield
    The top outfield prospect in the Rangers system has speed to burn -- he stole 31 bases in 42 attempts with Class A Hickory in 2008.

  • Madison Bumgarner, LHP -- San Jose
    The southpaw won 15 games, struck out 164 and owned a Minors-best 1.46 ERA in 2008, but the league is notoriously hitter-friendly.

  • Sean Coughlin, C -- Visalia
    The lefty hitter/righty catcher showed flashes of power with 15 homers and 81 RBIs in Class A South Bend last year. Looking for consistency.

  • Darin Holcomb, 3B -- Modesto
    Colorado's slugging third-base prospect drove in 102 runs for Class A Asheville in 2008 and was named South Atlantic League MVP.

  • Craig Italiano, RHP -- Stockton
    One of the top 20 Oakland pitching prospects, Italiano went 7-0 in the Midwest League last year but struggled when he got to Stockton.

  • Jarrod Parker, RHP -- Visalia
    The Diamondbacks righty went 12-5 with 117 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings to earn Midwest League All-Star honors in '08.

  • Buster Posey, C -- San Jose
    The Giants' prized catching prospect quickly climbed the club's system to San Jose in 2008. Expect big things this summer.

  • Angel Villalona, 1B -- San Jose
    Signed as a 16-year-old, Villalona posted good power numbers for Augusta (.263-17-64) and was an All-Star Futures Game selection.

High Desert Mavericks
2008 results: 58-82
2009 Manager: Jim Horner
What's on deck: Jim Horner returns for his second season as manager in High Desert, despite watching his team finish in last place in 2008. The Mavericks staff features pitching coach Jaime Navarro and hitting coach Tommy Cruz... High Desert and Seattle agreed in August to continue their partnership through the 2010 season... RHP Michael Pineda went 8-6 with a team-best 1.95 ERA last season for Class A Wisconsin and could climb the ladder to High Desert this spring. The 6-5 hurler ranked second in ERA in the Midwest League... RHP Juan Ramirez logged 124 innings for the Timber Rattlers last season, but the biggest name headed west is probably RHP Phillippe Aumont, the Mariners' first-round Draft pick in 2007, who went 4-4 with a 2.75 ERA last season at Class A. According to the Seattle Times, the Mariners will transition Aumont, a first-round pick from 2006, to become a full-time reliever at High Desert. "We felt that this was a guy, who if used in a relief role, could be on a real fast track to the Major Leagues," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik told the paper. "And we're talking a real fast track."... Oklahoma product OF Joe Dunigan hit .240 but led Wisconsin with 14 homers and 58 RBIs last year, putting himself in line for a bump.

Inland Empire 66ers
2008 results: 68-73; South Division Wild Card, lost in first round to Lake Elsinore
2009 Manager: Carlos Subero
What's on deck: The Wild Card-winning 66ers got a new manager this winter in Carlos Subero, a 36-year-old Venezuelan native who managed Double-A Birmingham in 2008. Subero isn't new to the Cal League -- he managed Bakersfield from 2006-'07... Franklin Stubbs will work as hitting coach (The 66ers originally wanted Wood, who went to Bakersfield) while returning veteran pitching coach Charlie Hough anchors the field staff... Inland Empire announced in September that the club would remain a Dodgers affiliate for at least two more seasons... OF Andrew Lambo skipped the 66ers en route to Double-A Jacksonville last summer, but he may see time with Inland Empire this year if he struggles early on at Chattanooga... Speedy center fielder Jovanny Rosario had 39 steals last year at Class A and could take his legs to San Bernardino... RHP Steve Johnson dominated for Great Lakes, but his 7.10 ERA at Inland Empire will keep him with the 66ers to begin 2009... Former sixth-rounder RHP Justin Miller had a 3.99 ERA and led the Loons with 140 IP last year, a good bet to anchor the 66ers' rotation.

Lake Elsinore Storm
2008 results: 71-69, lost in second round to Lancaster
2009 Manager: Carlos Lezcano
What's on deck: Carlos Lezcano returns for his 17th Minor League season and his third with Lake Elsinore... Former Yankees hero and three-time World Series champion Shane Spencer is back for his second season as the Storm's hitting coach. Lake Elsinore led the league with 744 RBIs in 2008 under Spencer's guidance... The Storm and San Diego Padres agreed to a four-year extension of their player development agreement in August... Lake Elsinore has some intriguing promotions on tap for 2009: Big Lebowski Night on April 23; Old School Hip Hop Night on May 7; Superhero Night on May 20; Totally Awesome '80's Night on July 9 and the crown jewel, Tribute to Bush Night on July 16... RHP Jeremy Hefner could be back -- he earned one start with the Storm last season after going 10-5 with a 3.33 ERA for Class A Fort Wayne.

Lancaster JetHawks
2008 results: 76-64; first-half and second-half South Division champions
2009 Manager: Wes Clements
What's on deck: Wes Clements takes over a team that lost to Stockton in the league championship last season. The team, of course, will be completely different in 2009, especially since the JetHawks swapped affiliations with Boston and are now part of Houston's system... Lancaster will again host the annual Aerospace Appreciation Weekend, now even more appropriate with the Astros backdrop. One of the more odd, random promotions? A bobblehead doll featuring JetHawks mascot KaBoom dressed as a character from the NBC show "Scrubs"... 2B Craig Corrado led Class A Lexington with 139 hits last season and is due for a promotion... San Bernardino native and UCLA product Eric Taylor, a first baseman, led the Legends with 27 steals to go along with nine homers and 56 RBIs and should expand on that back home... RHP Leandro Cespedes led the Lexington staff in innings pitched (130), but won just four of his 27 starts... C Koby Clemens, son of not-officially-retired Roger Clemens, will start the season with the JetHawks after driving in 52 runs in 104 games in the South Atlantic League last summer... Lancaster will feature nine players selected as part of Houston's 2008 draft class, including five of their first nine picks... Stanford, Calif. native C Jason Castro, the 10th overall selection in the 2008 Draft, will make his full-season debut in Lancaster and split time behind the plate with Clemems after batting .275 with Class A Short-Season Tri-City last year. Fifth-round pick David Duncan, 14th-rounder Christopher Hicks and 26th-round selection Shane Wolf will all begin with the 'Hawks.

Modesto Nuts
2008 results: 70-69
2009 Manager: Jerry Weinstein
What's on deck: The Nuts lost in the first round of the playoffs to Stockton in 2008. Jerry Weinstein returns for his third season as Nuts manager in 2009 alongside hitting coach Duane Espy (second year) and pitching coach Doug Linton (first season)... 3B Darin Holcomb is the biggest potential bat headed to Modesto. Holcomb, the Rockies' 12th-round pick in 2007, lit up the Class A South Atlantic League last year for Asheville, claiming Player of the Week and All-Star honors before being named league MVP. He hit .318 with 14 homers and 102 RBIs but struggled over the winter in Hawaii... 1B Jeff Cunningham will see time at first after finishing second to Holcomb with 104 hits last summer for the Tourists. He led the team with 18 home runs... Fordham product RHP Cory Riordan will break camp with the Nuts after winning eight games with a 3.65 ERA for Asheville in '08... RHP Bruce Billings will lead the rotation at Modesto after no-hitting Lakewood on July 22, 2008 for Asheville. Billings' near-perfect game earned him the 2008 MiLBY for Class A's Best Single-Game Performance.

Rancho Cucamonga Quakes
2008 results: 67-74
2009 Manager: Keith Johnson
What's on deck: Keith Johnson, who led the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels in 2008, was named Rancho Cucamonga's skipper this winter after the Angels opted to make Eric Owens a roving instructor... Southpaw Trevor Reckling will make the jump to Class A Advanced with the Quakes in 2009 after going 10-7 with a 3.37 ERA and leading the Kernels with 152 1/3 IP last year... Monrovia, Calif. native RHP Eddie McKiernan picked up 22 saves in 50 relief appearances for Cedar Rapids last summer and will join Rancho this spring... OF Julio Perez batted .267 with 15 homers and a team-high 75 RBIs for the Kernels in '08 to earn a bump to the Quakes.

Stockton Ports
2008 results: 76-64, North Division Wild Card, 2008 California League champions
2009 Manager: Aaron Nieckula
What's on deck: Aaron Nieckula will take over for Darren Bush, who led the Ports to the league crown last fall. Nieckula managed the Kane County Cougars, Oakland's Midwest League affiliate, for three years before venturing west... The Ports open up at home on April 16 and will have a ceremony to unveil their championship pennant... Stockton will also welcome some notable guests in 2009, including 1962 NL MVP Maury Wills (June 21) and seven-time All-Star Lee Smith (Aug. 23)... Georgia Southern product Greg Dowling, a first baseman, could join Stockton in 2009 after batting .269 and leading Kane County with 15 homers... OF Todd Johnson led the Cougars with 74 RBIs and added 13 home runs, probably enough to earn a promotion... RHP Craig Italiano was unhittable for Kane County (7-0, 1.16), but got roughed up with the Ports (1-4, 9.90) in 14 appearances, mostly out of the bullpen. The A's may try and give Italiano, their second-round pick in 2005, another shot at starting with Stockton. He certainly has potential, but he doesn't look ready for Double-A Midland yet.

San Jose Giants
2008 results: 85-55; first and second-half North Division Champions
2009 Manager: Andy Skeels
What's on deck: San Jose dominated last season, a year after winning the league title, but fell to Stockton in the playoffs. With the prospects headed here for Opening Day, the Giants could be the team to beat.. Andy Skeels was brought in to manage the club in 2009... The Giants could really be stocked with some serious, serious talent in 2009, beginning with 19-year old left-hander Madison Bumgarner, who dominated for Class A Augusta last season and will start the year in San Jose, following in the path of RHP Kevin Pucetas. Bumgarner finished 15-3 and boasted a Minor League-best 1.46 ERA... LHP Scott Barnes (41 K in 32 2/3 IP, 1.38 ERA in six starts) will make the jump from Augusta... 1B Angel Villalona, an All-Star Futures Game selection in 2008, had 17 homers and 64 RBIs for Augusta last year and will join the Giants... C Buster Posey, the Giants' first round pick last June, will begin the year at San Jose -- considering the Giants pushed him along quickly from Rookie-level Arizona League to San Jose for the playoffs last year, it's a good bet he may stick in the Cal League for a bit. Posey hit .338 in Hawaii Winter Baseball and was named an All-Star... If opposing teams survive Bumgarner, they'll have the pleasure of taking on RHP Tim Alderson the following night. Alderson, the Giants' No. 1 pick (22nd overall) in the 2007 Draft, went 13-4 with a 2.79 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 145 1/3 innings last season with San Jose and will begin the spring with the club again. He was a two-time league Pitcher of the Week, a 2008 Cal All-Star and's Class A Advanced Starting Pitcher of the Year. Not a bad resume for a 20-year-old.

Visalia Rawhide
2008 results: 67-72
2009 Manager: Mike Bell
What's on deck: Injuries and trades hurt Mike Bell's chances of guiding Visalia to the playoffs last year, but the club has a fresh outlook (and a new name) for 2009... Wellington Cepeda, 31, returns for his sixth season as a coach. He helped the Oaks pitching staff to a 4.14 ERA last year, third-lowest in the league... Clemson product Taylor Harbin, a second baseman, brings the best offensive talent to Visalia in 2009 after he finished batting .276 with 10 homers and a team-high 85 RBIs for Class A South Bend in '08... Catcher Sean Coughlin had a team-high 15 homers and added 81 RBIs for the Silver Hawks... Right-hander Jarrod Parker, one of Arizona's top prospects, could emerge as the Rawhide ace this year -- he went 12-5 with a 3.44 ERA and 117 strikeouts in 117 innings for South Bend, earning him Midwest League All-Star honors... Famously mustachioed RHP Josh Collmenter (12-8, 3.41) and Christian Beltre (13-8, 3.53) could also make the jump to Visalia for 2009.

Danny Wild is an editor for