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Texas League to feature top hurlers

Chacin, Kiker, Walden, Poveda likely to open year at Double-A
April 7, 2009
The Texas League kicks off the season Thursday 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 Texas League:

When an organization boasts as much talent as the Texas Rangers have moving through their system, expect to see many of those standouts make a stop in Frisco. That's probably why the RoughRiders have had little trouble attracting fans to Dr Pepper Ballpark. With Texas' Double-A affiliate within driving distance of the big club in Arlington, people curious about the future were treated to standout performances by players like right-hander Neftali Feliz and lefty Derek Holland in 2008.

But what keeps fans flocking to Frisco during seasons when the talent isn't quite so readily available? It starts with the ballpark, a pristine venue that provides an aesthetic charm. After that, it is up to team ownership and management to create an experience that can be enjoyable, even if the home team struggles.

The same can be said for other teams throughout the league. Once Tulsa unveils ONEOK Field in 2010, seven of the circuit's eight teams will be playing in facilities that are less than 10 years old.

Midland started the building boom in 2002 when it opened Citibank Ballpark. Dr Pepper Ballpark opened a year later, followed by Springfield's Hammons Field (2004), Corpus Christi's Whataburger Field (2005), Arkansas' Dickey-Stephens Park (2007) and Northwest Arkansas' Arvest Ballpark (2008).

"We're just very lucky," said Texas League President Tom Kayser. "We're lucky to have new ballparks. We're lucky to have good ownership. We're lucky to have very, very talented executive staffs."

Kayser said he encourages the free flow of ideas between teams that keep people coming back after the new ballpark sensation wears off. It helps that teams like the RoughRiders continue to tinker with their stadiums, adding features like Deuce's Playground, a three-story play area for children down the third-base line, to keep the Minor League experience fresh.

Starting in 2010, San Antonio's Nelson W. Wolff Stadium will be the oldest park in the league when it opens for its 17th season. That's impressive, considering it was known as the "Jewel of the Texas League" when it opened in 1994.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to expect in the Texas League in 2009:

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

  • Peter Bourjos, SS/2B -- Midland
    The former Futures Game selection (2007) returns to the RockHounds after hitting .279 in a short 26-game stint in 2008.

  • Chris Carter, DH -- Midland
    He put up huge numbers in the California League last year, leading the league in home runs (39), RBIs (104), runs (101) and slugging (.569).

  • Jhoulys Chacin, RHP -- Tulsa
    He went a combined 18-3 with stints at Class A Asheville and Class A Advanced Modesto and was named's Minor League Pitcher of the Year.

  • Hank Conger, C -- Arkansas
    Conger capped off his big year at the plate in the Cal League (.303) with clutch hitting in the Double-A playoffs for the Travs (13 runs in eight games).

  • Daryl Jones, OF -- Springfield
    In 2008, the 21-year-old hit .326 in 87 games with Class A Advanced Palm Beach and batted .290 in 36 games with Springfield.

  • Kellen Kulbacki, OF -- San Antonio
    In 84 games with Lake Elsinore in the California League, the former supplemental first-round pick hit .332 with 20 home runs and 66 RBIs.

  • Mat Latos, RHP -- San Antonio
    Issues surrounding his mental makeup are the only thing holding up this right-hander, who's considered to be the Padres' top pitching prospect.

  • Justin Smoak, 1B -- Frisco
    The 11th overall pick in the 2008 Draft, look for the sweet-swinging Smoak to be fast-tracked through the Rangers' system in 2009.

  • Jordan Walden, RHP -- Arkansas
    The hard-throwing right-hander went 5-2 in nine starts with Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga and he'll look to improve with Arkansas.

  • Brett Wallace, 3B -- Springfield
    The Cardinals are excited about Wallace's bat -- and rightfully so. He'll start with Springfield but he may not stay with these Cardinals long.

Arkansas Travelers
2008 record: 62-78, 2008 Texas League champions
2009 manager: Bobby Magallanes
What's on deck: After leading the Travelers to the 2008 Texas League title, Magallanes is back for his third season as manager. Arkansas won the first-half North Division title and, despite a second-half slump, rebounded in the playoffs. ... Pitching coach Ken Patterson also returns for his third season and Eric Munson (trainer) is back for year No. 2. ... Francisco Matos was with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in 2008, but the hitting coach steps up a level to work with the Travelers. ... In addition to baseball, the Travs are hosting the Dave Matthews Band, the world's top-drawing American band, on Sept. 29. It is the first big concert at Dickey-Stephens Park since it opened in 2007. ... RHP Jordan Walden, is one of the Angels' top-rated prospects and will see time with the Travelers at some point. The 2006 12th-round pick boasts an impressive fastball, but his other pitches (slider, changeup) need work. ... C Hank Conger was a postseason standout for the Travelers, driving in 13 runs in eight games. He should be back in 2009. ... Other top-tier prospects who should see time in Arkansas this season are RHP Sean O'Sullivan, 1B Mark Trumbo and OF Chris Pettit.

Corpus Christi Hooks
2008 record: 55-85
2009 manager: Luis Pujols
What's on deck: Pujols begins his second season with the Hooks and continues build on a lengthy coaching career -- he was the second Dominican-born manager in Major League history after Felipe Alou. ... Pitching coach Stan Boroski begins his third season with the Hooks, while Keith Bodie is in his first year as hitting coach. ... Jamey Snodgrass, the Texas League's 2005 Trainer of the Year, is in his fifth season with Corpus Christi. ... OF Collin DeLome is expected to start off with the Hooks after ending last year in Class A Advanced Salem. ... Injuries cut short the 2008 season for RHP Sergio Perez. He started only five games for Corpus Christi and should begin the '09 season in the Hooks rotation. ... Like Perez, RHP Brad James is expected to return to the rotation after battling a back injury late last season. ... OF Josh Flores missed all of last year with a non-baseball-related knee problem and is one of several Hooks looking to recover from injury-plagued seasons.

Frisco RoughRiders
2008 record: 84-56; First and second-half South Division champion
2009 manager: Mike Micucci
What's on deck: The RoughRiders welcome a completely new coaching staff in 2009. ... Mike Micucci takes over in his first year as a manager at the Double-A level. He spent the past two seasons managing Class A Clinton in the Midwest League. ... Joe Slusarski takes over as pitching coach, while Brant Brown moves up from Class A Advanced Bakersfield to become hitting coach. ... The RoughRiders led all of Double-A with 184 stolen bases and were at the top of most major offensive categories in the Texas League. ... The Frisco faithful has been treated to some dominant starting pitching in recent years. This year, 2006 first-round pick (No. 12 overall) LHP Kasey Kiker should make his way to Double-A. He'd join RHP Omar Poveda, who should make the jump from Class A Advanced Bakersfield. ... 1B Justin Smoak is projected to shoot through Texas' system. While he might not start in Frisco, he'll get there at some point.

Midland RockHounds
2008 record: 75-65
2009 manager: Darren Bush
What's on deck: Bush gets a promotion after guiding the Stockton Ports to the 2008 California League championship. This is his fifth season in the A's system. ... Scott Emerson is back as pitching coach, while Webster Garrison moves from manager to hitting coach. ... Some familiar faces could join Bush in Midland. IF Adrian Cardenas spent most of last season at Class A Advanced Clearwarter, also making stops in Stockton and Midland. He is slated to spend the season in Double-A. DH Chris Carter led the Cal League in homers (39), RBIs (104), runs (101) and slugging (.569). He's still looking for a full-time position, but his bat will get him in the lineup. C Josh Donaldson spent time at Stockton last season and could play for the RockHounds in '09.

Northwest Arkansas Naturals
2008 record: 75-65; Second-half North Division champions
2009 manager: Brian Poldberg
What's on deck: Poldberg returns after leading the Naturals to the second-half North Division title during his first year as manager. ... Larry Carter has been the Double-A pitching coach in the Royals' system for seven seasons. In 2008, he received the Mike Coolbaugh Award as Texas League Coach of the Year. ... Hitting coach Terry Bradshaw joins the Naturals after four years with Kansas City's various Class A affiliates, while trainer Chris DeLucia starts his third season with the club. ... The Naturals still boast the newest ballpark in the Texas League, a title they will hold until Tulsa opens its new stadium in 2010. ... The Royals aren't known for pushing players through the system, but there are few who might force them to rethink that logic in 2009. IF Mike Moustakas is the top prospect in the system according and, while he will start the year at Wilmington in the Carolina League, he could play his way into the Naturals lineup. The same can be said of RHP Danny Gutierrez. ... One player who should return to Northwest Arkansas is RHP Blake Wood, who went 5-7 in 18 starts last season.

San Antonio Missions
2008 record: 75-65
2009 manager: Terry Kennedy
What's on deck: Kennedy joined the Missions in 2008 as a hitting coach. This year, he takes over as manager, a post he held most recently in the Golden Baseball League in 2005. As a player, Kennedy was a four-time All-Star during his 14-year career. ... Orv Franchuk moves into Kennedy's old spot as hitting coach after two seasons as the Astros' Minor League hitting coordinator. ... Steve Webber is back as pitching coach after the Missions led the Texas League in ERA (3.58), shutouts (20), strikeouts (1,152) and WHIP (1.32). Their 20 shutouts led all of professional baseball. ... JoJo Tarantino takes over as trainer after three seasons with Fort Wayne in the Midwest League. ... The top pitcher in the Padres organization should spent some time in San Antonio this season. RHP Mat Latos has plenty of talent, but attitude and injury issues hindered him last season. At this point, he needs to add maturity to his immense ability to crack the Missions. ... A pair of talented propects in OF Kellen Kulbacki (a 2007 supplemental first-round pick) and OF Cedric Hunter (a 2006 third-rounder) should start the season with the Missions. Hunter hit .318 last season at Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore. ... With Adrian Gonzalez entrenched in San Diego and Kyle Blanks on his way to Triple-A Portland, the Padres are loaded at the position.

Springfield Cardinals
2008 record: 76-64
2009 manager: Ron "Pop" Warner
What's on deck: Warner enters his 19th season in the Cardinals' system and his third as Springfield manager. The Cards set a franchise record for wins in 2008, but missed the playoffs. ... Hitting coach Derrick May also returns for a third year with the Cardinals. This is his fifth year as a package deal with Warner. ... Bryan Eversgerd (pitching coach) and Jay Pierson (trainer) are back for their second seasons in Springfield. ... The Cardinals have been named the Texas League's Organization of the Year in 2007 and '08. They averaged 7,078 fans per game last year to rank second in all of Double-A baseball. ... Springfield will give away 2,500 bobbleheads of Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter on Aug. 8. ... Top 2008 Draft pick 3B Brett Wallace will headline the Cardinals' lineup to begin the 2009 season. ... OF Daryl Jones played well in a 36-game stint with Springfield last season, hitting .290 with six doubles, a triple, six homers and 14 RBIs. The 21-year-old will be back this season. ... After saving 29 games for Class A Advanced Palm Beach, RHP Francisco Samuel moves up to become the Cards' closer in 2009.

Tulsa Drillers
2008 record: 58-82
2009 manager: Stu Cole
What's on deck: Cole is back for his fourth season as manager. ... Hitting coach Dave Hajek and trainer Austin O'Shea also are holdovers, but for the first time since 2003, the Drillers have a new pitching coach, bringing in Bryan Harvey. The two-time Major League All-Star replaces Bo McLaughlin, who left to become Colorado's Minor League pitching instructor. ... Drillers Stadium has been home to Tulsa's franchise since 1981. The team moves into ONEOK Field, a new downtown facility, in 2010. However, the club isn't leaving Drillers Stadium without a little celebration. On May 1, the first 1,000 fans receive replicas of the ballpark. Replica scoreboards will be given to the first 1,500 fans on June 27 and commemorative ceramic tickets will be distributed to the first 1,500 fans on Sept. 7. Those giveaways go hand-in-hand with a season full of special events designed to recall the stadium's history. ... RHP Jhoulys Chacin's performance in 2008 was impressive, to say the least. Not only did he lead the Minor Leagues with 18 wins, he was named's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. The youngster should spend some time in Tulsa as he continues to work his way through the system. ... RHP Esmil Rogers began his career as a shortstop in 2003, but his transformation to starting pitcher should continue in Tulsa in 2009. ... C Michael McKenry is expected to start the season behind the plate for the Drillers after hitting .258 with 28 doubles, 18 homers and 75 RBIs at Class A Advanced Modesto in '08.

Mason Kelley is a contributor to