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River Cats bid for third straight title

Three Pacific Coast League teams switch affiliations for 2009
April 6, 2009
The Pacific Coast League kicks off the season on Thursday and leading up to Opening Day, will be taking a close look at what the year might bring for each team.

With the turnover in players and managers each Minor League season, it is hard enough to win a title in any league at any level. With 16 teams vying for the Pacific Coast League crown each season, the task is even tougher.

To understand the recent accomplishments of the Sacramento River Cats, one must look at all of the things working against them. As impressive as their run to the PCL and Bricktown Showdown championships was last season, it's even more improbable because they did the same thing in 2007.

The River Cats had different players and managers during each title run, but the results were the same. Manager Todd Steverson is back for a second season and should have more top-tier talent with which to work.

But is it possible for Sacramento to make it three in a row? It certainly won't be easy with some of baseball's top farm systems -- the Rangers, Giants and Marlins -- sending some of their best prospects to the PCL.

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

Albuquerque Isotopes
2008 record: 68-75
2009 manager: Tim Wallach
What's on deck: Lorenzo Bundy originally was tabbed to take over the Isotopes this season. When he left to become the Diamondbacks' first base coach, Albuquerque replaced him with Wallach. The veteran of 17 Major League seasons and five-time All-Star is in his first season at the Triple-A level. ... Hitting coach John Moses begins his second year in the Dodgers organization and second with Las Vegas, which led the PCL with a .301 batting average in 2008. ... Jim Slaton is the 'Topes' pitching coach, the same post he held in Las Vegas. ... Eight years, ago the Dodgers left Albuquerque -- back then, the team was called the Dukes -- and moved their Triple-A affiliate to Las Vegas. The Dodgers are back and Albuquerque is celebrating all season with giveaways like a Dodgers fleece blanket on Opening Night and a Manny Ramirez bobblehead on Aug. 27. ... With plenty of outfielders already in Los Angeles, Xavier Paul should spend a second season at Triple-A. He hit .316 with 28 doubles, nine homers and 68 RBIs in '08. ... OF Jamie Hoffmann should make the jump to Triple-A after spending last year at Double-A Jacksonville.

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

  • J.P. Arencibia, C-- Las Vegas
    The former first-round pick is one of the best offensive catchers in the Minors and will make his Triple-A debut with the 51s in 2009.

  • Kyle Blanks, 1B -- Portland
    The massive first baseman had a huge year at the plate with San Antonio in 2008 and will look to continue that with the Beavers this season.

  • Brian Bogusevic, OF -- Round Rock
    The former first-round pick (as a pitcher) enters his first full season as a converted outfielder after combining for 26 homers, 79 RBIs and a .347 average in 2008.

  • Julio Borbon, OF -- Oklahoma City
    A supplemental first-round pick in 2007, Borbon will bring his speed and offensive pop to the RedHawks in his first Triple-A season.

  • Brett Cecil, LHP -- Las Vegas
    Another former first-round pick, Cecil will return to Triple-A after a six-game stint in 2008 and look to duplicate the success he's enjoyed at the lower levels.

  • Alcides Escobar, SS -- Nashville
    The defensive whiz was a late cut by the Brewers in Spring Training and will start the season in the Music City.

  • Neftali Feliz, RHP -- Oklahoma City
    This youngster could end up being the crown jewel of the Mark Teixeira trade. And you could see him first with the RedHawks.

  • Mat Gamel, 3B -- Nashville
    Gamel, along with Escobar and C Angel Salome, helps form a dominant trio of Brewers prospects heading to Greer Stadium.

  • Kila Ka'aihue, 1B -- Omaha
    The Hawaii native came into his own last year and returns to Omaha after hitting 11 homers in only 33 games with the O-Royals.

  • Jess Todd, RHP -- Memphis
    Todd rocketed through the Cardinals system in his first full season and returns to the Redbirds after making four appearances for them in 2008.

Colorado Springs Sky Sox
2008 record: 71-72
2009 manager: Tom Runnells
What's on deck: The Sky Sox are bringing back their entire coaching staff. Runnells, a Colorado native, begins his fourth season with the franchise after a third-place finish in the Pacific Conference North Division. ... Former Major League manager Rene Lachemann came over from Oakland last season to become hitting coach, while pitching coach Chuck Kniffin and trainer Heath Townsend are back for their fourth seasons with the Sky Sox. ... Since 2004, Colorado Springs has updated everything from its facilities to its promotions. This year, the Sky Sox are upgrading their logo and uniform. The new emblem revolves around Pikes Peak, which is only fitting for a team that plays at the highest altitude in the country. ... RHP Jhoulys Chacin finished 2008 with Class A Advanced Modesto, going 8-2 in 12 starts. The No. 1-rated arm in the Rockies system should start the season at Double-A Tulsa but may join the Sky Sox at some point this season.

Fresno Grizzlies
2008 record: 67-76
2009 manager: Dan Rohn
What's on deck: Rohn is back for a third season with the franchise. ... The Grizzlies have a new pitching coach in Pat Rice, who spent last season with Class A Advanced San Jose. ... After four seasons in the Pirates organization, Hensley Meulens joins Fresno as hitting coach. ... Hall of Famer Willie Mays comes to Chukchansi Park on June 7, while former Giant J.T. Snow is scheduled to visit on Aug. 9. ... Two of the top pitching prospects in the Giants system could end up in Fresno at some point this season but likely will begin the year at Double-A Connecticut. RHPs Tim Alderson (13-4, 2.79 ERA) and Kevin Pucetas (10-2 with a 3.02 ERA) both put up big numbers at San Jose in 2008.

Iowa Cubs
2008 record: 83-59; American Conference North Division champions
2009 manager: Bobby Dickerson
What's on deck: After three seasons as infield and bunting coordinator in the Cubs' system, Dickerson takes over as Iowa manager, replacing 2008 PCL Manager of the Year Pat Listach. Dickerson guided Double-A West Tenn from 2002-05 and becomes the Cubs' 15th manager since their affiliation with Chicago began in 1981. ... Iowa heads to Wrigley Field on Aug. 9 to play Las Vegas in the first PCL game at the storied stadium. ... The Dave Matthews Band will perform at Principal Park on Sept. 25. ... RHP Jeff Samardzija will return to Iowa for some more seasoning as a starter. ... RHP Mitch Atkins was the Cubs' Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2008 and returns to Iowa, where he won eight of his 10 starts last season. ... 1B/OF Jake Fox also should be back in Des Moines after combining for 31 homers at two levels in 2008.

Las Vegas 51s
2008 record: 74-69
2009 manager: Mike Basso
What's on deck: Basso returns to a city he knows well. The 51s' new manager spent parts of four seasons in Las Vegas in the late 1980s and early '90s, when the team was called the Stars and affiliated with the Padres. He spent the past two seasons as the Blue Jays coordinator of instruction. ... Ken Joyce joins the team as hitting coach, moving up after two years at Double-A New Hampshire. ... Pitching coach Dave LaRoche also is in his first year after four with New Hampshire. ... After eight years as the Triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers, Las Vegas signed a two-year player development contract with the Blue Jays last September. ... The 51s are hoping to reach the 300,000 mark in attendance for the 27th consecutive season. ... Las Vegas will play Iowa at Wrigley Field on Aug. 9 in the first PCL game at the Friendly Confines. ... A pair of lefties should anchor the Las Vegas rotation this season in Brett Cecil and Brad Mills, who fought for big league rotation spots in Spring Training. ... The talented duo will be throwing to C J.P. Arencibia, a 2007 first-round pick who split time between Class A Advanced Dunedin and Double-A New Hampshire in 2008.

Memphis Redbirds
2008 record: 75-67
2009 manager: Chris Maloney
What's on deck: Maloney is back for a third year after leading the Redbirds to their first winning season since 2004 last year. ... Under the tutelage of pitching coach Blaise Ilsley, Memphis led the PCL in ERA (4.34) and set a franchise record for strikeouts (1,096). He is back for his second season. ... Hitting coach Mark Budaska also is back for a second year. ... This is the Redbirds' 10th season at AutoZone Park. ... 3B Brett Wallace should start the season at Double-A, where he played 13 games in '08, but could move up to Memphis by the end of the year. He spent most of last season at Class A Quad Cities and batted .327. ... RHP Jess Todd is flying through the Cardinals system. He went 8-6 over 24 starts at three levels in 2008, going 1-1 in four starts with the Redbirds.

Nashville Sounds
2008 record: 59-81
2009 manager: Don Money
What's on deck: This is Money's first season at the Triple-A level. The 61-year-old former Major Leaguer spent the past four seasons at Double-A Huntsville, guiding the Stars to a pair of postseason appearances. He coached in the All-Star Futures Game and was named Southern League Manager of the Year in 2007. ... Pitching coach Chris Bosio begins his first season in the Brewers organization after spending 2008 with Double-A Chattanooga in the Reds system. ... Hitting coach Sandy Guerrero also is new to Nashville after spending the past six seasons at Huntsville. ... Greer Stadium received a $2 million facelift in the offseason that included upgrades to the rest rooms, concession stands, scoreboard, sound system and seating. ... The Sounds should have plenty of talent this season, with four of the Brewers' top five prospects expected to see time in Nashville. SS Alcides Escobar is the most exciting member of the group. The other standouts are 3B Mat Gamel, C Angel Salome and RHP Jeremy Jeffress, who will begin the year in Double-A but could earn a late-season promotion.

New Orleans Zephyrs
2008 record: 66-75
2009 manager: Edwin Rodriguez
What's on deck: After two seasons with Class A Greensboro, Rodriguez joins the Zephyrs. ... Pitching coach Scott Mitchell begins his eighth season in the Marlins system. He spent three of the last four years at Double-A Carolina, where the Mudcats were second in the Southern League with a 3.86 ERA in 2008. ... Steve Phillips has been the Marlins' Triple-A hitting coach for three seasons, while trainer Steve Miller is back for his fifth year at the Triple-A level. ... After two seasons as the Mets' top affiliate, the Zephyrs signed a two-year Player Development Contract with the Marlins. ... This is the Zephyrs' 17th season and their 13th at Zephyr Field. ... RHP Ryan Tucker will join the Zephyrs rotation after sticking with the big club late into Spring Training. ... OF Mike Stanton and 1B Logan Morrison are both expected to begin the season with other clubs but could wind up in New Orleans at some point. Morrison, the 2008 Florida State League MVP, could make his Major League debut before year's end. ... Also expected to play for the Zephyrs is 2B Chris Coghlan, who hit .298 at Double-A Carolina in '08.

Oklahoma City RedHawks
2008 record: 76-68; American Conference South Division champions
2009 manager: Bobby Jones
What's on deck: Jones begins the third season of his third stint with the RedHawks. He is the franchise's winningest manager (568 victories) as well as the Rangers' leader in wins among Minor League managers (1,285 wins). He received the Mike Coolbaugh Award in 2008, when Oklahoma City reached the PCL Championship Series. ... After two years as hitting coach at Double-A Frisco, Scott Coolbaugh jumps to Triple-A. ... Pitching coach Terry Clark also moves up after three seasons with Frisco. ... The top two pitching prospects in the Rangers system were with the big club well into Spring Training, but both could use some seasoning in the Minors. RHP Neftali Feliz and LHP Derek Holland should spend at least some time with the RedHawks. ... RHP Thomas Diamond was among Texas' top pitching prospects before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2007. He's continuing to work his way back. ... The RedHawks should have a strong outfield, highlighted by CF Julio Borbon. ... The Rangers also have depth behind the plate and it looks like C Max Ramirez will start the year in Oklahoma City.

Omaha Royals
2008 record: 63-81
2009 manager: Mike Jirschele
What's on deck: Jirschele returns for a seventh season with the Royals. ... Tom Burgmeier is back for year No. 4 as the pitching coach, leaving hitting coach Tommy Gregg as the only newcomer on the Omaha staff. The former big leaguer spent the last two seasons at Double-A. ... Rosenblatt Stadium turns 61 years old this season. The home of the College World Series will host one of its final Minor League seasons, with plans to replace it following the 2010 campaign. ... Kansas City has a pair of RHPs who could contribute to the bullpen right now. However, both Danny Cortes and Carlos Rosa will return to the Minors to hone their skills as starters. Both should see time with Omaha. ... In 2008, 1B Kila Ka'aihue was the Texas League MVP, hitting .314 with 11 doubles, 26 homers and 79 RBIs. The Royals brought in Mike Jacobs to play first base, so Ka'aihue returns to Omaha. ... After starting 22 games with big club in '08, former No. 1 overall pick RHP Luke Hochevar, will open the season with the O-Royals.

Portland Beavers
2008 record: 70-74
2009 manager: Randy Ready
What's on deck: Ready returns for a second season with the Beavers, as do hitting coach Max Venable and pitching coach Glenn Abbott. ... Portland's PGE Park will host the Triple-A All-Star Game on July 15. ... 1B Kyle Blanks is the top hitting prospect in the Padres system. He batted .325 with 23 doubles, 20 homers and 107 RBIs at Double-A San Antonio last year and will begin this year in Portland. ... OF Will Venable fought for a full-time job in San Diego this spring but will return to Portland.

Reno Aces
2008 record: Inaugural season
2009 manager: Brett Butler
What's on deck: Butler spent 2008 as the Diamondbacks' Minor League outfield and baserunning coordinator. After 17 seasons as a big league outfielder, he's in his third go-round as a manager in the Arizona system. ... Mike Parrott begins his eighth season as pitching coach of the D-backs' Triple-A affiliate. ... Hitting coach Rick Burleson spent 2008 at Class A Advanced Visalia. ... Reno opens its $40 million downtown ballpark for its inaugural season and to celebrate, the Aces are giving away commemorative pins to the first 9,000 fans at the home opener on April 17. ... The Aces moved to Reno from Tucson, Ariz., and their player development contract with the D-backs runs through 2010. ... RHP Jarrod Parker could reach the PCL this season after going 12-5 with a 3.44 ERA at Class A South Bend in 2008. ... OF Gerardo Parra split time between Visalia and Double-A Mobile in '08. While he is expected to start this season in the Southern League, he also could see time with the Aces.

Round Rock Express
2008 record: 64-79
2009 manager: Marc Bombard
What's on deck: Bombard brings more than 37 years of professional baseball experience to the Express. He spent the last two seasons at Triple-A Charlotte. ... Burt Hooton returns for a fifth season as pitching coach, a post he also filled in the first half of Round Rock's inaugural campaign. ... Hitting coach Ron Jackson is back for a third season with the Express. ... Round Rock is celebrating its 10th season. ... The Express unveiled renovations to Dell Diamond in '09, adding the Intel Club, a suite right behind home plate. The press box and an owner's suite have been moved to the stadium's new third tier. ... Some believe RHP Bud Norris is ready to pitch for the Astros. He's more likely to start the season with the Express. ... Once former pitcher OF Brian Bogusevic settled into his new role, he tore through Texas League pitching. He batted .371 with 10 doubles, three homers and 20 RBIs in 42 games with Corpus Christi and should spend time with Round Rock this season.

Sacramento River Cats
2008 record: 83-61; PCL champions, Bricktown Showdown champions
2009 manager: Tony DeFrancesco
What's on deck: DeFrancesco returns after managing the River Cats from 2003-2007 and leading the club to three PCL Championships in his five-year tenure. ... Pitching coach Rick Rodriguez is back for his ninth year with Sacramento, while hitting coach Brian McArn is back for his fifth year. McArn has spent 12 years in the Oakland organization. ... The River Cats are celebrating their 10th season. ... RHP Brett Anderson and RHP Trevor Cahill will bypass Sacramento and begin the year in Oakland. ... LHP Gio Gonzalez will be back with the River Cats. ... Also expected to see time in Sacramento are OF Aaron Cunningham, 2BCorey Wimberly, RHP James Simmons, 1B Sean Doolittle and RHP Vin Mazzaro.

Salt Lake Bees
2008 record: 84-60; Won Pacific Conference North Division title
2009 manager: Bobby Mitchell
What's on deck: Mitchell is back for his second season with the Bees. In his first year, Salt Lake got off to a 23-2 start en route to its third straight Pacific North crown. ... Hitting coach Jim Eppard is back for a sixth season, while pitching coach Erik Bennett is in his second. ... With C Jeff Mathis and C Mike Napoli sharing catching duties in Los Angeles, C Bobby Wilson is slated for a return to Franklin Covey Field. He hit .312 with 20 doubles, four homers and 45 RBIs in 72 games with the Bees in 2008. ... 3B Brandon Wood also is back, as is 1B Matt Brown.

Tacoma Rainiers
2008 record: 80-64
2009 manager: Daren Brown
What's on deck: Brown is back after leading Tacoma to a second-place finish in his second season. The Rainiers played their best baseball at home late in the season, going 20-2 from July 30-Aug. 25. ... Dwight Bernard is back for his fourth season as pitching coach, while Alonzo Powell returns for his second season as hitting coach. ... The Rainiers are celebrating 50 years in Cheney Stadium, which opened in 1960. ... The Rainiers and Seattle signed a two-year extension to their Player Development Contract. ... A pair of big-time prospects could patrol the outfield at Cheney Stadium in 2009. OF Greg Halman is the Mariners' top prospect and should open the year at Double-A. OF Michael Saunders might reach Safeco Field by the end of the year but first will spend time with the Rainiers. He hit .242 over 24 games with Tacoma in 2008.

Mason Kelley is a contributor to