Grand Junction ready for Pioneer action

New Western Slope franchise features league's biggest park

By Greg Rachac / Special to | June 18, 2012 8:16 AM ET

League Preview For all the hoopla and all the good vibes, there's still one question surrounding the relocation of the Colorado Rockies' Pioneer League affiliate from Casper, Wyo., to Grand Junction, Colo.

Will it make any difference in the win/loss column?

The franchise now known as the Grand Junction Rockies has suffered through its share of futility in the last decade. Since its inception in 2001, the team owns a .420 winning percentage and has never finished above .500.

Yet moving from Casper, where the team had only 287 season ticket holders, to a newly renovated facility in the heart of what second-year GM Tim Ray calls "a baseball area" might be the trick to turning things around.

Sometimes all it takes is a little positive reinforcement.

"Any time you relocate, people are excited, but there's just a different feeling here," Ray said. "People here on the Western Slope have been waiting for this moment, and I think they're embracing it.

"The facility here will rival all the top stadiums in the Pioneer League. I've always considered the new stadium in Billings as one of the top facilities, and of course the stadiums in Ogden and Orem. But I think we're right there. Suplizio Field holds the largest capacity in the league, and we're expecting a sellout on Opening Day. Our goal is to lead the Pioneer League in attendance. I don't know if we will but it's a great goal to shoot for."

Personnel-wise, Ray said the club will benefit from the services of two of Colorado's top choices from the 2012 Draft: outfielders David Dahl and Max White. So sixth-year skipper Tony Diaz will have some skill to work with.

Dahl, the 10th overall pick, comes from Oak Mountain High School in Birmingham, Ala. He was rated the third-best outfield prospect in the Draft and the fifth-best position player by Baseball America. White, meanwhile, joins the team from Williston High School in Williston, Fla. He purportedly possesses plus-speed and raw power.

Clearly, Dahl and White are building blocks.

"I've been told that we're going to be fairly decent," Ray said. "As you know, at this level it always comes down to pitching. And I understand we have some very live Dominican arms we're very excited about. And we'll have tremendous depth in the outfield. So we're excited about that.

"From my standpoint, I really can't control what happens on the field. That's all handled by the Colorado Rockies. My job is to make sure the beer is cold, the hot dogs are hot and the stadium is clean. We want to provide a great experience for our fans, and after that, everything seems to take care of itself."

The 76-game Pioneer League season begins June 18.

Turning the tide

Billings has won more championships (14) than any franchise in Pioneer League history. But a recent trend of mediocrity has seen the club miss the postseason in four of the last five seasons.

What's more, the Mustangs are in an eight-year championship drought, a rare trend for a club that captured six league titles between 1992 and 2003. Billings missed the playoffs last season despite finishing with the league's second-best overall record (44-32). Due to a split-season format, the Mustangs were postseason spectators.

Manager Pat Kelly returns to Billings for his second season at the helm. He'll try to end the Mustangs' three-year playoff drought on the arm of Reds 2011 first-round Draft pick Robert Stephenson and a host of young talent.

Stephenson, the 27th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, is a 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-handed pitcher out of Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif. He went 8-2 with a 1.19 ERA during his senior season in 2011, striking out 142 and walking just 23. Stephenson has drawn comparisons to Cubs right-hander Matt Garza. At the time, he was the first high school pitcher Cincinnati had drafted in the first round since Homer Bailey in 2004.

Deadline dish

July 17 is the new signing deadline for MLB draft choices, meaning fans may get a greater dose of quality prospects to watch. The previous deadline was Aug. 16, roughly three weeks before the end of the Pioneer League season.

As most players waited until the August deadline to sign contracts, it became increasingly rare in recent years to see high draft choices come through the league. Now, the potential that 2012 first-round picks like Kyle Zimmer (Royals), Courtney Hawkins (White Sox), David Dahl (Rockies) or Nick Travieso (Reds) will appear in the Pioneer League is greater.

Starting point

The Pioneer League is renowned for its alumni list, an index of big league stars that had humble beginnings in the Rocky Mountain West. Among them are Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey, George Brett, Andre Dawson, Jose Canseco and Pedro Martinez.

More recently, Major League standouts Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Jay Bruce and Jake Peavy played in the Pioneer League, but it doesn't stop there. The league has had an impressive run of producing Major League Most Valuable Players. In fact, the last two National League MVPs -- Votto and Braun -- are Pioneer League alumni.

Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Pioneer League.

  • Last season's championship: Great Falls over Ogden in two games
  • Last season's attendance leader: Ogden Raptors, 130,817
  • Last back-to-back champion: Orem Owlz 2004-05
  • Last no-hitter: Scott Snodgress, Blake Drake and Joe Dvorsky, Great Falls vs. Casper, Aug. 18, 2011 coverage »
  • Last perfect game: Jason Robbins, Billings vs. Medicine Hat, Aug. 1, 1994
  • Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Greg Smith, Missoula, 2005
  • Last .400 season: Travis Vetters, Ogden, and Roberto Lopez, Orem, 2008
  • Last 20-homer hitter: Brandon Waring, Billings, 2007
  • Last three-homer game: Will Swanner, Casper vs. Orem, July 4, 2011 coverage »
  • Last cycle: Taylor Lindsey, Orem, Aug. 6, 2011 coverage »
  • Last triple play: Dillon Baird, Casey Haerther, Jonathan Garrett, Orem vs. Casper, Aug. 31, 2009 coverage »
  • Last alum to win NL MVP: Ryan Braun 2011 (Helena '05)
  • Last alum to win AL MVP: Jose Canseco 1988 (Idaho Falls '82)

Greg Rachac is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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