The Northwest Arkansas Naturals became the fifth different team crowned Texas League champions in as many years when they dethroned the Midland RockHounds in four games last September.
Now in its fourth year, Kansas City's Double-A affiliate has its sights set on becoming the first club to repeat as victors since the San Antonio Missions accomplished the feat in 2002-03.
There will be no shortage of challengers to the Naturals' title. Four teams have brought in new managers for the 2011 campaign, including the Arkansas Travelers, who will give MLB.com's No. 1 prospect Mike Trout his Texas League debut on April 7.
MLB Parent Club: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2010 record: 55-85
2011 manager: Bill Mosiello (first season)
Outlook: Mike Trout is expected to start 2011 at Double-A after batting .341 with 56 steals and 10 homers across two levels last year, and he's not the only prospect looking to leave his mark. The club, entering its league-leading 43rd consecutive season, will also feature 22-year-old right-hander Garrett Richards -- a 12-game winner 12 months ago -- and former second-rounder Tyler Chatwood. There are also changes in the dugout, with new manager Bill Mosiello at the helm and Brandon Emanuel taking over as the pitching coach. Completing the new-look Travelers, the club will unveil its new home uniform on April 14. GM Pete Laven described the Travelers as a "classic baseball franchise," and he took his inspiration from the team's 1937 jersey. It marks the first time Arkansas will wear pinstripes in almost three decades.
Corpus Christi Hooks
MLB Parent Club: Houston Astros
2010 record: 63-77
2011 manager: Tom Lawless (first season)
Outlook: The Hooks finished last in the South division in 2010, prompting the team to hire Tom Lawless this offseason, its third new manager in as many years. Corpus Christi has not been to the playoffs since winning the championship five years ago, but it has the players to change that. Toolsy 20-year-old second baseman Jose Altuve hit .301 with 15 homers and 42 steals across two levels in 2010, and Koby Clemens blasted 26 homers with 85 RBIs in 127 games for the Hooks. Outfielder J.D. Martinez, who hit .341 with 18 homers and 89 RBIs across two levels in 2010, will also play a pivotal role. Corpus Christi has lowered the bullpen fences at Whataburger Field by four feet, so expect plenty of home runs and a lot of scoring.
MLB Parent Club: Texas Rangers
2010 record: 72-67
2011 manager: Steve Buechele (second season)
Outlook: Frisco won the South Division first half title last year, and a trip to the playoffs again this season should be within reach. Southpaw Martin Perez, ranked No. 23 in MLB.com's top 50 prospects, leads a pitching staff that finished second in strikeouts only to the Missions last season, and he will be looking to continue his growth in his second full year in the league. He went 5-8 with 101 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings, but his consistency was lacking and hitters batted .290 against him. At the plate, the RoughRiders will depend on midseason All-Stars Joey Butler -- who batted .277 with 10 homers for Frisco -- and third baseman Renny Osuna -- who hit .293 and swiped 20 bases.
MLB Parent Club: Oakland Athletics
2010 record: 70-70
2011 manager: Steve Scarsone (first season)
Outlook: Former first-rounders Grant Green -- who slugged a pair of homers in five playoff games with Midland in 2010 -- and Jemile Weeks will look to guide the club to its sixth playoff berth since 2004. They will be supported by 23-year-old slugger Stephen Parker, who hit .296 with 21 homers and 98 RBIs in the Cal League. The team, which has 20 former players on Oakland's opening day roster, has a fresh image, a re-layed field and a new coaching staff. Manager Steve Scarsone replaces Darren Bush, who will lead Triple-A Sacramento. The RockHounds will celebrate 40 years of professional baseball in Midland in 2011. Among those lined up to attend the anniversary celebration is lifelong Angel and Midland alum Tim Salmon.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals
MLB Parent Club: Kansas City Royals
2010 record: 88-54
2011 manager: Brian Poldberg (fourth season)
Outlook: The Naturals captured their first championship in the club's three-year history in 2010. Considering the talent on its 2011 roster, a repeat performance is a very real possibility. While top Royals prospects Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Mike Montgomery will move up to Omaha, the Naturals still have a lot of depth. Former fifth-rounder John Lamb posted 10 wins and a 2.38 ERA across three levels in 2010 and 2009 third-round Draft pick Wil Myers batted .315 with 83 RBIs and 54 extra-base hits between Wilmington and Burlington. Christian Colon, drafted fourth overall in 2010, will move up from Class A Advanced Wilmington. With the same coaching staff for the third straight year and the second-best home record of any full-season team, the Naturals are the team to beat.
San Antonio Missions
MLB Parent Club:
San Diego Padres
Doug Dascenzo (second season)
San Antonio has a lot to look forward to in 2011. Former first-rounder Casey Kelly
is expected to start the year at Double-A, and slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo
makes the jump to the Texas League after hammering 25 homers across two levels last year. Another first-rounder, Jaff Decker
, could also feature prominently after shaking off a slow start to hit 17 bombs in 2010. The club will host the 75th All-Star Game on June 29 after previously holding the Summer Classic in its 25th and 50th years. Second-year manager Doug Dascenzo will be joined by new pitching coach Jimmy Jones and hitting coach Tom Tornincasa, who was with the club in 2007. The Misisons, now playing their 106th season, are also 10 wins away from 7,200.
MLB Parent Club: St. Louis Cardinals
2010 record: 76-64
2011 manager: Pop Warner (fifth season)
Outlook: The Cards are the only active team in the Texas League without a championship despite reaching the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. Third base prospect Matt Carpenter and 2007 first-round shortstop Peter Kozma will look to change that. Carpenter hit .309 with 13 homers and 69 RBIs last year and Kozma plated 72 runs in 132 games. Coach Warner will reach two milestones in 2011. He needs four victories to reach 300 in the Texas League, and he is 33 away from the 500th of his career. Former Cardinals pitcher and Hall of Famer Steve Carlton will throw out the first pitch on opening night, April 14, and will be honored with a bobblehead on July 26.
MLB Parent Club: Colorado Rockies
2010 record: 69-70
2011 manager: Duane Espy (first season)
Outlook: The Drillers saw a club-record 408,183 people come through the gates in 2010, and they will look to reward the fans this year with their first playoff appearance since 2007. Former first-rounder Christian Friedrich will anchor the Tulsa rotation while looking to bounce back after posting a 5.05 ERA and 3-6 record in 18 starts last season. Rex Brothers, the 34th overall pick in 2009, will likely start the year at Double-A after beginning the 2010 campaign in Modesto, and Juan Nicasio will also make the jump to the Texas League after going 12-10 in the Cal League. Duane Espy replaces Ron Gideon in the Tulsa dugout after three seasons as the hitting coach for Colorado's Class A affiliate.