Our final stop amongst the High-A leagues takes us to the West Coast and the California League, which has been in existence for nearly 80 full seasons. It established itself in 1941 as a Class D league with eight teams. When the United States entered World War II after their inaugural season, the league downsized to four teams in 1942 before stopping operations for the rest of the war. It returned in 1946 and got back to its eight team format in 1955. Oakland, Anaheim and San Diego all had franchises in the first two years of operation, the only three cities that ever graduated to a Major League franchise.
Today, the league is separated into two divisions: Northern and Southern. Here's how they shape up:
Northern League: Bakersfield Blaze (Cincinnati Reds affiliate), Modesto Nuts (Colorado Rockies), San Jose Giants (San Francisco Giants), Stockton Ports (Oakland A's), Visalia Rawhide (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Southern League: High Desert Mavericks (Seattle Mariners), Inland Empire 66ers of San Bernadino (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), Lake Elsinore Storm (San Diego Padres), Lancaster JetHawks (Houston Astros), Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Los Angeles Dodgers)
The Reds and Astros are the only two non-West division teams that have affiliates in the Cal League, but that will change in 2013 when the Astros make their move to the AL West. Stockton and Inland Empire (San Bernadino) remain the only two teams that were with the league in its inaugural season, although the Inland Empire team only came back in 1993. Visalia wins for best nickname, although Lancaster calling themselves the JetHawks due to Edwards Air Force Base being nearby is pretty cool. But the 66ers get bonus points for being named after the historic Route 66 (which starts in the northeastern part of the Inland Empire in Barstow) and for going full bore with their new affiliation with the Angels by throwing in the whole "smaller city within a larger region/city" motif.
If you are a fan of many runs being scored in a professional baseball game, the California League is for you! Their 5.58 runs per game is the highest in all of the affiliated minor leagues and their triple slash stats of .277/.349/.440 lend itself to the 2nd best OPS in the minors. And the homers. Oh, the homers. The team average is 131.2, second only to the vaunted Pacific Coast League's 147.1. It might not look that impressive, but consider that the American League hit 162 homers per team in 2011, a rate of one per game per team. The Cal League plays only 140 games, so their rate of .94 is almost as good as the American League and better than the National League's .88 per game.
The reasoning? Well, the entire league is full of bandboxes, and in the south division, all five teams play at a high altitude. Combine that with the dry, warm airs that come through in the summer and the balls absolutely fly out of the parks. Prospect careers have been both enhanced and destroyed because of the Cal League, mainly due to how the numbers are pumped up.
There have been many great players to come through the ranks of the Cal League. The most recent MVP who has made an impact at the Major League level is Carlos Santana, who won the award in 2009 when he was still in the Dodgers system. He dominated the league to the tune of a .323/.431/.563 triple slash in only 99 games, showing he wasn't long for the High-A level.
There are also two other MVPs of note that are merely interesting more than great. One is Pumpsie Green, who won the award in 1955. Why? Because his name was PUMPSIE. PUMPSIE, people. He went on to a five year career at the Major League level as a utility player with the Red Sox in Mets, ending up with a career OBP of .357. The other is Dave Duncan (1966), who spent 11 years in the majors as a catcher with the A's, Indians and Orioles. He became a pitching coach in 1980 and then when he reached the White Sox in 1983, he became the right hand man for Tony LaRussa for the next 28 years, helping mold some of the best pitchers the game had seen over that time frame.
Other winners include Ted Simmons (1968), Mike Marshall (1979), Candy Maldonado (1980), Kent Hrbek (1981), Kevin McReynolds (1982), Marty Cordova (1992), Brad Penny (1998), Xavier Nady (2001), Rocco Baldelli (2002), and Brandon Wood (2005). Wood might be the poster child for players who were pumped up by the California League, where he set records with 43 homers and 51 doubles and became the #3 prospect in all of baseball behind Justin Upton and Delmon Young, only to bottom out once he reached the Major Leagues.
In 2011, players like Gary Brown (Giants), Nolan Arenado (Rockies) Michael Choice (A's) and Billy Hamilton (Reds) ran roughshod (literally, in Hamilton's case) over the league. In 2012, the most intriguing player might be a pitcher. Danny Hultzen, the #2 pick in the 2011 draft by the Mariners, might start his career at High-A, and if he does well in the offensively charged environment, look for the former Virginia standout to move quickly.
But the team in Lake Elsinore could be stacked. The Padres could have Rymer Liriano, Cory Spangenberg, and maybe Austin Hedges on the team. You'll also see other standout players like James Paxton (Mariners) and Sonny Gray (A's) make their way through the league at some point, as well.
Next week, we finish off the series with a look at the two Low-A leagues and a brief look at the short-season leagues that start up when the summer comes round.
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