This is part four of a four-part preview of the Pacific Coast League. This part covers the American Conference’s North Division. The South Division preview as well as the Pacific Conference’s South and North Division previews ran earlier this week. All links can be found at the bottom of this story. All prospect rankings are from Baseball America.
The teams of the new-look American North Division were frequent visitors to Isotopes Park in recent years, with the exception of Colorado Springs. The Sky Sox will jump to the opposite conference of the Isotopes, all part of the PCL's massive realignment for 2014.
As for the rest, Iowa, Oklahoma City and Omaha will all have to get used to just facing Albuquerque once a season. For 2014, all of those games will take place on their home fields, denying Isotopes fans a chance to see a number of top prospects who will suit up for those teams.
Iowa (Cubs) and Oklahoma City (Astros), in particular, boast prospect-heavy rosters, including some of the top young players in all of baseball this season. Iowa will be led by shortstop Javier Baez, rated as the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball.
The RedHawks will be led by outfielder George Springer (No. 18), who's back for a second campaign in Oklahoma City. Also on the roster are right-hander Mike Foltynewicz (No. 59) and first baseman Jonathan Singleton (No. 82), with the latter likewise returning to Triple-A.
Prospect watchers in Albuquerque might just have to bite the bullet and drive to Oklahoma, or perhaps to Colorado Springs when one of those teams are in town to play the Sky Sox. Either way, it will be a bit of a disappointment to not have those teams visit Albuquerque this season.
In addition to all of those prospects, there is the minor factor that Omaha is the defending PCL and overall Triple-A champion. The Storm Chasers pulled that off last year despite a losing record during the regular season.
Add it all up and the American North should be quite the division to watch in 2014. Even if Albuquerque fans can't see it up close and personal.
Colorado Springs Sky Sox
2013 record: 67-76, third place Pacific North
Manager: Glenallen Hill
Albuquerque dates: none, Isotopes visit there August 20-23
The Sky Sox may have been the Isotopes' closest neighbor until El Paso joined the league this year, but the rivalry has been limited to four games per season. The Dodgers and Rockies prospects won't really get to know each other until the big leagues.
This year's Colorado Springs squad features a handful of prospects and some veterans mixed in with a few organizational types. Some are familiar faces, like talented but oft-injured lefty Christian Friedrich, pictured.
The Sky Sox have never had much trouble scoring runs. Run prevention, just like in Denver, has been the biggest issue.
Colorado Springs Sky Sox prospects
Prospects to watch: Leading the charge among Sky Sox to keep an eye on is outfielder-first baseman Kyle Parker (No. 4), pictured. A former standout at Clemson, Parker is coming off a solid year (.288, 23 HR, 74 RBI) at Double-A Tulsa. He is blocked at the big-league level, however, and will likely remain at Triple-A all year unless there is an injury.
The other three prospects in Colorado Springs are all on the mound. Lefty Tyler Matzek (No. 12; 8-9, 3.79 ERA at Tulsa) will be in the rotation, while Rob Scahill (No. 17; 5-1, 4.50, 1 save) is back with the team in the bullpen. Right-hander Ryan Houston (No. 25; 4-6, 3.36, 2 saves at Tulsa) could start or relieve.
Matzek, a first-round pick in 2009, still walks too many batters (75 in 26 starts last year). His fastball sits around 93 mph, but he has to command his curveball and slider better if he wants to succeed.
Colorado Springs Sky Sox veterans
Veterans to watch: Among the older players on the roster, it seems like reliever Manny Corpas (3-3, 5.49, 1 save), pictured, has been around the Rockies organization seemingly forever. He is one of several experienced arms on the mound for the Sky Sox.
Also on staff are lefty Pedro Hernandez (3-3, 6.83 with the Twins) and righty reliever Greg Burke (0-3, 5.68 with the Mets). Former UNM Lobo Cole White (2-3, 4.38, 19 saves at Tulsa), a non-prospect, is also expected to pitch out of the bullpen.
The lineup features catcher Michael McKenry (.217, 3 HR, 14 RBI with the Pirates), back with his original organization, and shortstop Paul Janish (.207, 12 RBI with Gwinnett). Also on the roster is former Dodgers farmhand Rafael Ynoa (.267, 6 HR, 33 RBI at Double-A Chattanooga), who never reached Albuquerque.
2013 record: 66-78, third place
Manager: Marty Pevey
Albuquerque dates: none, Isotopes visit there June 21-24
The Cubs' top affiliate features the usual mix of older and younger players, though some of the top prospects who are expected to help in the club's rebuilding project have now arrived. The veterans are there to balance them out.
One veteran of note is outfielder Chris Coghlan, pictured, a former NL Rookie of the Year. He is one of several players whose experience will help guide the youngsters, or so the top brass in Chicago hopes.
Iowa has been an afterthought in the PCL playoff race for a few years now, but things may turn this season. The Cubs have a strong pitching staff, but it remains to be seen if it will hold together with the usual trials and tribulations for the arms in Chicago.
Iowa Cubs prospects
Prospects to watch: As noted in the intro, shortstop Javier Baez (No. 1; .294, 20 HR, 54 RBI at Double-A Tennessee), pictured, is the big-name player with Iowa this year. Blessed with a powerful bat and good defensive skills, he has All-Star potential for the Cubs, even if he has to change positions down the line.
Baez is not the only big name here. Second baseman-shortstop Arismendy Alcantara (No. 7; .271, 15 HR, 69 RBI, 31 stolen bases) also moves up from Tennessee. He should play primarily at the keystone with Baez in the same lineup.
Right-hander Kyle Hendricks (No. 11; 3-1, 2.48 at Tennessee) is the top pitching prospect on hand. He has a good fastball-changeup combo that he commands better than most pitchers his age.
Third baseman Christian Villanueva (No. 13; .261, 19 HR, 72 RBI at Tennessee) needs to impress the Cubs' brass quickly. Last year's first-round pick, Kris Bryant, is also a third baseman and has been assigned to Tennessee to start this season.
Iowa Cubs veterans
Veterans to watch: Iowa has a fair amount of experience on the mound. Lefty Tsuyoshi Wada (5-6, 4.03 with Norfolk), pictured, never pitched for Baltimore after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2012. He still hopes to pitch in the Majors eventually.
Lefty Chris Rusin (8-7, 3.35) has bounced back and forth between Iowa and Chicago the last couple years. He was 2-6 with a 3.93 ERA in the Majors last season.
Veteran catcher Eli Whiteside (.187, 5 HR, 25 RBI with Round Rock) brings solid defense behind the plate. The aforementioned Chris Coghlan (.256, HR, 10 RBI with the Marlins) will patrol the outfield.
Oklahoma City RedHawks
2013 record: 82-62, first place American South
Manager: Tom Lawless (interim), Tony DeFrancesco
Albuquerque dates: none, Isotopes visit there August 24-27
The RedHawks faced adversity even before they took the field this season. Manager Tony DeFrancesco took a leave of absence from the club while undergoing cancer treatments, leaving Tom Lawless in charge on an interim basis.
Lawless inherits a team stocked with many of the Astros' future stars. Houston's perpetual rebuilding project is beginning to bear fruit.
Chief among the prospects returning, though likely not for too long, is outfielder George Springer, pictured mid-slide. Springer is expected to join Houston in June when the Astros can avoid starting his arbitration-eligibility clock from starting too soon.
In the meantime, Springer will join a loaded lineup that should punish PCL pitching. The RedHawks' staff is nothing to sneeze at, either, even as they use the "tandem starter" system again at the outset of this year.
Oklahoma City RedHawks prospects
Prospects to watch: Springer (No. 1; .303, 37 HR, 108 RBI, 45 stolen bases with OKC and Double-A Corpus Christi) is coming off a monster season. His only nemesis is the strikeout, as he piled up 161 in 492 at-bats last year.
Right-hander Michael Foltynewicz (No. 4; 5-3, 2.87 at Corpus Christi) brings his 100 mph fastball to the PCL this season. His slider and curveball are much more inconsistent.
First baseman Jonathan Singleton (No. 7; .220, 6 HR, 31 RBI) returns after a disappointing year that started with a 50-game suspension for smoking marijuana. Outfielder Domingo Santana (No. 8; .252, 25 HR, 64 RBI at Corpus Christi) is another swing-or-miss player, with 139 strikeouts in 416 at-bats last year.
Catcher Max Stassi (No. 12; .277, 17 HR, 60 RBI at Corpus Christi), pictured, has recovered from the concussion he suffered in his third career Major League game last season with the Astros. He has a lot of skills, but a penchant for injuries in his career.
Oklahoma City RedHawks veterans
Veterans to watch: Due to the depth and strength of Houston's farm system, there are not many older players with Oklahoma City. There are a number of younger players like right-hander Paul Clemens (4-7, 5.40 with the Astros), pictured, who have exhausted their rookie eligibility already but ended up back at Triple-A.
There are two pitchers on the staff who are strictly relievers who spent at least half of last year in the Majors. Right-hander Jose Cisnero (2-2, 4.12) is back after a stint in Houston, while lefty Darin Downs (0-2, 4.84) appeared in 29 games with Detroit.
The lineup has two veterans of note. Shortstop Gregorio Petit (.292, 4 HR, 61 RBI with Tucson) is healthy to start the year, while former Cardinals outfielder Adron Chambers (.252, 8 HR, 43 RBI with Memphis) opens on the disabled list.
Omaha Storm Chasers
2013 record: 70-74, first place, PCL champions
Manager: Brian Poldberg
Albuquerque dates: none, Isotopes visit there June 17-20
After many years at the helm, longtime Omaha manager Mike Jirschele earned an overdue promotion to the Royals' big-league coaching staff. Replacing him will be Poldberg, an Omaha native.
Last season's Triple-A champions will have quite a few returning faces, a mix of younger and older veterans. The pitching staff will benefit from an overcrowded Kansas City staff that resulted in the likes of lefty Danny Duffy, pictured, being sent back down.
There are not any elite prospects with Omaha this year. That could lead to what Storm Chasers will hope to be a stable roster (by Triple-A standards) and a repeat championship.
Omaha Storm Chasers prospects
Prospects to watch: As noted before, there are not many elite prospects here. Omaha does return its top pitcher from a year ago in lefty Chris Dwyer (No. 21; 10-11, 3.55). A command-and-control type, his fastball sits 88-92 mph, with a good changeup and a below-average curveball.
Outfielder Brett Eibner (No. 17; .243, 19 HR, 41 RBI) moves up from Double-A Northwest Arkansas and is currently the top prospect on the roster. Eibner has swing-and-miss issues, racking up 149 strikeouts in 441 at-bats last year.
Middle infielder Christian Colon (No. 25; .273, 12 HR, 58 RBI) returns after a mediocre year. The former first-round pick (2010) out of Cal State Fullerton is blocked at both second and short in Kansas City.
Omaha Storm Chasers veterans
Veterans to watch: The oldest player in the PCL this year is trying to make a comeback with Omaha. 41-year-old Brett Tomko, pictured from his previous stint with the Royals in 2008, went 4-8 with a 4.98 ERA with York of the independent Atlantic League last season. He is trying to get back to the Majors for the first time since 2011 with the Texas Rangers.
Former Astros utilityman Jimmy Paredes (.287, 8 HR, 37 RBI with Oklahoma City) figures to play just about everywhere he is needed. Ex-Mariners outfielder Carlos Peguero (.260, 19 HR, 83 RBI with Tacoma) brings some power to the lineup.
Old friends alert: A trio of former Isotopes dot the roster. Right-handers Ramon Troncoso (1-4, 4.50 with the White Sox) and Cory Wade (4-4, 3.86, 2 saves with three Triple-A teams) will pitch out of the bullpen. Catcher Jesus Flores (.174, 2 HR, 25 RBI with the Isotopes and Durham) will be the backup behind the plate.