This is part one of a four-part preview of the Pacific Coast League. This part covers the Pacific Conference’s South Division, with the North Division coming soon. All prospect rankings are from Baseball America.
During Albuquerque Isotopes media day a number of players were in the dugout discussing something that they found rather confusing.
It was not the arrangement for the team photo or a reporter's question or even the team's upcoming travel plans. No, it was a question as simple as this: Who is in our division this year?
The PCL realigned its four divisions this season with the move of the Tucson Padres to El Paso, where they will now play as the Chihuahuas. That move pushed Albuquerque from the American Conference's South Division to the Pacific Conference's South Division, where the Isotopes will join the Chihuahuas, Las Vegas 51s (Mets) and Salt Lake Bees (Angels) in what promises to be a competitive quartet of teams.
For prospect watchers, this division is loaded, including five players who cracked Baseball America's top 100. Las Vegas will feature right-handers Noah Syndergaard (No. 16) and Rafael Montero (68), while Albuquerque boasts outfielder Joc Pederson (34) and right-hander Zach Lee (95) and Salt Lake has second baseman Taylor Lindsey (93).
The new-look division also promises plenty of high-scoring games. Though games have not yet been played in El Paso's new stadium, which won't host a contest until the end of April due to construction delays, it stands to reason that it will be a hitter's park just like Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Salt Lake.
El Paso Chihuahuas
2013 record (as the Tucson Padres): 77-67, third place
Manager: Pat Murphy
Albuquerque dates: April 15-18, July 7-10
The Chihuahuas will spend almost all of April on the road until their home ballpark is ready on April 28.
This first Triple-A team in El Paso history has an interesting mix of veterans and younger players like speedy center fielder Raymond Fuentes, pictured.
The Chihuahuas should enjoy playing in front of sizable crowds after spending last season in a near-empty Kino Memorial Stadium in Tucson, a city that really never gave good fan support to any of its Triple-A teams.
Manager Pat Murphy, the former Arizona State coach, got the most out of his team last year despite constant roster raids by the injury-plagued Padres.
El Paso Chihuahuas prospects
Prospects to watch: The Chihuahuas may not have the blue-chip prospects that the Isotopes, 51s and Bees can boast, but that does not mean their roster is devoid of potential.
Right-handers Burch Smith (No. 8; 5-1, 3.39 ERA), pictured, and Keyvius Sampson (No. 9; 2-3, 7.11) both return to the rotation after short stints in Tucson last season. Sampson's struggles were so bad he was sent down to Double-A San Antonio, where he seemingly righted the ship (10-4, 2.26).
Smith throws 92-93 mph and can run his fastball up to 97, but he is still working on a curveball. Sampson throws 93-95 mph with a good slider and changeup, but has trouble throwing strikes consistently.
Lefty Juan Oramas (No. 18; 3-2, 3.07 at San Antonio) also figures to be in the rotation, while right-handers Leonel Campos (No. 21; 1-0, 0.88, 2 saves at San Antonio) and Kevin Quackenbush (8-2, 2.91, 4 saves) will be in the bullpen.
The top position prospect is the aforementioned Reymond Fuentes (No. 20; .316, 6 HR, 35 RBI, 29 stolen bases at San Antonio), who will start in center field.
El Paso Chihuahuas veterans
Veterans to watch: There are quite a few familiar names filling out the El Paso roster.
Former Houston Astros outfielder-turned-pitcher Jason Lane (2-2, 5.24) is back with the club. He could start, while it seems like another ex-Astro, Hector Ambriz (2-4, 5.70, 2 saves with Houston) will be in the bullpen along with lefty Tony Sipp (3-2, 4.78 with the Diamondbacks).
The lineup will include slugging outfielder-first baseman Kyle Blanks (.243, 8 HR, 35 RBI with the Padres), a graduate of Moriarty High School. He was squeezed out of the San Diego roster this spring.
Another notable face in the outfield is well-traveled veteran Jeff Francouer, who is coming off a rough year (.204, 3 HR, 17 RBI) with the Giants and Royals.
Old friend alert: Outfielder Alex Castellanos, pictured, ended up in El Paso after a whirlwind offseason. The Dodgers traded him from the Isotopes roster to the Red Sox, who then placed him on waivers. He was claimed by the Rangers, but then they put him on waivers and finally the Padres picked him up. The slugger is coming off a fairly solid year (.257, 19 HR, 61 RBI, 19 stolen bases) with Albuquerque.
Las Vegas 51s
2013 record: 81-63, first place
Manager: Wally Backman
Albuquerque dates: July 4-6, August 28-29, August 31-Sept. 1
The 51s finished with the second-best record in the PCL last season, pulling off the rare feat of denying the Sacramento RiverCats a playoff spot.
Sacramento is now in the Pacific North Division, but that won't make life any easier for manager Wally Backman and his staff as their team will have to compete for the division title against the same Salt Lake team that ousted them from the PCL playoffs last year.
The good news for Backman is that the rebuilding Mets have a number of top prospects either returning to Triple-A or arriving for the first time. Las Vegas has tremendous potential this season.
Helping out all the kids will be the steadying influences of big-league veterans like Daisuke Matsuzaka, pictured.
Las Vegas 51s prospects
Prospects to watch: Most of the attention this year will be focused squarely on the Las Vegas pitching mound, where the Mets' top two pitching prospects will both be preparing for the eventual leap to New York.
Noah Syndergaard (No. 1; 9-4, 3.06 ERA) stormed through Double-A Binghamton and High-A St. Lucie last season, racking up 133 strikeouts in 118 innings. His fastball runs at 94-98 mph. Right-handed hitters had an OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .534 against him last season.
Rafael Montero (No. 3; 5-4, 3.04) returns to Las Vegas after 16 successful starts last season. He only allowed six home runs and 35 walks in 156 total innings. Montero still needs to work on throwing his slider more consistently. His fastball sits in the low 90s.
A third starting pitcher of note is Jake deGrom (No. 10; 4-2, 4.52), who is back after 10 starts last year with the 51s. He can hit 98 mph on the radar gun, but his secondary pitches need work.
Outfielder Cesar Puello (No. 11; .326, 16 HR, 73 RBI, 24 stolen bases), pictured, was tearing through Binghamton when he was suspended as part of the Biogenesis scandal.
Las Vegas 51s veterans
Veterans to watch: The aforementioned Daisuke Matsuzaka is expected to be part of the 51s starting rotation. Matsuzaka made seven starts for the Mets late last season, going 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA. He lost out on a rotation spot to Jenrry Mejia this spring.
The everyday lineup will feature a familiar tormentor of Isotopes pitching in utility man Anthony Seratelli (.273, 11 HR, 41 RBI, 24 stolen bases), who helped Omaha win the Triple-A Championship last season.
Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis (.248, 14 HR, 37 RBI) has bounced back and forth between Triple-A and the Majors for a few years now. He is back with Las Vegas.
Old friends alert: Right-hander Giancarlo Alvarado, pictured, and lefty Dana Eveland are both on the 51s staff.
Alvarado pitched well (5-4, 3.49) for Las Vegas last season. He was the Isotopes' top pitcher back in 2009 when he went 13-10 with a 3.49 ERA. He spent the three seasons in between pitching in overseas leagues.
Eveland struggled (6-14, 5.54) with the last-place Hanwha Eagles in South Korea last season. He pitched much better (12-8, 4.38) with the Isotopes in 2011.
Salt Lake Bees
2013 record: 78-66, first place in Pacific North
Manager: Keith Johnson
Albuquerque dates: April 28-May 1, May 31-June 3
The Salt Lake Bees rolled into the PCL Championship Series last year, only to get rolled out in four games by the underdog Omaha Storm Chasers.
Last year's Bees were a veteran group who led their division almost wire-to-wire. This season's roster still sports plenty of experience, but there is an infusion of young talent beginning to arrive this year.
A crowded roster in Anaheim led to some surprising demotions by the Angels, including outfielder J.B. Shuck, pictured, and infielder Grant Green. Shuck spent all of last season in the big leagues, helping to fill in for the injured Peter Bourjos.
Salt Lake figures to have plenty of talent to send the Angels' way as needed this year. It remains to be seen if what remains behind is enough to propel the Bees to a title in their first year in the Pacific South Division.
Salt Lake Bees prospects
Prospects to watch: The Los Angeles Angels are rated 30th out of 30 teams in terms of talent in the minor leagues. That does not mean they are devoid of talent, but rather lack depth and any truly high-impact players.
Still, Angels fans should know that their top two prospects will suit up for Salt Lake this season, putting them on the doorstep of the big leagues. The only problem is both prospects are blocked by a veteran on a long-term contract.
Second baseman Taylor Lindsey (No. 1; .274, 17 HR, 56 RBI) and first baseman C.J. Cron (No. 2; .274, 14 HR, 83 RBI) both put up good-but-not-great numbers at Double-A Arkansas last season. They will both hope for a PCL boost this year.
Lindsey is blocked by Howie Kendrick in Anaheim, but he still has some things to work on, mostly his ability to hit breaking balls and not pull everything he hits. Lindsey has an unorthodox left-handed swing. All of his home runs were pulled to right field. Defensively, he has average range, good hands and a below-average arm.
Cron, who pummeled UNM Lobos pitching as a Utah Ute, should enjoy his return to his college town. A future designated hitter, Cron's only major weakness offensively is his allergy to walks. He only took 23 free passes in 134 games last season, leaving him with a sub-par .319 on-base percentage.
The only other prospects starting the year with the Bees are left-handers Buddy Boshers, pictured, and Jose Alvarez. Boshers (No. 21; 4-2, 3.35, 2 saves with Salt Lake and Arkansas) is on the 40-man roster. He throws 91-94 mph and has a plus breaking ball.
Alvarez (8-6, 2.80 at Toledo) was acquired from the Tigers for infielder Andrew Romine last month. He was Detroit's No. 21 prospect. Alvarez went 1-5 with a 5.82 ERA in his major-league debut last season.
Salt Lake Bees veterans
Veterans to watch: The Bees will feature plenty of well-traveled arms and bats again this year. Lefty Wade LeBlanc (1-5, 5.40) pitched for both the Astros and Marlins last season and has also seen time with the Padres earlier in his career.
Brandon Lyon (2-2, 4.98 with the Mets) will be among the more experienced arms in the bullpen.
The lineup will feature a large group of players who are back from last season's team. Catcher John Hester (.237, 8 HR, 29 RBI), first baseman Efren Navarro (.326, 7 HR, 81 RBI), shortstop Tommy Field (.303, 11 HR, 49 RBI), third baseman Luis Jimenez (.284, 4 HR, 42 RBI) and outfielders Matt Long (.287, 11 HR, 52 RBI, 17 stolen bases) and Roberto Lopez (.289, 10 HR, 68 RBI) all return.
Old friend alert: Former Isotopes closer Josh Wall, pictured, will begin his first season in the Angels organization.
Wall was traded from the Isotopes to the Marlins last season, where he pitched for his home state New Orleans Zephyrs. The Angels picked him up in the offseason and sent him to Salt Lake. Wall had 28 saves for the Isotopes in 2012.