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PCL Preview: RiverCats seek to dominate their new division

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This is part two of a four-part preview of the Pacific Coast League. This part covers the Pacific Conference’s North Division. The South Division preview can be found here. All prospect rankings are from Baseball America.

The vast realignment of the PCL this season has seen the Sacramento River Cats, longtime rulers of the Pacific South, moved to the Pacific North.

That does mean it will be the end of the River Cats' seemingly perpetual rule of their surroundings.

Since coming into existence in 2000, Sacramento has won its division 11 times in a 14-year span.

The River Cats are hardly a lock to make it 12 in 15, though, as old nemesis Fresno will be part of the new division, along with holdovers Reno and Tacoma.

The best prospects in the division, however, are on the other teams besides Sacramento, led by Aces right-hander Archie Bradley, who is ranked No. 9 overall among Baseball America's top 100 prospects. Fresno left-hander Edwin Escobar (No. 56) is the only other member of the top 100 in the division.

For the most part, it will be the veterans who will decide the Pacific North this season. Click on the slideshow for a breakdown of the four teams.

Fresno Grizzlies
Fresno Grizzlies Getty Images

Fresno Grizzlies

2013 record: 68-75, fourth place in Pacific South

Manager: Bob Mariano

Albuquerque dates: May 2-5, July 21-24

The Giants' top affiliate has long struggled in the shadow of its neighbor in Sacramento. This season the Grizzlies might have enough talent to finally cast a shadow of their own.

Fresno's pitching staff is deep, particularly in the bullpen, where PCL saves leader Heath Hembree, pictured, returns after racking up 31 last season.

The Grizzlies return three starting pitchers and five relievers from last year's squad, while the lineup boasts six more familiar faces.

Rather than rely on free agents to fill things out, the Giants promoted six players from Double-A to add even more talent to the roster.

Fresno Grizzlies prospects
Fresno Grizzlies prospects Getty Images

Fresno Grizzlies prospects

Prospects to watch: In a surprise move, the Giants promoted left-hander Edwin Escobar (No. 2; 8-8, 2.80 ERA) from Double-A Richmond even though he only spent half a season there. Normally, teams are reluctant to expose top pitching prospects to the PCL without more seasoning.

Escobar has a 92-93 mph fastball and last season he also learned how to command a plus slider and changeup. He has the makeup to be in San Francisco's rotation sooner than later.

The aforementioned Heath Hembree (No. 7; 1-4, 4.07, 31 saves) is back in the bullpen after just missing out on a big-league spot.

New to the team from Richmond are second baseman Joe Panik (No. 9; .257, 4 HR, 57 RBI), pictured, and catcher Andrew Susac (No. 11; .256, 12 HR, 46 RBI), both of whom will be looking forward to playing in a much more hitter-friendly environment than the Eastern League.

Center fielder Gary Brown (No. 19; .231, 13 HR, 50 RBI, 17 stolen bases) and left-hander Mike Kickham (No. 20; 7-7, 4.31) both return with the hope they can rebound from last season's struggles.

Fresno Grizzlies veterans
Fresno Grizzlies veterans Getty Images

Fresno Grizzlies veterans

Veterans to watch: The Giants did pick up one older pitcher for Fresno's rotation in Jason Berken (12-12, 3.80 at Charlotte).

Looking to continue his comeback, now as a reliever, is Dontrelle Willis. The lefty had a 6.43 ERA in five games (four starts) with Salt Lake last season. One of his two wins was against the Isotopes in Albuquerque.

The everyday lineup will see a few older faces. Catcher Guillermo Quiroz (.294, 8 RBI) is back, while outfielder Tyler Colvin (.275, 9 HR, 32 RBI at Colorado Springs) joined the Giants organization after a deal with the Orioles fell apart following a failed physical.

Old friend alert: Shortstop Tony Abreu, pictured, hit .353 in 54 games with the Isotopes back in 2009. He spent most of last season as a seldom-used backup infielder (.268, 2 HR, 14 RBI) with the Giants, but lost his roster spot this spring.

Reno Aces
Reno Aces Getty Images

Reno Aces

2013 record: 60-84, fourth place

Manager: Phil Nevin

Albuquerque dates: May 23-26, June 26-29

The Aces proved just how fickle Triple-A life can be when they went from 2012 PCL champions to finishing dead last in 2013.

New manager Phil Nevin will take over for the popular Brett Butler, inheriting a team with a few big-ticket prospects and plenty of mid-range and older veterans.

The Reno infield defense has a chance to be exceptional with the slick-fielding Didi Gregorus, pictured, taking over at shortstop after losing out to Chris Owings for the starting job in Arizona.

As for the pitching staff, there are eight returnees who should help the newcomers navigate the challenge of pitching in the high desert air.

Reno Aces prospects
Reno Aces prospects Getty Images

Reno Aces prospects

Prospects to watch: Most eyes will be on the aforementioned Archie Bradley (No. 1; 12-5, 1.97 at Double-A Mobile), who has future ace potential for a Diamondbacks team that currently does not have a true No. 1 starter.

Exposing Bradley to Reno's thin air is a risk, but then again, Chase Field in Phoenix is not a very pitcher-friendly ballpark in its own right. To combat the elements and the opposition, Bradley has a fastball that can hit 97 mph, a plus curveball and a changeup that is a work in progress with plus potential.

Right-hander Zeke Spruill (No. 16; 6-5, 4.21), pictured, returns for another season, though he will make the transition from starter to power-armed reliever.

With Gregorius on the roster, it remains to be seen where fellow shortstop Nick Ahmed (No. 18; .236, 4 HR, 46 RBI, 26 stolen bases at Mobile) will play. Like Gregorius, Ahmed is praised for his glove, but not his bat.

Right-handed reliever Evan Marshall (No. 19; 3-6, 4.34, 3 saves) and outfielder Alfredo Marte (No. 25; .280, 7 HR, 48 RBI) return to the Aces, hoping for better results.

Reno Aces veterans
Reno Aces veterans Getty Images

Reno Aces veterans

Veterans to watch: With so many returning pitchers, the Aces only added two newcomers in oft-injured right-handers Alex Sanabia (3-7, 4.88 with the Marlins) and Jess Todd (4-3, 2.15, 1 save with Toledo).

Well-traveled catcher Bobby Wilson (.208, 7 HR, 38 RBI at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre) will be behind the plate, while slugging first baseman Mike Jacobs (.304, 18 HR, 65 RBI) returns to the infield.

Outfielder Aaron Cunningham (.247, 10 HR, 50 RBI at Round Rock) was a late addition after he was cut by the Cubs this spring.

Old friend alert: Outfielder Trent Oeltjen, pictured from 2009, returns to his original organization. An Isotope from 2010 to 2012, the popular Australian signed with the Diamondbacks late in the spring. He is coming off a rough year (.255, 14 HR, 49 RBI, 21 stolen bases) at Salt Lake that ended when he was hit in the face by a pitch.

Sacramento River Cats
Sacramento River Cats Getty Images

Sacramento River Cats

2013 record: 79-65, second place in Pacific South

Manager: Steve Scarsone

Albuquerque dates: May 6-9, July 17-20

The River Cats suffered a rare playoff miss last season, just edged out by two games by the Las Vegas 51s.

This season's Sacramento squad is steeped in experienced players, including the late addition of former Angels starter Joe Blanton, pictured.

There are almost no returnees among the pitchers, though the lineup does feature familiar faces like catcher Stephen Vogt (.324, 13 HR, 58 RBI), shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima (.283, 4 HR, 34 RBI) and outfielders Shane Peterson (.251, 12 HR, 79 RBI) and Michael Taylor (.281, 18 HR, 85 RBI).

Sacramento River Cats prospects
Sacramento River Cats prospects Getty Images

Sacramento River Cats prospects

Prospects to watch: Almost of all of Oakland's top young players will be at levels below Sacramento this season.

The only two ranked prospects are right-hander Arnold Leon (No. 21; 5-3, 4.42), pictured from his time with Team Mexico at the World Baseball Classic in 2013, and first baseman Anthony Aliotti (No. 23; .266, 2 HR, 20 RBI), both of whom joined the River Cats in the second half last season.

Leon made the fairly successful conversion from reliever back into a starter last season. He throws 92-93 mph with his fastball, while flashing a good changeup and a somewhat erratic slider.

Aliotti did hit 12 home runs at Double-A Midland before his promotion, but he has below-average power for a first baseman. Defensively, however, he is among the best in the minors.

Sacramento River Cats veterans
Sacramento River Cats veterans Getty Images

Sacramento River Cats veterans

Veterans to watch: A mix of older players and non-prospects dominates this roster. The aforementioned Joe Blanton (2-14, 6.04 with the Angels) will be in the rotation.

The bullpen will feature some well-traveled faces like Phil Humber (0-8, 7.90 with the Astros).

First baseman Nate Freiman (.274, 4 HR, 24 RBI) spent all of last season with the A's as a Rule 5 pick. He was sent down to get regular at-bats, though with Aliotti on the roster, it will be interesting to see where he plays.

Old friend alert: Another member of the Sacramento rotation is right-hander Josh Lindblom (8-4, 3.08 at Round Rock), pictured. Lindblom alternated between the Isotopes' rotation and bullpen in 2009 and 2010, finding much more success as a reliever. Since being traded away in 2012, he has mainly been a starter.

Tacoma Rainiers
Tacoma Rainiers Getty Images

Tacoma Rainiers

2013 record: 76-68, second place

Manager: Roy Howell

Albuquerque dates: April 11-14, August 2-5

The Rainiers already dealt with some upheaval when manager Daren Brown was promoted to the big-league coaching staff this spring, forcing the club to turn to Howell as its new skipper.

Seattle's top affiliate just missed out on the playoffs last season, finishing two games behind Salt Lake.

Despite the Mariners' pitching staff suffering multiple injuries, the Rainiers' staff will feature plenty of experienced arms who just missed out on big-league spots.

The lineup will see the return of Nick Franklin, pictured, who lost his starting job during the offseason when Seattle signed All-Star Robinson Cano. Franklin will move from second base back to his original position of shortstop with Tacoma.

Tacoma Rainiers prospects
Tacoma Rainiers prospects Getty Images

Tacoma Rainiers prospects

Prospects to watch: Seattle has called up so many young players in the last two years that most of its remaining minor-league talent is at the lower levels. Still, there are a few potential future contributors to the big-league team with Tacoma.

Chris Taylor (No. 9; .314, 8 HR, 60 RBI, 38 stolen bases) moves up after a banner year with Double-A Jackson and High-A High Desert. A shortstop in the past, he will move to second base this season.

Right-hander Carson Smith (No. 14; 1-3, 1.80, 15 saves at Jackson), pictured, should help the Mariners' bullpen at some point this year. He uses a sinker/slider combination to get outs.

First baseman Ji-Man Choi (No. 25; .268, 9 HR, 39 RBI at Jackson) and outfielder James Jones (No. 27; .275, 6 HR, 45 RBI, 28 stolen bases) project as useful reserves at the next level.

Tacoma Rainiers veterans
Tacoma Rainiers veterans Getty Images

Tacoma Rainiers veterans

Veterans to watch: As noted before, the roster crunch in Seattle led to a number of arms being sent down including Blake Beavan (6-6, 5.55), pictured, who split last year between the Rainiers and Mariners.

Brandon Maurer (5-8, 6.30 with Seattle) will move to the bullpen full-time, while Chance Ruffin (1-2, 3.94) will be a starter this year. The well-traveled Logan Kensing (2-5, 3.05, 15 saves at Colorado Springs) and Zach Miner (5-6, 3.90, 2 saves at Lehigh Valley) will also pitch in relief.

Catcher Humberto Quintero (.237, 4 HR, 13 RBI with the Mariners and Phillies) brings plenty of experience behind the plate.

The aforementioned Nick Franklin (.225, 12 HR, 45 RBI with Seattle) will anchor the infield.

Endy Chavez (.267, 2 HR, 14 RBI with Seattle) and Cole Gillespie (.277, 9 HR, 31 RBI with Fresno) will patrol the outfield.

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