This is part three of a four-part preview of the Pacific Coast League. This part covers the American Conference’s South Division, with the North Division preview coming soon. The Pacific Conference’s South and North Division previews can be found by clicking their respective links. All prospect rankings are from Baseball America.
The American South, best known to Albuquerque Isotopes' fans as their team's former home, underwent just as many changes as the other divisions in the PCL this season.
Gone are Albuquerque and Oklahoma City, while Memphis and Nashville jump on board alongside New Orleans and Round Rock. In some ways, as a far as geography goes, it makes for an even better fit. All four teams are now in the same time zone and all have a bit of a Southern flair.
The comparisons, though, end there, at least for the Redbirds and Express. Memphis' roster is filled with prospects, produced by a St. Louis Cardinals system that is considered one of the best in baseball. Outfielder Oscar Taveras, ranked for the second year in a row as the No. 3 overall prospect, returns for a second go-around with the Redbirds, hoping to stay healthy this time around.
Round Rock, on the other hand, did not receive many prospects at all from what is usually a fertile Texas Rangers system. Instead, the Express are loaded top to bottom with veterans and non-prospects.
It should make for an interesting contrast between the two teams as they go head-to-head for the first time as division rivals.
As for the other clubs, the Sounds (Brewers) and Zephyrs (Marlins) are somewhat similar in that they have a mix of veterans and mid-range prospects, largely undone by the weaknesses of their parent clubs' overall farm systems.
Click on the slideshow for a team-by-team breakdown of the new-look American South.
2013 record: 69-75, second place in American North
Manager: Ron Warner
Albuquerque dates: August 12-15
The most important thing to happen to the Redbirds this offseason had nothing to do with the composition of their roster. After years of financial distress, the team was finally sold to its parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, who will now own both their affiliate and its stadium.
By all accounts, the Redbirds should be making lots of money, playing before solid crowds in downtown Memphis, but past poor ownership nearly sunk a team that should be one of the PCL's crown jewels.
With the new leadership in place, Memphis residents should return to the ballpark. They will be greeted by plenty of future Cardinals stars, from the aforementioned Oscar Taveras to his outfield mate Stephen Piscotty, pictured.
The Redbirds might have the most home-grown roster in the league, with 18 of 25 players having originally signed with the Cardinals.
Memphis Redbirds prospects
Prospects to watch: Taveras (No. 1; .306, 5 HR, 32 RBI), Piscotty (No. 4; .299, 6 HR, 24 RBI at Double-A Springfield) and Randal Grichuk (No. 10; .256, 22 HR, 64 RBI at Double-A Arkansas), pictured, will make up the outfield for Memphis. It might be the greatest collection of prospect talent in any single outfield in the minors.
Taveras, who mainly plays center, is looking to rebound after ankle injuries limited him to just 46 games with the Redbirds last season. Piscotty, a supplemental first-round pick out of Stanford in 2012, has rocketed up the organizational ladder and will flank Taveras in right field. Grichuk, acquired from the Angels in an offseason trade, stayed healthy for the second year in a row and will look to capitalize on a strong showing during spring training.
The rest of the Redbirds aren't anything to overlook. Left-hander Tim Cooney (No. 6; 7-10, 3.80 ERA at Springfield) is the latest pitching prospect of note, hoping to follow in the footsteps of home-grown stars like Michael Wacha. Cooney boasts a 90-92 mph fastball, curve, above-average changeup and a new cutter.
Shortstop Greg Garcia (No. 14; .271, 3 HR, 35 RBI) returns to Memphis. He projects as a future utility player with a strong glove at multiple positions. Other future role players include lefty Lee Stoppelman (No. 22; 1-1, 4.50) and outfielder Tommy Pham (No. 23; .264, 13 RBI).
Memphis Redbirds veterans
Veterans to watch: Left-hander Tyler Lyons (7-2, 3.32), pictured, is among the many returning young veterans who were just squeezed out of making the big-league roster.
The bullpen will be anchored by right-hander David Aardsma (2-2, 4.31), who pitched for the Mets and Marlins last season and has plenty of big-league experience.
The lineup was bolstered by the additions of catcher Ed Easley (.336, 6 HR, 49 RBI with Reno), a Memphis native, and third baseman Scott Moore (.271, 14 HR, 66 RBI with Tucson and Sacramento).
Old friend alert: Right-hander Angel Castro, the Isotopes' pitcher of the year last season, signed with the Cardinals organization this offseason. Castro went 8-5 with a 3.48 ERA for Albuquerque. He is still fighting to reach the Majors for the first time in his career.
2013 record: 57-87, fourth place in American North
Manager: Rick Sweet
Albuquerque dates: August 16-19
The Sounds have been singing a sad tune for the last few years, largely due to a deteriorating home ballpark and a Brewers farm system that ranks 29th overall.
There is some good news for Nashville, however, as a new ballpark project is finally moving ahead, and a good chunk of the talent that the Brewers do have in the minors is starting to bottleneck in Triple-A.
Nine pitchers, including four-fifths of the starting rotation, will return for the Sounds this season, led by the reigning PCL pitcher of the year Johnny Hellweg, pictured.
Throw in six returning positions players, all of whom are expected to be regulars, and this season's Nashville squad will have a familiar look. The hope is that with one season under their belts, the Sounds will play a lot better in 2014 than they did in 2013.
Nasvhille Sounds prospects
Prospects to watch: As a team, the Sounds actually pitched fairly well last season and they should do so again this year. Right-hander Jimmy Nelson (No. 1; 5-6, 3.67), pictured, will be back to help lead the rotation. He has a 92-96 mph fastball and a power slider, but his changeup must improve if he wants to avoid being moved to the bullpen someday in Milwaukee.
The aforementioned Hellweg (No. 4; 12-5, 3.15) also returns to the starting staff. Walks were his biggest nemesis last year as he gave up 81 in 126 innings. Blessed with a fastball that sits 92-95 and can reach 98, Hellweg just needs to maintain his command.
Right-hander Ariel Pena (No. 15; 8-9, 3.73) jumps up from Double-A Huntsville to help fill out the rotation. Right-hander Michael Blazek (No. 17; 1-2, 1.97, 9 saves) was acquired from the Cardinals and should help lead the bullpen.
Hitting, though, was Nashville's biggest issue last season. Big first baseman Hunter Morris (No. 10; .247, 24 HR, 73 RBI) will look to rebound in his second stint with the Sounds.
Nasvhille Sounds veterans
Veterans to watch: Some of the veterans on this team were prospects just a short while ago. Starters Hiram Burgos (1-4, 3.82) and Mike Fiers (1-2, 2.20) both split last season between Nashville and Milwaukee, without finding much success in the Majors.
Among the veteran position players returning to Nashville are catcher Robinzon Diaz (.328, 4 HR, 20 RBI), third baseman Stephen Parker (.218, 8 HR, 43 RBI) and outfielder-first baseman Sean Halton (.273, 11 HR, 51 RBI). Also keep an eye on the versatile Taylor Green, who is back after missing last season following hip surgery.
Old friends alert: A trio of former Isotopes will suit up for the Sounds this season. Infielder-outfielder Eugenio Velez (.377, 2 HR, 21 RBI), pictured, is back with the club for a second go-around. He will be joined in the lineup by shortstop Elian Herrera (.282, 7 HR, 43 RBI), who was with the Isotopes the previous two years. Catcher Lucas May (.226, 3 HR, 21 RBI with Indianapolis), an Isotope back in 2010, has also joined Nashville.
New Orleans Zephyrs
2013 record: 72-72, fourth place
Manager: Andy Haines
Albuquerque dates: June 13-16
The Zephyrs finished .500 last season, which left them in last place in the old American South. That mark would have been good enough to win the American North, showing what just a bizarre season 2013 really was.
With the Marlins in the midst of rebuilding project No. 10,982 (give or take), the Zephyrs stand to benefit from some pretty decent young players making their way through town this year.
Fans should enjoy things while they can, as the Zephyrs, playing in an old ballpark in an economically depressed area, are rumored to be on the move in the years ahead. The Astros are reportedly interested in buying the team and moving it to a Houston suburb.
For now, though, the focus should be on a strong pitching staff led by last season's PCL ERA leader Brian Flynn, pictured. Flynn's mark of 2.80 was the only qualifying ERA under 3.00 in the league.
New Orleans Zephyrs prospects
Prospects to watch: Outfielder Jake Marisnick (No. 3; .294, 12 HR, 46 RBI at Double-A Jacksonville), pictured, had a rough start, good middle and rough finish to his season in 2013. He suffered a broken left hand when he was hit by a pitch in spring training, then ended up having left knee surgery late in the year to repair a torn meniscus. In between Marisnick showed a flair for defense, but his plate discipline (17 walks in 67 games) needs work.
Corner outfielder Kyle Jensen (No. 22; .233, 12 HR, 36 RBI) and first baseman-outfielder Mark Canha (No. 24; .273, 13 HR, 58 RBI at Jacksonville) are the other position players to keep an eye on.
The aforementioned Flynn (No. 6; 6-11, 2.80) will be back to lead the pitching staff. His fastball can reach 95 mph. Flynn complements that with a good slider and an average curveball and changeup.
Lefty Adam Conley (No. 8; 11-7, 3.25) moves up from Jacksonville. His fastball velocity was down a bit last season to 88-92 mph, but he still has a plus changeup and a slider that, when it's on, can be lethal.
Right-hander Arquimedes Caminero (No. 12; 5-2, 3.61, 5 saves at Jacksonville) has a plus name and will bring his plus fastball out of the bullpen.
New Orleans Zephyrs veterans
Veterans to watch: Closer Chris Hatcher (4-3, 3.61, 33 saves) is back after leading the PCL in saves. He will have plenty of veteran support in the bullpen from the likes of Carter Capps (3-3, 5.49 with the Mariners), Henry Rodriguez (0-1, 4.09 with the Cubs and Nationals) and former Padres lefty Josh Spence (1-1, 3.98, 1 save at Scranton).
Catcher Rob Brantly (.211, HR, 18 RBI) returns after a disappointing rookie year in Miami.
Outfielder Brian Bogusevic (.273, 6 HR, 16 RBI) had a nice half-season with the Cubs, but he was dealt to the Marlins during the offseason.
Old friend alert: Outfielder Matt Angle, pictured, joined the Marlins organization as a free agent this offseason. An Isotope in 2012 and 2013, Angle hit .283 with eight home runs and 62 RBI while stealing 22 bases last year. He can play all three outfield positions.
Round Rock Express
2013 record: 73-71, first place
Manager: Steve Buechele
Albuquerque dates: June 9-12
The Bobby Jones era has ended in Round Rock as the longtime manager has been replaced by former Rangers third baseman Steve Buechele.
Buechele will inherit a team laden with veterans and almost no prospects. The Express are the graybeards of the PCL this season, with 12 of 25 players over the age of 30.
Whether or not all that experience translates into Round Rock returning to its familiar spot in the PCL playoffs remains to be seen. It will be up to pitchers like Colby Lewis, pictured, to hold up physically even as they bid for spots on the injured-ravaged Rangers staff.
By the second half of the season, the Express could look like a whole different ballclub, as some of those veterans reach their opt-out dates and the prospects bunched up at Double-A Frisco surge forward.
Round Rock Express prospects
Prospects to watch: Only two of the Rangers' top 30 prospects are currently on the Round Rock roster, and both are in the bullpen.
Right-hander Lisalverto Bonilla (No. 20), pictured, had a tale of two seasons. He was brilliant (2-0, 0.30, 6 saves) at Double-A Frisco, but got hit hard (5-5, 7.95) with the Express. Bonilla gave up no home runs at Frisco but eight with Round Rock.
Fellow righty Roman Mendez (No. 29; 2-0, 1.82, 2 saves at Frisco) will hope to avoid the same fate in his first Triple-A season. Mendez is coming off elbow surgery and might be used sparingly early in the year.
The hope is that by midseason Round Rock will see the arrival of three prospects currently at Frisco in the form of second baseman Rougned Odor (No. 1), shortstop Luis Sardinas (No. 6) and right-hander Luke Jackson (No. 7).
Round Rock Express veterans
Veterans to watch: As noted earlier, the Express have a slew of notable older players, looking to make comebacks or extend their careers.
Much like the aforementioned Colby Lewis, fellow right-handers Scott Baker and Neftali Feliz are looking to show they are fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Baker made three starts for the Cubs last year, while Feliz made six relief appearances for the Rangers.
Other veterans of note on the mound include returnees Ryan Feierabend (6-5, 3.66), Scott Richmond (6-7, 5.91) and Cory Burns (0-2, 2.15, 20 saves), plus new additions Justin Germano (8-9, 4.47 with Buffalo) and Doug Mathis (5-9, 4.03 with Indianapolis).
In the lineup are third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff (.294, 6 HR, 42 RBI with New Orleans), pictured, plus catcher Chris Snyder (.271, 13 HR, 45 RBI with Salt Lake and Norfolk), outfielders Brad Snyder (.311, 12 HR, 60 RBI with Reno) and Bryan Petersen (.275, 8 HR, 49 RBI with New Orleans) and utility players Brent Lillibridge (.277, 12 HR, 31 RBI with Scranton and Iowa) and Kensuke Tanaka (.329, HR, 32 RBI, 22 stolen bases with Fresno).