California League Presents Variety Of Challenges

VISALIA, Calif.—Michael Pineda spent time there in 2009. Likewise for Chris Tillman two years earlier.

For the past three years, however, the Mariners have been as likely to jump a top starting pitching prospect straight to Double-A as send him to High Desert, their high Class A affiliate since 2007. Case in point: Righthander Taijuan Walker, Seattle's top pitching prospect, vaulted from low Class A Clinton to Double-A Jackson as a 19-year-old in 2012. Same went for 21-year-old righty Erasmo Ramirez the year before that. Neither Danny Hultzen nor Carter Capps, both 2011 draft picks from college, logged even an inning with High Desert.

So does the California League's reputation as a hitter-friendly circuit—particularly among its southern clubs—prompt organizations like the Mariners to skip their frontline pitching prospects over the league?

Since High Desert debuted in 1991, the Mavericks have ranked in the bottom three in ERA in the 10-team league 18 times in 22 seasons. Games in High Desert have featured 14.7 runs per game since 2010, compared with the Cal League average of 10.8. Theirs is the only park in the full-season minors to feature more than three home runs per game. Triple-A Albuquerque ranked second with 2.8.

The driving force behind all the offense is the altitude of Adelanto, Calif., nearly 3,000 feet above sea level. But if the Mariners harbor any resentment about being affiliated with High Desert, they do a good job of hiding it. Seattle extended its player-development contract with High Desert last fall through the 2014 season, and the Mavericks posted the Cal League's best overall record (83-57) last year and have been to the playoffs in three of the last four seasons.

"We have a good relationship with the Mariners. We're happy," High Desert owner Dave Heller said.

Many perceive that the three organizations left standing during the affiliation shuffle land in High Desert, Lancaster or Bakersfield in the Cal League. Heller says that perception just isn't true when it comes to High Desert.

"When we signed a purchase agreement to buy this club in 2010, we had the choice of having the Mariners remain our affiliate, and we stayed with them," he said. "When we renewed in 2012, it was the Mariners who were aggressively pursuing us."

Heller said the Mariners have not asked for anything that would make Mavericks Stadium more pitcher-friendly, such as a humidor similar to the ones being put into use in the Pacific Coast League.

Unique Situations

Despite a number of hitter-friendly parks, the Cal League is enjoying stability with its major league affiliates. All 10 of the league's teams will remain with the same parent club for the 2013-14 affiliation cycle, the first time that has occurred since the 1999-2000 cycle.

Visalia, a Diamondbacks affiliate and long a league sore spot for short-lived relationships because of an aging ballpark, signed a four-year extension for the first time in franchise history. Visalia's Recreation Park received a major facelift in 2009.

Arizona lefthander Pat Corbin, Visalia Class of 2010, said he used his time in the Cal League as a learning experience. "It's such a hitter's league," he said in 2011, "so stuff that's going to happen there won't happen (in other leagues). But I found that if I keep the ball down and attack hitters, then I've got a chance to get out of it."

Bakersfield's revolving door of affiliates—five changes since the Dodgers left in 1994 after an 11-year tenure—also should be coming to an end. The Reds signed a two-year player-development contract extension after last season, and new ownership in Bakersfield is building a $20 million ballpark that is projected to open in 2015. Dilapidated Sam Lynn Ballpark is criticized for its condition more than its offensive environment, but it's a friendly home run park due to its size.

"We simply play in a very small facility," Bakersfield director of broadcasting Dan Besbris said. "The center-field wall is just 354 feet from home plate, which makes it the shortest in affiliated ball. A small breeze coming in from the river beyond the outfield fence is about the only thing that keeps us from moving up the list."

Lancaster faces many of the same challenges as the Mavericks. With an altitude of more than 2,300 feet, an arid climate and presence of steady wind gusts of up to 40 mph, Clear Channel Stadium is a homer haven, with 2.5 home runs per game since 2010, the third-highest rate in the full-season minors.

Yet the Astros have not shied from sending the likes of Nick Tropeano, Jose Cisnero and Ross Seaton through Lancaster. Perhaps the true test of faith comes when prospects such as Lance McCullers Jr., Mike Foltynewicz, Vincent Velasquez and Adrian Houser are ready for high Class A.

Is the Cal League worried that an organization might be reluctant to send a top pitching prospect to the circuit?

"Not a concern at all," league president Charlie Blaney said. "You have to remember that baseball is a game of adjustments. Not all affiliations are in absolutely perfect situations. If you're going to play in the major leagues, you have to be prepared to pitch and play in a variety of environments.

"You have to play in the wind when you're in Chicago. You have to play in the altitude when you're in Colorado. It doesn't make sense to have only perfect circumstances in the minor leagues, because you don't have perfect circumstances in the major leagues. You want to present challenges to see how players will adjust."

Andrew Bettencourt covers the California League for the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta