We continue our trip around the Minor Leagues with a look at the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, which will finish up our look at the highest level of the minors. Established in 1903, the PCL started up with a lot of teams that were established in cities that would later on be the host of Major League franchises, including Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The other two teams were Sacramento, who remained a steadfast part of the league up until today, and Portland, who until recently had been one of the longtime league stalwarts, as well. The teams were also joined by the Hollywood Stars, giving Los Angeles its first cross-town rivalry.
In fact, the PCL was given the much-heralded “Open” classification in the early 1950’s, putting it on par with both the American and National League. However, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Giants moved to San Francisco, the newly classified PCL saw a sharp decline across the board, and had to be relegated back to Triple-A status. From there, it expanded over the next 50 years or so into the 16-team league that it is today. It’s split into two conferences: the American and the Pacific Conferences, and each have both a North and a South Division. The teams are as follows:
North: Iowa Cubs (Chicago Cubs affiliate), Memphis Redbirds (St. Louis Cardinals), Nashville Sounds (Milwaukee Brewers), Omaha Storm Chasers (Kansas City Royals)
South: Alberquerque Isotopes (Los Angeles Dodgers), New Orleans Zephyrs (Miami Marlins), Oklahoma City RedHawks (Houston Astros), Round Rock Express (Texas Rangers)
North: Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Colorado Rockies), Reno Aces (Arizona Diamondbacks), Salt Lake Bees (Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim), Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle Mariners)
South: Fresno Grizzlies (San Francisco Giants), Las Vegas 51s (Toronto Blue Jays), Sacramento River Cats (Oakland A’s), Tucson Padres (San Diego Padres)
As you can see, the majority of the teams are close to each other, with one glaring exception in Las Vegas. There’s also a couple of interesting things to note: Round Rock (which is a suburb of Austin) is much closer to Houston, but is actually the Texas Rangers affiliate. The same can be said of Oklahoma City, which is closer to Arlington than it is to Houston. Nashville isn’t exactly close to Milwaukee, and New Orleans is the Marlins’ affiliate probably because it’s such an easy flight from there to Miami. And of course, the Isotopes might be the best mascot in all of Minor League Baseball (Depending on how much you love the Montgomery Biscuits) AND even turned the great Homer Simpson into a fan, although it took a hunger strike to do so.
The league as a whole has been deemed a hitter’s paradise and for good reason. The majority of the teams play in ballparks that are either very small in dimension or very high in altitude, and because of that, there have been plenty of players who have used those park factors to their advantage, putting up numbers that turn them into Major League Mirages when they get the call. As a whole, the league hit .285/.359/.446, the best out of any affiliated minor league. Their 5.56 runs per game is second only to the 5.58 the California League, another hitter’s paradise. While there are bandboxes in the league, it also houses some of the most beautiful fields in all of the minor leagues, including Raley Field in Sacramento, Dell Diamond in Round Rock, and perhaps the crown jewel of minor league stadiums: AutoZone Park in Memphis.
The PCL is littered with the names of players who were fantastic at Triple-A but couldn’t hack it at the next level. Randy Ruiz was great in 2009 and had a cup of coffee as a surprising home run hitter for the Blue Jays, but is nowhere to be found at the Major League level this year. Guys like Robb Quinlan (2002) and Dan Johnson (2004) come to mind, as well. That being said, there are some damn good players on that list, as well.
J.P. Arencibia will be a nice catcher at the Major League level for a while, winning the MVP in 2010. Geovany Soto won it in 2007. As did Paul Konerko in 1997. Sandy Alomar, Jr. won it two times in a row in 1988 and 1989, one of only two people who won multiple awards, joining Steve Bilko, who won three straight MVPs from 1955-57 for the Los Angeles Angels. It’s more impressive that he did it during the league’s “Open” time period, although you won’t see him lined up against the top players from the 50’s at the MLB level. Of course, the greatest PCL MVP of all time is the great Joe DiMaggio, who won the award in 1935 and became the league’s greatest export to the Major Leagues.
If you’re a pitching prospect in the PCL, chances are that if you can show a sub-4 ERA on a regular basis that you’re doing pretty well. The launching pads of the PCL nearly always lead to high scores and higher ERAs. That being said, there have been some very good pitchers that have come through the PCL, with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain being some of the best pitchers to come through the league in the last five to ten years. You also have guys like Mat Latos, Jaime Garcia, and an entire fleet of Texas Ranger pitching talent (with Martin Perez being the guy to test out the PCL this season for the defending AL champs), which has included guys like Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison.
Guys to look out for in the PCL this year include some of the very best prospects in all of baseball. Brett Jackson has a chance to start in the Major Leagues, but might get some time at Iowa to let the Cubs play with his service time. Same goes for players like Shelby Miller of the Cardinals, Wil Myers of the Royals, Trevor Bauer of the Diamondbacks, Mike Trout of the Angels (who should get the start at the Majors, but that’s another story entirely), Gary Brown of the Giants and, if he doesn’t start at the Major League level (highly unlikely), Yoenis Cespedes of the A’s.
Much like games in the International League, if you can’t make it out to a Major League ballpark, going to a game at the Triple-A level can be a great subsitution, offering the cheaper ticket prices while the game is played at a relatively high level. And while that’s the norm across all the minor leagues, you won’t find a better experience across the minors than at Triple-A. Next week, we’ll take a look at the Double-A level, which includes three leagues: The Southern League, The Eastern League and The Texas League.