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March 5, 2001

Lost in America

Minor Moves

by Keith Scherer

Following the 2000 season, the minor leagues underwent dozens of changes. Organizations changed their affiliations within leagues, moved their affiliates from one league to another, and jumped and bumped teams between levels. Along with the reconfigurations, there will be several new parks throughout the minor leagues. What follows below is a delineation of the changes, along with an attempt to anticipate what effects those changes might have.

Most of the changes occurred at the lower levels. At any level, the talent matters more than the park or league. That's especially true for the low minors, where the change is so rapid, the talent so immature, and the organizational goals so much more focused on development than statistical results. This article doesn't spend much space addressing changes at the rookie or short-season levels. But all the changes are worth noting, both to help track player movement and to better analyze drastic changes in player performance.

The park factors given here are taken from Baseball Prospectus 2001. Note that an average park would be rated 1000.

Some leagues remained unchanged. For the leagues that were affected, we use the following abbreviations:

Car = Carolina League
Cal = California League
Eas = Eastern League
FSL = Florida State League
Mid = Midwest League
Nwn = Northwest League
PCL = Pacific Coast League
Pio = Pioneer League
NYP = New York-Penn League
SAL = South Atlantic League
Sou = Southern League
Tex = Texas League

Anaheim Angels
2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Triple-A   PCL       Edmonton          PCL       Salt Lake City
Double-A   Eas       Erie              Texas     Arkansas
High-A     Cal       Lake Elsinore     Cal       Rancho Cucamonga
Short-A    Nwn       Boise             N/A       N/A
Rookie     Pio       Butte             Ari       Butte
Rookie     N/A       N/A               Pio       Provo
An inconsequential reorganization, and an aggressive one at that. At Triple-A, the move from Edmonton (park factor 1030) to Salt Lake (1103) won't help the pitching. Salt Lake is one of the best hitters' environments in one of the best hitters' leagues in the minors. Last year at Edmonton, the team's pitchers ranked 11th in walks allowed and last in strikeouts. The situation is the same at Double-A: of 12 teams in the Eastern League, the Angels' Double-A affiliate ranked tenth in walks allowed and 11th in strikeouts. The move to the Texas League, another haven for hitters, won't help. Even at High-A, the Angels' prospects finished near the bottom of their league in walks allowed and strikeouts. Strikeouts and walks are the categories least effected by park factors and defense.

As noted in Baseball Prospectus 2001, the Angels' minor-league affiliates had the worst composite winning percentage of any organization. Until the Angels can teach their kids to do a better job of getting batters out on their own, the misery will continue.

When the Angels moved into Salt Lake, the affiliate changed its name from Buzz to Stingers. But parts is parts. No matter what they call themselves, no matter where they play, The Angels' prospects are just so much pressed chicken.

Arizona Diamondbacks

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
High-A     Cal       High Desert       Cal       Lancaster
Short-A    N/A       N/A               Nwn       Yakima
Rookie     Ari       Tucson            N/A       N/A
They're out of the batting cage at High Desert, which at 1139 had the highest park factor in the minor leagues, but Lancaster, with its park factor of 1103, won't be much better for the Diamondbacks' young pitchers. Like the Angels' pitchers, the young D'backs have trouble getting batters out on their own. We can ignore the league-worst ERA posted at High Desert last year, but the team ranked next to last in both walks allowed and strikeouts.

The usual route for developing Snakes takes them from South Bend to Lancaster. At South Bend, the pitchers ranked fifth-worst in walks allowed and third-worst in strikeouts, so even if there's an influx of new talent, don't expect the move from High Desert to Lancaster to help the pitching stats much. The hitters will still be in a good environment, though. Playing at Lancaster last year, Mariners' hitters led the league in batting average, runs, and home runs.

Chicago White Sox

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   Mid       Burlington        SAL       Kannapolis/Piedmont
Piedmont was very good to the Phillies' prospects last year. Playing in a neutral park, the Boll Weevils' pitchers led the Sally League in ERA and the batters finished second in batting average and runs scored. With the White Sox in town, the affiliate changed its name to the Intimidators.

The 2000 affiliate--the Burlington Bees--played in a hitters' park and posted an ERA near the bottom of the league, gave up the most walks in the Midwest League, and finished in last place. The good news is that they finished fifth in strikeouts. At the Appalachian League stop en route to Piedmont (Bristol), a hitters' league in a hitters' park, the young Sox pitchers put up a respectable ERA, had the second-most strikeouts, and gave up the second-fewest walks. Some of the Sox's heralded talent will spend the year at Piedmont, so expect the Sox to do better as Intimidators than they did as Bees.

Chicago Cubs

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Short-A    Nwn       Eugene            Nwn       Boise
From a neutral park (1001) to slightly less neutral park (1020). That's about as flavorful as the parent organization's off-season changes. When you're 12 and your girlfriend offers her chewed gum to you, you take it. When you're 22, it's just gross. That's the Cubs: chewed gum.

Cincinnati Reds

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
High-A     Mid       Clinton           Cal       Mudville
Following a mandate from Major League Baseball, the Reds shipped one of their Midwest League teams to the California League. The transfer from Middle-A to High-A means the competition will be stiffer. The Cal is a hitters' league, but if you compare Clinton's 2000 final stats to Mudville's 2001 stats-in-progress, expect the change to hurt the hitters and help the pitchers. Mudville's park factor of 855 is the lowest in the minor leagues. If the Reds suddenly seem to have developed a few aces, look twice.

Colorado Rockies

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Short-A    Nwn       Portland          Nwn       Tri-City
Rookie     Ari       Tucson            Pio       Casper
The only item of interest is that these Rockies' affiliates will play in new parks. Last year at Portland, the park favored pitchers. Tri-City Stadium (unrated) is in Pesco, Wash. The new park in Casper is Wyoming's only professional ballpark. It's called Mike Lansing Field, which on the face of it should mean it isn't a hitters' park.

Detroit Tigers

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Double-A   Sou       Jacksonville      Eas       Erie
Playing at Jacksonville in 2000, the Tigers' Double-A affiliate enjoyed a pitchers' park (979) and still posted the Southern League's worst ERA. Not coincidentally, they also finished next to last in strikeouts. The batters had trouble too, finishing next to last in batting average and in the second-tier in runs and homers. Erie (1084) was just awful to the Angels' squad last year, with the pitchers and hitters finishing near the bottom in the meaningful categories. While it's true that the Angels are a bad barometer, don't expect the change of league or affiliation to help the Tigers.

Houston Astros

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   FSL       Kissimme          SAL       Lexington
Short-A    NYP       Auburn            NYP       Pittsfield
The Kissimmee affiliate was dissolved after last season. The new team and park in Lexington have gotten a lot of attention, most notably in a feature article in the February 19 Baseball America. This is Lexington's first team since 1954. At Short-A, the change is from a hitters' park (1038) to a pitchers' park (946).

Kansas City Royals

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   SAL       Charleston, W.Va. Mid       Burlington
The hitters at Charleston had the league's lowest batting average, runs, and homers. The park factor was only 980, so it wasn't as if they were struggling in Mudville. The talent is just poor. The change to Burlington (1057) might help a very little. The pitchers at Charleston last year had an alarming inability to strike anyone out. Only a couple of Charleston pitchers rated write-ups in Baseball Prospectus 2001, and they've moved on. The team finished 53-80. But some would say it's just A ball, and indicative of nothing.

Los Angeles Dodgers

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Triple-A   PCL       Albuquerque       PCL       Las Vegas
Double-A   Tex       San Antonio       Sou       Jacksonville
Middle-A   Cal       San Bernardino    SAL       Wilmington    
Short-A    Nwn       Yakima            N/A       N/A
Rookie     N/A       N/A               GCL       Vero Beach
Like their colleagues at Disney, the Fox Corporation shuffled their baseball division's affiliates following last season. The change from Albuquerque (park factor 1075) to Las Vegas (1052) is unimportant. It just makes Mike Judd's flight shorter. At Double-A, the change is from an extreme hitters' league to a neutral league, and from an extreme pitchers' park (903) to a relatively neutral park (979). Mostly, this just means you'll have less normalizing to do. The ease of analysis means that taking the Dodgers' Double-A prospects stats at face value won't be an act of recklessness. After the move from San Bernardino (976) to the new park in Wilmington, N.C., the Dodgers will have only one High-A affiliate, Vero Beach in the Florida State League.

Milwaukee Brewers

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
High-A     Cal       Mudville          Cal       High Desert
Rookie     Pio       Helena            Ari       Provo
This is the minors' most eye-catching off-season move. Mudville (855) is the most extreme pitchers' park in the minor leagues, while High Desert (1139) is the most extreme hitters' park. It's something like going from Comerica Park to Coors Field. At Mudville, the Brewers had the California League's second-best ERA, while at High Desert, the Diamondbacks affiliate had the league's worst. The spread between the Brewers' pitching talent and that of the D'backs' isn't much.

This will be simple: the Brewers' hitters will appear to have improved, the pitchers will appear to have gotten worse, and no one should pay it any attention. Instead, just wait for next year's Davenport Translations to put it all in context. The Arizona League affiliate Provo will play in Larry H. Miller Field at Miller Park. On information and belief, I note that the park was not named after the comedian.

Minnesota Twins

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Triple-A   PCL       Salt Lake City    PCL       Edmonton
Edmonton (1030) is only slightly less cozy than Salt Lake (1103). Hitters will still do fine there, pitchers slightly better than they did in Utah. The focus should be on who's there. While the White Sox like to promote from Double-A to the majors, the Twins like to expose their players to the Pacific Coast League before calling them up. The constitution of the roster will be more interesting than the change of affiliation. Of course, it's still an extreme league, so don't forget to account for the effects before concluding that, say, Michael Cuddyer has gotten the hang of it, or that Adam Johnson can't handle the jump from Ft. Myers.

Montreal Expos

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   SAL       Cape Fear         Mid       Clinton
A lateral move. Similar league, similar park. For those of you who have seen Waiting for Guffman, do you remember the closing lines from "Nothing Ever Happens on Mars?" Boring, boring, boring, boring. The Expos are Mars.

New York Mets

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Short-A    NYP       Pittsfield        NYP       Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Mets. That's the point of interest here. Culturally interesting but a non-starter for statheads. It's an unrated ballpark.

Philadelphia Phillies

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   SAL       Piedmont          SAL       Lakewood
Hell of a year at Piedmont. The move to Lakewood means a new park, unrated. The Sally League is now in Jersey.

St. Louis Cardinals

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Double-A   Tex       Arkansas          Eas       New Haven
The move is to a similar park (from a park factor of 981 to 970) but a much better environment for pitchers. The Arkansas staff got lit up last year, even with the benefit of a pitchers' park. Finishing last in strikeouts, they just put too many balls in play. New Haven, on the other hand, was wonderful for the Mariners' young pitchers, who led the Eastern League in ERA. But they also allowed the fewest walks and had the most strikeouts. Unlike the Cardinals' pitchers, they kept the ball out of play. The New Haven Ravens won their league's championship last year. Don't expect a repeat.

San Diego Padres

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Triple-A   PCL       Las Vegas         PCL       Portland
High-A     Cal       Rancho Cucamonga  Cal       Lake Elsinore
Short-A    N/A       N/A               Nwn       Eugene
Rookie     Ari       Peoria            N/A       N/A
In the Northwest League, the park at Portland had a rating of 948, but the park has undergone major reconstruction to accommodate its ascendency to Triple-A. The construction won't be complete until May, so the club will play its initial home games in Pesco, Wash., home of the Rockies' relocated Northwest League affiliate.

Las Vegas was the way station for last year's surprises, Brian Tollberg and Will Cunnane, who both pitched well in an unfriendly environment. This year, expect Brian Lawrence and Wascar Serrano to "surprise." Jacob Peavy, Dennis Tankersley and Gerik Baxter, who all got good write-ups in Baseball Prospectus 2001, will pass through Lake Elsinore before surprising everyone next year. Lake Elsinore is, like Rancho Cucamonga, a pitchers' park, just a little more so, and maybe just enough to off-set the league's tendency to favor hitters.

San Francisco Giants

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   Cal       Bakersfield       SAL       Hagerstown
Blue Jays' hitters were terrible at Hagerstown, even though it's a hitters' park (1072). The Giants' hitters were second in runs and homers at Bakersfield, which was only a mild hitters' park (1012). Expect the Hagerstown fans to have more fun with the Giants around. Note of no consequence: Hagerstown has never won a pennant.

Seattle Mariners

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Double-A   Eas       New Haven         Tex       San Antonio
High-A     Cal       Lancaster         Cal       San Bernardino
The Mariners do a great job of sheltering their developing arms. Except for the short-season squad at Everett, every Mariners' affiliate plays in a pitchers' park: Tacoma (916), San Antonio (903), San Bernardino (976) and Wisconsin (982). So even when their prospects pitch in hitters' leagues like the PCL and Texas League, the Mariners minimize the risk of shellshock.

At New Haven (970) the Ms led the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio. The move to San Antonio, an extreme pitchers' park, will only help. The move from Lancaster (1103) to San Bernardino will help, too, since the Ms led that league in K/BB ratio, too, even though they were in a hostile environment, And as they did at Double-A, the Ms have moved their California League team from a hitters' park to a pitchers' park.

The point is that it's not just the parks. Unlike the Angels, the Ms have gotten their pitchers to control the game by keeping the ball out of play. And while the Angels have moved into parks hostile to pitching, the Ms have given cover to their pitchers at every level. That's the upside. The downside is that we might never know if Greg Wooten is really any good.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
High-A     FSL       St. Petersburg    Cal       Bakersfield
The move is to a slightly better hitters' park in a better hitters' league, not that the D-Rays have any hitters who will take advantage of it. Look twice if their toolsy hitters appear to have improved.

Toronto Blue Jays

2001       2000      2000              2001      2001
Level      League    Affiliate         League    Affiliate
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Middle-A   SAL       Hagerstown        SAL       Charleston, W.Va.
Short-A    NYP       Queens            NYP       Auburn
This is a big change. They've gone from the second-best hitters' park in the Sally League to a pitchers' park. And they couldn't hit in the hitters' park. Baseball Prospectus 2001 is high on Toronto's organizational depth, but there wasn't anything happening at Hagerstown last year. No Hagerstown batter rated a write-up in the book. The team finished near the bottom in the meaningful batting categories. The park change won't make it better.

No Changes:

Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Oakland A's, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers

Keith Scherer can be reached at KJSbaseball@aol.com.

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