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California League Title Race Defies Any Predictions

Times Staff Writer

Making predictions about a new season in the Class-A California League is a dangerous venture. Even general managers of the league’s 10 teams have little idea of what to expect.

One reason: Players are assigned by major league affiliates to the California League less than a week before the beginning of the season. “No one really knows if the team your affiliate sent you is any good until it takes the field,” said Rick Smith, general manager of the Bakersfield Dodgers.

Another reason: If a team is doing well, it’s a good bet that the best players will be moved up to the next level before the end of the season. “Actually, the movement ensures parity,” said Bill Thompson, general manager of the Fresno Giants.

Partly because rosters change frequently, the season is divided in half. If a team wins the first half and several of its players are promoted to Double-A or Triple-A, the rest of the league can better compete because the won-lost columns revert to zero.

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Really beginning from scratch are the first-year Ventura County Gulls. After buying the Lodi franchise, co-owners Jim Biby, Ken McMullen and Jim Colborn secured a player-development contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The league welcomes the Gulls’ arrival especially because they are the only team affiliated with a team based east of the Mississippi.

“I’m excited as can be that we’ve included Toronto,” said Rick Maas, general manager of the Salinas Spurs. “They bring in strong Latin players and develop outstanding young talent. From what I hear through the grapevine, Ventura is the team to beat in our league. A lot of our fans are asking about them. There is interest in the team.”

Thompson, Fresno’s general manager, agreed: “Obviously, we need east coast teams desperately to have a 10-team league. They are a real shot in arm for the whole league.”

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The California League is divided into Northern and Southern divisions. A team-by-team breakdown:

Southern Division

Bakersfield Dodgers

General Manager: Rick Smith

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Manager: Ducky LeJohn

Coach: Rick Gahbrielson

Although the Dodgers finished last in both halves last season, General Manager Rick Smith expects improvement. Several pitchers are especially impressive, Smith said, including Jack Savage, who was 5-1 with eight saves and a 1.01 ERA in a rookie league last season. “Savage will be in the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen in a couple of years,” Smith said.

Right-hander Walt Stull, who was 8-1 last season with 90 strikeouts in 82 innings at Great Falls, Mont., may emerge as the top starting pitcher.

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Darryl Gilliam, the former Cal State Northridge second baseman whose father, Jim, was a longtime Los Angeles Dodger, hit .319 in rookie ball last season. First baseman Mike Burke hit .339 in a rookie league last season and is expected to provide power. Jovon Edwards, who stole 30 bases and hit .314 at Bradenton last season, will lead off.

The center-field fence at Sam Lynn Ball Park is only 354 feet from home plate, the shortest distance in professional baseball, according to Smith.

Fresno Giants

General Manager: Bill Thompson

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Manager: Tim Blackwell

Coach: Gary Davenport

First baseman Will Clark led Fresno to the league title last season and made the jump all the way to the major leagues, where he hit a home run in his first at-bat. He did the same thing at Fresno last season, according to General Manager Bill Thompson. “He made a difference at the gate the rest of the year,” Thompson said.

Like Bakersfield, Fresno will have a second baseman with a major league name: Paul Blair III. Although the son of the former Baltimore Oriole outfielder is unproven, he and shortstop Tony Perezchica may bring out the fans this season. Perezchica, a 19-year-old from Palm Springs High, is a flashy defensive player with great speed. Third baseman Ty Dabney hit .329 and drove in 31 runs during a half-season of rookie league in Everett, Wash., last year.

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The Giants are high on left-handed pitcher Joe Olker, who was 8-2 with 87 strikeouts in 82 innings at Class-A Clinton. He underwent minor arm surgery during the off-season and will be ready to pitch in about two weeks. “Joe’s so good, he may not last the season with us,” Thompson said.

If statistics are an indication, Darrell Rodgers also has a future in baseball. Last season at Everett, he was 5-0 with an 0.47 ERA and struck out 86 and allowed only 28 hits in 56 innings. Moved up to Clinton, the right-hander was 2-2 with a 1.98 ERA in 41 innings.

Palm Springs Angels

General Manager: Tom Osowski

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Asst. General Manager: Pete Richert

Manager: Tom Kotchman

Coach: Chuck Hernandez

Pitching will be the Angels’ strength. Todd Eggertsen and William Fraser spent most of training camp with the major league Angels. Although Eggertsen, 19, was only 6-12 last season at Class-A Quad Cities, Iowa, he caught the eye of Gene Mauch and is considered a bona fide big league prospect. He struck out 174 in the same number of innings. Fraser, 21, was the Angels’ first-round selection in the June, 1985, draft and similar stardom is predicted for him.

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Scott Merritt, a former Calabasas High and Pepperdine pitcher, started opening night. He was 5-5 at Redwood City last season. Brian Harvey, who struck out 111 in 82 innings at Quad Cities last season, and Tim Burcham, who was 8-4 with a 2.96 ERA in a rookie league in Salem, Ore., last season, are other top pitchers.

First baseman Ty Vanburkelo of Canoga Park hit .276 at Redwood last season. The 6-4, 200-pound left-handed hitter pounded 20 doubles, 5 triples and 10 home runs. Infielders Alphonse Bichette and Dean Coachman will also be offensive threats. Bichette had 145 hits, including 28 doubles and 11 home runs, at Quad Cities last season. He also had 78 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. Coachman hit.264 with 69 steals as Bichette’s teammate.

Ventura County Gulls

General Manager: Jim Biby

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Manager: Glenn Ezell

Coach: Alfredo Ortiz

The Toronto Blue Jays’ strong development program in the Dominican Republic has filled the Gulls’ roster with Latin players. Nine Dominicans and two Venezuelans, most of them starters, have been assigned to Ventura County.

First baseman Domingo Martinez, second basemen Santiago Garcia, Sandy Guerrero and Oscar Escobar, shortstop Eric Yelding and third baseman Omar Malave will provide strong defense and quickness on the basepaths. Yelding stole 62 bases last season at Class-A Kinston, N.C.

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“We will be exciting to watch,” Gulls Manager Glenn Ezell said. “I don’t know how good we will be, but if we pull together and become a team, we should do well.”

Outfielders Ken Kinnard, Darryl Landrum and Rob Ducey all run well, too, Ezell said. Landrum stole 25 bases and hit 19 home runs for Class-A Florence, S.C., last season.

Pitchers Todd Stottlemyre, who made his professional debut on opening day, Todd Provence, Jose Mesa, Jeff Musselman and Tom Wasilewski comprise the starting rotation. Mark Dickman is expected to be the short reliever.

The Gulls have three good catchers in Greg Myers, Tim Rypien and Francisco Cabarera. Myers, a left-handed hitter, should supply some power.

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Visalia Oaks

General Manager: Jeff Brueggemann

Asst. General Manager: Bruce Bucz

Manager: Dan Schmitz

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Pitcher Ray Velasquez, who led the Oaks with a 2.39 ERA last season and was 7-7, is back because his arm grew sore during the spring. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he moved up before the season ends,” said Bruce Bucz, Oaks assistant general manager.

Also returning is reliever Wes Pierorazio, who saved 10 games and had a 6-2 record in 53 appearances last season.

Hitters making their second tour of Visalia are right fielder Chris Forgione, who hit .230 in 382 at-bats a year ago, and third baseman Robert Calley, who hit .285 with 55 RBIs. Shortstop Joey Aragon, who played at Visalia two years ago, is back and is expected to provide leadership.

Henry Gatewood, acquired in a trade with the Dodgers, may unseat Sal Nicolosi at catcher. “Gatewood is supposed to have a better arm,” Bucz said.

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Donnie Iasparro, a left-hander, started on the mound opening day.

Northern Division

Modesto A’s

General Manager: Dan Kiser

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Manager: Tommie Reynolds

Although General Manager Dan Kiser said the team has no top draft choices, the A’s are traditionally strong.

At Class-A Medford last season, third baseman Rich Martig hit .313 and first baseman Mike Duncan hit .274 with 11 home runs and 50 RBIs. Shortstop Jerry Peguiro, a Dominican, hit .283 at Medford.

Center fielder Jerome Nelson, who stole 26 bases and hit .270 in 69 games at Salem, and pitcher Bob Sharpnack were acquired from the Angels for Don Sutton. “Both are good prospects,” Kiser said.

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Reno Padres

General Manager: Harry Platt

Manager: Jim Skaalen

Coach: Eli Grba

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Four pitchers may be the key to Reno’s fortunes. Left-handers Scott Marsh and Ed Puig, and right-handers Jeff Shilders and Ken Clauson all are coveted prospects within the Padre organization. Clauson is a converted infielder.

Add right-hander Pete Kutsukos, who is coming off an arm injury but was 8-4 in 1984 at Beaumont, and the Padres could have a solid rotation.

Third baseman Bob Grantstaff is in his third year at Reno and is expected to supply leadership as well as a solid bat. He hit .283 with 12 home runs and 70 RBIs last season. First baseman Brad Pounders also has power, having hit .265 with 18 home runs and 86 RBIs at Class-A Charleston, S.C., last season.

Second baseman Roberto Alamar should be the sparkplug. He hit .293 with 36 steals at Charleston. Shortstop Dave Cortez, who hit .353 in a rookie league at Tri-Cities, Wash., is also a good prospect.

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Outfielders include Gerald Clark, who hit .325, at Spokane, Scott Parsons, a converted pitcher, Jeff Gray and Pablo Rivera.

Salinas Spurs

General Manager: Rick Maas

Manager: Greg Mahlberg

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Coach: John Poloni

With eight returning players, the Spurs are relatively experienced. Right fielder Bob Bruzik, a Fresno State product who was the Mariners’ first pick in the January, 1985 draft, hit .291 last season. Center fielder Eric Fox will provide speed. “The Mariners are high on both of those guys,” General Manager Rick Maas said.

Catcher William McGuire (6-3, 230) threw out three runners in a Triple-A game last Tuesday before boarding a plane for Salinas, Maas said.

Left-handed pitcher Don Neufelder was 10-8 with a 3.26 ERA in 132 innings at Wausau, Wis., of the Midwest League. He will lead a young staff.

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“Our pitchers are young with something to prove,” Maas said. “Offensively, we will bunt and hit and run. We’ll run a lot.”

San Jose Bees

General Manager: Harry Steve

Manager: Harry Steve

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The Bees, with six former major leaguers on their roster, will be fun to watch. Whether the players can recapture the talent that made them big leaguers remains to be seen, but Steve Howe, Mike Norris, Daryl Sconiers, Ken Reitz, Darryl Cias and Fernando Arroyo are sure to draw large crowds. Derrel Thomas, another former major leaguer, was cut last week.

Stockton Ports

General Manager: Don Miller

Manager: Dave Machemer

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Coach: Rick Gahbrielson

The Northern Division champions last season, the Ports again like their chances. “We have a lot of good players from Beloit, Wisc., which was a strong Class-A team,” General Manager Don Miller said. “We have a good blend of speed and power.”

Last season, shortstop Walt Pohle hit .274 with 26 stolen bases, second baseman Frankie Mattox hit .282 with 58 steals, first baseman Bernard Kent hit .285 and outfielder Todd Brown hit .393. All played for the Beloit team that won the Central Division of the Midwest League last season.

Manager Dave Machamer was manager at Beloit last season, so his players know what to expect.

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The top pitcher may be Gary Kanwisher, another Beloit graduate. He was 13-4 with an ERA of 2.66 and 158 strikeouts in 165 innings.


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