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March 12, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Arizona League

Some minor leagues have histories rich enough to be microcosms of American history. The Arizona League is not among them.

The Arizona League (AZL) represents the lowest level of MLB-affiliated baseball within the United States. It began in 1988 as a counterpart to Florida’s Gulf Coast League. Only 22 of the 30 Major League clubs field teams at this level. Unlike most minor-league teams, AZL teams are directly owned and operated by Major League franchises, and teams play in their Spring Training facilities. Texas shares its Arizona complex with the Kansas City Royals.

The league presently consists of nine teams including Texas, the rest of the AL West, Kansas City, the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee, San Diego, and San Francisco. Teams play a 56-game schedule from mid-June through the end of August, followed by a single championship game between the winners of the season’s first and second halves. The ferocious heat and lack of a fan base keep crowds to minimal levels. As described by former Arizona Cubs manager Jerry Hairston in Bill Mitchell’s Minor League Ramblings, “We start our flips in the batting cage at a quarter 'til seven [in the morning]. Then we do our fundamentals so all that's done. We start our games at 10 o'clock before most of the heat of the day.? The league doesn’t bother charging entry or maintaining attendance records.

Technically, players over the age of twenty and with more than two years of minor-league experience are ineligible, but the league frequently hosts older prospects on rehab assignments and even Major Leaguers. Star-crossed reliever Jeff Zimmerman threw his final pitches in Surprise in 2003. During 2006, Jason Botts, Robinson Tejeda, and Randall “Sausage Killer? Simon each spent a few summer days with players who were lining up prom dates only months earlier.

Texas joined the league in 2003 when it moved its Spring Training home from Port Charlotte, Florida, to the Phoenix suburb of Surprise. Located twenty miles northwest of Phoenix on a gridlocked Highway 60, Surprise has grown from 7,000 residents in 1990 to over 80,000 today thanks mostly to Del Webb’s Sun City Grand housing development.

Not every team with a Spring Training home in Arizona participates in the AZL. The White Sox, Rockies and, oddly enough, the Arizona Diamondbacks don’t field teams, though each did in the past. Both the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers are negotiating moves to Arizona and could join the league within a couple of years. That said, the future of the AZL is not assured. After 2005 MLB considered disbanding the league, but it continues to operate.

Most of the Rangers’ high-school-aged draftees and young Latin American players play their first stateside pro ball in Surprise. Among the squad’s fifteen hitters and fifteen pitchers with the most playing time in 2006, eight were selected in the 2006 draft and six in 2005. One (Armando Galarraga on a lengthy rehab) was acquired in trade, and the other fifteen were undrafted free agents mostly from outside the US. The hitters averaged 19.3 years in age, the pitchers 20.6.

Texas hasn’t maintained a presence in Arizona long enough to build much of a history. So far, the only Rangers to play there during their normal course of development are Edinson Volquez and Scott Feldman. The former “Edison? made his US debut in Surprise in 2003. Feldman pitched a combined thirteen AZL innings during 2003-2004 before rocketing up the ladder and into the Majors in 2005. The ’03 team went 38-18 before losing the championship game to park-mate Kansas City. Eric Hurley could join Volquez and Feldman before long, and the departed John Danks (another ’03 alumnus) might reach the Majors within three weeks.

Pedro Lopez will return to lead the AZL Rangers after spending a year in Bakersfield as hitting instructor. He managed the team from 2003-2005.

If you’re familiar with Google Earth and would like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at March 12, 2007 11:47 PM