Season Recap: High Desert Mavericks

RC today returns with a look at the 2006 High Desert Mavericks. Although the 2006 Mavs didn't have the offensive firepower of the 2005 squad, they were a scrappy – albeit streaky – bunch that qualified for a second straight postseason.

Although the Mavs pitching staff's ERA of 4.95 was second-worst in the league, thanks largely to a league-leading 143 home runs allowed, there were some encouraging signs. For instance, Mavs pitchers dished out the second-fewest walks in the league while racking up the second-most strikeouts, and thanks to solid defense, the team yielded the fewest unearned runs by a wide margin.

The offense was in the middle of the pack in nearly every offensive category, although they did finish with the third-best cumulative batting average (.277) in the league. Mavs hitters also struck out just 957 times, which was the lowest total in the league for the second straight season. They weren't particularly powerful, nor were they fast (finishing second-to-last in SB), but they were able to piece together enough offense to finish fourth in the league in runs scored (729). It was a far cry from the league-leading 899 runs the Mavs scored in 2005, but of course, the 2006 version didn't have the likes of Billy Butler, Chris Lubanski, and Mitch Maier. In fact, the 2006 Mavs had just one regular with an OPS over .800.

The Mavs had just two winning months (not counting a 2-1 September), in April (13-11) and June (19-6), but they caught fire shortly before the All-Star break. Over three weeks from May 29 to June 18, the Mavs made up eight and a half games in the standings on the Inland Empire 66ers, and they finished the first half in a first-place tie with a 39-31 record. The stage was set for a one-game showdown with the 66ers on June 20 to decide the first half South Division champion (with the winner receiving an automatic playoff berth), and the Mavs looked to pitcher Luis Cota to deliver a victory. Unfortunately, Cota allowed four earned runs while failing to escape the first inning, and the 66ers cruised to a 16-10 victory in a typical Cal League slugfest.

Undeterred, the Mavs went back to business, and on July 6 they had won an unbelievable 23 of their previous 28 games, highlighted by a nine-game winning streak from June 10-18. Their record at that point in the season was 49-35, and it looked like they might cruise to a second half title and a playoff berth. However, the Mavs cooled off just as quickly as they had heated up, and from July 7 on, they went just 24-32, limping to the finish line with a 73-67 record. Nevertheless, the 12-team Cal League doles out six playoff berths, and on the last day of the season, the Mavs received some help from Lake Elsinore (which won the second-half title with a victory over Inland Empire) and laid claim to the South Division wild card.

The stage was set for a first round South Division playoff match-up between the Mavs and the Lake Elsinore Storm. The Mavs dropped the first game of the best-of-three series in High Desert, but they bounced back in Game 2 behind an outstanding pitching performance by John Gragg. In the deciding Game 3, the Mavs looked to Chris Nicoll – who had won the regular season's final game with a dominant 11-strikeout performance – to deliver the series. Unfortunately, Nicoll gave up five runs (four earned) while failing to get out of the second inning, and High Desert's season ended with an 8-6 loss.

The loss also closed out the Royals' two-year affiliation with the Mavericks, as the Royals signed a Player Development Contract with the Wilmington Blue Rocks in September which runs through the 2008 season. The Royals are very excited about the move, as the Carolina League presents a much better platform to evaluate prospects than the Cal League, and it's a bit of a coup that they were able to reconnect with the Blue Rocks just two years after they were dumped in favor of the Red Sox.

Top Prospect Performances:

  • Blake Johnson: Blake Johnson was acquired by the Royals in July from the Dodgers in the Elmer Dessens trade, but he made just three appearances for the Mavs. Johnson made his Cal League debut on July 30, and he was outstanding, scattering seven hits over six innings while striking out seven and allowing just one earned run. However, Johnson made just one more start before being shut down for a month with shoulder tightness, and he didn't return until September 2, when he threw a scoreless inning in relief. He also made one relief appearance in the playoffs, tossing two scoreless innings in the deciding Game 3, which the Mavs lost. On the season, Johnson was 5-6 with a 5.00 ERA in 117.0 IP between the Florida State and California Leagues. He struck out 82 batters, and while opponents hit .289 against him, he yielded just 19 walks all season.

    Johnson's injury in August apparently wasn't as serious as first thought

  • Billy Buckner: After logging a 5.36 ERA in 94.0 IP in the Cal League in 2005, Buckner returned to High Desert to begin the 2006 season. He roared out of the gates, winning his first six decisions before suffering his first (and only) loss of the season on May 28. Buckner reeled off a string of five straight "quality" starts in May, and he was selected to represent the Mavericks on the California League All-Star team. Buckner finished the first half with a solid 6.2 inning, nine strikeout effort against Rancho Cucamonga, and he was promoted to Wichita shortly after the All-Star break. Prior to his promotion, Buckner tossed 90.0 innings for the Mavs, compiling a 3.90 ERA while striking out 85 and walking 47. It was a successful season for Buckner, whose ground ball tendencies (2.78 GB:FB ratio) played well in the hitter-friendly Cal League.

    Buckner did nothing in 2006 to diminish his standing as one of the best pitching prospects in the organization

  • Daniel Christensen: Even though Christensen's 4.89 ERA and .285 BAA don't look great at first glance, he had a very encouraging season in High Desert. Most important, Christensen stayed healthy all year, making 28 starts while logging 162.0 IP, the second-most in the Cal League. He also struck out 153 batters – the third-best total in the league – and although he still walked too many (58) and gave up too many home runs (a league-leading 23), it's hard to imagine doing much better in what is perhaps the most hitter-friendly park in baseball. Christensen was particularly good during the last two months of the season, winning five of his last ten starts while limiting opposing hitters to batting averages of .220 and .244 in July and August, respectively.

    Christensen is an excellent "break-out" candidate for 2007

  • Luis Cota: There were significant worries heading into 2006 about how well Cota would be able to handle the California League, and unfortunately, he had a pretty rough season. Cota made 26 starts for the Mavs, logging 132.0 IP while compiling an ERA of 7.09, which was the second-highest ERA of any starter in the Cal League who made 20 or more starts. He did strike out 126 batters, but he also walked 63, and opponents hit .290 off of him. Cota had a nice three-game stretch from May 31 through June 10, when he threw 20.1 innings without allowing an earned run, but that streak was ended rudely on June 15, when he was bombed for eight runs in less than four innings against Rancho Cucamonga. Among all the players on the 2006 Mavs roster, 2007 will be the most pivotal for Cota, who will most likely repeat High-A with the Wilmington Blue Rocks.

    2007 will determine whether or not Cota is a legitimate prospect

  • Gabe DeHoyos: DeHoyos was the Mavs' closer for the first half of the season, and he dominated the Cal League with his devastating sinker while racking up 13 saves. In fact, there is perhaps no pitcher who had a more impressive campaign for the Mavs in 2006 than DeHoyos, who logged a 0.94 WHIP and a 2.51 ERA in 28.2 IP prior to his promotion to Wichita. Cal League opponents hit just .138 against DeHoyos, and even more impressively, he did not allow a single home run while pitching for the Mavs. DeHoyos's dominating performance in the Cal League is forcing the Royals to give him a serious look, and since he was nearly equally good in Wichita, DeHoyos could figure into the Royals' bullpen mix pretty quickly.

    DeHoyos escaped High Desert without allowing a single home run

  • Adam Donachie: After hitting .294/.375/.467 with 12 home runs in 347 at bats for the Mavs in 2005, Donachie was unexpectedly reassigned to High Desert to begin the 2006 season. He got off to a rough start, hitting just .226/.339/.264 in April, but he rebounded with a stellar May, in which he hit .338 with seven extra base hits (including two home runs) in 71 at bats. Donachie was promoted to Wichita in mid July, and he left High Desert with a line of .271/.365/.414 and six home runs in 216 at bats. While his offense took a bit of a dive, his defense remained his calling card, and Donachie threw out 44 percent of attempted Cal League basestealers in 2006.

    Donachie's offense cooled off in 2006, but he's still excellent behind the plate

  • Irving Falu: Falu rebounded from a rough 2005 season at Burlington to post very respectable numbers at High Desert. In 531 at bats, Falu hit .299/.351/.386 with three home runs and 23 doubles. He also hit seven triples, which was the third-highest total in the league, and he was fifth in the league in stolen bases with 31. Like his predecessor, Angel Sanchez, Falu played excellent defense while racking up a lot of base hits (159, fourth-best in the Cal Lague), and he's emerged as an interesting prospect after three seasons in relative obscurity. Like many other hitters who posted their first decent stats in the Cal League, it's important that Falu proves his 2006 numbers weren't a fluke as he moves forward.

    Falu's defense might be better than Angel Sanchez's

  • Brian McFall: McFall led the Mavericks with 21 home runs and 73 RBIs, but his line of .239/.309/.460 was a pretty big disappointment. Strikeouts and plate discipline remain a big concern for McFall, as he fanned 120 times while drawing just 30 walks. McFall did have a couple of decent months: he hit .263/.351/.525 in June, and he finished the season strongly with a .267/.313/.589 August, in which he also hit eight home runs. Nevertheless, his struggles in the hitter-friendly Cal League do not bode well for McFall's future, and despite his considerable raw power, he doesn't seem to have improved his game much at all.

    Despite leading the Mavs in home runs, McFall had a very disappointing 2006 season

  • Julio Pimental: Pimental came to the Mavs along with Johnson in the Dessens trade, and he immediately became one of High Desert's best relievers. Pimental made 12 appearances for the Mavs, pitching 22.2 innings while compiling an ERA of 3.18. He allowed 21 hits and 10 walks (1.37 WHIP) while striking out 26, and opponents hit just .244 against him. Pimental, who is still just 20-years old, is an intriguing prospect, and it will be interesting to see where he winds up in 2007.

    Pimental made a quick impression with the Mavs

  • Jarod Plummer: Plummer was acquired by the Royals in exchange for Wilson Valdez in a preseason trade with the Dodgers, and perhaps no minor leaguer in the Royals' system made a bigger splash. Despite pitching all but six of his 39 games out of the bullpen, Plummer led the Mavs with 11 victories, and his 114 strikeouts were third-best on the club. In total, Plummer threw 95.2 innings for the Mavs prior to his late season promotion to Wichita, and he compiled a 4.05 ERA while allowing 92 hits and just 20 walks (and just one wild pitch). Plummer held Cal League opponents to a .249 BA, and his control (which has led to just 73 walks in 324.2 professional innings) makes him a very interesting bullpen prospect.

    Plummer had an outstanding 2006 season

  • Mike Stodolka: Stodolka, who was a first-round pick in 2000 as a pitcher, became a first baseman prior to the season and immediately set the Cal League on fire, hitting .339/.419/.613 with a league-leading 12 doubles in April. Stodolka cooled off as the season wore on and pitchers adjusted to his tendencies, but he finished the year with a solid line of .284/.396/.449 in 423 at bats. Hitting in the middle of the Mavs' lineup for most of the season, Stodolka led High Desert with 46 extra base hits and 78 walks (which also tied for second-best in the Cal League), and he was selected to represent the Mavs at midseason on the California League All-Star Team. Stodolka is 25-years old, so he's running out of time as a prospect, but his excellent plate discipline in his first exposure to pro ball as a hitter is very encouraging. The Royals won't rush him, but next season will be a big test for Stodolka as he moves up to Wichita.

    We doubt anyone expected Stodolka to take to hitting as well as he did in 2006

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    Special thanks to Mike Andruski for the Mavericks photos he contributed to RC throughout the season, and to Mavs' broadcaster Jon Rosen for all the help he's given us over the past year.

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