Tuesday, June 20, 2006.
A Pioneer League primer
The Pioneer League is considered a rookie league, meaning most of the players in the league are in their first full season of professional baseball. It's not uncommon though for some of the players to be in their second or third season of pro ball.
Players in the Pioneer League are four levels from reaching the big leagues. Pioneer League players still have to advance through Single A, advanced Single A, Double A and Triple A before finally reaching the Major Leagues.
There are eight teams in the Pioneer League, which is made up of two, four-team divisions.
Billings, Helena, Great Falls and Missoula constitute the Northern Division, while Casper, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho, and two Utah teams -- Orem and Ogden -- make up the Southern Division. Each team is affiliated with a Major League Baseball franchise, and the Major League team is responsible for stocking their affiliates with draft selections or free agents. The Major League team is also responsible for player salaries.
The Billings Mustangs have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds since 1974, one of the longest such associations in professional baseball. Affiliations often change, though, for various reasons.
With some of the teams, it's easy to spot the affiliation: The Helena Brewers have been affiliated with the Milwaukee Brewers since 2003, while the Great Falls White Sox have been a farm team for the Chicago White Sox since 2003 and the Casper Rockies have been associated with the Colorado Rockies since 2001.
Other Pioneer League teams go with a more local nickname rather than take on the name of the parent club. By doing that, the local team forges its own identity and doesn't have to keep changing nicknames or uniforms whenever it switches affiliations.
The remaining affiliations in the Pioneer League are: Missoula Osprey (with the Arizona Diamondbacks since 1996); Idaho Falls Chukars (Kansas City Royals, 2004); Orem Owlz (Los Angeles Angels, 2001); and Ogden Raptors (Los Angeles Dodgers, 2003).
The Pioneer League season starts in mid-June, shortly after baseball's annual draft. The regular season ends in early September. There is a best-of-three-games divisional playoff and then a best-of-three championship series between the two divisional playoff winners.
Each team plays 76 regular-season games, and rarely gets a day off once the season starts. This year there are just four scheduled off days for the Mustangs. If a game gets rained out and forces a doubleheader, league rules stipulate that each game of a doubleheader lasts just seven innings.
Each division sends two teams to the playoffs. The first playoff berth is given to the first-half winner. In other words, the team that leads the division at the season's midpoint makes the playoffs. After the 38-game mark, all teams revert to a 0-0 record and whichever team wins the second half also makes the playoffs. If the same team wins both halves, then the team with the next best overall record qualifies for the playoffs.
There are many former Pioneer League players in the Major Leagues. Among the most notable are New York Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez, who played for the Great Falls Dodgers (guess the affiliation there) in 1989 and 2005 NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter, who played for Medicine Hat in 1994.
Former Mustangs are plentiful in the Major Leauges. While some, like Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, Todd Coffey, Jason LaRue and Edwin Encarnacion, have stayed in the Cincinnati organization and play for the Reds, others play elsewhere, like Ben Broussard and Aaron Boone (Cleveland Indians), B.J. Ryan (Toronto Blue Jays), Trevor Hoffman (San Diego Padres) and Reggie Sanders (Kansas City Royals).