Pipeline preview: California League finals to get underway

Pipeline preview: California League finals to get underway

The final Minor League championship series will get underway Thursday when the California League finals begin between Lancaster and Visalia.

Visalia will host the first two games of the best-of-five series, before it moves to Lancaster on Saturday. First pitch in Game 1 is scheduled for 10 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Lancaster won the South Division in the season's first half, earning a bye to the semifinals. It swept the best-of-five series against Inland Empire, which won the division in the second half, to earn its first berth in the California League championship series since 2012.

The JetHawks began the season with the top overall picks in the 2012 and '13 First-Year Player Drafts on the roster. But neither will be playing in the finals. Shortstop Carlos Correa, the Astros' No. 1 prospect, was sidelined in June with a broken right fibula and right-hander Mark Appel, the club's No. 2 prospect, was promoted to Double-A Corpus Christi last month.

Even without Correa and Appel, Lancaster has plenty of prospect firepower on its roster. Its pitching staff includes right-handers Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez, the Astros' Nos. 6 and 8 prospects, and its lineup is anchored by third baseman Rio Ruiz, the club's No. 9 prospect.

Many of the JetHawks, including McCullers and Ruiz, are attempting to win their second straight league championship after capturing the Midwest League title in 2013 as members of Class A Quad Cities.

Visalia went 75-65 during the regular season to edge San Jose for the North Division's Wild Card. Visalia then swept Stockton in their best-of-three first-round series before defeating Bakersfield in four games in the best-of-five semifinals. Now, the Rawhide has a chance to win its first California League title since 1978.

Visalia's roster features shortstop Andrew Velazquez, the D-backs' No. 12 prospect. The 20-year-old spent the regular season with Class A South Bend, where he gained notoriety for reaching base in a Minor League-record 74 consecutive games. He was promoted to Visalia last week after South Bend was eliminated from the Midwest League playoffs, and he hit .250/.294/.438 with three doubles and four RBIs in the semifinal series against Bakersfield.

Visalia joins Triple-A Reno as D-backs affiliates still competing for their league championships. Reno split the first two games of the Pacific Coast League finals with Omaha and will resume its series Friday after a travel day. The D-backs' farm system already has a championship this year, as short-season Class A Hillsboro wrapped up the Northwest League crown Sunday.

While the California League finals are just getting started, the Pioneer League championship series could be decided Thursday. Rookie-level Billings defeated Orem, 4-3, in Game 1 on Tuesday and can wrap up the best-of-three series with another victory Thursday. The series has moved to Orem for Game 2, which begins at 9:05 p.m. ET and can be seen on MiLB.TV. If a decisive Game 3 is necessary, it would be played Friday at 9:05 p.m. ET in Orem.

Top prospect probables
Henry Owens (Red Sox's No. 2), Pawtucket at Durham

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.