Playoff Preview: Jaxx vs. Suns

Scout.com's Steve Holley (Inside The Ivy) and Tot Holmes (LADugout.com) preview the Double-A Southern League Championship Series between the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs affiliate) and Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers affiliate).

The best-of-five series will open in Jacksonville for games one and two. Game three, and if necessary games four and five, will shift to Jackson, Tenn.

The Jaxx finished the regular season with the league's best overall record (83-56) and statistically, the best pitching staff (3.35 ERA). They won both the first and second half of the Northern Division and saw a total of four players promoted to Chicago and three to Triple-A Iowa. Many faces originally with this year's club who are now in Chicago or still on the Triple-A roster include: OF Matt Murton, team MVP and 2B/SS Ryan Theriot, and LHPs Rich Hill and Carmen Pignatiello.

A good portion of this current 2005 Jaxx team won last year's Florida State League East title in the first half and was eventually crowned league co-champions with the Yankees' Class High-A club. They include: OF/1B Brandon Sing, 1B/3B Casey McGehee, C Jose Reyes, SS Buck Coats, OF Adam Greenberg and closer Andrew Shipman.

Sing finished tied with Birmingham's Chris Young for the Southern League lead with 26 home runs and was fifth with a .404 on-base percentage. Reyes hit a modest .257, but was once again best known for his defense this season. He had the league's best fielding percentage of any catcher at .994 and threw out 37 percent of base-runners (98 attempts). McGehee is a third baseman by default that was named to the Southern League All-Star Game in Mobile, Ala., and got the start at first base. He put together the best season of his career, hitting .297 and driving in a team-high 72 runs.

For his part, Coats was hitting over .300 in the first half to earn the starting shortstop nod for the All-Star Game. He committed 33 errors at short, second most in the league for a shortstop behind Huntsville's Enrique Cruz. Greenberg made it the big league club and was hit in the head by a Valerio de los Santos pitch on July 9 against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium. He was placed on the DL and returned to the Jaxx in late July, batting .269 in 95 games with the club.

Shipman was also invited to the Southern League All-Star game, posting a 3.17 ERA in 59 appearances. His 15 saves were fifth in the league. From the bullpen, the Jaxx have plenty of depth with right-handers Thomas Atlee (3-1, 3.63 ERA), David Aardsma (4-1, 3.91 ERA), Jon Searles (6-3, 3.42 ERA), Randy Wells (10-3, 2.83 ERA) and Victor Ramos (3-5, 3.23 ERA). Wells and Ramos earned late-season promotions from Daytona and Peoria, respectively. Left-hander Ryan O'Malley (3-3, 3.84 ERA) is the only left-hander from the Jaxx ‘pen.

Manager Bobby Dickerson's starting rotation has three 10-game winners in right-handers Jae-Kuk Ryu and Ricky Nolasco, given the Southern League's Most Outstanding Pitcher award in 2005, and left-hander Renyel Pinto. Right-hander Carlos Marmol, who was brought up from Daytona in June, also joins the group. Pinto and Nolasco were phenomenal in the Jaxx sweep of Carolina to open the post-season and were second and third, respectively, for the best ERA in the Southern League behind Tennesee's Dustin Nippert. Ryu will open game one of the series, Dickerson told Inside The Ivy on Friday.

The Suns' pitching was their long suit in the first round of the playoffs, as they, too, swept their first round opponent (Birmingham) while giving up two runs in the three games and finishing with a combined 0.36 ERA.

Jacksonville is expected to open with right-hander Chad Billingsley, who along with Jon Broxton no-hit Birmingham in the series opener last Thursday. Billingsley is not only one of the top mound performers in all of the minors, but is throwing his best lately.

The Suns can back him with right-handers William Juarez, who pitched a complete-game shutout in the final game of the three-game series at Birmingham, and Eric Hull, who allowed the only runs (two) that Jacksonville gave up in the three games.

Justin Orenduff and Joel Hanrahan are also available. Orenduff (5-2, 4.07), who is also throwing well, came up at mid-season from Class-A Vero Beach, where he was 5-3 with a 2.24 ERA. Hanrahan, the 2003 Southern League Pitcher of the Year, has had an inconsistent year, however, as his 9-8 record and 4.92 ERA indicates.

Manager John Shoemaker can also call on the right-handed Hull (7-7, 3.38 ERA). Shoemaker has a deep bullpen, including left-handers Luis Gonzalez (7-2, 2.21 ERA) and Greg Miller (0-0, 2.77 ERA) since coming back from rehab.

The Suns are the "crown jewel" in the Dodger system, ranked 1-2 by both USA Today and second by Baseball America. Most of the club will move to Triple-A Las Vegas next season unless Dodgers General Manager Paul DePodesta has determined to instigate a complete youth movement, in which case as many as five of them could be in Dodger Blue next year.

Nineteen-year-old shortstop Joel Guzman, who DH'ed in the Birmingham series because of a sore shoulder, is perhaps the top position player in the Dodger system. Along with James Loney at first base, he could be a candidate for the big club even quicker than the others.

Third baseman Andy LaRoche slugged 30 homers between Vero Beach and Jacksonville, while Russell Martin is considered by many a better catcher and hitter than Dioner Navarro, the Dodgers 21-year-old starter.

Leadoff man Todd Donovan led the system with 60+ stolen bases and among all of these, Jon Weber is the Suns' No. 3 hitter. Second baseman Tony Abreu moved up from Vero Beach to provide a solid glove and has also surprised with his bat.


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