A View from the Top (Almost)

It was a day when a cool wind off the ocean belied the temperature reading of the low 70's and forced most to wear jackets when those who toil at Dodgertown received some warming news -- that Baseball America in its annual rankings of farm systems list the Dodgers at number two behind only the Milwaukee Brewers.

Understand that Baseball America does not come down from the mountain with its commandments written in stone even if it sometimes seems that way, for they can be as fallible as the rest of us mortals. But since its inception in 1981 the publication and its internet by-product have been thoughtful observers and commentators of the game in general and the minors in particular -- much more so than anyone else. Thus, its assessment is appreciated as Terry Collins, the Dodger field coordinator, expressed, "That's really great. It's a tribute first of all to the scouts who found the players and the work that our instructors have done in bringing them along."

The recognition is particularly noteworthy when you consider that the system was rated only 14th a year ago and was as low as 28th as recently as 2001. That's not being at the edge of the precipice; that's falling into the abyss. It's a praiseworthy climb from near oblivion for sure.

The players who've been around a bit have noticed the change. Righthander Andrew Brown observed, "When I was traded (from the Braves in January 2002), I saw they were ranked 28th and thought, 'I guess I'm going somewhere that can use some help. But now I look around and it seems like every pitcher I see can throw more than 90 miles an hour. There are arms and a half in this organization."

You can certainly include Brown himself in that assessment. Last spring he pitched only one inning for Jacksonville before leaving in pain. An elbow operation followed, the second such in his career for he missed all of 2000 with similar surgery. Yet, here he is, throwing from a slightly altered arm slot with ease and effectiveness, so much so that he was one who earned high marks from Jim Tracy before being sent down from the big club.

Of the group who were invited to spring training with LA but who realistically had no chance of making the team, there were others whom Tracy lauded including Yhency Brazoban, Jason Frasor, Orlando Rodriguez, and Duaner Sanchez, righthanders all and all obtained from other organizations, showing that the pro scouting department headed by Matt Slater have a shrewd eye for talent as well.

While another righthander, Edwin Jackson, seems to have made the team, no player stood out more than first baseman James Loney during his stint with LA. Loney was around merely for the experience but he never played it that way. Arriving in camp well-sculpted from a strenuous winter regimen, he lashed the ball in a spectacular fashion; so much so that even his outs seemed to be screeching line drives. He was simply the best-looking hitter around and were he not 19, first base could well have been his.

But he hasn't played above A ball yet so he'll go to Jacksonville to demonstrate that he can handle AA pitching. But those who saw him had to feel that a projected timetable that has him arriving in Dodger Stadium in mid-2005 may be moved up.

Another of the more heralded prospects, Franklin Gutierrez also earned points during his stay not so much with the bat but with some dazzling plays in the field including throwing runners out both at third and home from right field where he also made some spectacular catches. But Franklin, too, will probably begin the campaign with Dino Ebel's Jacksonville club.

Meanwhile, as Brown noted, there is a deep pool of pitching talent playing on the backfields of Dodgertown where the minor leaguers train. So impressive is the array of arms that one observer thought it could be a mirage but was reassured by organizational pitching instructor Mark Brewer that it is, indeed, very real.

To single out the most impressive of these at least in the early going, you'd be hard put to choose between righthanders Jonathan Broxton and Chad Billingsley. Broxton, who is Kodiak bear of a figure, has shed some 30 pounds and has been dominating on the mound. Billingsley, last year's number one draft pick, couples the requisite fast ball in the low 90's with both a nasty curve and a biting slider that he uses effectively with two strikes on a batter.

There is no lack of others, too. Phil Sobkow is using his curve effectively, too and is looking better than his 10th-round selection of a year ago while lefthander Mike Megrew has added some pizzazz to his fast ball. Then there's lefty Chuck Tiffany, last year's second-round draft pick who signed late and pitched in just three games for Ogden at the end of the season. A groin pull kept him sidelined in the instructional league. Now, Brewer noted, "I give him a lot of credit for he arrived in camp in great shape."

Coach George Culver, who is working with Tiffany, says, "He has to work on some things but he certainly has the arm." George also has spotted Julio Pimentel as a likely newcomer. Pimentel saw a little service in the Dominican League after signing last summer but has shown enough to earn a trip here along with righthander Chales Dasni, catcher Kengshil Pujols, and shortstop Juan Rivera.

Brandon Weeden is a righthander obtained from the Yankees in the Kevin Brown deal that brought Brazoban as well as Jeff Weaver to the team. " I love it here," he maintains. "I've been with the Yankees and now the Dodgers, the two best organizations in the game. How lucky can you be!". Of him Brewer notes, "He's got three quality pitches. He looks like the real deal."

Weeden was primarily a shortstop in high school back in Oklahoma before the Yankees took him in the second round of the 2002 draft.

Still, it's not hitting that he misses so much as "Football. I watched my school in the playoffs last fall and it was tough not being down there on the field." Weeden was a quarterback of considerable note in that game as well as an excellent power forward in basketball.

He's part of a group of multi-sport athletes in camp. Matt Kemp was another high school basketball star in Oklahoma who gave up that game as did righthander Casey Hoorlebeke, who is every bit as huge as big brother Jesse. An All-American high schooler on the court he abandoned that sport in college to return to the diamond. "I was throwing 83 in high school but when I started pitching again (at Lewis & Clark State), I was throwing 94. " This Hoorlebeke was signed as a free agent late last summer by George Genovese, the same scout who inked Jesse.

However, Cedric Benson, the most celebrated of the two-sport group, announced that he's abandoning the diamond to concentrate on his role as a running back at the University of Texas, a decision that was hardly unexpected since he only seemed to show up long enough to collect another installment on his bonus before departing for Austin and the game of his choice.

The game giveth and it taketh away when it comes to injuries -- especially pitchers. Derek Thompson, who was drafted from the Indians only to have surgery before he even threw in a spring training game last year, has been signed to a minor league contract and is ready to take the hill. Marshall Looney, who also missed all of last season, is also set to go while Hong Chi Kuo will probably try, try again in May. But out is the most celebrated of the kids, Greg Miller, who had a bursa sack removed from his shoulder thus probably missing most of the year. Both Canadian righthander Steve Nelson and Australian lefty Liam O'Flaherty had Tommy John surgery thus missing the season.

While the pitchers may be in the forefront, there's more than a few position players drawing attention. On the day of the Baseball America honor, second baseman Delwyn Young was putting on a batting display against the Mets with a home run and double. What's more, batting coach Bob Mariano was hitting grounders to him the other day and lauded the footwork of one who has always been regarded as something of a liability in the field.

Shortstop has a likely collection. Joel Guzman has been drawing attention ever since he received the largest bonus ever given to a Dominican, a reported 2.25 million. He's been pushed forward almost relentlessly in his two brief seasons in which he has demonstrated more promise than delivery. He seems to have stopped growing at 6-5, is still stationed at short despite suggestions that he might ultimately wind up at another position but may well spend another year in high A at Vero Beach since he doesn't seem ready for AA.

He's now 19 and has done well enough this spring to warrant being brought over for a couple of cameos with the major leaguers. There's also a good group pushing up behind including Chin-Lung Hu from Taiwan, who's extremely accomplished in the field and who has surprising pop for a player listed at 5-9, 150 pounds as righthander Zach Hammes found out when he tried to pound a high fast ball by him in a camp game only to see it deposited beyond the left field fence.

Then there's Lucas May, who has been honored as the Midwest Player of the Year back home in St. Louis plus Russ Mitchell, who has been working at second. Both have shown potential as hitters.

Second is also where Willie Aybar has been working in a major position move if it sticks. Luis Castillo, hitherto a third baseman, has been playing a lot at first. But any drastic move concerning Andy LaRoche won't happen now. "We had been talking about the possibility of catching but he's so new, we want him to be comfortable so he's staying in the infield," reports John Shoemaker, who has been moved from manager at Las Vegas to assistant field coordinator.

The switch of a position player to the mound seems to be almost a common occurrence not surprisingly when you consider the success that Guillermo Mota, among others, has had going that route. This time it's Brett Wayne, who hit little as an infielder at South Georgia but who is another who has arm strength. "The toughest part is the days in between pitching," he relates. "Still, when you're out there, the game is in your hands and I like that."

All this comes with a word of caution from Collins. "The talent certainly seems to be there but we have to remind ourselves of how young so many of them are. You know when we were that age we played baseball constantly but there are so many distractions for kids today, cars, video games and so much more. So we have to let them play and be patient."

"I've watched the talent level increase a lot since I came in the organization four years ago," Mariano agrees. "In many ways it reminds me of when I was with the Yankees. Of course, they're still prospects. They aren't up there yet."

But hang on. Baseball America has taken care of that, too. They've forecast the 2007 season which winds up with the Dodgers champions of all the world. Nice work if you can get it. And getting there is what all this work on the back fields of Dodgertown is all about.

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