The Dodger Farm System Report

Manager Scott Little and pitching coach Ken Howell return to Vero Beach but most of that team has departed. An exception is Joel Guzman, who in the past two seasons, has been resolutely pushed forward perhaps beyond the edge of his expertise. Now, he'll spend another summer in high A with the hope that his performance level will start catching up with his considerable physical ability. He's now 6-5, still playing short.

Guzman is joined by two of the more intriguing young hitters in the organization, Delwyn (D.Y.) Young, who'll play second and center fielder Xavier Paul. Young has averaged .315 in his first two seasons while Paul was named by Baby Blue as the organization's rookie of the year after hitting .307 at Ogden. Catcher Russell Martin is another well-thought-of player assigned to this team.

David Bagley has offensive potential but two shoulder operations have restricted his play afield. Last year, though he was in 60 games for South Georgia, he didn't play an inning in the field. If he's recovered enough, he'll play first. Chris Testa, who can be used at first, third, the outfield or even pitch, if you want, is also on hand.

Paul is joined in the outfield by Brian Goelz and Alex Requena, who came from the Indians in a little-noticed September trade for David Lee. He's a jetster as 87 stolen bases in 2000 and 72 in 2002 will attest.

It's the pitching that could well thrust Vero forward. The staff is headed by righthander Jonathan Broxton and last year's top draft pick Chad Billingsley, both of considerable promise. There's lefthander Mike Megrew plus Clint Hosford, who's suffered through a series of injuries that have held him back but who seems healthy at last plus Brad Baisley, once a prime Phillies prospect who's coming back from serious arm problems, Rule 5 pickups Rick Bartlett and Beau Dannemiller along with Brandon Warriax, who made a successful conversion from the infield to the mound last year.

For the past two seasons, the South Atlantic League entry had to pile the equipment in the trucks, the team in the bus, then pull out a map and ask, "Where are we going?". After stops in Wilmington, N.C. and Albany, Ga., they are now actually based in the same town for the second year in a row. To make sure everyone knows that, they've changed the name from the South Georgia Waves to the Columbus Catfish as well as refurbishing the park and dressing rooms and even sold some season tickets.

Dann Bilardello is back as manager and has a team that should lure some fans, a novelty last year. There should be hitting enough with Mike Nixon back as catcher, Andy LaRoche at third, Chin-Lung Hu at short, Luis Jimenez at first and Estanislao Abreau in the infield along with an outfield of Matt Kemp, Emilio Marcos and Jereme Milons.

LaRoche is the 39th round draft pick who received a million dollars after being named the best offensive prospect in the Cape Cod Collegiate League. A shortstop then, he's moved over to make room for Hu, who's capable of the dazzling play in the infield and surprising pop at the plate. Abreau was the MVP of the Gulf Coast team while Jimenez is a Rule 5 draftee who caused a stir with his long-ball hitting in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Organizational batting instructor Bob Mariano proclaimed Kemp as the most improved hitter in the minor league camp this spring while the swift Milons hit .308 for Ogden last year. Marcos only averaged .240 in his debut in the Gulf Coast League but has potential to far exceed that and has one of the best arms in the organization.

The whole system has become noted for its pitching and this team has its share of worthies. There's Zach Hammes, who in 2002 was a second-round draft pick sandwiched between Greg Miller and Broxton. He hasn't progressed as fast as they have mostly because at 6-6, 230, he has problems smoothing out his delivery. Nonetheless, he has made progress and is still highly regarded.

Righthander Brandon Weeding, who also came from the Yankees in the Brown trade, is here as are Omar DeLos Santos, still another converted infielder, and Ozzie Rodriguez, both Dominicans of note.

Jarod Plummer , injured most of last season, is on the staff along with Marcos Carvajal and Alvis Ojeda, two Venezuelans of promise.

There's also considerable attention being paid to righthander Julio Pimentel, who got in only 22 innings in the Dominican League after signing last July but who has looked so good that he's been vaulted to this level.

Then there's over 50 players left behind to toil in the extended spring camp, mostly because of lack of experience rather than ability. Then there's those who are in various stages of rehabilitation from injuries and in most cases resultant surgery. The greatest number are pitchers with Abercrombie and outfielder Ryan Carter the only position players on the list. Carter, who hit .313 for Ogden, probably will play for Vero Beach when he's ready.

The pitchers include Hong-Chi Kuo, Alfredo Gonzalez and Rick Roberts, all at one time on the 40-man roster and all finishing their first year of re-hab which means they should get back sometime this year as should Eric Stults and Edgar Lizarraga. Miller, the 2003 organizational pitcher of the year, is the most renown of those who went out this year but he was only scoped rather than having full surgery so he, too, should make it back to the mound in '04.

Orlando Rodriguez, who is currently on the 40-man list, has also been sidelined recently as have Masao Kida and Eric Knott, who were non-roster invitees. For Kida, the spring woes continue. He came over from Japan in 2003 only to be a victim of a traffic accident which wound up costing him a good part of the season. He came back to make it up to L.A. but now faces surgery.

Along with Miller, another prominent prospect, righthander Brian Pilkington, hasn't been able to see any action either. He is working out the aches, isn't slated for surgery with the hope that he can build his arm strength in extended games, then join Jacksonville.

As noted recently the Dodger system has been rated second only to Milwaukee in all of baseball. Despite that, they were sub-.500 as a group in 2003, so getting a lot more "W's" is something to be achieved this time around. But the main goal remains -- that when the need to bring players to Dodger Stadium arises, reaching down into the system becomes the most satisfactory way to do it.