First in a series on the Dodger farm system

The spring of 2004 was when <b>James Loney</b> regained his position of preeminence as the top offensive prospect in the Dodger system. It was one he had quickly reached by acclamation after his strong debut in 2002 when he was the team's first draft selection. Last year, however, he lost that distinction to Franklin Gutierrez after a .276-7-46 season with Vero Beach.

But in training with the big club this spring, Loney was the most impressive rookie on the field, so much so that it could well have made general manager Paul DePodesta's decision to trade Gutierrez to Cleveland for Milton Bradley easier. Although some felt that Loney 's performance merited consideration for his inclusion with the major league team, he was, instead, assigned to Jacksonville as originally planned.

There he brings a classic left-handed stroke that should produce more power as he gains experience plus a gold-star glove on defense.

Luis Garcia, who accrued notoriety as the player whose home run for Mexico knocked the US out of Olympic contention last fall, is playing first for Las Vegas. There's no denying Garcia's strength at the plate but how often he will hit is another matter. Cleveland gave up on him, letting him become a free agent after which the Dodgers signed him.

Two other erstwhile first basemen, Derek Michaelis and Jesse Hoorelbeke are playing the outfield at Jacksonville because of Loney's presence. Michaelis, the 6-7, 320-pound former Rice basketball player, popped 15 out for the Suns a year ago while Hoorelbeke collected 22 homers between South Georgia and Vero Beach. But Michaelis is 25, Hoorelbeke 26 so both need to become more consistent or fall by the wayside.

At Vero, the first baseman is--well, there isn't a regular, currently. David Bagley has some offensive potential but two shoulder operations have confined him to designated hitter's duties. Chris Testa and Scott Gillitzer, who are utility types, have been used there in the meantime.

At Columbus, the spot is occupied by Luis Jimenez, spotted by Dodger scouts in the Venezuelan Winter League and subsequently selected from Baltimore in the Rule 5 draft. They feel he, too, has long ball potential despite the fact that he managed only one out of the yard in 2003 while playing for Aberdeen in the NYP League. At 6-4, 205, he certainly has the size and did have a productive spring.