The Second Chance

For minor league baseball teams, this time of year is rather like New Year's Day. Whether you awaken feeling refreshed and full of vitality or with a hangover, it's the moment of supreme optimism. Life begins anew and vows to get in right this time are solemnly made.

That's the case of three of the four Dodger full season affiliates, at least, for their leagues split the season in halves so that everybody goes back to being even again. Not so in the Pacific Coast League, though. Alas for Las Vegas, for if ever a team needed absolution for past sins, it's one but, no, the league doesn't divide its schedule so the 51's must soldier onward, looking upward from the spot where they've been busy burying themselves.

The main culprit has been the pitching but that's probably to be expected. For this is the PCL, after all. Most of you remember when the Dodgers AAA franchise was located in Albuquerque where its altitude and dry desert air resulted in inflated offensive stats and bloated ERA's. But that's not the only place in the league where such conditions exist. In fact, it's the case more often than not. Vegas may not be that high above sea level but it's located on a desert plateau where the ball tends to travel more than a little.

One high-ranking Dodger official even suggested that the better young pitching prospects be kept back in Jacksonville in order to avoid the psychological damage that may occur from pitching in this league. But that notion was vetoed, so both Edwin Jackson and Joel Hanrahan are here and, frankly, being kicked about. Jackson has won six games but a 5.35 earned run average is a more accurate indication of what he's enduring. At age 20, he doesn't always have command of his fast ball and his changeup hasn't progressed far enough that he can throw it anytime in the count. So, he's learning -- mostly through adversity.

Hanrahan has been falling behind in the count too often, then aiming his fast ball, only too often to watch it depart the premises. He's thrown 13 gopher balls thus far and his ERA is 4.76. Not that these two are the only culprits. There's an abundance of veterans on the staff and they're suffering, too. The team ERA as of this writing was 5.02 but as shabby as that is, it's not the worse around this league. No, there are five teams that are doing poorer. As you mights suspect Albuquerque is one. It's collective ERA is 5.51.

While pitchers may regard being sent to the PCL as the equivalent of an indeterminate sentence in Abu Ghraib prison, for hitters, it's a trip to Shangra-La. Catcher Koyie Hill is having a splendid season, so much so that he's the next target of a number of teams discussing trade deals with the Dodgers. Why not? He's hitting over .300 with good power numbers. Rick Bell is having a solid year, Chin Feng Chen has overcome a slow start to move his average past .290 with 14 homers and Luis Garcia has proved to be the big bopper the Dodgers hoped he'd be when they signed him as a free agent. He's ridden 18 out of the yard at last count.

Then, there's Antonio Perez, obtained from Tampa Bay for Jason Romano in a late spring trade. He's over .300 with 10 homers. There was talk when he arrived that he'd be the Dodgers second baseman by mid-season. The play of Alex Cora means that's not likely to happen anytime soon but Perez's presence gives the Dodgers more trade flexibility.

Joe Thurston hasn't gotten going while Jeremy Giambi hasn't played at all because of back problems with John Barnes and Cody Ross both out for long periods with injuries. Get that group going and the 51's may have enough firepower to wreak some havoc even if they're too far in arrears to contend.

You couldn't blame Jacksonville manager Dino Ebel from feeling content as spring training began. After all, his pitching staff was going to have Greg Miller, Brian Pilkington and Andrew Brown up front and the two very best young batting prospects, Franklin Gutierrez and James Loney in the everyday lineup. Never happened as we know.

Miller and Pilkington went out with injuries and haven't pitched at all. Brown began well, so well that the Indians picked him off the list of possibles to join the already departed Gutierrez as payment for Milton Bradley. Loney was almost immediately put out with a finger, first broken by a pitch, then infected.

Still, the Suns blazed to a 7-0 beginning and led their Southern League division for a long period until a perhaps inevitable slide began which sent them down to where they finished the half only one game over .500. Although it was a make-do pitching staff, they actually did well enough in that department. Ryan Ketchner came from Seattle in the Jolbert Cabrera trade to perform well although he, too, missed considerable time with a strained muscle. Derek Thompson and Randy Leek came back from a year's rehab after arm operations. Thompson has been effective but after a few quality starts, Leek faded badly and was released.

T. J. Nall came out of the bullpen to aid the cause but it's Glenn Bott, who was a sub for Aaron Looper, originally included by the Mariners in the Cabrera deal, who's been the most consistent starter. Yhency Brazoban, another newcomer who was obtained in the Kevin Brown trade with the Yankees, has flashed periods of excellence as the closer.

When Loney did come back, he was rushed to the fore without benefit of any rehab stints because the team needed his bat, but not surprisingly his timing was off. He did recoup rather quickly, then began to be pitched around with regularity. This caused him to start reaching for pitches better left alone with the resultant plunge in his average again. At this time it's best to remember he' s just celebrated his 20th birthday (May 7), playing in a very demanding league but possessed of sound enough techniques that he should produce. Meanwhile, Jason Repko began demonstrating his maturity at the plate, so much so that he's been promoted to Vegas. Brennan King's having a solid season, Willie Aybar's starting to drive the ball (nine homers at the break) and Derek Michaelis has been consistent, hitting around .300 with seven homers.

But Reggie Abercrombie's bat has apparently gone into hiding after emerging from a hibernation caused by a leg injury. He was down in the depths at .178 at last report. Wilkin Ruan never got untracked and was recently released, a sad departure for one who was regarded as a premier prospect not too long ago.

For much of the first half, Vero Beach played the game much like a group of bored commuters standing on the platform waiting for a train that never seems to arrive. This despite the fact that Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley and Mike Megrew almost always gave them top of the line starts. Then the Dodgers got moving and it's no coincidence that this happened about the time that Joel Guzman discovered the lower half of his body.

At 6-5, Guzman has arms that reach like a TV antenna, a physical fact that he tended to overuse, stretching for balls in the field, getting only his upper body into his swing at the plate. But when he finally began to adjust, using his lower half as a solid base more often than not, the ability that scouts saw when they awarded him a $2 million plus signing bonus showed up. Oh, he'll still chase bad balls on occasion and fail to position himself properly in the field on others but those moments are far fewer. And when he connects, the ball take off like ICBM. His fielding is still rather unorthodox but he makes more than enough defensive plays to still talk of shifting him from short to another spot, at least for the moment.

Now, Andy LaRoche has been pulled up from Columbus to back Guzman in a formidable 3-4 combination in the batting order. There had been notions in spring training for LaRoche to be here at the very start but since he had only six games as a pro, the decision was made to let him gain experience in lower A first, particularly since he was making a position move (from short to third ). His power display at Columbus that included 13 home runs at the break more than convinced everybody that it was time for the move up.

Then, there's Delwyn Young, who can be, as the King of Siam would say, " a puzzlement." He strikes out far too frequently (77 K's in 67 games) but has pop (nine homers) and the latent ability to get hot. With Jarod Plummer, who'd been out with a tired arm, and newcomer Casey Hoorelbeke joining Broxton, Billingsley and Megrew, Vero has one of the best if not the best rotations in the league.

Also joining the team from Columbus was Jose Diaz, the one they call "Jumbo" because he's 6-4, 230. He's a closer who comes at you with in-your-face stuff (98 mph on the gun in his initial Vero appearance) and should complement side-armer Steve Schmoll very nicely.

It looks good and for Vero that's the worry. The history of the club is that those who succeed here move rather quickly up to Jacksonville so the fear is that they won't be able to keep this club together in order to claim the second half title that some are already predicting they can achieve.

At Columbus they know that feeling for several its erstwhile mainstays have been yanked up. Now, the Catfish have to do without their main power source (LaRoche) and their closer (Diaz), who had been leading the league with 14 saves when he was summoned.

Still, the Catfish find their most consistent men here, shortstop Chin-Lung Hu and center fielder Jereme Milons. Hu has been a marvel in the field, hitting over .300 with surprising pop for a little guy (5-9, 150). Milons, too, is a .300 hitter with go-go tendencies (over 20 steals), ideal in the leadoff spot.

Xavier Paul hasn't been bad; still, he hasn't begun to produce the expected numbers. He was torrid for a while, then cooled and has been hot and cold since. Mike Nixon has yet to deliver as often as hoped, either. Matt Kemp seems to be developing well. This group plus Luis Jimenez in the power department is what's going to have to carry the club from now on.

The maddening inconsistency that's typical of young pitchers prevails here. Chuck Tiffany has been brilliant at times (a perfect game, five innings of another no-hitter) but merely average at others. You're never quite sure what Brandon Weeden or Zach Hammes are going to give you, either. The learning curve, remember? Patience required.

The surprise of the team -- make that of the organization -- has been Julio Pimentel. He's won seven games, the most in the system, after all, though even that doesn't demonstrate how good he's been lately. The other night, he threw a one-hitter for five innings but still didn't get the victory when the bullpen failed.

Out there, they'll have to do without Diaz. Marcos Carvajal and Alvis Ojeda have been quite efficient set-up men with Chris Testa now joining Brett Wayne as converted position players making the move to the mound.

When assessing these players, it's always best to keep the maturity factor in mind. Billingsley, Guzman, Tiffany, Paul, and Carvajal are 19, Loney and Broxton just reached 20th birthdays while LaRoche, Nixon, Ojeda, Megrew, Hammes, Weeden and Diaz are just 20. Hey, Greg Miller's only 19 while Pimentel is just 18, for heaven's sake.

It would be tempting to say as some TV announcers would that, "Their futures are ahead of them," except that's true of all of us, isn't it ? It's just that some people have presumably a longer and more pleasing future ahead than others.

Dealing with the present is something that those kids assigned to Ogden are going to have to do for this can be a place lurking with danger, particularly for the young and unwary. The Pioneer League is laced with guys who are 23-24 who have pro and college experience. Still, the Dodgers want to challenge their better prospects so the top choices from the recent draft have been assigned to this team including those fresh from high school like Scott Elbert, Blake DeWitt and Blake Johnson.

So don't be shocked if the early results contain unflattering figures. For instance, Jordan Pratt and Wesley Wright, both with one summer in as a pro, were the top guns in the extended spring camp. Yet, both were dealt with harshly in their first appearances here. Like pitchers at Las Vegas, you have to be more concerned with the presentation (did his fast ball have movement, is his bat quick through the zone) rather than the results.

Organization leaders are uncertain what to expect from the Gulf Coast League entry. It didn't get much help from the draft (fourth-round righthander Javy Guerra is the top hand) and only righthander Alvin Hayes, first baseman David Sutherland and outfielders Sambu Ndungidi and Steve Sapp remain from last year's squad. There's some promise from the Domincan League, particularly outfielder Jesus Mora and righthander Julian deLaCruz.

True, James McDonald returns but not as the pitcher he was last year; at least, not now. McDonald is suffering from tendinitis but he swings a good bat so while he rehabs his arm, he's playing the outfield. Catcher Tony Harper, a draft-and follow, should help offensively.

Perhaps the most intriguing is shortstop Juan Rivera, making his pro debut. He 's just 17, thinner than Mary-Kate Olsen (6-1, 148) but slick beyond his years at his position and a switch -hitter who has some potency at the plate.

Meanwhile, the rate at which the draft choices have been signed has to be some sort of organized ball record. In just two weeks the top 13 picks were all in camp. Fifth-rounder John Raglani won't be playing this summer since it was decided to have the broken hamate bone in his hand operated on now rather than wait but the others are in uniform. And when the University of Texas finishes play in the College World Series, expect lefthander Justin Simmons (21st round) to join them.

Through it all, one notion prevails. Progress is what it's all about here. With that in mind, now its the time for those who will reach Dodger Stadium to step forward.

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