Las Vegas Preview for 2005

In order to avoid the unpleasantness that too often occurred in 2004, a team that combines experience with some promising youth has been assembled in Las Vegas. The 51's were an overall 67-76 last year which placed them 11th out of the 16 teams that competed in the Pacific Coast League.

They have a new manager -- Jerry Royster -- the onetime field boss of the Milwaukee Brewers who had been the Los Angeles organization's infield coordinator for the past couple of seasons. His team is almost evenly divided between returnees and new faces, via free agency and promotions for the most part. But as the squad readies for Thursday's opener, there are still some unsettled parts.

Norihiro Nakamura, the Japanese slugger who turned down millions for a mere $500, 000 contract to play in this country, had said when he arrived that he was willing to go to Vegas if necessary. However, upon reflection after hitting .295 for L.A. in spring games, he grumbled that he might forgo the trip to the minors, after all. He relented and the club plans to stash him at third with the hope that he'd bash his way to the bigtime.

Then, there's first base. Brian Myrow, who hit .359 for the 51's after being obtained from the Yankees in the middle of last season, has been slated to open at that spot. However, when the need for another pitcher brought Steve Schmoll to the big club, Myrow was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot. Until his status is settled, he's in limbo.

Also, there's righthander Joe Hanrahan, who, it is hoped, could vastly improve on his 7-7, 5.05 mark of last season. He, however, has a hamstring strain so will open the season on the disabled list.

So, who is available ? Any number of infielders can handle third if necessary for Jose Flores, who hit .313 as an oft-used reserve returns while Tony Schrager, who hit .266 for Pawtucket, has been added via free agency. Either can play the spot as can another free agent addition Mike Edwards, who hit .287 at Sacramento. Edwards also plays first for that matter.

But either Flores or Schrager is expected to play short which Antonio Perez vacated when he made the big club. There's further infield intrigue at second with both Joe Thurston and Willie Aybar on hand. Thurston has never made it up permanently so he's back for his fourth season with the team for whom he hit .284 a season ago. He's proven at this level but where does that leave Aybar, a hoped-for rookie who was .276-15- 77 at Jacksonville.

Aybar could handle third if necessary for it's the spot he had played until his switch to the middle of the infield last year. Nick Theodoreau is also returning. He hit .282 while playing a number of positions .

Like Thurston, Chin-Feng Chen is back for his fourth term at Vegas and, like Thurston, it's not because he hasn't produced enough here. His 2004 line reads .289-20-65 even though he took time off to play for Taiwan in the Olympics. In fact, he 's the club's all-time home run leader which makes him a sort of Crash Davis of the desert. Cody Ross (273-14- 49 in and around injuries ) and Henri Stanley (.284 after arriving via trade) give the outfield plenty of experience.

Dioner Navarro (.271 at Trenton and .250 at Columbus, Ohio ), the catcher of L.A. General Manager Paul DePodesta's eye, should handle the everyday back -of-the-plate chores Mike Rose (.281 at Sacramento) will back him up.

Righthander Edwin Jackson, who still holds his status as an excellent prospect, will seek to show that he 's far better than the 6-4, 5.86 mark he compiled in his frustrating 2004 when he had a biceps problem. Heath Totten also is looking to improve on the 8-11, 5.46 numbers he put up in '04. Harold Eckert (4-3, 6.35) and Tom Farmer (7-7, 4.59) are other returnees from a staff that was so embroiled in a state of flux that 29 different pitchers were used.

Franquelis Osoria, who pitched in four games at Vegas but who was mostly used at Jacksonville where he showed to advantage (8-5, 3.56) He's a three-quarter sinkerballer who was impressive during the spring. T. J, Nall (8-9, 4.14) is another who was promoted from Jacksonville.

Newcomers include vets like the just-acquired Pat Mahomes, a 34-year-old righthander who is working for his 11th organization (including a stint in Japan), and Ryan Rupe, who also pitched in Japan. Aquilino Lopez, once a strong closer for the Blue Jays (14 saves in 2003) but who has fallen on ill times, may well be the closer- at least, for now.

Frank Brooks (6-3, 4.10 at Nashville), picked up on waivers from the Pirates during the off-season, should give left-handed help to the bullpen. as could Mike Venafro, who joined Vegas, then L.A. late last season.

There is also hope that when the Dodgers on the disabled list get well, some vital additions could be made. The thinking is that when Jayson Werth returns to the L.A. outfield, Jason Repko, the rookie of the spring for that club, will be sent down. He hit .311 and shone in the field after his promotion from Jacksonville last year. When either Wilson Alvarez or Eric Gagne is activated, that could well mean Schmoll, the sidearming righthander who recorded 12 saves between Vero Beach and Jacksonville, could join the club as the closer. He has the stuff to be dominant.

It is the Dodgers' avowed intention to make their AAA team much younger. "Last year, 20 of the 24 active players on the Vegas roster were veterans we'd picked up," said Terry Collins, now director of player development. "We'd like to reverse that." It's obvious from the above assemblage that they aren't at that stage yet. However, it's the hope of Royster ( and his assistants, pitching coach Roger McDowell and batting coach Mariano Duncan) that it's enough to contend.