Jacksonville Preview for 2005

The Jacksonville franchise has a lot going for it as it enters the 2005 Southern League season- a state-for-the-art stadium, records crowds for the past two years, owners (the Bragans, Peter Senior and Junior) who were named minor league Executives of the Year by the Sporting News -- and, now, due to the influx of some of the Dodgers' best young talent, hopes for a winning season.

Last year, the Suns won their first seven but soon lost the magic and never quite regained it, finishing with a 66-71 mark, seventh out of the 10 teams in the league. They've replaced the manager as Dino Ebel left the Dodgers system to become pilot of the Angels' AAA franchise at Salt Lake City. His replacement, though, is John Shoemaker who led the Suns to their last title in 2001 when they were declared co-winners when the playoffs were called off after 9/11.

Shoemaker, who has been with the Dodgers since 1977, was the assistant field coordinator in 2004 and knows well the team he will field, one that seems particularly strong in the infield, pitching and catching.

You can begin with Joel Guzman -- most people do when discussing the top prospects. Jacksonville has already met him and certainly liked what they saw. He joined them in mid-season after going .307-14-51 at Vero Beach and never missed a beat after moving up to post .280-9-35 figures here. That gained him honors as the organization's Player of the Year and ratings by everyone around as one of the coming players in the game.

He'll be stationed at shortstop although there are indications that he could be tried at other positions, something most feel is inevitable for the 6-6, 225-pound native of the Dominican Republic.

It's a key year for first baseman James Loney. Last season he had a finger broken by an errant pitch and when it became infected, spent weeks in the hospital. He returned to slump to a .236-4-35 season for the Suns, mostly because he was weak as a result of being fed intravenously during his recovery period. Now, he most (a) show that he can stay healthy and (b) hit the way it was expected after his rookie year in 2002. As a fielder, he's always been flawless.

At second is Delwyn Young, who's been an all-star in all three leagues in which he has played as a pro including a .281-22-85 showing at Vero Beach in 2004. The third baseman will be Brian Sprout, who hit .285-12-45 while playing a number of positions for Vero after being signed out of independent ball. Reserves are Sergio Garcia, a returnee who was .254-4-18 and Jimmy Rohan, .281-1-30 at Columbus.

The catcher is also up from Vero. Canadian Russell Martin showed pop in a .250-15-64 season but more than that, a rocket launcher arm and much improved footwork in only his second year as a fulltime receiver. He enhanced his reputation with a bravura showing in the big league camp this spring. He'll be backed by another Canadian, Eric Langill, who has made a living in this role for several years.

Just as the infield is headed by the number one position player in the system so is the pitching as righthander Chad Billingsley is slated to begin the season here. He followed Guzman's footsteps last year when he was 7-4, 2.35, 111 K's at Vero, then up to Jacksonville for a 4-0, 2.98, 47 K performance. That gained him organization Pitcher of the Year awards. He's joined by another highly regarded righthander, Jonathan Broxton, who went 11-6, 3.23, 144 strikeouts at Vero.

Two lefthanders who were starters here last year return. Derek Thompson recovered well from arm surgery for a 5-7, 3.52 season while Glenn Bott, who came from Seattle in a trade, was not so successful at 4-11, 4.37. The fifth starter may be either lefty Eric Stults, who is another who came back from surgery in 2004 or righthander Eric Hull. Stults was 1-2, 2.49 at Columbus and 2-1, 2.70 at Vero during his rehab stint. Hull, 3-1, 4.18 at Vero and 4-3, 4.18 here.

Still another recovering from arm problems that curtailed a promising beginning is righthander Alfredo Gonzalez (1-2, 5.25 in the Gulf Coast, 1-0, 3.86 at Vero). A second Gonzalez (no relation ) is left-handed Luis, who was 1-3, 4.73 in relief here. Two promising righthanders, both acquired via Rule 5 in December 2003 have been brought up from Vero after rejuvenating their career there. Beau Dannemiller was 2-4, 2.83 with seven saves and Richard Bartlett was 4-3, 2.23 with the same number of saves.

Then, there's William Juarez, (3-1, 1.55 at South Bend and 3-7, 5.00 at El Paso), a righthander from Nicaragua who was obtained in the convoluted trade that sent Shawn Green to the Diamondbacks. Jason Olson, a hard-throwing righthander who has spent almost three years recovering from various surgeries, starts his comeback here as well.

Although Nick Alvarez (.249-7-29) returns, the outfield is mostly new including Todd Donovan, who hit .299 -2-19 for Mobile in this league a season ago. Obtained in a just-completed deal with the Padres for utility infielder Brett Dowdy, he has speed and is expected to start in center. Tydus Meadows (.285-18-69 at AA Frisco) should help considerably in the power department as could Jon Weber (.281-15-68 at AA Midland ). Both were free agent signees over the winter and were non-roster invitees in the big league camp this spring.

Derek Michaelis, who went .264-10-41 while playing both first and the outfield with last year's Suns is currently on the disabled list. For that matter, there's hope that lefthander Greg Miller and righthander Brian Pilkington could finish rehabbing and add considerable strength to the pitching staff before the season wanes.

Shoemaker has Kenny Howell (pitching ) and Steve Yeager (batting ) as his aides. He also seems to have a team that shows L.A. that solid help is, indeed, on the way.