Vero Beach 2005 Preview

Except for a hurricane (or two), the Vero Beach Dodgers did everything desired in 2004. They easily won the second half title in the Eastern Division, had posted the best overall record in the Florida State League (77-57), and were clearly playing the best ball in the league -- until Hurricane Frances struck.

That force of nature not only severely damaged their home base, it forced them into 10 days of idleness. When they came back, their game wasn't anything like it had been before and they were swept in two playoff contests by Daytona Beach, a team they had handled with ease before.

Then was then. So, what now? Manager Scott Little is at the helm, albeit with two new aides, Marty Reed (pitching ) and Dan Radison (batting). There's also a new general manager, Emily Christy. But, naturally enough, most of the key personnel from that rather formidable team has moved up.

So, there's rebuilding going on -- and not just at Holman Stadium, which has been refurbished better than ever. A lot of kids have been shuffled in but any number of them are considered top drawer prospects who have just been waiting their turn.

The infield promises a lot of hitting, starting at first with Cory Dunlap, the slightly rotund 2004 third-round draft pick who bashed the ball at a .351 mark for Ogden (Pioneer). He also drew 68 walks in 71 games and wound up with a .492 on-base percentage. The second baseman is Tony Abreau, who came up late in the season from Columbus to fill in at short because of an injury to Chin-Lung Hu. He hit .302 at Columbus, and .419 in 11 games here .

Hu, the native of Taiwan who had been promoted from Columbus (where he hit .298) to Vero (.307) went down late with an arm injury but is fine now. He's an absolute marvel at shortstop and has sock despite his size (5-9, 150).

Speaking of sock, still another who made the Columbus-Vero commute is around again. Andy LaRoche bashed 13 out in the South Atlantic League and 10 more after joining Vero. That's 23 in his rookie year. The younger brother of the Braves' Adam (and son for former big league pitcher Dave) has not only pop but a formidable arm for third base.

Infield reserves are Dom Laurin, a Canadian who was .233-4-28 at Columbius and Mike Cabrera, who was signed out of the tryout camp held at Dodgertown in March. A native of Miami, he played college ball at St. Thomas University.

The outfield could help LaRoche in the power department, particularly if a twosome currently on the disabled list gets well soon. Matt Kemp was .288-17-66 at Colmbus and .351-1-9 in 11 games here. He had a wonderful spring only to go out with a sprained wrist toward the end. Xavier Paul had eyesight problems all year at Columbus but still managed .265-9-72. New contacts have cured the vision quest but a lower back strain has sent him to the sidelines.

In the meantime, the outfield is manned by returnee Trey Dyson, who hit .273-6-36 for Vero while playing first base in the main, Anthony Raglani, Justin Ruggiano, and Ryan Russ. Raglani was drafted in the fifth round last June only to have an operation to repair a broken hamate bone in his right hand. He managed only six games at the end for the Gulf Coast Dodgers, hitting .300. Ruggiano and Russ are a pair of Texans who came off strong collegiate careers to debut equally well as pros.

Ruggiano was a lowly 25th round choice from Texas A & M who hit .329-7-56 for Ogden while Russ was a free agent signee from the University of Texas, which lost in the finals of the College World Series. He then went on to compile .327-1-15 marks for Ogden

The catcher is something of a surprise returnee for Edwin Bellorin played here in 2003 before going up to Jacksonville where he hit .281. However, rather than have him sit behind Russell Martin at that club, the Dodgers dropped him down a notch so he could play regularly. A. J. Ellis (.219) returns as the backup. So, where does that leave Mike Nixon (.261-5-50), who's been promoted after two seasons at Columbus? The answer is he'll catch some, play some outfield, maybe try first base, and probably do a lot of DH'ing.

The new faces moving in hold the key to the pitching and if they live up to their advance billing, it could be formidable. There's Chuck Tiffany, a lefthander who was 5-2, 3.70 with 15 no-decisions, a perfect seven-inning game plus another no-hitter and 141 strikeouts in 100 innings at Columbus. Righthander Julio Pimentel, a teen-ager from the Dominican, 10-8, 3./48, 102 K's at Columbus, is equally highly regarded .So is another righthander, Justin Orenduff, who was only 2-3, 4.74 at Ogden after becoming a supplemental first-round draft choice. However, the Dodgers feel his 6-0, 1.31 mark with Team USA in 2003 is more an indication of his ability.

Righthander Casey Hoorelbeke, who started 14 games here for a 6-4, 4.01 season, returns as does Mike Rodriguez, a curve-baller, who was 7-3, 4.98. Danny Muegge, another righthander who was 14-4, 3.12 at South Bend, was obtained in the Shawn Green deal from Arizona. Lefty Justin Simmons, who was Russ' teammate at Texas, posted a 1-0, 0.92 record in the Gulf Coast, then 0-0, 0.77 when jumped up to Vero.

The closer could be righthander Mark Alexander, who came out of the University of Missouri to assume that role last year for Ogden (4-1, 265, nine saves) although Kyle Wilson, another righty, could crowd in. He's from UCLA where he struck out 37 batters in 26 innings. A late signee last summer, he's making his pro debut.

For lefthanders there are two were once the toasts of the system but are now enigmas. Hong-Chi Kuo went three innings in his first start as a pro, then went out with an elbow injury. That was in 2000 and he's able to pitch in only 39 innings since. Last season, pitching at Columbus he finally won his first decision, then promptly went out again. Then he was able to get only six innings total. Now, though, he's been working at a regular pace and says he feels fine.

In 2002, Jonathan Figueroa was one of the best young prospects in all the game. Then came a bout with tendinitis and he, too, hasn't been right since as his record last year (0-1, 7.00 at Vero, 3-7, 6.90 at Columbus ) would indicate. He's back using his old three-quarters arm slot and may be recovered, also. Add another lefty with promise in Chad Bailey (2-3, 2.17 at Columbus), who could help considerably.

It's also hoped that righthander Jared Plummer (4-4, 3.86) who genreally pitched well last year for Vero in and around injuries, will finish rehabbing and rejoin the squad.

To measure up to last year's team which graduated the likes of Joel Guzman, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Delwyn Young will take some doing. However, this group has the potential to do just that.