Columbus 2005 Preview

At Columbus, it's been about prospects. In 2004, the Catfish had by all accounts as many or more than any other team in the South Atlantic League. That didn't make for a winning season, though, for they finished all even at 69-69.

There's been changes since then. Dann Bilardello is gone as manager with Travis Barbary, promoted from Ogden, replacing him. Columbus native Garey Ingram returns as hitting coach but former major leaguer Glenn Dishman, who was a college coach a year ago, now tutors the pitchers. Mostly, though, the changes have been in the players that will be placed on the field.

Only one -- maybe, two -- of last year's squad returns. Barbary brings no fewer than 15 up from Ogden with him while others filter in from the Gulf Coast and Dominican Summer Leagues. Some are among the best young hopefuls in the Dodger system including two first rounders and the second-round selection from last June's draft.

One of the first-rounders is Blake DeWitt, who broke in exceptionally well at Ogden, hitting .284 -12-47 while showing the skills to play third. He's flanked at shortstop by his Missouri buddy, Lucas May, who was hitting .286-5-30 before going out with a broken left hand when hit by a pitch. The second baseman is Travis Denker, another big gun at Ogden (..311-12-43) with Dan Batz, still another Ogden bopper (.335-3-28) at first. Batz, who played the outfield in the Pioneer League, returns to the position he played in college.

Infield subs are David Nicholson, .263-0-12 at Ogden and Brandon Carter, who bashed .386 at Ogden before moving up to Columbus where he played only four games.

Two refugees from the infield will be outfield keys. Jamie Hoffmann, who led the Gulf Coast in hits (71), triples (7), RBI (36) and runs (40) while batting .310 was a third baseman then. James Peterson played first for the GCL Dodgers while batting .295-6-32. Peterson, who's second on the all-time high school home run list, was coming off a knee operation but is sound now, playing right field and expected to provide a lot more pop. B. J. Richmond, who went .267-1-22 at Ogden, has bulked up and also could do more long bombing. Sam Steidl, who spent almost all last summer on the disabled list, completes the outfield.

The catching has been entrusted to two Latinos who played in the Dominican. Venezuelan Juan Apodaca has averaged .260 in two seasons there while Mexican Gabriel Gutierrez played three seasons there, averaging .235.

Los Angeles" top draft choice last season was another Misourian, righthander Scott Elbert, a former all-state running back, whose potential far exceeds the modest 2-3, 5.26 mark he recorded at Ogden in 2004. He possesses a low to mid-90's fast ball, a wicked slider and improving changeup but got into trouble when he pitched too fine. Blake Johnson, the second round choice last summer, was another who didn't always trust his natural stuff as a 3-3, 6.47 record at Ogden shows.

Righthander Brandon Weeden, who was the opening day pitcher at Columbus a year ago but who had an uneven season to finish 7-9, 5.39 returns as might Zach Hammes, another righthander who's been here two years refining his delivery. Last year, the 6-6, 225-pounder was only 5-8, 4.55. Right now, he's sidelined with a sore arm.

Jesus Castillo, a Mexican righthander who went to both high school and junior college in the U.S. before signing as a draft-and-follow, pitched in the Dominican League where he looked extremely capable (4-1, 1.90). He had an exceptional spring as well so will be given a chance to start here just as Julio Pimentel did a year ago. So will Ramon "Landestoy" Troncoso, whose right arm strength belies his 2-3, 5.73 mark on the island.

The entourage from Ogden includes righthanders Phil Sobkow (0-2, 5.64 before his hand was broken by a line drive), Albenis Castillo (2-2, 5.01), Cory Wade (1-2, 5.14 and 2-1, 3.03 in the Gulf Coast), who walked only five batters in 47 innings, Brian Akin (1-1, 6.04) and lefthanders Wesley Wright (3-3, 6.29) and Carlos Alvarez (3-0, 3.26).

Javy Guerra, a fourth-round draft pick, who came along very well for a 4-1, 3.38 season in the Gulf Coast League, is expected to start. He's another righthander as is Chris Malone, who was named the second-best pitching prospect in the rugged Alaska Summer League before signing as a free agent.

As noted, there's a lot of potential here. If they gel they might even bring in a lot of fans to Golden Park and that in itself would be a refreshing change.