Vero Appears Armed to Defend Their Title

As soon as they clinched the first half, Vero Beach lost not only its shining hitter (Andy LaRoche) but also its top pitcher (Justin Orenduff) to Jacksonville. That's what usually happens at the high Class A level of baseball and they're used to it here. However, this staff has unusual depth and seems to be able to absorb the loss. What's more, help appears on the way.

Even with Orenduff's departure, the starting staff can count on two strong prospects in lefthander Chuck Tiffany and righthander Julio Pimentel.

Tiffany started the season like he was going to be the Florida State 's pitcher of the year, then was slowed by an operation to remove a suspicious mole from his lower back. That had him offstride upon his return but lately he's looked as sharp as ever. He relies on a little above average fastball, an excellent curve and a good change plus the control to put most of his pitches in difficult spots for hitters. He's currently 8-5, 3.36.

Pimentel has excellent stuff as well although he can get out of sync at times as his 6-5, 4.24 mark displays. That's undoubtedly because he's only 19, just learning what his craft is all about.

The third starter is Brian Pilkington, out all of last season after shoulder surgery. He's 3-6, 3.90 although lately he's been much sharper. He's not overpowering and has to get ahead of the batters because of that fact.

Danny Muegge, who came from the Diamondbacks in the Shawn Green trade, won 14 games in low A last year and has shown how. Although his fast ball usually can't reach 90, he throws it and a slider to spots quite well. He's 5-2, 3.39.

The fifth starter's slot has been up for grabs most of the season. Lefthander Jonathan Figueroa had it for awhile but he hasn't been able to regain the zip on his pitches after tendinitis and also has had control problems as a 1-1 strikeout-walk ratio indicates. He has had his moments (4-1, 4.97) but has been banished to the bullpen anyway. Glenn Bott, down from Jacksonville, has filled the slot lately although he's been banged around (0-2, 8.71) for the most part.

Matt Merricks, a lefthander who has been returned by the Rockies who took him in the Rule 5 draft, has been getting more work after spending his time in Colorado on the disabled list. He's had one start but was unimpressive (1-1, 5.84.)

However, lefthander Greg Miller, once the organization's best pitching prospect, has been dazzling in his rehab starts with the Gulf Coast team so will move over here to hopefully continue his comeback.

The bullpen features some strong setup men. The 6-7 righthander Casey Hoorelbeke, who was a starter last year when he threw from over the top, began the year with a three-quarters motion, but now is a sidearmer who has been burying most batters (5-1, 1.85.) Justin Simmons, who relies strictly on location, is a lefthander who also has become a sidewinder. He's 3-2, 3.58.

Alvis Ojeda has a strong arm although not always consistent. He's 3-1, 3.10 and is holding opposing hitters to a .191 average. Beltran Perez, who came with Muegge in the Green trade, is another who's has his moments (3-2, 3.78.)

The closer is Mark Alexander, not imposing physically at 5-11, 200 but who's been the most consistent at his trade in the organization. He's 3-1, 1.60 with 15 saves and has been getting the tough out all season long.

The Dodgers are currently in third place in the second half. As they roll toward August, they seem to have the pitching to contend for a sweep unless Jacksonville's needs take precedence over theirs. Or if some other teams pick off a couple of the better arms in a deal, which is also an event they're used to with this team.