Vegas Re-Shuffles, Turns Up Some Aces

At the beginning of the season, you couldn't blame the feeling of the Las Vegas 51's that they might just be fielding the best minor league team around. After all, that title had been awarded to Jacksonville at the end of the 2005 season and Vegas had inherited most of their key players. Sprinkle in some still capable vets and it was, for sure, a heady mix.

But then came the reality of why AAA teams exist- to provide players for the parent club if necessary. And the season hadn't really begun before the Dodgers were calling 911 - in this case, the 51's. The injuries kept on coming and so did the calls. Take a look at what's happened.

Infielder Willie Aybar, catcher Russell Martin, outfielder Andre Ethier along with pitchers Takashi Saito, Aaron Sele, Jonathan Broxton and Joe Beimel have all been summoned to L.A. All were key segments of Vegas' formula for success. What's more, infielder Oscar Robles and pitcher Lance Carter, sent down to the 51's, were almost as swiftly recalled.

All of which means that manager Jerry Royster has had to do a lot of lineup reshuffling. And you know what? For the most part, the replacement parts have fitted in rather nicely.

Not all of the top prospects on the team have been summoned- notably those converted infielders Joel Guzman and Delwyn Young, who are now two-thirds of the outfield. Why, so loaded were the 51's at the start that there often didn't seem to be a place for Young but he's out there most every day now, playing right field for the first time in his life and hitting over .300.

Some of the replacements were sent back from L.A. First baseman James Loney is ripping the ball (.380) while Hong-Chi Kuo and Franquelis Osoria have added to the bullpen. Osoria might well be the answer to the problem of who replaces Broxton as the closer.

Other help has come from unexpected sources. Sergio Garcia, hitherto, a spare part, has taken over at second and is hitting .326. When the Pirates cast Giovanni Carrara adrift, the Dodgers quickly pounced upon him for the third time and he's added considerable bullpen depth. The promotion of Greg Miller from Jacksonville should help there, too.

Another former Dodger farmhand, infielder Eric Riggs, has returned as a free agent. Right now, five of the regulars are batting better than .300. Only the veteran Chris Truby, who's taken over at third is down (.230). Edwin Bellorin, originally slated to be Martin's backup, has taken over behind the plate in style. He might not be Martin but he's hitting .317.

Early on, Royster allowed that he felt he had the finest starting rotation in the minors with Chad Billingsley, D. J. Houlton, Sele, William Juarez and Eric Stults. Sele's loss has been cushioned by righthander Harold Eckert, who is 3-1, having thrown quality innings for the most part.

It's not that the 51's can lay claim to that "best in the minors" title. They don't even look like the best in the Pacific Coast League after being swept in a four-game set by Albuquerque, which has the most wins in the loop- 30. But Vegas is still riding in first place in its division at 26-18 which gives it a 2 1/2 game lead.

In all, it's been more than satisfactory, quite a different feeling from Vegas teams of the past couple of years. Quite a tribute to the depth of the Dodger system, too.