Las Vegas Loaded- For How Long?

That minor league teams exist to provide the clubs above them in a major league system with players is no better illustrated than what happened to the Las Vegas 51's last year. At the beginning of the season, they looked as formidable as any team south of the big leagues. But as the year went along, the squad was stripped of talent to help the Dodgers so at the end, they were a sad 67-77.

    It began with Takashi Saito, who didn't even get to pitch for Vegas before being summoned when Eric Gagne's arm went out. The progression upwards after that never ended: Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley, Andre Either, Willie Aybar, Aaron Sele. James Loney and Hong-Chih Kuo came back only to return to L.A. Good men all and all gone.

    As the new season dawns, they've assmbled a mighty host again. But for how long? Loney, who led all the minors with a .380 average and who was the Dodgers' leading spring training hitter, is once more listed as the Las Vegas first baseman but it may well be he's here only on loan to learn some outfielding, then, when an opening develops, as it probably will, to be whisked back upward.

   They have a new manager this time, Jerry Royster not having been invited to return. Now, it's Lorenzo Bundy, who had been the hitting coach for Tucson in the Diamondbacks system for the past four  years. Kenny Howell is back as the pitching coach with Mike Easler, promoted from Jacksonville, tutoring the hitters.

They toyed with the idea of making Tony Abreu a temporary replacement for Rafael Furcal as the Dodger shorstop but decided instead to place him here to play second. He's moving up from Jacksonville but Chin-lung Hu won't accompay him for he's been left back in AA so for the first time in four years they won't be a double play combo. Instead, Tomas Perez, an 11-year major league vet, was acquired from the Cubs for future considerations. He hit .212 for Tampa Bay last year and will be used around the infield as needed.

  Sergio Garcia, who got into 71 games for the 51's last year, can also play short. Andy LaRoche, having failed to dislodge Wilson Betemit at third in L.A. will be here to provide power.

   The outfield picture has been muddied a bit by the last-minute decision to keep Matt Kemp with the big club instead of Larry Bigbie. Bigbie's welcome here if he chooses to report. Choo Freeman, who played for the Rockies last year, is set in center and D. Y. Young, who drove in 95 runs in 2006, is back to play either right or left. There's also Mitch Jones, a free agent pickup from the Yankees chain.

  The catchers have certainly been around the game more than a little. There's Kelly Stinnett and Ken Huckaby plus a Martinez. No, not Sandy; he's been released. This is Octavio, once very promising for the Orioles but one who always manages to get hurt.

  There's a very good group of pitchers who'll have to learn to stay sane in a batters' paradise located in a hitters' league. For starters, there's lefties Eric Stults, who led this team with 10 wins last season, and Greg Miller, back in this role again after being held back in relief previously while he recovered from his injured shoulder. Righthander D. J. Houlton returns while Joe Mays, the onetime 17-game winner for the Twins, will be here although he has a May 25 escape clause in his contract.

  For a fifth starter, they can choose either Spike Lundberg, who led the Southern League with a 2.27 ERA or, maybe, free agent acquisition Travis Smith. The relief corps is also very solid with Tim Hamulack and Luis Gonzalez returning to operate from the left side plus another free agent, Matt White. Righthanders include  Harold Eckert and Eric Hull, both returnees,  plus Casey Hoorelbeke, promoted from Jacksonville.

  Mark Alexander, who had 26 saves for Jacksonville plus one here, will close. There's also Chin-Hui Tsao, who could be used in a number of roles depending upon how the shoulder that kept him out all last year (and caused the Rockies to releases him) responds.

  This group appears quite strong. But they've really been assembled to get ready to go up so be advised to watch for deja vu.

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