Dodgers Hope to Get Their Kicks With 66ers

    Having decided to abandon Vero Beach as a site for their high A farm team, the Dodgers are set in San Bernardino, a natural location for it. The city sits on the right shoulder of the LA. metropolitan area, has an excellent facility and was the location of their last stop in the California League where they had championship clubs in 1999-2000.

    Now, it's known as the Inland Empire 66ers, the nickname coming from the storied route that runs through it and the reference to it in the jazz classic - "Flagstaff, Arizona, don't forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino" for you music lovers who have gotten your kicks on Route 66.

     The manager is new to the system- Dave Collins, a longtime major league outfielder who spent the last four seasons as first base coach in Colorado. His coaches add a touch of past Dodger glory in hitting instructor Steve Yeager, the old catcher who did similar duties with Las Vegas last year and the return of pitching coach Charley Hough, whose 25 years in the big leagues included 11 with L.A.  In a previous stint of coaching for the organization, he rose to spend two years with the big club before moving on to the Mets.

The team is crowded with players who have experience at this level including Blake DeWitt, who was a Florida State League All-Star a year ago with Vero Beach where he hit 18 home runs while playing more second than third. He managed only a .113 mark with Jacksonville, though, so has been dropped back a notch. He could well be switching between two positions again this time, too.

  Speaking of switching spots, Russ Mitchell who has been at third and who tried catching in the Instructional League is now at first base. He hit 19 home runs in 2006, a season that saw him move from Columbus to Vero.  David Nicholson, who batted .285 and stole 23 bases as Vero's regular shortstop, is with this team but not to start at that spot. No, the shortstop will be one of the brighter prospects around, Ivan DeJesus, Jr., who hit .277 at Columbus.

  Second base was to have gone to Travis Denker but he broke his right hand in spring training so is back in Dodgertown rehabbing. Elian Herrara, who compiled a .327 mark with the Gulf Coast Dodgers, has jumped up to this level and is available at second as is DeWitt when needed there. There's also Shane Justis, who can play anywhere on the left side of the infield.

  The outfield includes Jamie Hoffmann, who played an excellent center field for Vero but who hit a disappointing .252 so is at high A once again. Drew Locke hit .326 at Columbus, then moved to Vero where he hit .286. The two stolen base kings of the organization are also here in Adam Godwin and Ryan Rogowski. They both swiped 30 a year ago; Godwin at Columbus and Rogowski with Ogden. Also on hand is James Tomlin, who hit .301 for the Mariners in this league last year. He was signed as a free agent.

   There are three catchers who present interesting credentials including Lucas May, onetime shortstop, onetime outfielder. He sent 18 out of the yard for Columbus. Tony Harper batted .267 for that same team while hitting eight homers. Gabriel Gutierrez is the defensive whiz in the group, having led both the Florida State and Southern Leagues in the percentage of runners thrown out in 2006.

   Hough's pitching charges are led by some guys whose records belie their potential. Righthander James McDonald was only 5-10 at Columbus but ended the season there with a string of scoreless innings. He possesses an outstanding curve. Righthander Jesus Castillo came back from Tommy John surgery to go 2-5 but with a 2.88 ERA at Ogden.  Another righthander , Javy Guerra, also bears Tommy John scars and was only 1-3 with Ogden. However, he has a fast ball in the mid to upper 90's and has looked especially good all spring.

  Lefthander Marlon Arias posted a 2.63 ERA at Vero after moving up from Columbus. Righthander Cory Wade won eight games, split between the same two teams. Righthander Jordan Pratt won the same number at Columbus  while lefthander Alberto Bastardo is another who went through the mid-season bump-up from the South Atlantic League to the Florida State.

   Lefty Brent Leach was sharp as a starter for Columbus, then did equally well in relief for Vero. Righthanders Mario Alvarez and Matt Gomez deSegura are Columbus vets who have sizzling fast balls while lefty David Pfeiffer uses change of speeds and location. He's still another up from Columbus. Lefthander Jacobo Meque is a free agent signee from the Nationals chain.

  For closers, the 66ers have both Ramon Troncoso, who saved 15 games at Columbus and Kyle Wilson, who saved nine for Vero. Both righthanders improved considerably as last season wore on.

  Inland Empire drew three times as many fans as Vero Beach did in 2006 when it was a Diamondbacks farm. As a Dodger affiliate in Dodger country, they could well do even better. The team should be good enough to give them something to cheer about.