The Future is Now at Tacoma in 2004

There will be plenty of reasons to head out to Cheney Stadium this spring to check out the Tacoma Rainiers. The Mariners' Triple-A affiliate will likely have 6 of the organization's top 10 prospects on its roster, and will offer a glimpse at the future of the Mariners on a nightly basis.

The Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers open their home schedule on April 16th vs. the Tucson Sidewinders at Cheney Stadium. A cold and breezy night at the ballpark is highly likely, and the possibility of rain is of course not out of the question. Weather permitting, the Rainiers will take the field about ten minutes after seven in the evening and complete their pre-inning warm-ups just before the games first pitch.

A first glance could produce the simple appearance of another home-opener for the Seattle Mariners' farm team. To many it will seem like the typical early-spring ballgame in the 44th season at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium. A second, more extensive look to the players running out onto the field will reveal something the Mariners' farm system hasn't boasted in the nine seasons that the organization has been with the Tacoma Rainiers.

The eight position players and the starting pitcher are likely to represent the finest collection of Seattle Mariner prospects that any one farm team, at any level, has fielded in the Mariners' 27-year history.

Instead of a group of veteran minor leaguers, a few mid-tier prospects, one or two solid prospects, and a former major leaguer trying to hang on for their dear baseball life, the Rainiers could very well be tossing out as many as 12 of the team's top 40 prospects, including six of the top 10 and four of the top five, as ranked by Half of the possible 12 are new additions to the Rainiers, with the other half having previously played in Tacoma in 2003.

Likely to return to the team are highly rated outfielders Chris Snelling, 22, and Jamal Strong, 25. Joining them are fellow returning Rainiers, pitchers Jeff Heaverlo, 26, Craig Anderson, 23, staff ace Rett Johnson, 24, and infielder Luis Ugueto, 25.

Additions to this years' roster should include hotshot shortstop prospect Jose Lopez, 20, first baseman A.J. Zapp, 25, third baseman Justin Leone, 27, and pitchers Bobby Madritsch, 28, Clint Nageotte, 23, and Travis Blackley, 21.

The roster could also include underrated minor leaguers such as outfielders Greg Jacobs, 27, and Jaime Bubela, 25, and returning relievers Aaron Looper, 27, JJ Putz, 27. Matt Thornton, 27, George Sherrill, 26, and Aaron Taylor, 26, as well as in-season promotional call-ups such as pitcher Cha Seung Baek, 23, outfielder Shin-soo Choo, 21, and third baseman Greg Dobbs, 25.

Top prospects Nageotte, Blackley, and Johnson, are each a year away from breaking into the rotation, or possibly the bullpen, but any of them could see a cup of coffee with the M's this season. The trio is likely to make up three-fifths of the Rainiers' starting rotation this season.

Heaverlo is working his way back from major injury in 2002 and a sub-par return in 2003, hoping to show the form that brought him to the Rainiers after the equivalent of just one full season in the minors. A healthy Heaverlo has a spot in the starting five for Tacoma in 2004.

The left-handed Anderson is so much like Jamie Moyer that his best bet at making the M's is as Moyers' replacement after the 2005 season. That is, if the aforementioned group doesn't crowd the rotation too much. Anderson will round out the rotation for the Rainiers in his second season in Tacoma.

Looper, Putz, and Taylor are just an injury away from getting a second look in the big leagues. Taylor saw time in both 2002 and 2003. Putz and Looper got the call last September. Taylor is coming off of surgery but is expected to serve as the club's closer when fully recovered. Looper's role remains the same, as a top setup man.

Madritsch is reluctantly making the switch to reliever to accommodate his desire to get to the big leagues and the M's need for left-handed relief pitching. His willingness to make this change could land him some time in the M's bullpen this season as well. Madritsch is likely to be used as left-handed setup man to provide on-the-job training for what the M's see as his future in the organization.

Thornton should continue his own transformation into a reliever and step in and provide the Rainiers with another hard throwing southpaw in the bullpen. The former first-rounder has an outside shot at making the big-club but following shoulder and neck injuries it is likely that Thornton will suit up for Tacoma to start the season.

Sherrill is the most likely reliever to break camp with the M's and skip Triple-A. The former Independent Leaguer has done nothing but pitch lights out since being signed by the team in July. Unless the M's brass see the advantage of having two experienced lefties over one youngster and a veteran, Sherrill is headed to Safeco.

Leone, the Texas League MVP last season, is as close as any M's prospects are to getting a shot with the big club. A torrid start for the former St. Martin's College star, and Mariners GM Bill Bavasi could be running up his Cingular bill trying to get Leone in a cab headed north. Leone will likely open the year as Tacoma's starter at the hot corner.

Zapp could create an interesting first base scenario if he is able to cut down on his 178 strikeouts in 2003. John Olerud has an expiring contract this season and the team has no clear-cut replacement waiting in the wings, unless Zapp sharpens his plate skills and maintains his power production. Zapp is slated to start 2004 as the Rainiers everyday first baseman.

Jose Lopez is likely to be challenged at the Triple-A level as a 20-year-old. Should he struggle this spring however, the club could decide that the organization's prize positional prospect needs a second year at the Double-A level. Not many expect any major struggles, thus allowing the Venezuelan to be Tacoma's opening day shortstop.

Jacobs and Bubela could battle it out for the final starting outfield spot, barring a surprise candidate. Jacobs led the California League in hitting last season before his promotion to Double-A San Antonio. Bubela's defensive abilities should land him a roster spot with the Rainiers in some form.

The roster is full of promising young players in a variety of positions, a vast contrast to the 2003 squad that housed several career minor leaguers. The Rainiers fans sat and watched the past in 2003. This summer the Cheney Stadium faithful will catch a long fresh glimpse of the future.

The future is bright. The future is now. The future is playing in Tacoma in 2004.

Will you be there to see it?

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