Minor League Preview: Tacoma Rainiers

InsidethePark.com's minor league expert Jason A. Churchill previews the 2004 Tacoma Rainiers as they look to bounce back from a mediocre 2003 season. Cheney Stadium will be the home to minor league baseball's deepest and possibly most talented pitching staff, and the lineup is littered with quality bats. The turnaround could be remarkable. The excitement is virtually guaranteed. For more on the future of the Seattle Mariners, check out the preview.

The bad news, on the surface at least, is that the Tacoma Rainiers will return just a few players from the 2003 roster. The good news is that the Rainiers brought back only a few players from last year's team. The 2003 Tacoma Rainiers won 66 games and were about as bland to watch as rice cakes are to eat. Blech The 2004 squad promises to be quite to the contrary as the future stars of the M's band together in Tacoma to give the Seattle suburb something to rush out and see. Starting with the home opener on April 16th, the 44th anniversary of Cheney Stadium, things will be different in T-Town.

2004 Tacoma Rainiers Roster

LH-Craig Anderson
RH-Scott Atchison
RH-Cha Seung Baek
LH-Travis Blackley
RH-Jeff Heaverlo
RH-Rett Johnson*
LH-Bobby Madritsch
RH-Clint Nageotte
RH-J.J. Putz
LH-George Sherrill
LH-Matt Thornton
LH-Randy Williams

* Rett Johnson is expected to join the Rainiers after extended spring training in Peoria, Arizona.

Pat Borders
Wiki Gonzalez

2B-Ramon Santiago
SS-Jose Lopez
3B-Justin Leone
1B-Bucky Jacobsen
2B-Mickey Lopez
SS-Luis Ugueto

LF-Chris Snelling*
CF-Jamal Strong
RF-Hiram Bocachica
LF-Elpidio Guzman

* Chris Snelling is scheduled to join Tacoma after returning from the 15-day disabled list.

Manager: Dan Rohn
Pitching Coach: Rafael Chavez
Hitting Coach: Tony Pollreisz

Projected Starting Rotation
1. Rett Johnson
2. Craig Anderson
3. Clint Nageotte
4. Travis Blackley
5. Cha Seung Baek

Right-hander Rett Johnson may stay down in Peoria and work out some issues with his control, but as soon as he is ready he will step in and be a force. Southpaw Craig Anderson returns for his second season in Tacoma and looks to build on his solid 2003. Righty Clint Nageotte and lefty Travis Blackley are the organization's prize pitching prospects and will be protected in the rotation behind the Triple-A veterans ahead of them. Cha Seung Baek fought his way back from an injury that cost the right-hander nearly two seasons and showed flashes of being the mid-rotation type starter the M's have been waiting for from him.

Projected Bullpen
1. J.J Putz
2. Bobby Madritsch
3. Matt Thornton
4. Jeff Heaverlo
5. George Sherrill
6. Scott Atchison
7. Randy Williams

Right-handers Jeff Heaverlo and J.J. Putz as well as southpaw Bobby Madritsch may step in and close while last year's closer Aaron Taylor recovers from surgery. Madritsch is also a rotation candidate, especially since Johnson needs more time to prepare for the season. Thornton is a starter-turned-reliever and should provide the club with a solid left-handed option along with Madritsch and George Sherrill, last years mid-season Independent League signing. Heaverlo is a former starter trying to regain arm strength and ultimately head back to the starting rotation. Scott Atchison returns to his relief role and provides an experienced touch to a bullpen ridden with former starters. Randy Williams, filling the roster spot of Rett Johnson, adds a sixth left-hander to the staff.

Projected Lineup
1. Jamal Strong
2. Jose Lopez
3. Chris Snelling
4. Bucky Jacobsen
5. Justin Leone
6. A.J. Zapp
7. Hiram Bocachica
8. Pat Borders
9. Ramon Santiago

The Rainiers will boast a versatile lineup in 2004 and the only guaranteed lineup spot is Jamal Strong leading off. The remaining eight spots could be molded in several different orders and be very effective in most of them. Jose Lopez could hit No.2 to use his speed and ability to make consistent contact, or in the nine hole to avoid putting unncessary pressure on the 20-year-old. Chris Snelling should hit in the middle of the order once he returns from wrist surgery. Bucky Jacobsen is a cleanup-style hitter who should fill the role nicely hitting between Snelling and Justin Leone. Leone's bat woke up in San Antonio last summer and with any sort of repeat performance will once again be a right-handed threat for opposing pitchers to watch out for. A.J.Zapp is hoping to repeat the power numbers he put up in Double-A in 2003, with improvements in the strikeout category. Hiram Bocachica is coming off of a fantastic spring showing and should start in RF for Tacoma and give the Rainiers another solid bat. Catcher Pat Borders is here just to tune the kids for their sunshine bright futures, but his bat was nothing to sneeze at last season. Borders is far from being a weak link in the lineup. Infielder Ramon Santiago will play SS as well as sharing time with Luis Ugueto at 2B. Both Santiago and Ugueto are switch-hitters with good speed and solid nine-hole hitting skills. The Tacoma Rainiers will hit a lot of home runs, steal bases in droves, and win games in bunches.

The Engineer
The Rainiers will be managed by Dan Rohn who returns for his fourth year with Tacoma, his seventh on the Mariner organization and eleventh as a manager. Rohn led New Haven to the Eastern League Championship in 2000 and then led Tacoma to the PCL Championship in 2001.

The Best Of the 2004 Tacoma Rainiers
Best Hitter for Average: Chris Snelling
Best Hitter for Power: Justin Leone, Bucky Jacobsen, A. J. Zapp
Best Baserunner: Jamal Strong
Best Defensive Outfielder: Jamal Strong
Best Defensive Infielder: Ramon Santiago
Best Arm: Jose Lopez, Hiram Bocachica
Most Exciting Player: Jose Lopez
Best Fastball: Clint Nageotte, Bobby Madritsch
Best Slider/Curve: Clint Nageotte
Best Changeup: Craig Anderson, Travis Blackley
Best Overall Prospect: Clint Nageotte

Predicting the 2004 Tacoma Rainiers: 75-80 wins, and challenge for the PCL Championship.

Jason A. Churchill resides in Tacoma, Wash., where his father is his best friend and his nephew continues to develop the fastball-splitter combo that he hopes to have mastered by age 3. Jason enjoys the failures of the New York Yankees and despises the slider speed bat. Feedback is always welcome at JasonAChurchill@InsidethePark.com.

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