Minor League Preview: Inland Empire 66ers

InsidethePark.com's Jason A. Churchill digs deeper into his bottomless well of minor league database to preview the 2004 Inland Empire 66ers. The defending league champions retool and set sail on another journey through the rigors of the California League. Will the pitching staff hold up in a league that favors offense? Can the revamped offense pick up where the 2003 squad left off? Become an Insider and find out now!

The defending Inland Empire 66ers, just like most defending league champions, will only return a handful of players from the title run. Headlined by top prospects such as right-hander Felix Hernandez, and middle infielders Michael Garciaparra, and Ismael Castro, the 66ers may very well have a more talented roster than did the champs from a year ago. The San Bernardino-based Inland Empire club could be as dominant as their Doube-A brothers, the San Antonio Missions, have been the past two seasons. The inexperience of many of the players could make for a slow start but as soon as they acclimate themselves to the warm southern air, the natural skill level should have no problem taking over.

2004 Inland Empire 66ers Roster

RH-Rich Dorman
RH-TA Fulmer
RH-Felix Hernandez
LH-Cesar Jiminez
LH-Bobby Livingston
LH-Miguel Martinez
LH-Melvin Pizzaro
LH-Ryan Rowland-smith
RH-Juan Sandoval
RH-Darwin Soto
RH-David Viane
RH-Tanner Watson
RH-Greg Wear

Brian Lentz
Rene Rivera

1B-Frederico Balet
2B-Ismael Castro
SS-Michael Garciaparra
SS-Juan Gonzalez
3B-Matt Hagen
U-Matt Rogelstad

LF-Carlos Arroyo
RF-T. J. Bohn
CF-Gary Harris
LF-Jon Nelson

Manager: Daren Brown
Pitching Coach: Dwight Bernard
Hitting Coach: Henry Cotto

Projected Starting Rotation
1. Bobby Livingston
2. TA Fulmer
3. Felix Hernandez
4. Cesar Jiminez
5. Juan Sandoval

Left-hander Bobby Livingston gets the call on opening night after a superb 2003 season. The 21-year-old Texan will be supported by Right-handers TA Fulmer, Felix Hernandez, and Juan Sandoval, and fellow southpaw Cesar Jiminez. Jiminez could also be used out of the pen where he made eight appearances last season. Hernandez, soon to be 18-years-old, is coming off of a season where he opened the eyes of the entire baseball world with the dominance he displayed in the Northwest League. Sandoval and Fulmer made 27 starts each last year and should provide the rotation with several quality starts.

Projected Bullpen
1. Tanner Watson
2. Rich Dorman
3. Ryan Rowland-smith
4. Miguel Martinez
5. David Viane
6. Greg Wear
7. Melvin Pizzaro
8. Darwin Soto

Several closer options sprinkle the bullpen and an abundance of proven short relievers await setup opportunities. Right-handers Rich Dorman, Darwin Soto, and lefty Ryan Rowland-smith all have closer potential. Right-handers David Viane and Greg Wear fit nicely in the setup role. Righty Tanner Watson could replace Cesar Jiminez in the rotation, adding yet another closer candidate. Melvin Pizzaro is likely to fill a middle-relief role and Rowland-smith, Martinez, and possibly Jiminez give the pen three top drawer left-handers to go to in the late innings of ball games.

Projected Lineup:
1. Gary Harris
2. Ismael Castro
3. T.J. Bohn
4. Frederico Balet
5. Jon Nelson
6. Matt Hagen
7. Rene Rivera
8. Michael Garciaparra
9. Juan Gonzalez

Gary Harris and Carlos Arroyo will fight for time in CF and the leadoff spot while Ismael Castro, Juan Gonzalez and Michael Garciaparra fit the talents of a No.2 hitter. Frederico Balet, Jon Nelson, T.J. Bohn, Matt Hagen and utility man Matt Rogelstad should fill the middle of the order with solid power and run production abilities. Hagen could DH some as well as play 3B and 1B. Gonzalez can play SS and 3B while Garciaparra remains the everyday starter at short. Rene Rivera is the system's most talented catcher and provides a solid bat to go with a great arm and solid defensive skills.

The Engineer:
Daren Brown returns to Inland after a one-year stint as the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers manager in the Midwest League where he led the Timber Rattlers to a playoff appearance. Brown is entering his seventh season as a pro manager, three in an independent league, and fourth with the M's organization. The Amarillo, Texas resident has never failed to make the playoffs in his six seasons as a manager, winning five division titles, winning an independent league championship in 1999, and has only finished lower than second on one occasion. Brown has a drawer full of balanced talent to send out onto the field in 2004 and should have very little problems creating a chemistry that results in another playoff push.

The Best of the 2004 Inland Empire 66ers
Best Hitter for Average: Matt Rogelstad, Ismael Castro
Best Hitter for Power: Matt Hagen
Best Baserunner: Gary Harris
Best Defensive Outfielder: Gary Harris
Best Defensive Infielder: Ismael Castro
Best Arm: T.J. Bohn, Matt Hagen
Most Exciting Player: Felix Hernandex, Michael Garciaparra
Best Fastball: Felix Hernandez
Best Slider/Curve: Felix Hernandez
Best Changeup: Darwin Soto, Ryan Rowland-smith
Best Overall Prospect: Felix Hernandez

2004 Inland Empire 66ers Prediction: Inland enters 2004 with a stronger roster than last season and should contend for the California League Championship once again with 75 wins or more.

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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