Minor League Roundup

InsidethePark.com's Troy Sowden takes his weekly trip around the minors, noting the recent performances of the system's top prospects as well as the ongoing pennant races at each level. Catch up with the organization's six minor league teams in the latest edition of the Minor League Wrap-Up. News and Notes by Jason A. Churchill.

Writing inspiration is a funny thing. One minute, it can be overpowering, driving you to new authorial heights. The next minute, you hear that Joel Pineiro is out for a year or more, and suddenly your wordy tendencies are all dried up. Thankfully, the Pineiro rumors look like they're false, so the dam in front of my writing flow has reopened. Now I'm ready to take our weekly look at that source of perpetual hope, the minor leagues.

Triple-A: Tacoma Rainiers, Pacific Coast League
Season: 53-46 (1st in Northern Division)
Week of July 19-25: 4-4

The Rainiers are still clinging to their one game lead in the division. With all the talent they've sent up I-5 this year, it would be quite impressive if they can still pull off a division title. The team had mixed results this week, and so did the remaining prospects.

Jose Lopez was both the biggest news and the best. The M's shortstop of the very near future made a triumphant return, hitting .391 in his first six games back. His power didn't waste any time showing up either, as he added a home run and three doubles, giving him a .652 slugging percentage for the week. How long until he's patrolling the six-hole in Safeco?

Outfielder Jeremy Reed had a tough week, as he hit only .219, dropping his average with the Rainiers to .268. He did hit his second home run in the M's organization, however, giving him 10 total for the year. Catcher Ryan Christianson, recently called up from Double-A, had an all-or-nothing type week. He only registered four hits in 20 at-bats (.200 avg), but one of them was a home run while another was a triple. Maybe Miguel Olivo has inspired him to become another catcher who turns some of those doubles into three-baggers?

On the hill, Gil Meche continued his Jekyll and Hyde season. In one start he walked six in only five innings while giving up six runs, but the next time out he went seven strong, allowing no earned runs with only one free pass. Control seems to be the issue for Meche - if he can somehow harness his stuff like he did at the beginning of last year he can be a key part of the M's future. Until he does, his name will likely continue to appear in trade talks.

Since his brief call-up to the big club, Clint Nageotte has somewhat mirrored Meche, alternating bad starts with good ones. This week he was solid, going six innings in his only outing. The 23-year-old allowed three runs, while striking out four and walking one. His ERA now stands at a somewhat unsightly 4.89.

Double-A: San Antonio Missions, Texas League
Second Half Season: 18-14 (1st in West Division)
Week of July 19-25: 2-5

The Missions rebounded nicely from a five game losing streak, sweeping a double-header with Arkansas on Sunday. Even with the poor week, the Missions lost just one game off their divisional lead. Look for them to rebound this week.

Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo continued his second-half excellence, as he hit .414 with two home runs and a double. Choo's numbers now stand at .310/.375/.460. Throw in 10 bombs and 25 steals in 31 attempts, and Choo is having a very nice all-around year.

Shortstop Michael Morse is the other big hitting prospect in San Antonio, and while he was a bit overshadowed by Choo, he hit his second long ball since coming to the Mariners in the Freddy Garcia trade. He's now at 294/.358/.435 as a Mission.

Of course, the most attention is on San Antonio when Felix Hernandez pitches. The 18-year-old prodigy, often called "King Felix," suffered his first poor start since getting called up to the Missions, going only 2.2 innings while giving up six runs. At 18, I think we can give him a mulligan. Between Inland Empire and San Antonio, the right-hander has struck out 133 batters in only 112.2 innings pitched, and he has an excellent ratio of 3.8 strikeouts for every walk. Bad start or not, this kid is for real.

Advanced-A: Inland Empire 66ers, California League
Second Half Season: 16-14 (4th in South Division, 2.5 GB)
Week of July 19-25: 5-1

Watch out for the 66ers. After scuffling some to start the second half, the Empire has struck back with a nice hot streak to vault them back into contention in the South Division.

As far as the daily lineup goes, the infielders have stolen the show this year down in San Bernardino, and this week was no exception. Shortstop Juan Gonzalez hit his second home run of the year and hit .346 for the week, bumping his average to .301 for the season.

At the hot corner, Jesus Guzman has come out of nowhere to make a strong case for himself as a top prospect, but with a .158 average, he had a very tough go of it this week. Even with the awful stretch over the past seven days, his yearly totals still sit at .306/.405/.434. Don't expect him to stay down long.

Ladies and Gents, we have a Michael Garciaparra sighting! The infielder has been a collossal disappointment since the M's gave him huge money out of high schoolin 2001, but all the negativity dissipated if only for one week. In his five games last week, Garciaparra absolutely tore the cover off the ball. He hit .438, an average any hitter would love, but more importantly he gave us a glimpse of that long awaited power, hitting his first home run, two doubles, and a triple. All good for a sick .875 slugging percentage. Maybe there's reason for us to hold out hope for Nomar's kid brother eh? In his 34 games this year, he's still hitting just .195/.278/.301, but for the first time in what seems like forever, he's given us a glimmer of hope that he may learn to tap into those family genes.

A pair of lefties are still the news makers on the mound. Bobby Livingston has seen his strikeout rate decrease as the year has passed, and his ERA has risen as a result. Even so, it still sits at an impressive 3.69 for the year.

Ryan Rowland-Smith is going to Athens to represent his homeland of Australia, and is doing his best to make sure the Mariner's don't forget him while he's gone. He went seven innings in his start this week, yielding three runs while striking out 12. If he pitches like that in Athens, we'll be hearing his name quite a bit.

Intermediate-A: Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Midwest League
Second Half Season: 12-18 ( 7th Western Division, 9.0 GB)
Week of July 19-25: 2-5

It's been a tough season for the Timber Rattlers, as they just haven't been able to get any hot streaks going. The beauty of the minors is that even bad teams can have good prospects. Fortunately for M's fans, the T-Rats are one of those teams.

Shortstop Adam Jones is the most high profile of those prospects, and he did nothing to diminish that status this week. He hit .321/.367/.571, as his slugging percentage was bolstered by two home runs, numbers six and seven on the year. Not bad for a guy who doesn't celebrate his 19th birthday until this upcoming Sunday.

First baseman Bryan LaHair was too good for the Northwest League, so he was promoted to Wisconsin after just seven games with Everett. This week, he looked like he might be too good for the Midwest League, as he hit a sizzling .429/.469/.759, including home runs three and four.

Outfielder Wladimir Balentien made news with the announcement that he was selected to represent the Netherlands in the Summer Olympics. His bat did not make much noise this week though, as the powerful slugger was held without any extra-base hits. He now sits at .277/.318/.517 for the season.

Tough luck starter Thomas Oldham continued his unfortunate ways, taking two losses despite pitching at decently in both games. The left-hander's record is an unimpressive 6-6, but his ERA is a sparkling 2.93, thanks in large part to his tremendous ability to strike out Midweat league hitters. This week he K'd 16 in 15 innings of work. Fellow lefty Ryan Feierabend had a rough start, giving up six runs in 6.1 innings, but he was fortunate enough to get the victory. The game improved the 18-year-old's record to 8-5, and his ERA to 3.75.

Short-Season-A: Everett Aqua Sox, Northwest League
Season: 23-13 (1st in West Division)
Week of July 19-25: 5-2

There's no other way to say it - this team is prospect heavy. The current group of Aquasox will be very interesting to watch as they ascend the organizational ladder. If they stay together, they could be reminiscent of the 2003 San Antonio squad that dominated the Texas League.

Second baseman Yung-Chi Chen may have the highest expectations on the team, and for good reason. The do-everything player has made starts at third base and shortstop in addition to second, and his bat has been solid since opening day. Last week he hit .313 and drove in eight runs. He also picked up his third home run as well as his 17th steal of the season. Even more impressively, he's only been caught stealing twice.

Outfielder Casey Craig is an on-base machine. This week he compiled solid numbers, including five hits in 16 at-bats. That's nice, but not really all that exciting. What is exciting, is that he added seven walks, giving him the unusual line of .313/.522/.375. Craig's advanced eye at the plate combines with his solid bat to give him an amazing on-base percentage of .454. That's simply an incredible display of patience for a player just one year out of high school.

Right-hander Aaron Jensen was the Mariner's 19th- round pick last year. Armed with a mid-90's fastball and a plus curve, he projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter, and could prove to be an absolute steal. His first professional experience has been a bit up and down, but promising nonetheless. Over two starts last week, he went 11.1 innings, giving up 11 runs while striking out eight. His record now sits at 4-1, while sporting a 4.39 ERA.

Much has been said about southpaw Shawn Nottingham this season, as he has absolutely lit up Northwest League batters. After another solid start this week, Nottingham has a 4-1 record, and has been dominant by any measure. ERA? A miniscule 1.69. Strikeouts per inning ratio? 48 in 42.2 innings. Strikeouts to walk ratio? Nottingham whiffs 4.8 for every base on balls. There is plenty of left-handed pitching ahead of Nottingham in the system, so the Mariner's can afford to take it easy with the 19-year-old. He's making Northwest League hitters wish the Mariners would promot him in a hurry.

Rookie: Peoria Mariners, Arizona League
Season: 16-12 (2.5 GB)
Week of July 19-25: 3-3

Potential be thy name? Take Tuiasosopo. In just 13 games, the M's top draft pick Matthew Tuiasosopo has turned the Arizona League upside down. There's not much more that can be said about a kid with two weeks of professional experience so I won't even try. I'll just let you look at the numbers for yourself. In 45 at bats, The 18-year-old collected 21 hits, 39 total bases, four doubles, a triple, four home runs, 10 RBI, and 15 runs scored. Add a .467 average, .576 on-base percentage, and slugging percentage to his freshman transcripts and you come up with a special talent doing special things. Furthermore, the brother of Oakland Raiders quarterback Marques, has struck out only six times, and has drawn nine walks. The only stat that looks real bad is the five errors at shortstop, but with hitting like that, who cares? If this keeps up, Tuiasosopo may become a bigger name in the Pacific Northwest than any of the football players in his legendary family. What an eye-popping start.

News and Notes:
Tacoma right-hander Gil Meche is the most likely candidate to replace Joel Pineiro in the Mariner starting rotation. Meche, like Pineiro, pitched Sunday and is right on schedule to take over when Pineiro's turn rolls around.

Mariner prospects Ryan Rowland-Smith and Craig Anderson will represent their native Australia in the Athens Olympics next month. Anderson is making his second Olympic appearance after taking the hill at the Sydney Games in 2000, and earning a victory versus Korea.

Wladimir Balentien will also play in the Olympics this summer, representing the Netherlands in the Athens Games. All players involved will miss about three full weeks of the baseball season.

Missions right-hander Felix Hernandez is expected to be limited to about 150 innings of work this season which could cut his season short, come the middle of August. The 18-year-old's performance from this point on will dictate how far above or below 150 innings, the organization allows him to go. Hernandez is widely considered baseball's best pitching prospect and is on schedule to join the Mariner rotation in 2006, but the club is wisely choosing the safe route.

If there was any question about the Mariners opinion of Jeremy Reed's defensive future, it was answered on the Rainiers' last road trip when Jamal Strong came off the disabled list and started several games in left field. Strong had been the everyday center fielder all season long for Tacoma, and had started only a small handful of games in left field prior to this past week.

When the Mariners promoted Ryan Christianson to Triple-A Tacoma, they weren't promoting Ryan Christianson the catcher. They were calling up Ryan Christianson the batter. Not that he was lighting up the Texas League or anything, but the Rainiers simply needed someone with decent pro experience to step in and hit everyday. Christianson has played in seven games and has not caught one single inning.

For those of you who are a little bit annoyed at the recent truckload of call ups (and there are many of you out there- I have heard the complaints first-hand) that have hindered the minor league teams and their hopes of winning their respective divisions; Shut up. The minor leagues are there for one reason and that is to be the birth center of the parent club's future existence.

Wondering how the Rainiers, Missions, and 66ers are staying afloat in their pennat races despite the promotions and injuries that have plagued each club? Here are three names that explain it all. Dan Rohn, Dave Brundage, and Daren Brown.

They are the managers of the aforementioned teams and all three have done wonders this season. Brundage, coming off of back-to back championships in the Texas League, was dealt a tough hand when 80% of his roster was raided by the Rainiers in spring training. Then, as if that weren't enough, 40% of his starting rotation ( Glen Bott and Ryan Ketchner) was traded to Los Angeles for Jolbert Cabrera. Brundage is a great baseball manager and should get a shot in the majors some day soon.

Brown started the season very strong and with a solid mix of talent. As the wins piled up, the players caught the eye of the Mariner brass and began the ascent to Double-A San Antonio, removing some of the top talent from the 66ers. Among them were T.J. Bohn and Felix Hernandez, the anchors of both the rotation and the batting lineup.

Brown has shuffled players in and out and stayed with his aggressive style along the way, allowing the club to stay highly competitive.

Rohn should be the organizations manager of the year, and it really isn't even close. If you removed seven regulars from ANY team for extended periods of time, they would struggle horribly and likely head into a tailspin of sorts. Surely they wouldn't hold onto a division lead right?

Well, following Rohn's lead, Tacoma has done just that. With long term injuries suffered to Jamal Strong, Bobby Madritsch, Jose Lopez, Jeff Heaverlo, Aaron Looper, Cha Seung Baek, and Wiki Gonzalez, as well as short term DL stints from Hiram Bocachica, Pat Borders, and Mickey Lopez, the Rainiers were so depleted by mid-May that the organization had to dip deep into the Independent Leagues for two pitchers, Tim Christman and Jeff Harris, just to field a full pitching staff.

Then came the Major League call-ups. Clint Nageotte, Pat Borders, Matt Thornton, J.J. Putz, Hiram Bocachica, Ramon Santiago, Travis Blackley, and Justin Leone, all were called up before the all-star break. Bobby Madritsch, Bucky Jacobsen, and George Sherrill all received the promotion after the break.

Currently the Rainiers are without 10 players that started the season with them and they continue hang on to a one game lead in the PCL's Northern Division.

The number of MIA's will likely grow to 12 and possibly even 14 by season's end, when Reed, Lopez, Nageotte, and Meche are re-called.

Dan Rohn for President!

Final Note on Rohn:
On April 3rd, 1987, the Chicago Cubs traded newest Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Eckersley and an unknown, light-hitting infielder to the Oakland A's for three minor league prospects. The unknown infielder was Rainiers skipper Dan Rohn.

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