Pitching key for High-A Inland Empire in 2005

When the Inland Empire 66ers trot out to the field Thursday night for their season opener against the Bakersfield Blaze, they'll be doing so without the sure-fire ace on their roster that they had in bulk last season with the likes of Felix Hernandez and Bobby Livingston. Hernandez is now in Triple-A Tacoma and Livingston is in Double-A San Antonio. Will that make for a long, difficult season for the Mariners' High-A affiliate?

Thomas Oldham, another top arm in the Mariners system who played with the 66ers last season, has also moved on and is starting the season in Double-A as well.

The 66ers rotation will be left searching for its staff ace, a title that will likely go to Ryan Feierabend, Jason Mackintosh, Nibaldo Acosta or Brandon Moorhead, four newcomers to the California League who pitched at Wisconsin in 2004. None really fit the title of "ace," each projecting better as a four or five starter, but on this Inland Empire team they will be asked to step up. The foursome combined to go 31-39 last season.

Aaron Trolia, a reliever for much of last season at Everett before being moved into a starter's role in August, could also fit the mold.

Brian Stitt, Miguel Martinez and Mike Steele figure to be three of the top arms coming out of the bullpen. Stitt makes the jump from Wisconsin, while Martinez and Steele each played at Inland last season.

The 66ers hope to make up for any deficiencies on the pitching staff with an offense centered around promising shortstop Adam Jones and power-hitting outfielder Wladimir Balentien.

Jones, 19, showed glimpses of great things last season with the Timber Rattlers, hitting .267 with 11 home runs, 23 doubles and seven triples. He'll aim to make more contact in 2005 and improve on his steal total from a year ago (eight) with the 66ers. Continuing to progress in the power department will also be a key to Jones' offensive game and the offensive production of the 66ers.

Balentien, 20, like Jones, must figure out a way to cut down on his strikeouts as he enters his third season in the organization. Last year at Wisconsin, he batted .277 with 15 home runs but struck out 77 times in only 260 at bats. A season in the warmer climate and drier air of the California League could be just what the doctor ordered for the outfielder.

After Jones and Balentien, the 66ers will rely on the likes of infielders Juan Gonzalez, Bryan LaHair, Erick Monzon and Michael Garciaparra and outfielders Chris Colton and B.J. Garbe. None of the catching options – Justin Ruchti, Matt Hagen and Chris Collins – are much of an offensive threat.

Of the bunch, Gonzalez, Monzon, Garciaparra and Hagen return to Inland after spending last season there. LaHair and Colton join the team after playing at Wisconsin in 2004, and Garbe, a former first-round pick out of Moses Lake, Wash. by Minnesota in 1999, makes the club after a late-season trade to Seattle's organization last season.

Garciaparra, a recently-turned 22-year-old, will have to show his worth this season or risk having it be his last in the Mariners organization. A former No. 1 pick in 2001, the younger brother of All-Star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra has yet to put together a full season of impressive baseball. He'll likely get the starting nod at second base.

Monzon, 23, who signed as a minor league free agent last May and came on to hit seven home runs in 115 at bats, will look to show it wasn't a fluke and probably see time at second and third base.

Gonzalez, 23, a member of the Carlos Guillen deal with Detroit that also brought Ramon Santiago to Seattle, was a leader on Inland's team last season and may be a candidate for a mid-season promotion to Double-A San Antonio. He batted .290 with 31 extra-base hits in 2004, also stealing 26 bases.

LaHair and Colton batted .279 and .232 at Wisconsin a year ago, and both have the athleticism and power to excel in the California League. Each will need to make better contact, however, if they hope to advance to Double-A in the future. LaHair struck out 66 times in 262 at bats last season and Colton whiffed 99 times in 457 at bats.

OF Michael Nesbit and IF Matt Rogelstad are both utility guys who will be the main options off the bench.

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