Tacoma Notebook: Choo off to slow start

During the first week of spring training, baseball scouts and onlookers were mystified by Shin-soo Choo's difficulties in right field. Up to that point, the 22-year-old Korean outfielder had never had such a hard time defensively in his minor league career and was widely regarded as a solid defender. Since the regular season started for Triple-A Tacoma last Thursday, Choo's defense has returned to normal but another area of his game has taken an early-season plunge.

Surprisingly, the normally hard-hitting outfielder has struggled offensively. Choo, coming off a career-season at Double-A San Antonio where he established new highs in batting average (.315), home runs (15), runs batted in (84) and steals (40), is hitting just .179 (5-28) through his first eight games with the Rainiers.

It's still very early, obviously, but concerns are there, especially when it comes to two categories: strikeouts and stolen bases.

Choo's a player that the Mariners' brass envision as a future run-producer, but that doesn't mean the organization is okay with him making less contact in order to add more power to his game. So far, Choo's experienced the worst of both worlds; he has nine strikeouts already, as pitchers have went at him with hard stuff on the hands, and one home run.

That's almost one strikeout for every three at-bats, a ratio that likely won't last but also one that must change if the outfielder expects to live up to his high prospect status (he's rated the No. 3 prospect in the Mariners' organization by InsidethePark.com heading into the season). Last season at San Antonio, Choo fanned 97 times in 517 at-bats. That's a number the Mariners hoped the outfielder would improve upon in 2005, making the early returns all the more alarming.

Just as much of a concern is Choo's lack of stolen bases, which admittedly is partially due to his inability to get on base thus far. After swiping 40 bags in 2004 with the Missions, Choo's is 0-1 on the basepaths this season.

As easy as it would be to question Choo, however, it's just as easy to expect him to break out of the slump in a large way in the coming weeks. A streaky hitter throughout his minor league career, the 22-year-old is capable of busting out at any time. Heck, this time next week he could lead the team in several categories other than strikeouts. It's still extremely early and adjustments will be made.

Nobody expects more out of himself in the Mariners' minor league system than Choo, and it's hard to doubt what he's achieved in his first four seasons in the organization.

But any time a premier prospect struggles the way Choo has in his first week at a higher level of the minors, there will be concern. This case is no different.

Pitchers' Delight: As far as the Rainiers' starting pitching goes, it'd be hard to expect anything more than what the top three starters have done through the first week of play. RHP Jorge Campillo got the ball rolling in the right direction with a stellar Opening Day outing against Fresno, and followed it up with a 10-strikeout performance on Wednesday at Sacramento. RHP Felix Hernandez hasn't allowed an earned run his two starts, a span of 11 innings, and has struck out nine batters. The 19-year-old has only improved his stock to this point, proving he can handle Triple-A batters just as well as he controlled the hitters in the low minors. RHP Cha-Seung Baek, the team's third starter, has been excellent as well in two starts. He allowed only one hit and kept Fresno scoreless in six innings in his first start, and limited the potent Sacramento lineup to two runs in five innings on Thursday for his second win of the season.

Nice Find: Many questioned Mariners' general manager Bill Bavasi when the club claimed OF Abraham Nunez off of waivers and placed him on the 40-man roster at the tail end of spring training. But after the Mariners designated him for assignment and no other teams claimed him, Nunez remained with the club and reported late last week to Tacoma, where he has been one of the team's best hitters early on. Through Thursday morning's game, the rangy outfielder is batting .381 (8-21) and has nine RBI. He's also walked six times.

Brown Struggling: Hunter Brown is known for his defense, but he's quietly put together rather impressive offensive numbers in his minor league career with Seattle, particularly last year in Double-A. Still, if he's going to have a chance at the big leagues one day he knows as well as anyone that it'll take more than defense. So far, he'd be unhappy with the way he's playing. Brown took over as the Rainiers' starting third baseman last Friday, the team's second game of the season, when Justin Leone was promoted to Seattle. Since then, maybe due to trying too hard to make an impression, the utility man has had a hard time getting on base. After Thursday's 0-3 performance, his batting average is down to .130 (3-23) and he leads Tacoma with three errors.

Heaverlo Shining: Jeff Heaverlo, a former "sandwich pick" drafted No. 33 overall in 1999 out of the University of Washington, is back on the map. After pitching just 5.2 innings last season, all at Tacoma, due to a pulled muscle in his armpit region, the 27-year-old is back for his fourth go-round with the Rainiers. And he's pitching well. The one-time slider specialist has been turned into a reliever, and has yet to allow a run in 4.1 innings, striking out four along the way. He picked up his first save of the season Thursday by recording the final four outs against Sacramento.

Up Next: The Rainiers head home for eight games, starting with their home-opener on Friday against Fresno. First pitch is set for 7:05 p.m. The Sacramento River Cats invade Cheney Stadium from April 19-22. Each of those weekday games, and all weekday home games through the end of May, will begin at 6:05 p.m. Sunday's game versus Fresno is set for 1:35 p.m.

Notes: OF Chris Snelling, the biggest enigma in the Mariners' minors and maybe in all of baseball, is expected to join the Rainiers in time for their home-opener on Friday. Once regarded as a top prospect in the system, the Australian outfielder has missed much of the past three seasons due to various injuries and was unavailable during spring training due to a knee injury… Infielder Ramon Santiago was 0-17 on the season before picking up his first hit on Wednesday… Choo, a right fielder throughout his career in the Mariners' system, has been moved to left field to improve his chances at landing a spot with the big club in the near future... Mariners' RHP Joel Pineiro made a rehab start with the Rainiers against Fresno on Sunday, and allowed one run over seven innings. He is expected to return to the Mariners and start Friday's game at Chicago.

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