Inland Empire Notebook: Balentien the Basher

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - In 2003, at the age of 19, Wladimir Balentien took the Arizona Rookie League by storm with a two-month power display unmatched at any time in previous years. His 16 home runs in 187 at-bats immediately put the outfielder from Willemstad, Curacao on the prospect map. In the time that has followed, however, some questions have arisen surrounding his game.

The main question is this: does he make enough contact to be considered a top-flight prospect?

A second question may be, how much, in fact, does it matter how often a power-hitter like Balentien strikes out?

As the top slugger in the Mariners farm system, it's a sensitive topic. At only 20 years of age, the outfielder still has plenty of time to mature and grow as a player. But will he be able to shed the holes in his game that his critics regularly point to?

That's a question only time can answer.

For now, Balentien is back at High-A Inland Empire, where he ended last season with two homers in 38 at bats. Before that, he spent the bulk of 2004 with Mid-A Wisconsin, hitting .277 with 15 homers as a member of the Timber Rattlers.

In his first 40 at-bats this season, the intrigue of Balentien has only increased. He leads the organization with five homers, but also has 12 strikeouts to go with it.

Inland Empire manager Daren Brown isn't worried about the outfielder's "homer or strikeout" approach to hitting, at least not yet.

"He has plenty of tools and his bat is going to do some damage," said Brown after Sunday's game.

The Mariners will likely handle Balentien's progress through the system as carefully as possible, even if it means advancing him one level a year at a time. As tempting as it might be to test the slugger's abilities at a higher level, the M's brass knows they'd be running the risk of stunting the 20-year-old's growth in the process.

Does Balentien have a chance to one day be a run-producer at Safeco Field? Only time will tell. And at his age, the outfielder has time on his side.

Garbe Streaking: B.J. Garbe, a former No. 1 pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1999 out of Moses Lake, Wash., currently has a nine-game hitting streak. On Sunday, he hit his first home run of the season, a 400-foot blast in the sixth inning.

"He is somebody that we got last year who has a lot of tools and it is just a matter of time before he starts batting around the park," said Brown.

LaHair Slumping: Inland Empire first baseman Bryan LaHair continues to struggle at the plate after getting on base with regularity in the first few games of the season. He entered Monday in the middle of a 0-20 slump, and has struck out nine times during that stretch.

"I have been looking for something to hang," said LaHair, a 39th round pick in 2002. "I do feel I am a much better hitter."

En Fuego: Matt Rogelstad has been tearing up the California League over the first week-and-a-half of the season. Rogelstad, a free agent signing out of Arkansas State University in 2003, went 1-5 on Sunday and entered Monday batting a torrid .571 (20-35).

Thomas Oldham's Online Journal to Debut: Former Inland Empire 66ers left-hander Thomas Oldham will have his first online journal appear at on Tuesday. Oldham's online journal will appear twice a month, providing fans an inside look at life in the Texas League and answering any questions sent to him.

Up Next: The Lancaster Jet Hawks come into town Monday to face the Inland Empire 66ers for a four-game homestand. On Friday, the 66ers hit the road to start a 10-day road trip against Bakersfield, Vasalia and Rancho Cucamonga.
Angel Almeida contributed to this report.

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