Rainiers Notebook: Finding an Identity

TACOMA, Wash. - As crazy as last year was for the entire organization, the Tacoma Rainiers are experiencing as much roster turnover as the parent club and working to create their own identity early this season.

After the first seven games of the opening homestand, Tacoma is still searching for who they are, both on the mound at at the plate.

"We have a lot of young guys," said Rainiers manager Dan Rohn, is in his fifth season as the skipper of the Mariners Triple-A affiliate. "We have a bunch of young kids and we need to find out what they are going to do and how they are going to react."

While every minor league team has young players, relative to the average age of the major leaguer, the Rainiers are quite a bit younger in experience, as well as age, in comparison to last year's club.

As of the home opener on April 16, the Rainiers had 10 players who had never stepped foot on the field at the Triple-A level. First baseman Aaron Rifkin, infielders Hunter Brown and Michael Morse, outfielders Shin-soo Choo and Dustin Delucchi, and pitchers Jorge Campillo, Felix Hernandez, Rich Dorman, Chris Buglovsky and Jared Thomas.

Two more players have a combined 59 games of Triple-A experience; catcher Bryce Terveen (41) and outfielder Chris Snelling (18).

Rifkin, Morse, Choo and Snelling are starters, while Terveen gets at least two starts per week behind the plate. Hernandez, Dorman and Campillo are in the starting rotation, while Thomas and Buglovsky are regulars out of the bullpen. Delucchi and Brown are the first options off the bench, both offensively and defensively.

"It's early in the season for us," said third baseman and second-year Rainiers star Justin Leone. "We haven't found a rythmn yet, but there are a lot of guys that are here for the first time. It's just going to take some time."

Leone is one of 10 Rainiers with experience at the Triple-A level and one of seven with major league experience. Outfielder Jamal Strong is in his third year with the Rainiers, and pitchers Cha Seung Baek and George Sherrill are in their second seasons with Tacoma – both spent parts of 2004 with the big club.

But with so many players tasting the level for the first time, Rohn, and pitching coach Rafael Chaves, know they will need to be patient with their club as they fight their way through the first month of the season. They also know in the pros there are few excuses that matter.

"These guys are professionals and need to get their jobs done at the same time," said Rohn. "And they will. All of them. There are leaders here, the first year guys know who they are."

Right-hander Jeff Heaverlo offered a point of view that screams of the professionalism necessary to do what it takes this high in the minor leagues.

"I don't remember as a kid, dreaming of being a minor league pitcher," said Heaverlo. "I want to make it to the big leagues and there are certain things you have to do to give yourself the best chance at that. I think most guys get that around here."

Snelling Still Streaking: Outfielder Chris Snelling remains on fire at the plate, hitting .476 after a three-hit night on Thursday versus Sacramento. Snelling already has two 3-hit efforts, a game-winning hit in the ninth and a game-tying hit in the eighth where he scored the game-winning run one batter later. Snelling got his first start in the field on Wednesday night, just hours after left fielder Shin-soo Choo was called up to the big leagues.

Former Rainiers: Tacoma's 2004 team MVP A.J. Zapp signed a contract with the Cincinnati Reds this past winter and is currently playing for Triple-A Louisville of the International League. In 13 games, Zapp is hitting just .152 and has yet to hit a home run in 46 at-bats. Zapp hit .291 with 29 home runs and 101 RBI last season, en route to breaking the Pacific Coast League's record for strikeouts in a single season at 184. The old record of 175 was held by Rob Stratton, then of the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Flordia Marlins organization. On the strange fact front, Zapp is now a teammate of Stratton with the Lousville Bats. The two share 1B and DH duties.

Bat Stats: Heading into the final two games of the opening homestand, the Rainiers were hitting just .257 as a team, ranking 11th in the PCL. Tacoma also ranks 13th in the 16-team league in home runs with 13. Last season Tacoma hit 179 home runs and were among the league leaders as a team all season long.

The Week Ahead: Tacoma finishes the eight-game homestand versus Sacramento at 6:05 pm on Friday night, then heads to Colorado Springs for four games against the SkySox (Colorado). Then the Rainiers will play in Salt Lake City against the Stingers (LAA) for four games, before returning home to take on the SkySox and Stingers for eight games at Cheney Stadium, beginning May 2.

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