The Dodgers' Double-A affiliate is the Most Talented Team in the Minor Leagues
By John Manuel
Todd Donovan remembers the times when his Jacksonville Suns teammates looked more like the American Legion team he coached back in Connecticut, rather than the Most Talented Team in Minor League Baseball.
Pinpointing an exact game where the sloppiness stood out the most was difficult. It happened too often early in the season, such as a late April loss at Mobile, or during a 20-2 loss to Montgomery that featured eight walks, three wild pitches, a hit batsman and an error.
In games like those, the 26-year-old outfielder—drafted last century—would shake his head and look at his fellow outfielders/relics, 27-year-olds Tydus Meadows and Jon Weber. They were all new to the organization, Meadows and Weber signed as six-year free agents, Donovan acquired in an April 2005 trade from the Padres.
What had they gotten themselves into?
“We just did things wrong that were elementary situations,” Donovan says. “Jon knew it, and Tydus knew it—we were struggling. We would throw the ball around and have the ball hit the runner, and the winning run would score. But when we were in Mobile, some of the roving instructors for the Padres that I knew were in town, and they just told me, ‘Be patient. That team has a lot of talent, but it’s extremely young.’
“And because I was so new to the organization, I hadn’t realized it, but I thought about it, and I was in college when I was the same age as our infielders, most of our pitchers and (catcher) Russ (Martin).”
Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta says the organization realized early in the offseason that Jacksonville would need older players to stabilize its young roster.
“It’s definitely a young team,” DePodesta says, “both the position players and the pitchers. We felt it would be important to give them a few veterans to look to for direction, and Weber, Donovan and Meadows have been very important for that reason.”
Those veteran outfielders were hitting a combined .292 with Weber leading the team in batting, Donovan in runs and steals, and Meadows second in home runs. Together, they helped pull the Suns out of their funk to finish 38-32 and win the Southern Division first-half title. But that’s not why Jacksonville is the Most Talented Team in Minor League Baseball.
Donovan’s been on one of those before. Back in 2001, he was a member of the Padres’ high Class A Lake Elsinore club, Baseball America’s Team of the Year. The Storm was bursting with talent that season, from Ben Johnson and Xavier Nady to a pitching staff stuffed with power arms, such as Ben Howard, Jake Peavy, Oliver Perez and Dennis Tankersley. The Storm won 91 games, most in the minors that season.
This Jacksonville club has been just as young, but it’s competing in the Double-A Southern League. That’s what has made it an interesting ride for manager John Shoemaker, who had guided it to a 63-50 overall record through early August. He’s had power bats like Joel Guzman and Andy LaRoche, power arms like Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and Hong Chi Kuo. But they’re all essentially new to Double-A.
“We have a lot of prospects,” Shoemaker says during a July homestand, “but that doesn’t make us a good team.”
What makes them the Most Talented Team in Minor League Baseball is that they are young, with a lot of prospects; good, in that the prospects have performed and have now graduated one of their own to help the big league club and show the way for the rest of them; and balanced, with power pitching and powerful hitters, as well as thoughtful leadership from veterans and a young catcher coming into his own.
It’s all there in Jacksonville. It just took a while for the Suns to recognize it.
Different people who have seen the Suns play this year have recognized the team’s talent all season, just like the Padres instructors in Mobile did. The sheer depth of talent has impressed scouts and managers in the Southern League, and no two seem to start the discussion of the Suns with the same player. However, the depth in the lineup, which was leading the SL in runs and home runs while ranking second in batting, draws the most attention.
“It’s hard to describe,” catcher Russ Martin says. “Our whole lineup would bat third on every other team in the league, it would seem. Everybody hits—hard. Guzman at times hits eighth or ninth for us. That’s just amazing. You have to keep hitting to stay up in our lineup.”
Jacksonville’s million-dollar infield in August included 2002 first-round pick James Loney at first; Tony Abreu, called up from high Class A Vero Beach to replace the promoted Delwyn Young at second; Andy LaRoche, big league progeny and $1 million signee in 2003, at third; and the shortstop Guzman, a $2.25 million signee out of the Dominican four years ago and the No. 5-ranked prospect in the game entering the season. Martin, who played in the Futures Game, is the converted third baseman behind the plate.
The misnamed Young, at 23, was the oldest of the group but left that title for Martin, 22, when he joined Triple-A Las Vegas. LaRoche and Loney, 21, would have been college juniors had they fulfilled their commitments to Rice and Baylor. Guzman and Abreu, both 20, can officially join their infield mates for a postgame beer in November.
LaRoche is the one having the breakout season, justifying his bonus as a 39th-round pick out of Grayson (Texas) County Community College with 29 home runs this season. The son of ex-big league pitcher Dave LaRoche is a smoother athlete than his older brother Adam, the Braves’ first baseman. He’s also the most outwardly confident of the group.
One scout says LaRoche has the same cockiness—the necessary arrogance—that Chipper Jones had in the minors. Donovan says it’s clear that having grown up in a baseball family, nothing in the game intimidates or awes the chatty Texan.
Martin has emerged as the group’s quiet leader. He marveled at the chance at the Futures Game to finally catch for Adam Loewen, his teammate in the past on Canadian youth teams. “I’d always been the third baseman,” Martin said in Detroit, “and it was definitely great being back behind the plate.”
Martin’s perpetual smile and positive outlook constitute a small part of his leadership package. While he sets the example on the field, hitting .305/.423/.398 with more walks (61) than strikeouts (55) for the second consecutive year, maturity is his best tool. He hasn’t allowed jealousy over the large signing bonuses of his fellow Suns take hold, instead taking a lead role and impressing his older teammates.
“He’s my roommate, and we spent three hours the other night talking about coming to grips with what it means to his game to be a catcher,” Donovan says. “He’s understanding that he’s a catcher now, and his offensive numbers don’t matter as much as being a leader, knowing situations, handling pitchers and getting better at catching and throwing.”
Loney engenders the most difference of opinion. Most scouts and SL managers contacted for this story and BA’s Best Tools survey lauded Loney’s glove, but many doubt his ability to become a big league regular because of his bat. Whereas he once was praised for being a young hitter who could use the whole field, Loney now has critics who say he has to go the other way because he lacks the bat speed to pull a good fastball.
“That was a somewhat controversial pick at the time,” an American League organization’s scout says. “The consensus was that Loney was a better pitcher out of (Elkins, Texas) high school. He had a big debut, but he really hasn’t done much since then outside of that big league spring training.”
Loney’s defenders point out that he’s rarely been healthy since his 2002 debut year—which ended in high Class A—due to wrist and finger injuries. They also note that after a slow start, Loney was hitting .317 since June 1, albeit with just three home runs.
“People were telling him to hit for more power, and he was selling out in his swing early in the year,” says scouting director Logan White, who drafted many of the Suns such as Loney, Martin and Young as well as pitchers Billingsley, Broxton and Justin Orenduff. “I compare him to Derrek Lee, an athletic, big-framed first baseman who came into his power later. We want James to hit home runs in the major leagues, not the minors.”
Dodgers fans can and will compare such a grouping to LA’s all-time infield of Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, Ron Cey and Bill Russell, who were the Dodgers’ primary infield starters from 1974-81. It’s easy for fans to want the Jacksonville group to stay together, to have a replacement for their past heroes. That’s particularly true considering that when Adrian Beltre and Paul Lo Duca left the team last year (free agent and mid-season trade), the Dodgers had no homegrown starters left in the lineup.
“We are trying to keep them together, and we would like to,” DePodesta says. “We like the competitiveness we see in them and the camaraderie. To have them move up together would be a huge benefit to the whole organization.”
Doing it will be difficult, however, despite all the talent on the infield. Before he was promoted, Young had made progress with the glove, but as White put it, “He’s not going to be Jose Lind.”
And the most obvious impediment stands 6-foot-5 (“Maybe 6-foot-7 in cleats,” LaRoche says of Guzman, the Suns’ towering shortstop). While managers and scouts aren’t sold that Guzman will remain in the middle of the diamond, they are sure he’s a unique prospect. Few doubt his raw power, and his plate coverage and athletic ability inspire awe from his teammates.
“Guzman is probably the guy who stands out the most,” says LaRoche, who has had an up-close view on the left side of the infield this season and last year at Vero Beach. “He’s a great player in all areas, athletic and just has mad pop.”
One NL scout cautions that Guzman, for all the improvement he has made on identifying breaking balls, still swings and misses too much and might have a swing too long to allow him to hit for a consistently high average.
Guzman had 26 strikeouts and only one walk in July, and his 114-37 strikeout-walk ratio doesn’t foretell future dominance. Yet he’s a 20-year-old shortstop slugging .488 in Double-A, ranking fourth in the league in doubles and sixth in homers. He’s athletic enough to have made massive strides in handling breaking balls, and he earns plaudits for individual facets of his defensive package.
“He’s got good feet, makes a good exchange,” another NL organization’s scout says. “He may wind up at third base or in the outfield, but he approaches the game sometimes in a laid-back, casual manner, and with maturity, he won’t keep making those mistakes he does now.
“I’m old-school; I’d leave him there until he can’t do it.”
DePodesta and the Dodgers have given Guzman time at third base this year, before LaRoche’s arrival, and Guzman had a rough go, with four of his 28 errors coming in just 36 chances. His 23 errors and .931 fielding percentage at short have not convinced the Dodgers to move Guzman permanently—yet. But with Cesar Izturis, just 25, blossoming into this generation’s best defensive shortstop in the majors, Guzman’s move is probably just a matter of time.
“Ultimately, he may play where his bat dictates,” DePodesta concedes, “or where we feel the bat dictates. The great thing about Joel is his versatility. He’s athletic enough that, while catcher and probably second base are out of the equation, he could go pretty much anywhere.”
Young teams in the minors are often not the best defensive teams. While scouts say Loney could win several Gold Gloves if he hits his way to a big league starting job, the glove is not the best tool of any of the rest of the Suns infielders. And Martin, still relatively new to his position, leads SL catchers with 10 errors. It’s all a natural outgrowth of White’s belief that athletes can be taught defense more easily than they can be taught to hit, but it still has left the Suns with mediocre infield defense.
So the Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey future probably won’t come true. But the group still pulls for each other.
“Those guys are pretty close,” White says. “They all have the feeling of wanting to come along together, coming up together. They all are team players. If they do well together, it will come together in Los Angeles.”
The true identity of the Dodgers since they moved to L.A. has been pitching, from Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale through Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser the young Pedro Martinez and Cy Young closer Eric Gagne. However, the only Dodger pitcher to win a playoff game since Hershiser in 1988—believe it—is Jose Lima.
At Jacksonville, though, the Dodgers have had the best recipe for developing homegrown pitching: massive depth of power arms. The first of them broke through to Los Angeles in Jonathan Broxton, as “The Bull” harnessed his massive 6-foot-4, 275-pound frame both as a starter and later as a reliever for the Suns. He posted a 3.38 ERA in 13 starts (72 innings, 71 strikeouts), then had a 3.32 mark in 15 relief appearances (19 innings, 28 strikeouts).
Moreover, Broxton showed versatility. His feel for pitching allowed him to perform even when he didn’t have his best stuff, such as a win at Montgomery when his fastball sat in the 80s instead of the 90s. He kept his feel but gained velocity in the bullpen, where he dialed his fastball up as high as 101 mph.
“He ——ing blows it by people, has deception in his delivery, a power breaking ball and a feel for it,” gushes an AL scout. “Look, I liked Billingsley—he’s got the combination of feel and power. But Broxton looked like a bigger Bartolo Colon out there, with a better body.”
Broxton was promoted July 30 and struck out eight of the first 25 big leaguers he faced, though he also posted a 10.39 ERA over that span. Still, he gave Billingsley and the rest of the rotation of Joel Hanrahan, Eric Hull, Edwin Jackson and Orenduff a template to follow.
Throw hard, but throw strikes. Be ready for any role. And don’t stop competing.
At times, one NL scout said, Broxton’s stuff was so nasty, Billingsley felt challenged to keep up and overthrew. The 21-year-old Ohioan, a 2003 first-round pick, has made progress with his command and all his pitches this season but hasn’t been as consistent as he or the Dodgers would like. And yet, he had nearly four times as many strikeouts (140) as walks (41) while holding opponents to a .237 average.
“The biggest progress he’s made has been controlling his curveball,” says Rick Honeycutt, the former big leaguer who serves as the organization’s roving pitching instructor. “He’s always been a hard thrower, but he wasn’t using his offspeed stuff enough. I think his curve is a real plus pitch and we’re trying to get across to him that he can use it more.”
The opposite is true for Jackson, the phenom who beat Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks in 2003 for his first big league win. Jackson has had nearly two rough seasons since then, going 6-4, 5.86 and showing a lack of feel for pitching at Las Vegas last season before a disastrous turn there this year—3-7, 8.62 in 55 innings, plus more walks (37) than whiffs (33).
Jackson throws up to 97 mph and usually sits in the 93-96 range with his fastball. Yet Honeycutt says the hitters’ havens in the Pacific Coast League, particularly at Las Vegas, caused Jackson to lose faith in his fastball. He started pitching backward, trying to nibble with his average changeup and slider to set up his heat, and kept getting beat using his two secondary pitches without a true plan for how to do it.
Despite Honeycutt’s admonitions, pitching coach Ken Howell’s long hours and Billingsley’s improved command, the Suns’ pitchers are still figuring things out. Their 4.09 ERA ranked sixth in the 10-team league, and while they were leading the SL in strikeouts (947), they also set the pace in walks (434).
“I tell these guys that especially with their stuff, if you’re afraid to throw strikes, you’re in the wrong place,” Honeycutt says. “Kenny has done a nice job with these guys, because it’s an extremely talented group, but it’s young. They may still lead the league in walks, but they’ve improved at attacking the zone. We want to attack the zone with the fastball down and away and work off that.
“Like the other night in one of Edwin’s starts. He fell behind a guy with runners on base, but he threw a good pitch away, got a flyout to center and got out of the jam. If he walks the guy, who knows, but he showed some maturity and made a pitch when he had to.”
As the season has gone on, the Suns’ staff keeps getting better. Jackson has made strides since coming down from Vegas and was regaining confidence, improving to 5-3, 3.89. Orenduff, a 2004 supplemental first-round pick, came up from Vero Beach, and though he’s three months older than Jackson, he’s also now on the fast track because of his fastball command and put-away slider. He won five of his first six decisions for the Suns and had 125 strikeouts in 104 innings overall for the season.
However, the real excitement on the staff (other than Broxton’s promotion) came with the arrival of three lefthanders. First, Taiwanese Tommy John surgery alumnus Hong-Chih Kuo arrived in late June. The 24-year-old has had three arm surgeries since signing in 1999, limiting him to just 42 pro innings entering this season. Yet he’s come out healthy in 2005, touching 98 mph with impressive life.
“He’s just got plus stuff,” Honeycutt says. “He has a really nice delivery and the ball jumps out of his hand. His fastball has a lot of life, it hops and kind of jumps on hitters. It just continues to rise and run. He hasn’t really needed his curveball or changeup much. They’re good pitches, but not plus like his fastball.”
Another hard-throwing lefty, Orlando Rodriguez, is bouncing back from arm surgery himself and has his velocity back in the 90s as well, producing 38 strikeouts in 30 innings overall. But the most important comeback was that in early August by Greg Miller, who returned to Jacksonville nearly two years after he first got there.
In September 2003, when Jackson got his promotion to L.A., the Dodgers mulled bringing up Miller, who was just 18 when he put together four dazzling starts for the Suns that summer. However, Miller has had two shoulder surgeries since then, including one in January to shave down his scapula (shoulder blade) to reduce irritation in the joint.
Miller finally returned to competition at the end of June in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and returned to Jacksonville on Aug. 8, relieving Jackson in a combined shutout of Chattanooga. He pitched again two days later and reported no pain in his shoulder, and his fastball was back up to 95 mph, even from his new, slightly lower arm angle.
During his rehabilitation, Miller spent a lot of time in and around Vero Beach, watching Dodgers come and go during instructional leagues, rehab stints or playing in the GCL or Florida State League. He knows the talent in the organization as well as anyone. And even he’s still caught off-guard a bit by how good the team he was returning to would be.
“This team is absolutely ridiculous,” he says, “but it’s not just the team—it’s the whole organization. When I was in Vero on part of my rehab, we went 16-3. And then I get here, look around the clubhouse and just think, ‘Is this for real?’ There is so much talent here it’s crazy.”
His time away hadn’t hurt Miller’s standing in the Suns’ tight clubhouse—LaRoche was in his ear, good-naturedly trying to distract him during an interview. When a team has the kind of talent these Suns have, they don’t have to like each other to grow up to be good big leaguers.
But it doesn’t hurt.
“Sometimes it feels a little like spring training having everyone around—but then again, I haven’t seen a lot of them since then,” Miller says. “It’s just a good feeling. Everyone knows everyone and trusts everyone, knows someone’s going to pick somebody up night in and night out. We believe in each other and it’s easily the best group of guys I’ve been around—and the most fun I’ve had in a long time.”
Contributing: Chris Kline