Checking Into the 2012 Albuquerque Isotopes

Last year at this time, I look a look at how the roster was shaping up for the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. Considering how set the MLB roster seems to be at this point, it’s a whole lot more interesting to look at the minors, so let’s do it again. A year ago, we were excited at the prospect of seeing Dee Gordon, Trayvon Robinson, and Jerry Sands all playing together at the highest minor-league level. This year, there’s a different crop of interesting offensive prospects to keep tabs on, though not likely a whole lot of interest on the mound.

C: After parts of four seasons in Triple-A, dating back to 2008 with Las Vegas, A.J. Ellis is out of options and finally set to get a shot in the bigs. There’s little question here that Tim Federowicz will be the regular Isotopes backstop, since the 102 plate appearances he received with Albuquerque last season were his first above Double-A. Last year’s primary backup, Damaso Espino, is an unsigned free agent, so it’s likely that recently-signed veteran Josh Bard joins Federowicz in New Mexico, with a decent chance we’ll see either prospect Gorman Erickson or recently-signed and well-traveled Salomon Manriquez making appearances at points as well.

1B: Scott Van Slyke, 2011′s Dodger minor league hitter of the year, moves up from Double-A Chattanooga; he could still see some time in the outfield corners, but is mainly seen as a first baseman. Fun stories John Lindsey and Corey Smith are each unsigned and probably won’t be back; Jerry Sands could see some time here as well as in the outfield if he ends up not breaking camp with the big club.

2B: I’m still not convinced that he won’t be traded this winter, but the Mark Ellis signing eliminated any chance that Ivan DeJesus was going to make the Dodgers, so he’ll likely return to Triple-A for a third consecutive season. You have to wonder when Jaime Pedroza, owner of a .370 OBP in parts of two Double-A seasons, could get a shot; in addition, Justin Sellers might be the primary shortstop but should still see time at second and third as he attempts to keep his positional flexibility fresh for his future career as a utilityman.

3B: Russ Mitchell has no shot of making the Dodgers barring a string of injuries, and Pedro Baez & Travis Denker are hardly pushing him from behind, so he’ll return for his third Triple-A year at the age of 27. We’ll see him in the bigs again, as we always do, and he’ll be underwhelming as usual. Did you know the ‘Topes had thirteen third basemen last year? Okay, seven played in fewer than five games, but still.

SS: Sellers probably gets the initial look, though I’ll guess he won’t play the majority of games at shortstop since he’ll both be at second and third for Albquerque and probably spend a decent amount of time in the bigs once the elderly begin to break down. Recent minor-league invites Luis Cruz and Lance Zawadzki should collect plenty of time filling space until Jake Lemmerman is ready, perhaps in 2013.

LF: This largely depends on Sands, because if he’s in the minors, he’s playing every day. Primary 2011 left fielder Trayvon Robinson is of course gone, so there should be an opening for what could be a hilarious season out of Kyle Russell. Russell has been known for his massive power and nearly-as-impressive difficulties in making contact, so that package in ABQ should present some Triple-A fueled numbers that’ll have us all pretending like he’s the next big thing by June.

CF: Alfredo Silverio was added to the 40-man roster earlier this offseason after a solid season in Chattanooga, and with both regular center fielders gone from 2011 – Robinson to Seattle, and Jamie Hoffmann to Colorado – there’s a big hole here for Silverio to fill. Non-roster invite Cory Sullivan probably also fits into the mix here.

RF: Well, I don’t think Jay Gibbons is coming back. Alex Castellanos, impressive in a short look with Chattanooga after being acquired for Rafael Furcal, is likely to start the season as the primary Isotope right fielder; Russell and Sullivan could see time here as well.

Bench: Other than the guys I’ve already mentioned – Bard, Cruz, Zawadzki, & Sullivan – corner infielder Jeff Baisley will probably be an Isotope, plus perhaps 2B/3B Joe Becker, who got into 70 games with the club last season. In the outfield, expect to see Trent Oeltjen or someone else like him, and at some point, Albuquerque native Brian Cavazos-Galvez should make his hometown debut.

Starting Pitching

It helps, somewhat, that the Dodger starting rotation and bullpen are all but set, so there’s no worry about ten guys fighting for that fifth rotation spot. On the other hand, the Dodgers have shown a pattern of trying to keep their top pitching prospects away from the high-offense PCL, preferring to promote them directly from Double-A instead, so these are informed guesses and little more.

SP1: Being the #1 starter on this list doesn’t mean “ace” as it would in the bigs; rather, it’s just the order in which I consider them most likely. John Ely, owner of 25 starts for the Isotopes last year and a few stints with the Dodgers, is almost certainly headed back for another year of Triple-A. He’s roster depth at best – great to have around, never someone you want to count on.

SP2: Will Savage had a reasonably successful season for the Lookouts last year, striking out few but showing excellent control. Hardly a top prospect – 28 next year, and has been a minor-league free agent more than once – he’ll likely turn his invite to big-league camp into a season spent in New Mexico.

SP3: Like Savage, Michael Antonini is hardly a name to know – he was acquired for Chin-lung Hu for chrissake – but he’ll be 27 next year, was invited to the offseason developmental camp, and has a few games of Triple-A experience under his belt from his time with the Mets.  He’s been a bit homer-prone in the lower levels, which is somewhat terrifying to think about in Albuquerque.

SP4: I went back and forth on this one, which is why he’s SP4, but I’ll guess that Nathan Eovaldi does head to Triple-A rather than Double-A. That’s partly because the Chattanooga rotation looks like it could be getting full, but also because Eovaldi was decent in his time in the bigs, and sending him back down two levels could look like an insult. Besides, if you’re going to succeed in the NL West, you have to learn how to win in Colorado and Arizona.

Others: Alberto Bastardo and Randy Keisler combined to make 34 starts last year; each is currently a free agent and might not be back. Tim Sexton was awful last year, largely as an injury fill-in, and don’t forget that Carlos Monasterios should be back from elbow surgery at some point. There’s probably also going to be another Dana Eveland-like veteran that we don’t know about yet, and it’s possible that younger arms like Allen Webster, Chris Withrow, and Stephen Fife could push their way up if the organization doesn’t try to keep them away from Albuquerque.

Relief Pitching

Take your pick. It’s possible that none of the top three Isotope leaders in games pitched from 2011 – Jon Link (already signed with Baltimore), Travis Schlichting, Merkin Valdez – returns. The fourth was Ramon Troncoso, who might make the Dodgers but is far more likely to be DFA’d since he’s out of options. Josh Lindblom could appear if he doesn’t make the big team, but the entire collection of recently signed fungible veterans – Angel Guzman, Fernando Nieve, Jose Ascanio, Ryan Tucker, Shane Lindsay, Alberto Castillo, Matt Chico, Scott Rice, John Grabow, Wil Ledezma – are candidates to make up the bullpen, as again, the Dodgers try not to put their better prospects like Shawn Tolleson, Steve Ames, and Josh Wall here.

Remember, the Isotopes have used 49, 56, and 52 players going back to 2009, so this is an extremely high-level look; needs change as the big club makes their own moves.