The poor finish to the 2004 season has made this a long winter for the Mud Hens. But memories of last year's miserable 6-28 finish are starting to fade, and hope for the 2005 season springs eternal.
This year the Mud Hens' hope comes in the form of several top prospects from the parent Detroit Tigers farm system that are expected to spend significant time at Fifth Third Field.
"For the first time in several years we're going to have more prospects here than everybody is used to,'' said Tigers vice president/assistant general manager Al Avila. "But we're also mixing in some veteran-type guys who have experience.''
The brightest prospect expected to start the season with the Mud Hens is center fielder Curtis Granderson, Detroit's top prospect, according to Baseball America. Last season Granderson was named to the Eastern League's post-season all-star team after hitting .301 with 21 homers and 94 RBIs for Double-A Erie, then played in nine September games with the Tigers.
"He'll start in Toledo,'' Avila said. "But if he has a good spring training and a good first half of the season here in Toledo, he may be right back up.''
Granderson should be flanked by a pair of former Royals prospects in Bryon Gettis and Alexis Gomez or by Marcus Thames, who last year hit 34 home runs in 125 games split between Toledo and Detroit. Both Gettis and Gomez began last season ranked among the Royals' top 20 prospects but posted batting averages in the .250s for Triple-A Omaha.
Prospects are expected to man three-quarters of the Mud Hens infield with Chris Shelton at first, Ryan Raburn at second and Jack Hannahan at third. Shelton, a Rule 5 pick from Pittsburgh a year ago, played in just 27 games for Detroit last season but then was voted MVP of the Arizona Fall League after batting .404 with six homers and 33 RBIs, the batting average and RBI total both topping the league.
Raburn, the Tigers' eighth-best prospect, hit .301 with 16 homers for Double-A Erie last season, while Hannahan finished with a .273 batting average and eight home runs for the SeaWolves.
Six-year free agent Gookie Dawkins, a former Louisville Bat who played last season at both Iowa and Omaha in the Pacific Coast League, is expected to start at shortstop for the Hens.
Depth comes from six-year free agents such as corner infielder Mike Hessman, who spent several years in the Atlanta organization, and middle infielder Kevin Hooper, whom many scouts have likened to David Eckstein, as well as former Hens Rayner Bautista and Brant Ust.
Shelton, who began his pro career as a catcher, should see time behind the plate along with Sandy Martinez, a veteran major leaguer who played at Buffalo last season, and another former Hen in Mike Rivera.
"I think this is going to be a pretty good hitting club and a pretty good defensive club,'' Avila said. "I think we'll have enough pitching that this will be an exciting team to watch.''
There are plenty of options for the starting rotation thanks to a blend of newcomers and returnees. Among the familiar faces expected to push for starting spots are right-handers Nate Cornejo and Matt Roney, while Double-A pitchers Kenny Baugh, Rob Henkel and Preston Larrison are expected to make the jump.
Baugh, a right-hander, was 8-8 with the SeaWolves and finished eighth in the Eastern League with a 3.72 ERA, while Larrison, another right-hander, was fifth in the league with a 3.05 ERA and was 5-4. Henkel, a left-hander, made only three starts because of injuries.
Among the six-year free agents looking to crack the rotation are right-handers Sean Douglass, who split time between Toronto and Triple-A Syracuse, and Andrew Good, who spent seven seasons in the Arizona system.
Familiar faces to Toledo fans should return to the Mud Hen bullpen in set-up man Craig Dingman, who also pitched in 24 games for the Tigers, and closer John Ennis, who was 9-5 as a starter and posted 10 saves as a reliever for the Hens last season.
Another former Hen, right-hander Nelson Cruz, could serve as a swing-man, while southpaws Mike Bynum and Doug Creek could balance the bullpen.
"You'll have a lot of guys that will be working hard to earn different positions,'' Avila said. "It [the pitching staff] will all work itself out in spring training. But we think we have enough depth to carry us the entire season.''
Best of all, more prospects are on the horizon. Double-A Erie's pitching staff includes three pitchers ranked among Detroit's top five prospects in Kyle Sleeth (second), Joel Zumaya (fourth) and Humberto Sanchez (fifth).
"We have great prospects in the pitching staff [at Erie],'' Avila said. "We think highly of those guys, and we think they have a bright future. We also will have a shortstop there in Tony Giarratano who is a good defensive player and had good offensive numbers.
"They are good prospects, and in a short time their next step will be Toledo.''
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com or 419-724-6481.