Thursday, March 30, 2006

Umps say they're out

It could be a fireworks-filled opening weekend for the Biscuits.

If you haven't heard, minor-league umpires and Minor League Baseball have been trying to negotiate a labor agreement. So far, they've been unsuccessful and the umpires say they're going on strike. Next week, if no agreement has been reached, Minor League Baseball will use fill-in umpires, apparently from each team's area, from the college or high school ranks. Fill-ins are already working spring training games.

This could get interesting.

I've already seen more sniping at the umpires this spring than the two previous years. Spring minor-league games are quite relaxed and a borderline call -- in the past -- rarely drew more than a glance.

I don't challenge the fill-ins qualifications, but the players and coaches do. They'll question them in full force when the season starts. I will say that the speed of a professional game is significantly faster than the amateur level (and the language is much bluer and tolerated). Calling a prep game one day and the Biscuits the next isn't a tasty recipe.

If the situation isn't settled, expect a highly charged atmosphere -- and plentiful dugout-to-umpire diatribes -- at the stadium.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Show some Pridie

The jigsaw puzzle had an extra piece dropped in it today. Jason Pridie is back with the Devil Rays after the Minnesota Twins decided to leave him off their major-league roster. Pridie was taken in the Rule V draft last December and had to stay in the majors or be offered back to the Rays.

The Rays jumped at the chance. Pridie had only a .213 average in 28 games at Montgomery last year after a serious early-season knee injury, but has shown signs of an ability to create runs.

He was greatly welcomed at the minor-league complex. He stood near the entrance and, with the dexterity of a discount-store greeter, shook a lot of hands and talked to almost everyone.

The speedy Fernando Perez seemed a possibility to make the jump two levels from low-A Southwest Michigan, where he swiped 57 bases last year, to the Biscuits. Perez now appears set for high-A Visalia.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Snobbish behavior

Well, I embarrassed myself -- yet again -- today. I had just chatted with someone in the clubhouse at the minor-league complex and started walking toward the fields. Someone was behind me, but I didn't recognize him and just kept walking. It was Chris Seddon, who pitched for the Biscuits in both 2004 and 2005.

In my defense, Seddon has grown his hair out a little bit. He had a crew-cut look last season, but now it can hang into his eyes. No matter the hairstyle, if Seddon continues his professional trend, he's due for a big season at Durham.

In the last two years, Seddon has started his season back at the level he ended the previous season, greatly improved his performance and earned a first-half promotion. Both times, he had average numbers after the promotion, but a steep learning curve led to early success.

Seddon did it at Montgomery in 2004-05. He was the Biscuits' pitcher of the year in 2004, despite a 9-10 record, a 4.39 ERA and 129 hits against him in 119 innings. He was much better in 2005 and was gone at the end of May.

Today, Seddon made sure to tease me for ignoring him. Hopefully, he won't be easy to ignore at Durham.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Prochaska performance

Mike Prochaska threw four-plus shutout innings in the Class AA exhibition game with the Trenton Thunder today. Prochaska was with the Biscuits for much of 2004, but stayed at Class A Visalia almost all of last season.

Brett Wayne and Jeff Ridgway each threw two shutout innings and the Biscuits led 3-0 after 8 1/2. Alas, Trenton touched Joe Little for three runs and won it in the 10th.

On a neighboring field, Elijah Dukes hit a towering home run in the Class AAA game. It was a windy day, but Dukes' shot wasn't helped by it. Just after contact, someone in the stands said, "Look at it go." Kevin Witt followed with a more generic home run to right.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Sound of spring -- brrr

Made it to St. Petersburg and I'm glad I brought a jacket and a sweatshirt. Biscuits manager Charlie Montoyo said it had been warm this week, just before he accused me of bringing the cold weather with me.

Nice enough drive (just more than 500 miles, if you're curious). I have to wonder if there is any longer stretch of blank road than that between Tallahassee and Lake City. Rolled past a wreck in Tampa where a cement truck had overturned. It blocked all three lanes of traffic and police directed cars through the emergency lane. It took about 50 minutes to go five miles.

I hit the minor-league complex first and it's amazing how many people you meet when you cover a baseball team. Everybody is saying hi. Delmon Young, who was sometimes frosty last season, was warm and friendly. With his obvious baseball talent, if he can embrace that kind of personality, he'll be a major star.

Rolled down to the major-league game tonight and the Reds beat the Rays 6-1. Carl Crawford hit an inside-the-park home run for Tampa Bay. Ruddy Lugo, who was with Montgomery last season, had a nice two innings and gave up just one hit. New Rays owner Stuart Sternberg was in the house and talked about how his efforts to revive the franchise.

Guessing game, Part II

I'm slipping this in just under the buzzer. I hit in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Friday and promised to have these predictions before I arrive. I made the deadline. After getting to St. Pete, I will start pumping out stories soon thereafter -- look for the first Biscuits tale in Monday's paper.

I posted a few guesses Monday on what pitchers should be in Montgomery to start the season. Now, as promised, here are some absolute guesses over the position players:

Elliot Johnson has become a prized second baseman in Tampa Bay's system after signing as a non-drafted free agent. The Devil Rays thought enough of him to send him to the Arizona Fall League last year and think enough of him to want him to play every day. The major-league job is set (Jorge Cantu) and Fernando Cortez is waiting in the wings if something happens to Cantu. With Cortez at Durham, that bumps Johnson back to Montgomery.

A week ago, I would have quickly listed Matthew Maniscalco as Montgomery's full-time shortstop this year. Now, I've read that Brent Butler is back in camp. Butler suffered a shoulder injury that prematurely ended 2005. Butler is a former major-leaguer (203 games experience with the Rockies). Julio Lugo and B.J. Upton will start in Tampa Bay and Durham to start the season. We'll see how it falls after that.

Both are great guys, but it wouldn't be surprising to see both Shawn Riggans and Chairon Isenia back at catcher. Riggans had a breakout season last year and, if he returns, won't be here long.

Francisco Leandro moved from low-Class A Southwest Michigan to high-Class A Visalia on July 4. He didn't need any adjustment time. Leandro hit .355, reached base 130 times in 60 games and was the Oaks' player of the year. His next swings will be with the Biscuits.

Wes Bankston played first at Montgomery last year. Now, he's trying out third. He mashed in Montgomery to the tune of a .292 average, 12 home runs and 47 RBIs in 82 games. Since he's at a new position, I'll take a guess that he's back with the Biscuits to start this season. Would the Rays give one of their top young hitters a new position and a higher level to master? Don't worry; he won't stay too long. If he's successful at third, Tampa Bay is currently in need at that position and will promote him. If Bankston isn't successful, Tampa Bay will move him back to first and beckon his bat upward.

Throw Gabriel Martinez back on the roster, too, but I'm not sure what position he'll concentrate on. He was a first/third baseman to start last year. After he was demoted to Visalia and returned, he played some left and right field, too.

There are my unfettered guesses before I even see a pitch thrown. We'll see how poor of an evaluator I am.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Guessing game, Part I

I report to spring training Friday -- two weeks after the Tampa Bay minor-leaguers started -- so this is a good time to make some wild guesses as to who will be in Montgomery this year. (Again, before those e-mails roll in about how much of an idiot I am for what follows, note the use of the phrase "wild guesses.")

I'll start with the pitchers. I hope to get back with some hitters before Friday.

Jeff Niemann is scheduled to start the year late because of offseason shoulder surgery. Once he gets back, I'd say it's a safe bet that he'll be in Montgomery.

Andy Sonnanstine tore up two Class A levels last year -- he was the pitcher of the year at Visalia in the hitter-heaven California League. Look for him here.

Jarod Matthews was a Southern League All-Star two years ago for the Biscuits, but missed last season with an injury. He's had success at this level and will need to get reacclimated, so Montgomery is the prime place for him to be.

Tony Peguero made nine starts here last year. He was 5-1 with a 4.01 ERA, but needs more time at Class AA. Hitters had a .285 average against him, so he still has something to prove.

My safest pick is Juan Salas. He'll be in the bullpen. Salas has a live arm and serious velocity, but needs another pitch to complement the fastball. This will be only his second full season pitching.

Brian Henderson, one of the quietest, yet smartest players in Tampa Bay's system, should at least start the season here. He had solid numbers, but wasn't dominating in 2005. He seemed to be on a short leash last year. If he got in trouble, he was pulled out of the game, rather than being allowed to work out of the jam himself.

That's enough for now. There's still a long way to go before the roster will be set.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Open mouth, insert foot

Here's a first pitch to a blog about the Biscuits, Montgomery's minor-league baseball team and the Class AA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Look for behind-the-scenes tidbits, offhand information, anecdotes and even an occasional opinion from my feeble mind here throughout the season.