“There’s always talent in any minor league system,” Shane Victorino says, and boy, if he isn’t dead on about the 2004 Las Vegas 51’s, a team that finished in third place in the Pacific – South Division with a 67-76 record.
Through the cramped corridors inside Las Vegas’ Cashman Field and past the doors of the team’s clubhouse was a locker room occupied by a collection of players who made significant impacts in the major leagues and left enduring World Series memories – all with other franchises.
Victorino, a 2008 World Series champion who has 198 career postseason plate appearances, was one. Cody Ross, who turned around a slow start – and a DL stint when his nephew closed a car door on his hand in May – to bat .273 with 14 HR before his season was ended when he was hit by a pitch and suffered a broken wrist one week before his September 1 call-up, was another. He hit five postseason homeruns while winning a World Series with San Francisco in 2010, including two in one game off Roy Halladay. Jayson Werth, another Phillies World Series winner, hit three homeruns in a Triple-A game against Edmonton in early June, 2004.
Edwin Jackson, a prized Dodger prospect ranked as the fourth-best in baseball entering the season according to Baseball America, won a World Series with St. Louis last season and has averaged over 200 innings for the last four. He was traded to Tampa Bay along with Chuck Tiffany in January, 2006 for Danys Baez and Lance Carter.
Joel Hanrahan, who allowed 22 homeruns in 119 innings in 2004 but is on pace for his second consecutive 40-save season in Pittsburgh, is fighting to make his own postseason impact this year.
“Sometimes for us, a lot of us never got to the big leagues with the Dodgers and made it with other organizations, and sometimes that’s just how it works,” Victorino said. “I think in the big scheme of things, you play a big game of baseball. It doesn’t matter if it’s Dodger blue, or Phillie red, or Yankee pinstripes. You play the game because you love the game, and that’s what you do. In that room, there was definitely a lot of talent, a lot of guys that I thought would have potential to be great major league players.”
The Pacific Coast League will never be confused with a pitcher’s league, and in 2004 its bloated offensive numbers rose sharply. The league’s 16 teams averaged 5.3 runs per game, stinging Triple-A pitching to the tune of a 4.89 ERA, a number surpassed only once in the seven-plus seasons that have followed.
Yet for a team that sported a .289 batting average and routinely played in the plush hitters environments of Salt Lake City, Tucson, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque in addition to their home launching pad, Victorino never found much of a rhythm. He had 73 major league at bats to his name at the time – all with San Diego in 2003 after they had selected him away from Los Angeles in the Rule 5 draft the previous off-season. After being returned to the Dodgers two months into ‘03, he hit well in Double-A Jacksonville to warrant a late-2003 call-up to Las Vegas, where he bat .390 over 41 at bats to close the season.
In 2004, that constant upwards trajectory through the minor leagues since he had been drafted by Los Angeles five years prior was slowed as he scuffled through a challenging season, the first that he had opened at the Triple-A level. He bat .235 with a .278 on base percentage and was re-assigned to Double-A Jacksonville midway through the season before being claimed by Philadelphia in the Rule 5 Draft that December.
He would bat .310 with 18 homeruns for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre the following season, winning the International League Most Valuable Player Award. When he was recalled by Philadelphia late in 2005, the only future minor league playing time he saw came in rehab assignments.
“I think just playing the game, getting experience under my belt, and trusting the capability that I could play at,” Victorino listed as what he focused on through his minor league development. “That was the thing, was that throughout the years learning the process and learning to be the player that I can be and going out there and having fun with it, and using my abilities and my potential to be that player.”
The player that he is is someone who has a variety of different tools, who plays exemplary defense with a strong arm, and for all his catalytic tendencies at the top of an order, he also has some pretty good pop in his bat for somebody who’s only 5-foot-9.
“It’s kind of the cool thing about baseball that it’s not really just sit there and size and strength,” manager Don Mattingly said of how more compact players are capable of finding their power stroke.
“It’s kind of leverage and timing and bat speed and all that really creates the power. The pitcher creates the power for you, pretty much. When you’re hitting the ball, you’re pretty much just reversing it.”
It’ll be an awfully interesting three months in a Dodger uniform to conclude the season and close out the final year of the three-year, 22-million dollar contract he signed in January, 2010. He’s indicated that he’d like to remain in Los Angeles, and if he receives even just a satisfactory evaluation over his pennant race audition, it’s very likely he’ll receive a more than satisfactory contract offer, taking into account the team’s fiscal generosity under Guggenheim Baseball Management.
It’s not a bad situation for a player who spent six years in the Dodgers’ minor league system and who was claimed twice in the Rule 5 draft.
“If you had told me that I would have been a World Series champion, if you had told me I’d be a two-time All-Star, three-time [Gold Glove]? No way. I would have never said [that], would you have told me I’d have a thousand hits in the big leagues. No. But I think at the end of the day, you just play this game because you love it, and you go out there and enjoy it, and you stay focused on it, and you just take it one game at a time.”
“It didn’t work out here, but hey, it came full circle, and now I’m back here and getting an opportunity to make a postseason run and be part of a postseason team. I always look at things like that. I never sit back and think about, ‘oh, well, I’m disappointed in this organization for not giving me a chance.’ You can’t do those kinds of things. And I’m sure those same guys feel the same way – you know, Jayson Werth, and signing his long term deal, and guys like that. There was a lot of talent in that room, but again, ultimately at the end of the day, you just focus on the game of baseball and you go out there and have fun.”