Thursday, April 05, 2007

Nothing Minor About Sounds' Media Day: 2007 Squad Debuts for Reporters and Photogs

Under the watchful eye of Nashville Sounds media relations director Doug Scopel, the 2007 version of the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple A minor league affiliate took the field at Greer Stadium yesterday, to pose for pictures and submit to interviews with representatives from local newspaper, television and online outlets. [Above: Tennessean staff photographer Dipti Vaidya snaps a pic of new Sounds second baseman Callix Crabbe.]

What seemed at first to be a cool day turned into near perfection, with the sun shining brightly and the day actually warm enough for a ballgame. Photographers and reporters were in place at 3 p.m., and shortly thereafter the Sounds, led by third-year manager Frank Kremblas (left), trundled out of the clubhouse in spanking clean white new uniforms. Hopes might be high for this version of the Sounds, but the team's undergone a lot of changes since last year's squad finished 76-68 and advanced to the American Conference finals of the Pacific Coast League playoffs. The 2005 Sounds won the PCL championship.

In the past two years, the Sounds have been led by some hot young talent, including Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, and Tony Gwynn Jr., all of whom were snapped up quickly by the parent Brewers, who now look to be a team on the rise in the National League's Central Division. The 2007 Sounds return a few stalwarts from last year's team—including catcher Mike Rivera, shortstop Chris Barnwell and versatile IF-OF-C Vinny Rottino—but in many ways this is a new mini-Brew Crew, as compared to the 2006 Opening Day roster.

Among the fresh faces reporting from Milwaukee's Huntsville (Ala.) AA club are Crabbe and promising right-handed pitcher Tim Dillard. There are also the usual refugees from other major league farm systems looking for new beginnings—e.g., former Rockies catcher J.D. Closser, former A's, Red Sox and Reds farmhand Andy Abad, and local Nashville boy R. A. Dickey, formerly of the Texas Rangers. OF-1B Abad, 34, has always hit well in the high minors, and the Sounds will need his bat. Dickey, 32—pictured, right, interviewed by WTVF-NewsChannel5's Kami Carmann—was a former star at the University of Tennessee before launching his pro career in 1997. Unlike his Sounds teammates who've only had the proverbial "cup of coffee" in the bigs, Dickey logged serious roster time with Texas in 2003-2004 and has pitched in the majors for parts of five seasons. His career record is 16-19, and his 5.72 ERA pretty much tells the story of his frustrations in staying in "The Show." Nashville could be the last stop in Dickey's somewhat disappointing career, or it could be his chance to show the parent Brewers' front office that he can help them make a run at a division title.

Three new Sounds—IF-OF Jose Macias, IF-OF Joe Dillon and P Chris Oxspring—spent 2006 playing baseball in Japan. Macias, who is 35, has played 659 major league ballgames with Detroit, Montreal and Chicago, and has a .256 career batting average. He's a versatile guy, and he should help the Sounds immediately in the outfield. Alas, he only hit .229 with Hokkaido Nippon last year, after posting some respectable numbers with the Cubs in 2004-2005.

All minor league clubs have their share of players for whom time is running out on a big league career. Seven of the 2007 Sounds are 30 or older, and Triple A is not where you want to be at that age. Getting jostled around from minor league affiliate to minor league affiliate is also usually not an encouraging sign for any guy trying to impress major league front offices. Still, Triple A is the place to reclaim the dream. Five of the Sounds—Rottino, OF Drew Anderson, and pitchers Dennis Sarfate, Zach Jackson and Jose Capellan are members of the Brewers' 40-man roster, which means the parent club has a vested interest in their solid production, with an eye toward a possible 2007 call-up. None of the five is older than 26.

But what Triple A ball is really for is seeing if hot young prospects are continuing their development and getting ready to position themselves for major-league stardom. Two Sounds fit specifically into this category: 3B Ryan Braun (left) and P Yovani Gallardo. Braun, 23, was the Brewers' first-round selection in the June 2005 draft. He's hit well all through the lower minors in parts of two seasons, and in 59 games with Huntsville in 2006, he batted .303, with 15 HRs and 40 RBIs. Braun is error-prone, however, and they don't have the DH rule in the National League. Working on his defense is a priority in Nashville. Gallardo, only 21, has also excelled in his brief minor league stints. His IP/H ratio is terrific and in 303 innings he's recorded 329 strikeouts. His control can be sharpened, but if he gets off to a hot start, don't be surprised if Milwaukee comes calling.

Media Day took place at just about the same time Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell was releasing an official notice of default to the Sounds, for their failure to sufficiently develop the downtown Thermal Plant property as per their original plans for building a new stadium. The Sounds' memorandum of understanding (MOU) expires on April 15, and the Metro Council voted 38-0 on Tuesday, April 3, to reject extending this deadline to October. Reporters peppered Scopel with questions about this issue, but the media director deflected the inquiries deftly, insisting that Media Day was for the players only, and that stadium questions had to be addressed at another time by general manager Glenn Yaeger.

For what it's worth—and for those who appreciate its simple, throwback charm—Greer Stadium looks to be in great shape, ready for the April 5 season opener, which kicks off at 7 p.m. against the New Orleans Zephyrs, the New York Mets' Triple A affiliate. Greer remains a quaint and atmospheric place to play and watch baseball, with its distinctive guitar-shaped scoreboard. The stadium has expanded its food offerings for 2007, and fans can expect the usual promotional dates, with fireworks, live music, and games and activities focusing on the kids.

This year's Nashville Sounds could struggle, but the younger players bear close watching. If the older vets can recapture some of the magic that earned them their occasional major league stripes—and if the Brewers are doing so well that they can leave their Music City affiliate alone for a while to develop some chemistry—there's no reason why 2007 can't have its own brand of excitement. Triple A ball may not be the big leagues, but it's as close as it gets, and at eminently affordable prices. Free parking is still an amazingly wonderful and rare thing.

Go Sounds!

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