BY STEPHEN LYNCH, Special to The Californian
While Ken Griffey has never managed a professional baseball team prior to this season, the 19-year ex-major leaguer certainly knows what it takes to field a winning team.
The Bakersfield Blaze's new skipper was the starting right fielder on the Cincinnati Reds' 1975 and 1976 World Series champion teams.
Griffey, a former teammate of Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tom Seaver, plus baseball's all-time hit king Pete Rose, also helped the Big Red Machine capture National League pennants on two other occasions.
The Blaze opens it season on the road today, a 7 p.m. game in Visalia. Following a four-game series, Bakersfield will play three in Modesto before its home opener against Inland Empire on Thursday at Sam Lynn Ball Park
This year Griffey hopes to use his vast experience and baseball knowledge to help the Blaze, the Reds new Class-A affiliate, return to the California League playoffs.
"We come in with expectations to win," Griffey said. "We'd like to win the first half if not the whole thing. We'll see how it works out. A lot depends on injuries and how people go up and down. At this level there are a lot of changes on roster spots. We're just looking at staying consistent and hopefully we can come out of this place with a championship."
As the hitting coach for Dayton (Ohio), the Reds' Class-A affiliate last year, Griffey is familiar with a lot of the players on the Blaze's 25-man roster.
"I know exactly what most of them can do and how to handle them," Griffey said. "It will be a little bit easier for me."
Despite having three position players among the organization's top 30 minor league prospects according to Baseball America, Griffey believes the team's biggest strength is a pitching staff that throws strikes and works ahead in the count.
Right-handers Curtis Partch (7-11, 4.98 ERA ), Lance Janke (3-9, 6.44), JC Sulbaran (4-6, 4.99 ERA), Josh Ravin (4-7, 3.94) and Pedro Villarreal (4-10, 4.35), who each spent time with Class-A Lynchburg (Va.) and/or Dayton last season, give the Blaze a solid starting rotation.
They'll be joined by a bullpen that features Dayton saves leader Douglas Salinas. The hard-throwing Venezuela native struck out 50 batters in 412/3 innings last season.
Offensively, Bakersfield will utilize a lineup that possesses both speed and power.
Projected leadoff hitter Andrew Means had 21 stolen bases for Dayton last year. He and fellow outfielder Josh Fellhauer, who hit .240 with six home runs and 42 RBIs at Lynchburg, are expected to set the table for talented run producers Yasmani Grandal, Ryan LaMarre, Chris Richburg and Henry Rodriguez.
Grandal, the Reds' No. 6 prospect according to Baseball America, played at the University of Miami before being selected by Cincinnati with the No. 12 overall pick of the 2010 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
Grandal signed late so he only played eight games for the Reds' Arizona Fall League team last year. The switch-hitting catcher gives Bakersfield someone that can both get on base and drive in runs.
Rodriguez hit .305 with 14 home runs, 82 RBIs, and 78 runs scored in 130 combined games at Lynchburg and Dayton in 2010. The 5-foot-10, 150-pound middle infielder also stole 33 bases.
LaMarre, a former prep football and hockey standout from Michigan, had a .370 on base percentage in 60 games for Dayton. Though a right-handed batter, Griffey compares LaMarre to former Red Sox and Angels All-Star centerfielder Fred Lynn.
LaMarre's teammate with the Dragons, Richburg posted a .251 batting average and 14 home runs .
Grandal and LaMarre, a centerfielder, are also both very good defensive players with strong arms.
Though the Blaze should have plenty of talent to contend in the Cal League, Griffey knows managing in the minor leagues comes with some unique challenges.
"It's still High-A ball so we're going to experience some things that we're going to try to correct," Griffey said. "But I think we're in pretty good shape right now. I think we have a pretty good club. ... Hopefully we can keep guys together for the whole year then we'll be a lot better."