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Goldeyes spring into action

Ten questions surrounding team heading into 17th training camp

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If Mother Nature allows, the Winnipeg Goldeyes will open their 17th training camp this morning on the plush grass of Canwest Park.

Just as in previous years, the camp will not only contain the requisite hope and excitement associated with the birth of a new season, but it will also mix in the usual amount of uncertainty.

What will the team look like this year? Who is playing where? Queries along those lines.

Some positions are set in stone, locked down through production of seasons past. Other spots have a battle to them, a fight for a job that will come over the eight pre-season games the club has scheduled over the next two weeks.

The biggest question mark heading into training camp might be on the mound. Only three faces from last year -- starter Ace Walker and relievers Zach Baldwin and Ian Thomas -- return to Manitoba, meaning the fight for a staff spot should be a heated one.

"I actually don't mind bringing in some new pitchers before the season," Goldeyes manager Rick Forney said Monday morning.

"They've been throwing since spring training -- so there's a little less guesswork involved when they come to town."

Winnipeg has 11 pitchers on the training camp roster but two of those, Walker and Thomas, won't join the club until they finish up school commitments.

Their absence doesn't mean the pitchers here today will be here a week from today, though. Some will play their way out of Winnipeg, finding either another chance at affiliated ball or an appointment with an employment office.

It all depends on what they do on the hill.

In fact, Forney plans on adding a few more arms as the exhibition schedule moves forward to increase the level of competition.

And until those newcomers get in a Goldeye uniform and face some adversity, a question mark will remain a part of their resumé.

The players know this equation all too well.

"Just like every year, all the uncertainty about the team will be answered once we start playing games," said Mark Holliman, a 26-year-old right-hander.

Well said. Here's a look at 10 questions surrounding the Goldeyes heading into training camp:

-- Let's stay on the mound. Who will be a part of the rotation?

As of today, RHP Ace Walker, RHP Mark Holliman, RHP Matt Knigynsky, LHP Antony Bello and LHP Chris Salamida make up the starting group. LHP Zach Baldwin, RHP Casey Hodges and RHP Stephen Flake can also start. Holliman comes in with an impressive Double-A resumé, but Walker (who went 12-6 with a 3.36 ERA and six complete games in 21 starts last season) could be the guy to watch. Forney called his 2009 campaign "one of the best by a Goldeyes starter in 10 years." What will he do for an encore?

-- Of the 23 players in camp today, who will be involved in the most intriguing pre-season battle?

The outfield corner spots are quite crowded, with four players -- Kevin West, Cory Patton, Dee Brown and youngster Lee Ellis -- vying for two starting jobs. West, weeks removed from an extended look at the Cincinnati Reds camp, is a lock for right-field employment, so it basically comes down to three guys and one spot in left field. Both Patton and Brown are returning veterans, and one will probably move on. "I'm glad we have eight pre-season games to figure this out," Forney said, forecasting more grey hairs as a decision on who to keep looms.

-- What kind of impact will CF Aharon Eggleston have?

The two-time all-star hit .318 and led the Northern League in hits with 123 in 2009, and should provide some stability to the Goldeyes in two ways: Not only will the 28-year-old provide some quality experience in the No. 2 hole in the batting order but his ability to track down balls in the spacious centre field of Canwest Park will take some of the burden off the Goldeyes' mound. Eggleston had a perfect fielding percentage (no errors in 215 total chances) with Kansas City last summer.

-- Is SS Wes Long ready to roll?

"It feels great. I can tell that I had surgery, as it gets stiff and stuff like that, but it feels strong when I loosen up. No worries." That was Long on Monday, regarding the condition of a broken ankle suffered mid-way through last summer. Long, who will lead off for the Fish, started pushing the ankle in February and hasn't had any setbacks during his preparations for the 2010 campaign.

-- Can DH Juan Diaz continue to crush the ball?

Are you going to tell the 6-foot-4, 298-pound masher that he won't be able to? Didn't think so. Check out these numbers: Diaz batted .317 with 29 home runs and 90 RBI in his first season in Winnipeg. He also hit .400 with runners in scoring position. Want another sign of Diaz's power at the plate? He led the league with eight intentional walks. Some teams were just scared to pitch to him.

-- Where will C Luis Alen be in a month?

It is no coincidence the Goldeyes have three catchers in camp, as Forney doesn't expect Alen to be in Winnipeg for very long. After proving himself a legit prospect in 2007 with the Fish (he hit .333), Alen spent the last two seasons in the New York Mets system. The month of May is usually when injuries start to pop up. Organizations could come calling sooner than later.

-- Who is the closer?

Look for Forney to add an arm as camp moves along. Of the 11 pitchers on the roster, no one really stands above the rest as the ninth-inning guy. If the season started today, it would be closer by committee.

-- Fill in the blank: The Goldeyes first baseman will be... ?

The potential for an outfield spot spillover into the infield is there, but until that situation arises (if it does) first base looks like Jeremy Hamilton's to lose. The 23-year-old doesn't have a whole lot of power but he does give the Fish some experience at the position.

-- How many players will Forney keep?

The Northern League salary cap remains at $130,000 this summer, but the roster limit has increased to 23 players. Same amount of money, more players to spend it on. Forney figures to spend more on the players he'll count on all season, keeping his roster at 21 or 22.

-- When do the games start to count?

Opening-day rosters must be submitted to the league on May 17. The Goldeyes begin on May 20, when they host the expansion Lake County Fielders.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2010 C1

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