With just four days remaining until Opening Day, the roster for the 2003 Portland Sea Dogs is almost set.

First the good news: Two of the top three prospects of the parent Boston Red Sox will spend time in Portland.

Third baseman Kevin Youkilis (rated No. 3 by Baseball America) and catcher Kelly Shoppach (No. 2) are both destined for Hadlock Field.

Now the bad news: If he continues his rapid ascent up the organizational ladder, Youkilis could very well be in Triple-A Pawtucket sooner than later. Shoppach, meanwhile, won’t join the team until at least mid-May while he continues to recover from surgery for a frayed rotator cuff at extended spring training.

Youkilis hit .344 in 44 games for Trenton at the tail end of last season and ranked fifth in the minor leagues in on-base percentage, a point of emphasis of the new Red Sox regime.

Youkilis’ rapid development is a big reason Shea Hillenbrand’s name continuously comes up in most trade discussions. There was even talk that he would start the season in Pawtucket.

“It’s hard to say how long (he’ll be in Portland),” said Boston’s minor league coordinator, Ben Cherington. “Right now, he’s 100 percent focused and comfortable going to Portland.”

Shoppach was the Red Sox top pick in the 2001 draft and was scheduled to go to the Arizona Fall League after being named a Florida State League (Class A) all-star in his first season, until his shoulder acted up.

“He’s coming along well,” said Cherington. “He’s going to start throwing to second base this week. We’re going to be cautious with him.”

Until Shoppach arrives, the catching duties will be split between veterans Brian Lloyd, Andy Dominique (veteran Eastern Leaguer who will also

see time at first base and in the designated hitter role)

and John Nathans, who will likely be the odd man out

when Shoppach arrives.

The right side of the infield will consist of left-handed hitting first baseman Dustin Brisson and second baseman Carlos Leon. Leon spent part of the last three seasons with Trenton.

James Lofton could anchor the left side, alongside Youkilis. Lofton, who played eight games with the Red Sox in 2001, spent time in both Pawtucket and Trenton last season and still has a chance of returning to the PawSox.

Raul Nieves is ticketed as the utilityman and Nelson Castro would likely come to Portland if Lofton doesn’t.

An experienced outfield will include Trenton carryovers Justin Headley, Tee Brown and Justin Sherrod along with center fielder Jeremy Owens, a free agent from the San Diego organization. Headley can also play first base.

A pair of left-handers will be at the top of the starting rotation. Jorge de la Rosa, who was used exclusively as a starter for the first time last season, held opponents to a .232 batting average while at Class A Sarasota and Trenton. de la Rosa’s fastball is consistently in the mid-90s and he has also developed a strong breaking ball. Greg Montalbano was the organization’s Player of the Year in 2001, but an arm injury forced him to miss all of last season.

Tim Kester (2.57 ERA in Atlantic League last season), Josh Stevens and former major leaguer Junior Herndon round out the rotation, although Stevens will likely return to the bullpen (a role he filled last season for Norwich) when right-hander Isauro Pineda comes off of the disabled list.

The bullpen will feature left-handers Jake Chapman and Eric Glaser, and righties Felix Villegas, Anastacio Martinez, former Sea Dog Gustavo Lopez, and Charlie Weatherby. Tony Fontana and James Johnson could also figure into the mix.

Martinez dropped from being the ninth-rated prospect to No. 18 after leading the Eastern League in walks last season. It will be his first stint in the bullpen.

A couple of other spots are still up for grabs.

One player who won’t be making his way to Portland this season is Boston’s top-rated prospect, shortstop Hanley Ramirez.

Ramirez, 19, will likely spend the season in Class A after hitting .371 for Lowell of the short-season New York/Penn League.

Dog watch

Eleven Sea Dogs games will be televised this season.

Channel 8 (WMTW) will broadcast six, including Thursday’s home-opener against the Trenton Thunder at 6 p.m. The other contests are May 23 (Harrisburg, 6 p.m.), June 23 (Akron, 7 p.m.), June 27 (Altoona, 7 p.m.), Aug. 7 (Binghamton, 7 p.m.) and August 22 (Erie, 7 p.m.).

The other five games – April 14 (Binghamton, 6 p.m.), May 12 (Trenton, 6 p.m.), June 9 (Norwich, 6 p.m.), July 28 (Trenton, 7 p.m.) and the season finale on Sept. 1 (New Haven, 1 p.m.) – will be shown on the New England Sports Network (NESN). The April 14 telecast could be pre-empted because of a Boston Bruins’ playoff game.

Comings and goings

Three other Eastern League teams switched their affiliations for the upcoming season. The New York Yankees took the Red Sox place in Trenton. Norwich, the Yankees’ previous Double-A affiliate, signed a deal with the San Francisco Giants and New Haven is now aligned with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Florida Marlins reached an agreement with the Carolina Mudcats of the Southern League. Harpswell resident Stump Merrill is back in the Eastern League. Merrill will be in town Thursday night as the manager of Trenton. The Maine native started last season as manager of Norwich, but was promoted to Triple A Columbus when another Mainer, Brian Butterfield, was fired by the Yankees.

His numbers up

The tradition of putting the numbers of former Sea Dogs who are playing with the big-league club up on the facade behind home plate will continue this season. The familiar No. 15 of Kevin Millar will be displayed. Millar, of course, almost went to Japan before landing with the Red Sox. Two other players familiar to Portland fans, pitcher Hector Almonte and utilityman Cesar Crespo will begin the season with Triple-A Pawtucket.

Bill Foley is assistant sports editor. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


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