Local players
hope to get back
to big leagues

First in a series on minor league players with local ties

Class AAA baseball represents the top of the ladder for the minor leagues. It's only one tantalizing rung away from the majors, but a huge one for many players.

Keith Luuloa, Chris Truby, Benny Agbayani, Justin Wayne, Shane Victorino and Brandon Villafuerte have spent enough time in the majors to know they want to return some day. Tyler Yates is still waiting for the call.

Wayne, Victorino and Villafuerte started the 2003 season with a big-league team and Villafuerte had his contract purchased by the San Diego Padres when rosters expanded on Sept. 1.

Victorino began the season with San Diego as the Padres' fourth outfielder. He started several games but saw most of his action as a late-inning defensive replacement in the outfield. Victorino struggled with major league pitching, hitting just .151 in 36 games. The Padres designated him for assignment May 23.

outfield. Victorino struggled with major league pitching, hitting just .151 in 36 games. The Padres designated him for assignment May 23.

"Offensively, the Padres knew I was going to struggle, especially since I just started learning to switch-hit last year," said Victorino. "The Padres were losing, our center fielder got hurt and they couldn't keep me in there without big-league experience and continue. When Gary Matthews Jr. became available, the Padres had to make a move."

Five days later, Victorino was sent back to the Los Angeles Dodgers from whom San Diego selected Victorino in the Rule 5 Draft last December.

The St. Anthony graduate was assigned to the Jacksonville (Fla.) Suns in the Class AA Southern League. He hit .282 and was successful on 16 of 23 stolen base attempts.

His solid performance resulted in a promotion to the Las Vegas 51s in the Pacific Coast League on Aug. 13. Six days later, a strained right knee placed him on the disabled list after going 6-for-16 (.375) in four games.

"The Dodgers have a lot of great guys in the outfield," Victorino said. I'm going to have to do a lot of things to move up the ladder. Coming to Las Vegas was a positive and I think things worked out for the best."

Things didn't work out quite as well for Truby. He signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent in the offseason because he and his agent thought the Devil Rays afforded the Damien graduate a good chance to play in the major leagues. That did not happen and Truby did not think he received much of an opportunity during spring training. He was assigned to Durham (N.C.) in the International League.

"I'm not really happy, but I'm not upset even though I'm not where I want to be," said Truby who played first and third base. "I just go on playing and hope something happens."

He has absolutely no thoughts of retiring and hopes to play winter ball. Truby will be a free agent this offseason and will be shopping for a team that offers him a chance to play in the majors. He did pick up a championship ring when Durham defeated Pawtucket (R.I.) for the IL title.

Luuloa didn't get a ring, but he still had a solid season. He (Molokai, Modesto JC) began the season as a backup infielder with the Indianapolis Indians, Milwaukee's top farm team in the International League.

"I played a lot more than I was supposed to because I was swinging the bat pretty well. Other guys were struggling and I made the best of the opportunity," said Luuloa. He finished the season with a .259 average. He was second in the team in homers with 11 and also managed 26 doubles, three triples and 54 runs batted in.

He experienced fatigue at the end of the season because he had more at-bats (359) than he had the last couple of seasons. Luuloa played every infield position and even caught two innings in a game. It was the first time he was behind the plate in his career.

"I think it's been a pretty good year. If I play next year, it has to be worthwhile. I have to have an opportunity in a big-league camp. I'll be a free agent," said Luuloa., who has 10 years of pro ball under his belt. "But, I have two boys, age 5 and 13, and my wife is a lawyer and very busy. It's hard being away all summer."

That's not a problem for Yates. Instead, the right-hander is coming off Tommy John surgery that he underwent last summer. He slowly worked his way up the minor league ladder to Norfolk (Va.) in the International League after starting the season with St. Lucie in the Class A Florida State League.

Along the way, the New York Mets converted Yates (Kauai, Hawaii-Hilo) from a closer to a starter, a role he likes.

"I like pitching more than just overpowering people as a closer. I'm learning how to pitch again," said Yates who battled all summer to regain the command of his pitches. "I had good outings, but I would have stints where I didn't know where the ball was going."

It was after one such outing last month against Louisville that Yates let his emotions get away and punched a water cooler in the dugout after being taken out of the game. He broke the little finger on his right hand, which ended his season. But he should be healed in time to play in the Arizona Fall League for the Peoria Saguaros.

"I don't normally let my emotions show, but I guess it was just a result of what happened all year. If I get 40 innings in fall ball, I should have the command I want," said Yates.

His totals for three Mets' farm teams were 26 games, 107 1/3 innings pitched, a 3-6 won-lost record and a 4.28 earned run average.

Benny Agbayani (St. Louis, Hawaii Pacific) also will be a free agent next month. His agent will be looking for a major league team that offers the opportunity for the outfielder to return to the majors. Another option his agent is exploring is playing in Japan.

Released by the Boston Red Sox, signed by the Cincinnati Reds and traded to the Kansas City Royals during spring training, Agbayani spent the season with the Omaha Royals in the Pacific Coast League

"I felt disappointed with how the year went, especially my numbers," said Agbayani. He alternated between starting in the outfield or serving as the designated hitter.

He finished with a .237 batting average. He hit 16 home runs and knocked in 45 runs. He leaves early next month to play winter ball in the Mexican League for the Caneros de Los Mochis.

Wayne (Punahou, Stanford) had something of a disappointing season as well. He spent spring training rehabbing his right shoulder (tendonitis), then took a line drive off his right foot (contusion) that set him back two more weeks. When he did get called up by the Florida Marlins, he was not effective in two starting assignments.

"I didn't reach too many of my goals I wanted to reach this year," said Wayne. "It was the number of innings and the things I did on the field. One of the things that really got to me was my mental focus. It wasn't there all the time. Whether you feel good and pitch well or pitch bad, you always want to try to help your team to victory."

Wayne was sent to the Albuquerque Isotopes in the PCL but does not think he worked on the things he needed to improve. His record was 4-12 with a 4.24 ERA. However, he is not going to dwell on the 2003 season.

"This is my job. I want to move on and continue to become a better pitcher, whether it's something mental or mechanical," said Wayne.

The right-hander plans to pitch winter ball in Puerto Rico where Albuquerque manager Dean Treanor would be his pitching coach.

"I want to make a strong impression next year," said Wayne.

So does Big Island-born Villafuerte. He started the season with San Diego as the closer while Trevor Hoffman recovered from an injury. Villafuerte was 0-2 with a 4.60 ERA in 22 appearances for the Padres.

He then had to rehab for two games and got two innings of work in the California League. When he was healthy, the Padres outrighted his contact to the PCL's Portland Beavers.

The right-hander compiled exceptional numbers as Portland's closer. In 44 innings, he allowed 42 hits, walked 14 and struck out 40 while saving 12 games. The Padres purchased his contract from Portland when rosters expanded Sept. 1.


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