Asked Sunday night whether the Chattanooga Lookouts would win 105 or 110 of their 140 games this year, Los Angeles Dodgers farm director De Jon Watson burst into laughter.
"I didn't say that," he said. "The season hasn't started, and I've already been thrown under the bus."
Though minor league baseball is ever the revolving door in which producing players move on and struggling players move down or out, the Lookouts have several reasons for optimism with Thursday night's opener at AT&T Field almost here. Chattanooga finished 77-62 last season after a stout 41-29 second half, and a pitching staff that excelled down the stretch will be anchored this spring by the return of Allen Webster and Chris Withrow.
Webster is rated by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in the Dodgers organization, while Withrow is No. 7. Aaron Miller and Ethan Martin are two former top-five organizational prospects who will join them in the rotation, Watson said, and Shawn Tolleson returns to head the bullpen.
In 38 games last season, Tolleson went 4-2 with a 1.62 earned run average and notched 12 saves.
"When you have as many names going back, we should have some consistency, especially with the pitching," Watson said. "We're trying to develop as many young power arms as we can. Starting pitching is really hard to find on the open market at a reasonable price, so when you can grow your own, it puts you in a stronger position organizationally."
Chattanooga's opening outlook on the mound could further brighten should Nathan Eovaldi head back to Double-A. Eovaldi went 6-5 with a 2.62 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) a year ago with the Lookouts before being promoted to Los Angeles, where he made six starts, and he is still fighting for a spot with the Dodgers.
"We don't know if he's coming or not," Watson said, "but if he does, we'll make room for him."
The Lookouts will have a lot of familiar faces lending support to the pitchers as well, with outfielders Kyle Russell and Brian Cavazos-Galvez, infielders Jake Lemmerman and Pedro Baez and catcher Griff Erickson returning. Russell ranked third on the team last season behind Alfredo Silverio and Scott Van Slyke with 120 games played, and he hit .259 with 19 home runs and 69 RBIs.
Van Slyke is breaking camp with Triple-A Albuquerque, while Silverio, the No. 4 organizational prospect, is still recovering from a late-January automobile accident in the Dominican Republic that left him with a concussion and injuries to his neck, shoulder, back and elbow.
"He's recovering and is on the field now doing some stuff with our trainers," Watson said. "It will be a little while. I would say that at some point in the summer that we will see him."
The top organizational prospect, starting pitcher Zach Lee, is not headed to the Lookouts, at least for now. Lee was among Rivals.com's top-10 quarterback prospects in the 2010 class and signed with LSU, but he bypassed football and received a $5.25 million signing bonus with the Dodgers.
Lee, who went 9-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 24 starts last year in the Single-A Midwest League, could be in Chattanooga this summer.
"I don't see why not with his natural progression," Watson said. "We're not in a hurry to get him there, so he will dictate when he's ready for the next challenge."