Clearly the 2004 and 2005 Dodgers made an impact on me, as the third edition of Let’s Remember Some Dodgers is going to include yet another player from the team, but he also had been mentioned as a memorable part of the mid-2000s Dodgers.
For the other half of this edition, I decided to start taking a look back into the Dodgers’ top prospects of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is a weird group of names bridging the gap between the run of five straight NL Rookie of the Year awards and franchise’s resurgence in the minors later in the decade of the 2000s.
Sanez’s name came up from a few people when thinking about doing a series of these posts and I figured I’d go ahead and get him out of the way now. After a strong debut for the franchise in 2004, then-Dodgers manager Jim Tracy thrust Saenz into a much larger role for 2005 before Grady Little returned him to what was probably a better suited situation in 2006.
A ruptured Achilles in the 2002 playoffs led Saenz to play in just 14 minor league games during 2003, with the Oakland Athletics electing to non-tender him following the season. Saenz arrived as a non-roster invitee to spring training, beginning his four-year run with the Dodgers.
Finishing 2004 with 0.6 WAR, a 120 wRC+ and .856 OPS, Saenz led the Dodgers in pinch hits at 15 (fifth in the NL). Three of those hits were homers off the bench, ranking second in the NL, as 55 of Saenz’s 128 plate appearances came as a pinch hitter. One of them came resulted in a grand slam as the Dodgers became the first team to hit a pinch-hit grand slam in back-to-back games (Robin Ventura had done it the night before).
That earned Saenz another one-year deal for 2005 when Tracy started the 34-year-old in more than 70 games, splitting time with Hee-Seop Choi at first base and as part of the Mike Edwards-led nine-man rotation at third base. With the increase in playing time, Saenz’s numbers dipped to 0.5 WAR, 110 wRC+ and .804 OPS which still ranked as the Dodgers’ fourth-best hitter that year.
Little dropped the starts down to about 30 in 2006 as Nomar Garciaparra took over the primary first-base job and Saenz, having signed a two-year, $2 million deal, dropped back on the list of another nine-man rotation at third. Another 15 pinch hits in 2006 and 14 in 2007 landed Saenz as the last player to repeat as the pinch-hit leader for the Dodgers.
With Saenz signing with the Mets ahead of 2008, but failing to make the roster and retiring at 37, one of his final two major league hits was a pinch-hit homer at Coors Field against the Rockies. Sadly, for all of The Killer Tomato’s success in the regular season, he only appeared at the plate twice in the postseason for the Dodgers coming away with a flyout and strikeout in 2006.
While I tried and failed to find some videos of Vin Scully calling some of Saenz’s at-bats online, the joy I vaguely remember of the former taking in the latter’s body type and consistent success off the bench is a fun memory I’ll always have. While not spectacular, at least looking back on Saenz highlights a little more success than the others.
And the idea that Saenz was effective in high leverage situations? Well in 19 PAs in 2004, he slashed .278/.263/.778/1.041 with 2006’s 32 PAs leading to a .286/.375/.500/.875 line. While not as strong, the 56 PAs in 2005 led to .255/.345/.404/.750.
Prokopec is probably one of my earliest memories of what a “prospect” was, at least as much as a 10-year-old could understand the concept of player development and the minor leagues. I might have a rosier memory of what Prokopec was supposed to be, but in hindsight (and blessed with an endless supply of statistics) a 3.86 ERA and 277 Ks in 312 1/3 innings in 54 starts for Double-A San Antonio might be solid for a player well under the level’s average age. According to Baseball America’s archives, Prokopec ranked sixth among prospects in the Dodgers’ organization in 1999 (behind Luke Allen and ahead of Onan Masaoka) and fifth in 2001 (behind Jason Repko and ahead of Willy Aybar).
Going back a bit, the Dodgers signed Prokopec in August 1994 out of Australia when he was just 16 years old. Spending parts of seven years in the minors, spanning four different teams, Prokopec finally debuted for Los Angeles on Sept. 4, 2000 as he mopped up the final three innings of a blowout.
Starting three games in his age-22 season, Prokopec looked alright with a 3.00 ERA in 21 innings before landing in the rotation to start 2001. And it quickly looked as though Prokopec was headed in the right direction, wrapping up May with a 3.33 ERA, 38 Ks, 10 BBs in 51 1/3 innings and a 6-1 record. However, the wheels almost immediately fell off after that, giving up 15 runs in his next three starts combined and only briefly pulling his ERA under 4.00 again in his 29 appearances (the Dodgers appeared to move him to the bullpen for the final month of the season).
Finishing at a 4.88 ERA and 5.23 FIP in 138 1/3 innings, coupled with a 15.3 K%, Prokopec was shipped away to Toronto with fellow top-10 prospect Chad Ricketts a few months before his 24th birthday for Cesar Izturis and Paul Quantrill. Unfortunately, things went south quickly for Prokopec in Toronto due to a torn labrum and a 6.78 ERA/6.60 FIP in 12 starts and 22 appearances. Less than a year after trading him away, the Dodgers brought Prokopec back on a minor-league deal only for Cincinnati to pull him away a month later in the Rule 5 Draft. Not that it ended up mattering much, as he never threw another pitch in the majors or minors again after trying to rehab through the 2003 season.
The last incredibly weird note I can add is there’s a photo of Prokopec beating Jerry Dipoto (of all the random former players) in an Oreo stacking competition before a September 2000 game at Dodger Stadium and being declared “the best Oreo stacker in Major League Baseball.”