The Salt Lake Bees have been a tale of two teams this season. On one hand, they have hit quite well (.289/.362/.453) as a team, but their pitching (5.94 ERA) has struggled.
Albuquerque, especially when it is windy, is not exactly the place for a team to get out of its funk on the mound. Still, the Bees (9-15) do have one advantage over the Isotopes (13-10) in that they will throw three left-handed starters in a row to start the series, and lefties have been Albuquerque's Kryptonite this season.
A recent string of injuries with the Angels has robbed Salt Lake of several of its opening-day players, but for the most part it is the same team that the Isotopes split four games with in Utah last week. Top prospects C.J. Cron and Taylor Lindsey are still around, along with longtime Bees like Roberto Lopez and Efren Navarro.
If Salt Lake is going to get back into the division race, however, the Bees have to start pitching better. That will be their task as they open a four-game series with the Isotopes on Monday at 6:35 p.m.
Click on the slideshow for more info on Salt Lake's pitching staff, lineup and the prospect to watch. The series wraps up Thursday at 11:05 a.m.
Rotation: As noted, Salt Lake will send three straight lefties to the mound to counter Albuquerque's lefty-heavy lineup. Jose Alvarez (0-1, 6.28 ERA), who was acquired from the Tigers in a trade for infielder Andrew Romine in late March, gets to open the series for the Bees.
Alvarez, who was rated as Detroit's No. 21 prospect by Baseball America prior to the season, has walked 10 batters in 14.1 innings so far. His fastball usually sits in the high 80s, so he has to keep it down and mix in a plus changeup as often as possible. His slider is spotty and his curveball is below average.
Justin Thomas (1-2, 6.53) will start Tuesday's game. The southpaw began last year with Sacramento and finished it in Japan.
Veteran Wade LeBlanc (2-1, 4.50), pictured, gets the nod Wednesday. The former Padre, Marlin and Astro has traveled far and wide in his career.
The Bees' best pitcher, stat-wise, has been right-hander Jarrett Grube (2-1, 3.46). He will pitch Thursday's matinee finale.
Bullpen: The Salt Lake relievers have pitched marginally better than their starts so far this year. Two of their four team saves are currently in Anaheim as Mike Morin was called up by the Angels on Sunday.
The best reliever so far has been right-hander Cory Rasmus (1-0, 2.77, 1 save), pictured. The brother of Blue Jays outfielder Colby Rasmus, Cory was acquired in a trade with the Braves last season.
The oldest player on the Salt Lake roster is right-hander Brandon Lyon, 34. Lyon has gone 0-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 11 games.
Former Isotope Josh Wall (0-0, 4.66, 1 save) is back with the Bees after a short stint in the Majors. Wall has nine strikeouts in 9.2 innings.
Salt Lake has two lefties in the bullpen. Buddy Boshers (0-1, 5.40) and Robert Carson (0-1, 6.39) have struggled so far this season, with Boshers walking nine in 8.1 innings and Carson giving up 18 hits in 12.2 innings.
Lineup: Salt Lake has not had much trouble hitting the ball this year. The Bees are second in the league in runs (142) and tied for third in OPS (.814).
Leading the way has been the versatile Grant Green, pictured. Green (.382/.429/.539, 2 HR, 22 RBI) has played shortstop, second base, third base and in the outfield.
Outfielder-first baseman Efren Navarro (.341/.444/.439, 13 RBI) has continued his assault on the Salt Lake record books. He recorded his 501st and 502nd career hits as a Bee on April 21, becoming the franchise's all-time leader.
Other starters of note include catcher John Hester (.300/.364/.525), second baseman Taylor Lindsey (.242/.337/.396, 3 HR, 11 RBI), third baseman Luis Jimenez (.271/.301/.486, 3 HR, 9 RBI) and outfielder Matt Long (.231/.341/.397, 3 HR, 8 RBI). The Bees will also get a boost from the impending return of outfielder Brennan Boesch (.250/.308/.479, 2 HR, 9 RBI), who was sent down by the Angels on Sunday.
Prospect to watch: Slugger C.J. Cron, pictured on the right from last summer's All-Star Futures Game, is no stranger to Isotopes Park. A former Utah Ute, Cron punished New Mexico Lobo pitchers in the past in Albuquerque.
Cron has not slowed down since becoming part of the Angels' organization as their first-round pick in 2011. Whether he is playing first base or serving as a designated hitter, Cron has slugged away this season (.316/.369/.611, 5 HR, 24 RBI). That is even better than his career line of .286/.329/.491 entering this year.
The big (6-4, 235) right-handed hitter was ranked No. 2 among Angels prospects by Baseball America. His biggest attribute is his power bat, while his biggest drawbacks are his average defense and the fact he is allergic to walks. Cron drew just 23 walks in 134 games at Double-A last season; this year he has seven walks in 24 games.
Outlook: The Bees and Isotopes split four games in Salt Lake last week. This series figures to be more of the same as the environment in Albuquerque is not that different than Utah.
If Salt Lake has an advantage, it is in the trio of lefties that will start the series. The Isotopes, though, saw their pitching staff regain some confidence in splitting four games in Fresno.
Despite the wind and dry air, it may actually turn out to be more of a pitching and defense series this time around. Another split could be in the offing, assuming the Isotopes can hit the lefties, or at least elevate their pitch counts to the point of where they can feast on the Bees' bullpen.
It will be up to relievers like the aforementioned former Isotope Josh Wall, pictured, to keep Albuquerque's bats in check. In turn, the Isotopes' bullpen will have to shut down one of the league's best lineups late in games.