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Even Stevens: Season hasn't gone as planned for 58-58 Salt Lake Bees

It almost didn't even seem fair to the other teams in the Pacific Coast League when the season began in April.

The Salt Lake Bees were undeniably talented, especially on offense.

The team was filled with Triple-A all-stars, guys with major-league experience, top prospects and a former USA Olympic star.

With the parent Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim loaded, the Bees lineup had position players who could easily be everyday starters for, say, the Washington Nationals or San Diego Padres.

Yet here it is, with less than a month remaining in the Bees' season, and it's readily apparent that the Bees aren't world-beaters after all.

In fact, Salt Lake has been the very definition of average.

Following Sunday's 11-4 win at Spring Mobile Ballpark over the Nashville Sounds, the Bees have 58 wins to go along with 58 losses.

So what happened? Why haven't the three-time defending division champion Bees been better?

Here are five factors and or theories as to why the 2009 Bees season hasn't lived up to lofty expectations:

1. Injuries — During a long, 144-game season, all teams are going to have players get hurt and miss games. The Bees, however, seem to have been particularly affected this year.

The biggest blow came when infielder Freddy Sandoval, the Angels' minor league player of the year in 2008 when he batted .335 with a franchise-record 176 hits for the Bees, went out in May with a wrist injury. Following surgery, Sandoval has yet to return, although he has just started a rehab assignment in Arizona.

Other key players who have spent considerable time on the disabled list include outfielder Chris Pettit and infielders Luis Figueroa and Matt Brown.

2. Major league promotions — Having players develop to the point of being useful to the parent club is the primary goal for Triple-A franchises. Winning, while important, is secondary.

This season, thanks in large part to injuries to the Angels, several Bees have been spent all season going back and forth between Salt Lake and Anaheim. Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Terry Evans and Bobby Wilson have all been earning frequent flier miles between the two spots.

A big problem is that when those players get called up to the Angels, they are put in reserve roles and they spend a week or two without getting regular playing time. Then when they return to Salt Lake, they're rusty.

"It's tough when guys are going up and down," said Wilson. "You're here one day and there the next and it makes it tough to get consistency in the lineup. But with the big league club getting healthy, we're getting back to full strength."

3. Season-long slumps — Brown was a Triple-A All-Star and a hero on the USA Olympic team last season. He tore up the Cactus League for the Angels in spring training, hitting better than .400.

But he had a rough April with the Bees — when his batting average hovered around .200. Later he missed nearly a month of the season with an injury. Brown has been coming on of late, but his .231 average is still almost 90 points worse than a 2008 when he hit .320 with 21homers for the Bees.

He's not the only one who hasn't performed up to his '08 level.

Outfielder Adam Pavkovich hit .280 with 22 homers and 80 RBIs a year ago. This season, in 95 games, Pavkovich is hitting .243 with just four homers and 36 RBIs.

4. Pitching woes — To be honest, the Bees had many question marks concerning their pitching when the season began. Their offense looked to be so powerful that many felt that they could overcome that lack of pitching experience, however.

Instead, there have been times the pitching has been the team's strongest suit.

That said, the Bees, overall, have struggled on the mound in comparison with the other 16 teams in the PCL. Salt Lake pitchers have yielded the most home runs (130) and surrendered the second most walks (416) in the league. The Bees' team earned run average is 5.29, which is second worst in the PCL.

5. Bad luck — This one may seem like a cop out, but Salt Lake has had its share of misfortune. Players have had stretches when they hit the ball hard, but right at defenders.

"It's been an up-and-down season," said Bees manager Bobby Mitchell.

"It's been tough because we just haven't seemed to be able to get that big hit when we need to in order to get over the hump."

The team also started the year with an emotional punch-to-the-gut when beloved former teammate Nick Adenhart was killed in a traffic accident the night before the Bees' scheduled opener. Several Bees players have said that Adenhart's death has been difficult to get through.

Despite playing just average baseball so far, the Bees are still in the thick of the hunt for a fourth-straight division title. Sunday's win combined with a loss by division-leading Colorado Springs moves Salt Lake to just 3.5 games behind the Sky Sox. The two teams still have a four-game series remaining, as well.

"Hopefully we'll get rolling here," said Wilson after he drove in five runs on Sunday.

The Bees look like they have a lineup that could do some damage down the stretch in the final month of the season, but it remains to be seen if they can put it together.

"If everybody stays here the rest of the way, we should have a good offensive team," said Mitchell.

Then again, that's what everyone thought right from the beginning of the season.

BEES WAX: The Bees and the Sounds will play the second game of their four-game set tonight. Salt Lake's Brad Knox (6-6, 5.18 ERA) is scheduled to start against Nashville lefty Chase Wright (6-6, 4.17). . . . Two Bees got RBIs the hard way in Sunday's game. Both Wilson and shortstop Gary Patchett were hit by pitches with the bases loaded in the third inning. . . . Pitcher Jose Arrendondo has been promoted to the Angels again. He was replaced on the Bees roster by Francis Cabrera, who had been pitching in Orem. Cabrera made his triple-A debut in the ninth inning on Sunday, giving up one run. There have now been 139 transactions on the year.

e-mail: lojo@desnews.com