Some top big league prospects have been broken by the breaking
To have been one of baseball's hot prospects you had to have had
first-rate skills. That's what Brewers leftfielder Alex Ochoa,
formerly a rising star in the Orioles system, keeps reminding
himself, especially on those nights when Milwaukee is down six
or seven runs, the game is in its fourth hour, and he's still
nailed to the bench. That's also what struggling Blue Jays
centerfielder Jose Cruz Jr., once a sparkling rookie for the
Mariners, tries to remember while walking back to the dugout
after his mighty swings have caught nothing but air.
Ochoa, 27, and Cruz, 25, former third- and first-round draft
choices, respectively, who rose quickly through the minor
leagues, have been major league disappointments, thanks largely
to one thing: the curveball. "They say the curveball is an
optical illusion, that it doesn't really curve," says Toronto
manager Jim Fregosi. "Well, I've seen a lot of young guys made
to look foolish by an optical illusion."
Four years ago Ochoa was a five-tool player whom the Orioles, in
an attempt to stay alive for a playoff spot, reluctantly traded
to the Mets for proven veteran Bobby Bonilla. While Ochoa ate up
predictable late-count fastballs in Triple A, he never adjusted
to the 3-and-2 curves that big league pitchers can throw. "He
showed flashes," New York general manager Steve Phillips says of
Ochoa's two-plus seasons with the Mets, during which he batted
.273, "but there's a reason prospects are called prospects."
Ochoa displayed an exceptional arm, decent speed and an
inability to hit the breaking ball. After the 1997 season the
Mets shipped him to the Twins, for whom he hit .257 in 249 at
bats last season. Then during the off-season he was dealt to the
Brewers. As Milwaukee's fifth outfielder this year, he was
batting .268 with no homers and four RBIs through Sunday. "It's
not that the curves are so much better here than in the minors,"
says Ochoa. "The big league pitchers mix it up--a fastball here,
a curve there. You have no idea when it's coming. If you can't
adjust instantly, there's trouble."
Milwaukee manager Phil Garner isn't ready to give up on Ochoa.
"Alex still has all the tools from when he was considered a
future star," he says. "Some guys come up and develop instantly.
Some take a while to develop, and at 27, 28, 29 suddenly figure
it out. That could be Alex."
Cruz, the son and namesake of the former Astros star, was an
overnight sensation when he made his major league debut in 1997.
Called up to Seattle on May 31, he hit 12 home runs in only 49
games, but in a stunning move at the July 31 trading deadline,
he was dealt to the Blue Jays for the relievers (Paul Spoljaric
and Mike Timlin) the Mariners needed to win the American League
West. Cruz had 14 more dingers the rest of the season for
Toronto but batted only .231 in those 55 games. Seattle was
widely panned for what appeared to be a one-sided deal in the
Blue Jays' favor, but the Mariners seem to have known something
the rest of baseball didn't. Aside from his inability to hit the
curve, Cruz has other shortcomings. Says one scout, "Jose lunges
at the ball, and he swings at bad pitches because he's
overanxious. He has to learn patience." Cruz even spent part of
last season back in Triple A.
Since breaking into the majors, Cruz has been criticized for not
learning from his mistakes. This season he finally seems to be
listening and has worked with first base coach Lloyd Moseby to
keep his swing mechanically consistent, pitch after pitch. At
week's end he was tied for second in the league in walks (36)
but also had the dubious distinction of being fourth in
strikeouts (41). "Most hitters go into every at bat looking for
the fastball," says Cruz, who was hitting .227 with six homers
and 22 RBIs. "That's how I've learned to hit."
ROYALS FLUSH WITH ROOKIES
Royals manager Tony Muser, a man who has seen his share of
baseball flameouts, knows it's only May and refuses to add to
the hype surrounding his rookie centerfielder Carlos Beltran and
first-year second baseman Carlos Febles. The hot-hitting
newcomers, dubbed Dos Carlos by the local media, have some
long-suffering Kansas City fans thinking maybe, just maybe, wild
card. Through Sunday the fluid Beltran, 22, was batting .310,
with six home runs, 31 RBIs and nine stolen bases. Febles, a
hyperactive 23-year-old, was right with him (.329, five homers,
22 RBIs, eight steals). Together, they had led the tightfisted
Royals, with a payroll of only $24 million, to a surprising
22-20 mark. Once again, Kansas City has baseball.
"I'm not getting caught up in it," says Muser. "Right now teams
are still seeing them for the first time. What will these two do
when the weather gets hot and the pressure mounts? When they're
at 300, 400 at bats? That's when we'll really know."
Beltran seems to have the clearer path to stardom. While growing
up in Manati, Puerto Rico, he was a promising volleyball player.
However, when he was 17, his father, Wilfredo, laid down the
law. Says Carlos, "He told me, 'Volleyball is a good sport. But
in baseball, you have the gifts to make a lot of money.'" Carlos
was Kansas City's second-round pick in the 1995 amateur draft.
Thanks to remarkable bat control--Muser does praise Beltran's
ability to hit to all fields--and speed in the outfield and on
the base paths, Beltran soared from rookie ball to the majors in
four years. He's most thrilled to be in the big leagues because
he intends to use his salary to ease Wilfredo, a pharmaceutical
salesman, into retirement and allow his mother, Carmen, to travel.
"If the Royals are smart, they'll lock him up with a 10-year
contract, because there's no way we'll be able to afford him
come arbitration," says K.C. leftfielder Johnny Damon. "He's the
one guy who can bring this franchise up to respectability."
Febles, signed by the Royals in November 1993 as an undrafted
free agent out of La Romana, Dominican Republic, followed almost
the same path through the Kansas City system as Beltran did.
While Beltran sits quietly in the clubhouse sorting through fan
mail, Febles constantly moves about and yaks with anyone who
will talk to him. Early in the season Muser had to beg him to
stop diving for grounders during BP.
Febles isn't the natural hitter Beltran is, nor is he as
composed, but he works at the game. Against the Mariners last
Friday, Febles was on first when Rey Sanchez hit a deep fly to
leftfielder Butch Huskey. Upon catching the ball, Huskey
momentarily paused. Febles, never one to pass up an opening,
bolted back to first, tagged up and sprinted into second. It was
pure hustle--the type of play a guy like Muser could get excited
about. Even in May.
Lemke's Second Career
FORMER INFIELDER KNUCKLES DOWN
The New Jersey Jackals were three hours into a preseason workout
under a hot sun in Wayne, N.J., last Friday, and several lazy
swings and waved-through grounders made it clear that the
players on this low-level minor league team were ready to go
home. Until, that is, manager Kash Beauchamp called in yet
another pitcher to throw the final inning of a simulated game.
"Those guys couldn't wait to get a stick in their hands," says
Mark Lemke, the former Braves and Red Sox second baseman, who
was heckled by a bunch of minor league lifers as he took the
mound. "I think even the pitchers wanted to hit."
A year ago, when he was with Boston, Lemke too would have rushed
to the plate. Now he's just another rookie righthander in the
eastern division of the independent Northern League, paid $700 a
month and barred from the batter's box. On May 17 he joined the
Jackals as an infield coach and also to try a comeback--as a
knuckleball pitcher. Last Friday was the first time Lemke, 33,
tried floating his butterfly pitch past a live hitter, and he
admitted he was "way nervous." He gave up no runs and wasn't hit
Lemke has toyed with the knuckleball since high school, and
while with the Braves and the Red Sox he could usually be
spotted tossing it before games. The unpredictable pitch now
carries his hopes of getting back to the big leagues, where he
spent 11 seasons, hit .246, played solid defense and was one of
the clutch postseason performers of the 1990s (.272, 24 RBIs in
62 games with the Braves).
When he was flattened by White Sox catcher Chad Kreuter in a
collision on the base path last May, Lemke suffered a concussion
and, after returning to the lineup for one game six days later,
spent the rest of the season on the disabled list. Lemke went
home to Alpharetta, Ga., to recuperate from recurring headaches,
sleeping problems and disorientation. The Red Sox didn't re-sign
him, and he became a free agent, and though he was feeling
normal again in January and began working out, no team invited
him to spring training. He turned down Atlanta's offer of a
coaching job and called Beauchamp, a longtime friend and former
minor league teammate in the Braves' system.
"When I'd tell people we were going to get Mark as a knuckleball
pitcher, everybody would laugh," says Beauchamp. "But I'm
telling you, he throws a good one."
Last season Lemke picked up a few tips from Boston teammate Tim
Wakefield, one of only four knuckleballers now in the majors.
This spring he worked with knuckleball guru Phil Niekro. "He's
got some good tumblers," says Jackals coach Hank Manning, who,
as a minor leaguer with the White Sox, caught knuckleballer
Charlie Hough. "Now he needs some mound presence."
Lemke was designated a pitcher when he signed, and won't bat or
play a nonpitching fielding position. He will also work with the
Jackals' infielders, laying the groundwork for a backup career
in coaching. "In the majors we'd talk about the minors and say
we didn't know if we could go through that again," Lemke says,
"but there are guys here who drove from California just because
they want to play the game. Now I don't blame them."
Pitching to Cheer about
BYRD TAKES FLIGHT IN PHILLY
Coming out of spring training, the Phillies' pitching staff was
a lot like the cast of Cheers in its early years, when Ted
Danson's was the only recognizable face: one star and a bar full
of nobodies. After ace Curt Schilling, the rest of the
rotation--righthanders Paul Byrd, Carlton Loewer and Chad Ogea
and lefty Paul Spoljaric--offered few friends on whom
Philadelphia manager Terry Francona could count for quality
Two months later the Phillies, 3 1/2 games behind the
first-place Braves, are hanging close in the National League
East and in the wild-card race, thanks in no small part to
Schilling's seven wins and a supporting cast that has been
surprisingly solid. The 18 victories that Philadelphia starters
had racked up through Sunday was the third-highest total in the
National League, and their 2.76 walks per nine innings was
fourth best in the league.
The biggest surprise has been Byrd, a 28-year-old former Met and
Brave who, as his teammates are quick to point out, bears a
striking resemblance to Cheers and Frasier star Kelsey Grammer.
Less than a year after having been plucked from the waiver wire
and given his first full-time spot in a rotation, Byrd is
getting noticed nearly as fast as his Hollywood double did.
After beating New York last Saturday with a 7 2/3-inning,
three-run, six-hit performance, Byrd was 6-2 with a 3.50 ERA
this season. In 17 starts with the Phillies, going back to last
August, Byrd--who made just four starts in parts of four seasons
with the Mets and the Braves--was 11-4 with a 2.93 ERA. "A lot
of this is just getting a chance to pitch," says Byrd, whose
emergence puts Philadelphia on pace to have two pitchers with at
least 12 wins for the first time since 1993. "If I was in
Atlanta, I'd still be in relief, and I'd have like five innings
Byrd has been retiring National League batters, who were hitting
just .205 against him through Sunday, with a four-pitch arsenal
and a command of the strike zone that would have made him right
at home on the Braves' staff, as would his nonthreatening 85-mph
fastball. "I learned from those guys in Atlanta that you don't
have to throw 100 miles per hour to win," says Byrd. "I struck
out Mark McGwire the other night with a fastball that I threw as
hard as I could, and I expected the gun to say 92. The
scoreboard read 87. So I've given up on trying to throw the ball
No matter. If he keeps on winning, it won't be long before
everybody knows his name.
Cy Young Revisited
CASE NOT CLOSED FOR HOFFMAN
Note to Padres infielders: Don't make errors behind closer
Trevor Hoffman, because he apparently holds grudges. As he
travels to National League cities, Hoffman, who saved 53 games
in 1998 and finished a close second to the Braves' Tom Glavine
in the National League Cy Young race, has started to confront
writers who he has learned didn't vote for him. Six of the 32
voters left Hoffman off their ballots, on which they were asked
to list three choices.
"He asked me, 'Do you have a problem with me?'" says Joe Kay, a
veteran Associated Press baseball writer from Cincinnati, who
was approached by Hoffman on May 14. "He wasn't abusive, but he
said that anyone who left him off the ballot wasn't showing
closers any respect."
In the end Hoffman had to partially agree with Kay's logic. Kay
told Hoffman that he had voted for Kevin Brown first, followed
by Glavine and Greg Maddux. "He said, 'O.K., Brown deserved
it,'" says Kay. "'But I should have been on there somewhere.'"
Big League Travel
FLIGHT DELAYED BY RAMPAGE
As Reds manager Jack McKeon sifted through the rubble after
visiting Cincinnati's three-hour, 43-minute, 24-12 bombing of
the Rockies on May 19, the phone rang in his Coors Field office.
The caller, a representative of a charter airline, was trying to
reach Reds traveling secretary Gary Wahoff to ask why the team
hadn't yet arrived at the Denver airport for its flight to San
Diego. "I'm sorry, ma'am, we've just played one of these damn
football games," was McKeon's response. "We couldn't leave in
the middle of the game."
For complete scores and stats, plus more from Tom Verducci and
Jeff Pearlman, go to www.cnnsi.com.
the HOT corner
Four days before Blue Jays DH Dave Hollins, a switch-hitter
throughout his 10-year career, went on the DL on April 20,
Toronto skipper Jim Fregosi announced that henceforth Hollins,
who was hitting .385 righthanded but .167 as a lefty, would bat
only righthanded. Hollins returned last Friday and on Sunday
went 0 for 4 batting lefthanded. "I tried talking him out of
switch-hitting in 1993," says Fregosi, who managed Hollins when
both were with the Phillies six years ago, "but if you know
David, you know you can't talk him into doing something he
doesn't want to do"....
Early nominee for worst free-agent signing of last off-season:
the Tigers, who gave DH Gregg Jefferies a two-year, $4.9 million
contract. Through Sunday, Jefferies was batting .203, with four
home runs and 13 RBIs....
The Diamondbacks have discussed trading struggling righthander
Andy Benes, whom they signed to a three-year, $18 million deal
in February '98, to the Cardinals, for whom Benes won 18 games
in '96. An 11-year veteran, Benes (2-5, 6.19 ERA in nine starts)
has a no-trade clause, but he's close friends with St. Louis
pitching coach Dave Duncan....
The Expos aren't the only Canadian team with attendance woes.
Already this season the Blue Jays have drawn three of the five
smallest baseball crowds in SkyDome history, including the worst
ever, 20,258 against the A's on May 4....
The Dodgers are annoyed at righty Chan Ho Park, who has been
shaking off catcher Todd Hundley too often. The L.A. brass also
feels that Park (3-3, 4.78 ERA) has nibbled too much instead of
using his 95-mph fastball.
There may be an increase in home runs this season (1.14 per team
per game through Sunday, compared with 1.00 to the same point in
1998), but not everyone's going yard. While some pseudo-sluggers
like Diamondbacks Jay Bell (14) and Luis Gonzalez (10) and
Mariner David Bell (13) are clearing the fence more often than
they have in the past, plenty of players still aren't feeling
the power surge. The hitters listed below had the most at bats
without a home run this season.
CAREER CAREER AT
1999 CAREER HOME BATS PER
PLAYER, TEAM AT BATS AT BATS RUNS HOME RUN
1. Lance Johnson, Cubs 161 5,175 33 156.8
2. Mike Caruso, White Sox 159 682 5 136.4
T3. Luis Castillo, Marlins 151 731 2 365.5
T3. Tony Womack, Diamondbacks 151 1,513 9 168.1
T5. Brian Hunter, 128 2,252 15 150.1
T5. Kevin Stocker, Devil Rays 128 2,304 20 115.2
7. Walt Weiss, Braves 124 4,339 23 188.7
8. Rey Ordonez, Mets 123 1,486 3 495.3
9. Cristian Guzman, Twins 121 121 0 --
10. Jason McDonald, Athletics 119 530 5 106.0
in the BOX
May 22, 1999
Tigers 6, Indians 2
The box score doesn't note a beanball exchange and a
bench-clearing brawl--but a fan might have guessed they took
place, given Jaret Wright was on the mound for the Indians. He
bounced an 0-and-2 fastball off Tony Clark's helmet in the top
of the sixth. A half inning later Tigers starter Jeff Weaver
retaliated, hitting Manny Ramirez on his helmet. Ramirez charged
the mound, the dugouts emptied and Ramirez was ejected. In the
eighth Detroit reliever C.J. Nitkowski also was tossed for
throwing at Kenny Lofton.
It was Beanball War II for Wright this season--he was suspended
for five games after an April skirmish with the Red Sox--and he
already had a rep for throwing at people. In the 1998 Division
Series he hit Boston's Darren Lewis in the head, and in spring
training last year he broke Yankee Luis Sojo's hand. "I'm not
trying to hit anyone," Wright said last Saturday, "I'm out there
trying to get guys out."