WHILE THERE may not be a perfect recipe for success in baseball, Franklin Gutiérrez thinks his mother's sopita de sardina (sardine soup) comes close. As Leida Williams de Gutiérrez adds a touch of garlic, a dash of salt and a sprinkle of onions to the broth, Franklin kisses her and says, "Your soup is the secret to my power." Then he heads out the door of their apartment to play a winter league game for his hometown Caracas Lions.
With Leida's soup in his stomach, lightning speed in his wrists and crossbow power in his throwing arm, the 22-year-old Gutiérrez, an outfielder acquired by the Cleveland Indians from the Los Angeles Dodgers in last April's Milton Bradley trade, is the prime candidate to become the next big thing out of Venezuelan baseball. But he's only one in a long line of his countrymen knocking at the door of the majors.
In the American League alone, half the teams have a Venezuelan among their top 10 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America. (And the New York Yankees traded their No. 2 prospect, catcher Dioner Navarro, to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Randy Johnson deal before Navarro was shipped on to L.A.) The names Guillermo Quiroz, Félix Hernàndez, Yusmeiro Petit and Javier Herrera will soon pop up in box scores around the bigs. Quiroz, the No. 3--rated prospect in Toronto's system last year, finished the season catching for the Blue Jays. Hernàndez, the Seattle Mariners' top pitching prospect, has the heat and pitch variety to soon replace fellow Venezuelan righthander Freddy García, who was traded to the Chicago White Sox in June. Petit, another righty, is tagged as the best control pitcher in the New York Mets' farm system. And Herrera, the No. 2 prospect for Oakland, will bring speed to the A's outfield and power to the plate.
The immediate future, though, belongs to Gutiérrez. "There's nothing but great things ahead for him," says John Farrell, director of player development for the Indians. Just three years after the Dodgers signed the wiry 6'2", 175-pound Gutiérrez, he earned their 2003 Minor League Player of the Year Award; a year later, with the Indians' Double A Akron Aeros, he batted .302 in 262 at bats before a pitch hit his left elbow and sidelined him for two months.
"I need to work on hitting breaking balls," Gutiérrez says, pinpointing a weakness that led him to strike out 77 times and walk only 23 times last season in Akron. For help, though, he looks only as far as that kitchen where his mom serves her soup. There, after every game for the Lions, Franklin and his father, Franklin Sr., a government worker who grew up playing street baseball, sit and analyze his game. "We talk about bat speed, about fielding," the son says. "He's always with me, congratulating me, helping me. It's beautiful." --M.S.