Padres Farm Report: Rafael Medina

To this point Rafael Medina is perhaps best known as part of the Yankees’ payment for Hideki Irabu. The two pitchers have a lot in common. Both are stocky righthanders who throw very hard. Both have trouble staying in shape. Neither speaks much, if any, English.

But happily there are differences. Medina is 5 years younger than Irabu, isn’t locked into a multimillion dollar contract, doesn’t humiliate his interpreter in front of teammates, and doesn’t cause George Steinbrenner to cringe every time he throws a pitch. Not yet, anyway.

When I saw Medina pitch at Rancho Cucamonga in his Padres’ organization debut, he looked overpowering. Of course, this came as no surprise, as he was there on rehab assignment before heading to Las Vegas, where he was hit pretty hard. But against the Lancaster Pilots, Medina worked 7 innings, throwing about 110 pitches. Roughly 80 percent of his pitches were fastballs, in the 91-96 MPH range. His last pitch was clocked at 95 MPH, so he wasn’t losing velocity over the course of the game. And this was in 90 degree heat. I didn’t keep score at the game, but if memory serves me, he held the Pilots to three hits and a warning-track flyball out, striking out 9 or 10 and walking none.

That’s the good news. Now for the not-so-good news: For as good as his fastball is, Medina has no second pitch. In the game I saw, he threw a handful of changeups and as many breaking balls, but most of them bounced on the way to the plate. He can get by with just a 96 MPH fastball in the California League, but in the big leagues it’s a whole different story. Hitters will sit on the heater and turn it around in a hurry. In fact, this is exactly what happened to Medina in the PCL toward the end of the season. He grooved fastballs, and hitters played pinball in the friendly confines of Cashman Field and the other bandbox parks of the PCL.

I tend to be somewhat leery of pitching prospects (and pitchers in general, for that matter), and Padres GM Kevin Towers was probably a bit overly optimistic when he projected Medina as a possible number one or two starter. He’s more likely to be an end-of-the-rotation guy if he can learn to throw a couple more pitches with consistency. Or, if he can only learn one more pitch, he could make an excellent setup man. Right now, he’s pitching very well in the Arizona Fall League. If he continues to make progress, and if he isn’t plucked up in the expansion draft, Medina could make his presence felt in San Diego by June 1998.

Next time in the Farm Report we’ll look at an even more promising pitcher, Matt Clement.

Update: 5/11/98

 W- L    ERA    BA   G GS CG GF SH SV   IP    H   R  ER HR  BB  SO
 0- 1   9.15  .349   4  4  0  0  0  0  19.2  29  21  20  2  15  11

Well, Medina was not taken in the Expansion Draft. He was, however, traded along with first baseman Derrek Lee and left-hander Steve Hoff to the Florida Marlins in exchange for right-hander Kevin Brown. After a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League and a solid showing in spring training, Medina carved a spot for himself in Jim Leyland’s revamped rotation. Unfortunately, after a disastrous four starts, Medina was placed on the DL April 18 with a sore shoulder. The injury may be related to one suffered while a member of the New York Yankees organization, and which he spent most of last season rehabilitating. Apparently Medina’s velocity suffered and he could no longer throw his slider. Medina is eligible to come off the DL, but is out for that ominous period of time known as “indefinitely.”

There’s No Crying in Baseball

I’m really glad the World Series ended the way it did. Now we hopefully won’t have to hear anymore nonsense about what a horrible series it was because (a) the best teams weren’t in it, (b) the games were sloppy, and/or (c) the pitchers couldn’t throw strikes.

On the first point, if the “best” teams weren’t in the World Series, well where exactly were they and why were they there instead of playing basesball? Maybe it’s because they didn’t beat the teams they needed to beat to earn the right tocompete for the Championship. Yes, I think that possibly could have something to do with it. Whine all you want about best records and wildcards and tradition, the bottom line is the Indians and Marlins got it done where others couldn’t. And for that they should be applauded, not made to apologize.

As for the games being sloppy, let’s remember the conditions under which the middle three games were played. Have you ever tried playing baseball in the snow? Neither have I, but I’ll bet that, unlike football, where everyone is running around all the time, it gets mighty tough standing around second base waiting for something to happen, wishing you could feel your fingers. Then, when a ball does come your way, you must ignore the 21 degree wind chill factor and execute flawlessly. Under those conditions, there are no routine plays.

And how about everyone’s favorite complaint: The pitchers couldn’t throw strikes. What if we look at this in a different light: The hitters didn’t swing at bad pitches. What if we acknowledge the art of hitting, of working the count,of making the pitcher make a mistake? Sure the pitchers were wild at times, but what pitchers aren’t? A good batting eye is one of the most important components of good hitting. Ask Wade Boggs. Ask Frank Thomas. Ask Ted Williams. If the Cubs had somehow made it to the World Series, we wouldn’t be hearing about pitchers’ control problems, because guys like Sammy Sosa would be busy swinging at all those sliders low and away.

Aside from the complaints about the games themselves, the most inane comments made during the World Series concerned the possible “tainting” of the Marlins’ victory because of all the money they spent. The Expos and this year’s Pirates notwithstanding, it is an economic reality of baseball in the 1990s that teams need to spend money in order to win. And despite the high-profile signings of Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, and Alex Fernandez and the huge contract extension for Gary Sheffield, this is a young Marlin team built around guys like Charles Johnson, Edgar Renteria, and Livan Hernandez. And thanks to GM Dave Dombrowski and farm director John Boles, there is more talent on the way in John Roskos, Luis Castillo, Alex Gonzalez, Todd Dunwoody, and Mark Kotsay.

So let’s all quit whining about what a horrible World Series this was and move on. The best team by definition did win the Championship. Congratulations to the Indians and the Marlins, two teams that ignored the critics, beat allegedly superior teams, and never quit until Renteria’s single up the middle ended one of the most exciting game sevens in recent memory. True, this World Series didn’t always provide us with flawless baseball, but when has anyone ever played flawless baseball? Where humans are involved, there are bound to be flaws, and that’s what makes baseball, indeed humanity, so fascinating. So get over it and appreciate the game. And remember, there’s no crying in baseball.

My Last Name Should Have Been Walker

Something is terribly wrong with me, I’m convinced of it. When most people go to a ball game, they like to see home runs, diving catches, blazing fastballs. Me, I like walks. That’s right — the good old bases on balls. I enjoy watching a batter work the pitcher, fouling off the good pitches, laying off the bad ones, and then trotting down to first base, a potential run despite not “doing” anything.

And I don’t just mean Frank Thomas or Barry Bonds, guys who obviously are going to draw their share of free passes by virtue of the fear they instill in opposing hurlers’ hearts. Not to take anything away from those guys, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out there are a lot of times when as a pitcher you’re better off not giving them anything to pulverize and taking your chances with the next batter. (Though there is talent in knowing enough not to swing at junk — ask Mel Nieves.)

The ones I love to watch are guys like F.P. Santangelo, Dave Magadan, and John Cangelosi, to name a few. They draw obscene amounts of walks and it’s not because the pitchers are worried about them going yard. Cangelosi I can understand — he’s tiny, and it’s next to impossible to throw him a strike. But Magadan? The guy is 6’3″ and has virtually no power, but his batting eye is incredible.

Magadan is the kind of player that drives opposing pitchers (and most fans) out of their minds. He’ll make a pitcher throw 10 or 11 pitches in an at bat. In August, in a game against the Yankees, he launched a foul ball into the second deck along third base, and some kid caught it. The very next pitch he fouled to the exact same spot, to the exact same kid. I don’t remember how the at-bat finished, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he drew a walk.

I don’t mean to belittle the homer or the diving catch or even the blazing fastball. They’re all great parts of a great game, and I’ll always enjoy them. But there’s a perverse pleasure I take in watching a guy get rewarded not for hitting a homer or even a single, but just for being patient. So here’s to you, Mr. Magadan; God bless you, and the next time you’re trotting down to first after ball four, listen for me — I’ll be the idiot screaming like you hit the ball 500 feet.

Padres Farm Report: Ben Davis

Ben Davis is a switch-hitting catcher out of a Pennsylvania high school. The Padres selected him in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft with the second pick overall, after Darin Erstad and before Jose Cruz, Jr. Many in the organization wanted to pursue Cruz, but they ended up taking Davis, which in light of Cruz’ almost immediate impact at the major league level has left the Padres open to much criticism.

But comparisons between Cruz and Davis are unfair. Cruz was a polished college player, while Davis was very much a work in progress. The Padres were looking long term with this pick, and although high school catchers do not have a very good track record as major-league prospects, San Diego GM Kevin Towers felt Davis was a once-in-a-generation kind of talent.

Whether that bears itself out remains to be seen. We can discuss this more intelligently 15-20 years from now. In the meantime, what we do know about Davis is this. As an 18-year-old he put up good numbers in the Northwest League. The following year, at the recommendation of scouts and against Towers’ wishes, the young receiver jumped a level to the fast A California League.

At Rancho Cucamonga, the gangly teenager looked overmatched. Only a late-season surge pushed his batting average over the .200 mark. Davis didn’t show much pop for a guy 6’4″, and an elbow injury suffered while showing off his arm in spring training limited him to DH.

This spring, however, Padres manager Bruce Bochy, himself a former a major-league catcher, worked with Davis on his footwork and throwing mechanics to help the youngster avoid injury and get the most out of his natural ability. Just as tall pitchers sometimes get out of whack in their delivery, so do tall catchers.

In 1997 Davis, still only 20 years old, finally started to show the power many had predicted he would have. But his hitting overall was still below league average, and his plate discipline, not his strong suit to begin with, actually got worse. His swing is long from both sides of the plate, and at times he appears somewhat lackadaisical on defense.

But the one tool that will get Davis to the Show is his arm. He makes throws that inspire not so much exclamations of “Oh wow!” as stunned silence, perhaps a subdued “ooh,” as when Kramer on Seinfeld discovers how good it feels not to wear underpants. Davis’ mechanics still need work, but already he has a major-league gun. The only catchers I’m sure have stronger arms are Brad Ausmus, Charles Johnson, and Ivan Rodriguez.

While Davis’ arm will bring him to the big leagues, what keeps him there will be how well he develops his other skills and how dedicated he becomes to improving himself as a ballplayer. He probably won’t be the superstar San Diego once envisioned he’d become, but given that he’s still growing and that catchers often take a long time to develop, he’s got a much better chance of being a productive major leaguer than a lot of people are currently giving him credit for.

Update: 5/1/98

 AVG  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO  SB
.182  77  10  14  4  0  2   9   5  12   0

After a dreadful start offensively at Double-A Mobile of the Southern League, Davis has started to pick things up of late. Although his batting average remains low, a large percentage of his hits have been for extra bases. Another encouraging sign is the relatively low number of strikeouts. Last season at Rancho Cucamonga his swing was a bit long from both sides of the plate. If he can tighten it up, and hit even .250 with 15-20 homers this year, with his defensive abilities, this season should be considered a success.

Be Careful What You Wish For

It was just a matter of time before Hideki Irabu and George Steinbrenner discovered what the rest of us already knew: that even under the best conditions, making the transition from the Chiba Lotte Marines to the New York Yankees would be difficult. Under the conditions that Irabu set for himself, however, it has been darned near impossible. In a display of two-facedness that would have made the late Richard M. Nixon proud, Irabu humbly stated his dream to play baseball professionally in the United States; then, when it became evident that his dream would be realized via the San Diego Padres, he and his agent, Don Nomura, suddenly changed their tune.

What Irabu had meant to say, so the story goes, was that he had dreamed of playing for the Yankees. Apparently his dream included visions of himself making outrageous demands of his prospective new employer and insisting he would not work unless those demands were met. Perhaps this is unfair of me, because I’ve never been a terrorist, but it seems that the only careers in which this type of behavior is tolerated and too often rewarded are terrorism and professional sports. I can count on one finger the number of seconds I would remain employed were I to place such demands on my employer.

Irabu’s crowning achievement came when he compared San Diego to a prison camp. I have lived in San Diego for several years, and although I have never been incarcerated, I like to think that my present living conditions are significantly better than those of a prison (unless I was in for tax evasion or embezzlement or something and got to watch TV and play golf all day).

Regardless the respective merits of San Diego and a prison camp, Irabu had made it quite clear to everyone that he had no intention of playing for anyone but the Yankees. So the Padres, not being complete idiots, cut their losses and, with the blessing of Chiba Lotte, dealt him to the Bronx Bombers for Rafael Medina, Ruben Rivera, and $3 million. The Yankees then, after lengthy negotiations, signed Irabu to a very generous long-term contract.

The general assumption was that the out-of-shape Irabu would zip through the minors and come up in time to help the Yankees defend their status as “World Champions.” And sure enough, he abused hitters at the A, AA, and AAA levels, all the while attracting more and more media and fan interest as “the next Nomo, only better.” He finally made it to the major leagues and struck out nine Detroit Tigers in his debut.

But already opponents questioned his ability, much as his own teammates had previously questioned his right to pitch for the Yankees. Mr. Steinbrenner dismissed Irabu’s detractors as jealous naysayers. Boss George claimed to lose respect for David Justice after the Indians’ slugger called the pitcher’s stuff “average.” Meanwhile, the hefty hurler continued his downward spiral, each start worse than the one previous.

The Yankees then decided his mechanics needed to be fixed, so they sent him back to the minors for a couple starts. Again, he pitched well.

When Irabu returned to New York, he arrived with Yankee minor league pitching instructor Billy Connors, who would serve as a sort of personal coach. Irabu, mechanics allegedly fixed, took the mound again with the same approach as before his demotion and the same predictable results: Fall behind in the count with the forkball, leave the fastball (92 MPH, rather than the 99 MPH he had allegedly been clocked at in Japan) out over the plate, look out for falling objects.

After a start at Oakland, in which Irabu faced a less-than-formidable lineup and allowed three homers in three plus innings, manager Joe Torre called his performance unacceptable in the context of a pennant race. Torre gave him one more start, this time against the lowly Philadelphia Phillies. Irabu never made it out of the fourth inning. Steinbrenner, who had been sitting in the front row to watch his prize pitcher ignite yet another bonfire at the expense of a possible return to the World Series, left the stadium soon after Irabu left the playing field and later blasted him, calling him, as Brian Hunter and David Justice had before, overhyped and suggesting that he needed to learn how to pitch and stop blaming everyone and everything else for his own personal failures. Irabu, meanwhile, declined to speak with reporters, choosing instead to spend some quality time with breakable objects in the visitor’s clubhouse.

The jury is still very much out on Hideki Irabu. Forty-something innings aren’t nearly enough to make a sound judgment on his status as a major league pitcher. But the early returns are, to put it delicately, less than favorable. Many young men have great “stuff” but possess the mental toughness of strawberry Jell-o. Irabu, with his fan-spitting, glove-throwing, clubhouse-sprinkler-breaking antics (to say nothing of his body), is resembling a considerably fouler flavor. And right now he’s probably wondering what he ever did to deserve this. And how much nicer a prison camp would be.