By Jim Callis
July 31, 2001
When the Yankees went trolling for relievers last month, they worked out a deal that would have sent two minor leaguers, shortstop D’Angelo Jimenez and righthander Brandon Knight, to the Expos for closer Ugueth Urbina. But both sides claimed that the pitchers involved failed medical exams, tabling the trade. Undaunted by Urbina’s medical history, the Red Sox swooped in shortly before the trade deadline on Tuesday and acquired him for minor league pitchers Tomo Ohka and Rich Rundles. Montreal also contributed a reported $1 million to offset Urbina’s salary for this year and his expected raise in arbitration.
Urbina, 27, was one of the National League’s top closers from 1997-99, totaling 102 saves. But he needed two surgeries to remove bone chips from his elbow in 2000, and had a similar procedure performed after the 1996 season. He likes to overpower hitters with his fastball and slider, though he hasn’t quite returned to his usual dominant self yet. A righthander, Urbina is 2-1, 4.24 with 15 saves in 18 chances and 57 strikeouts in 47 innings. Red Sox closer Derek Lowe, who tied for the American League lead with 42 saves in 47 tries a year ago, hasn’t had the same success in 2001. Opponents are hitting .289 against Lowe, who has a 6.52 ERA since the all-star break, though the Red Sox plan to use Urbina as a setup man in his initial exposure to the AL. Scott Strickland appears to be the leading candidate to replace him as Montreal’s closer.
The Expos’ primary goal was to save the remainder of Urbina’s $4.2 million salary this season and avoid going to arbitration with him, but both pitchers they received do have some upside. Ohka, a 25-year-old righthander, was signed out of Japan in November 1998 and went 15-0 in the minors in 1999, his first pro season. He’s a finesse pitcher who relies on sink and command, and he has gone 6-13, 4.61 in part of three major league seasons. Ohka was 2-5, 6.19 with Boston this year, and also went 2-5, 5.57 in eight starts at Triple-A Pawtucket. The Expos have gotten no consistent starting outside of Tony Armas Jr. and Javier Vazquez, so Ohka could factor into their rotation quickly.
Rundles, a 20-year-old lefthander, was a 1999 third-round pick out of a Tennessee high school. He has been very impressive in 2001, his first trial in a full-season league, going 7-6, 2.43 with a 94-10 strikeout-walk ratio in 115 innings at low Class A Augusta. He’s a sinker-slider pitcher who excels at keeping the ball down in the strike zone, resulting in lots of groundballs and few homers.