MLB Makes Significant Rule Changes For International Players
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Syracuses Cash wins Blue Jays over with his work behind the plate
Compiled by Geoff Wilson
Josh Phelps was one of the best slugging prospects in the minor leagues. The Blue Jays had stolen Jayson Werth from the Orioles in a trade. Joe Lawrence, a 1996 first-round pick, was being converted to catcher at Triple-A Syracuse. And the Blue Jays thought so much of Guillermo Quiroz that they gave him a $1.2 million bonus to sign out of Venezuela in 1998.
But when asked that spring about the catcher of the future, minor league catching instructor Ernie Whitt threw a curveball. The guy to watch, Whitt said, was a converted infielder named Kevin Cash.
Two years later, Cash is on the doorstep of the major leagues, and Whitt looks like a genius. Cash is starting this season with the Syracuse SkyChiefs, and it seems just a matter of time before hes the regular catcher in Toronto.
"I expect to see him up in the big leagues before too long, if he stays healthy," said Whitt, who remains the best catcher in Blue Jays history. "If he gets the opportunity, I think hes going to play up there for a while."
Phelps is now the Blue Jays DH. Werth has become an outfielder. Lawrence, who never panned out at catcher, is with Triple-A Indianapolis in the Brewers system. And Quiroz is one level below Cash at Double-A New Haven.
The Blue Jays are platooning Ken Huckaby, Greg Myers and Tom Wilson at catcher in Toronto. Some in the Jays organization believe Cash will follow in the same path as Phelps, who spent half of 2002 in Syracuse before becoming a fixture in Toronto.
"We love his arm, we love his receiving skills and the way he calls a game," Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca said. "He asks real good questions all the time; its just a matter of getting playing time and staying with his (batting) approach."
Cash, 25, is one of the most remarkable stories in baseball. He was a third baseman and shortstop at Florida State, and not one of the 30 major league teams selected him in the 1999 draft.
Cash played that summer in the Cape Cod League, where he was pressed into duty as an emergency catcher. His arm and receiving ability caught the eye of Blue Jays scouts, and Toronto signed him as a nondrafted free agent in August.
Working extensively with Whitt, Cash took to catching immediately. And he showed flashes of power (10 home runs in 196 at-bats) at low Class A Hagerstown in 2000. But in the spring of 2001, he was still way down on the organizations catching depth chart.
"Im not stupid," Cash said. "I knew Josh Phelps and the kind of years he had. I knew Jayson Werth was a pretty good player when he came over. And Joe (Lawrence) was actually similar to me: He was just being converted, and they were trying to find a way to get Joe to the big leagues.
"I think as the seasons have gone on, there are some things that I will never be able to do that Josh Phelps can do. And the same with Jayson. They have worked out situations, I think, where all three of us are comfortable, and all three of us are going to get our opportunity."
While Phelps and Werth remained at catcher in Double-A and Lawrence injured his wrist at Syracuse in 2001, Cash became a high Class A Florida State League all-star. And last year, when Phelps and Werth ended up at other positions, Cash split the season between Double-A Tennessee and Syracuse, with a September promotion to Toronto.
"Theyve made changes, but it was never discouraging," said Cash, now rated the No. 3 prospect in the system. "It maybe worked out better. I liked being around Josh, I liked being around Jayson, I like being around Q (Quiroz) because theyre all very good and we all pushed each other. I think everybody benefited from that competition."
While Cashs catch-and-throw skills are unquestionedhe threw out 46 percent of basestealers last seasonthe righthanded hitter still has work to do at the plate. He hit 10 home runs in 236 at-bats at Syracuse last year, but he also struck out once every 3.3 at-bats with a .299 on-base percentage.
Cash has had a tendency to fight himself when hes struggling, which tends to extend his slumps. Tosca has talked to Cash about the "gas pedal and the brake," and when to use each one.
"(Tosca) knows that I care a lot and that Im very concerned with how I do and how whatever team Im playing on does," Cash said.
As leagues throughout baseball were knocked around by the last remnants of winter, the International League also had its share of postponements and cancellations due to weather in the seasons opening week.
Through the first five days of the schedule, 13 games were postponed by rain, freezing rain or snow, and the forecasts for the coming days werent much better. The total was more than one-fifth of the way to the season total in 1996, when there were 62 openings lost leaguewideand 27 in April alone. That season, the Charlotte Knights played just one game of a scheduled eight-game road trip to Rochester and Pawtucket to start the season.
Norfolk Tides righthander Jason Middlebrook turned in the best early pitching performance, throwing six no-hit innings in a 9-0 win over the Durham Bulls. He came out after reaching his pitch count of 80, and reliever Pete Zamora almost finished out the no-hitter, which was broken up on an infield single from Jason Tyner with one out in the ninth. Bulls catcher Charlie Greene grounded into a game-ending double play on the next pitch. "You dont get that many chances to be part of a no-hitter, so it would have been nice," Middlebrook told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot. "But its not the most important thingnot at this level, and not in April."
The same day as Middlebrooks gem, Columbus Clippers lefthander Alex Graman threw five hitless innings in a 6-1 victory over Indianapolis. The Indians broke up the no-hitter in the eighth when Brady Clark managed an RBI single off reliever Brian Rogers.
Durham managed to reach a franchise milestone and set a franchise record in the seasons first weekrecords that include the citys time in the high Class A Carolina League. Manager Bill Evers got his 400th victory with the Bulls in an 8-3 win over Norfolk, and closer Lee Gardner notched his 34th save in a Durham uniform during a 5-2 victory over the Richmond Braves, breaking Maximo del Rosrios record of 33.
In Charlottes bandbox home, Knights Stadium, the home team took three of four from the Richmond Braves in the seasons opening series, which saw the two clubs combine for 50 runs and 12 homers. But in the teams next series, against Norfolk, lefthander Mike Porzio combined with three relievers on a 2-0, two-hit shutout of the Tides. The ILs southernmost city saw a game-time temperature of just 46 degrees for that contest, with an announced crowd of just 1,023.
The Tucson Sidewinders scored the most runs in the Pacific Coast League since 1994 in a 25-11 pounding of Edmonton. Third baseman Chad Tracy went 4-for-5 with a pair of walks and six runs to tie the PCL record for runs scored in a game, last accomplished by Sacramentos Mark Bellhorn in 2000.
The Trappers scored the first two runs of the game in the top of the first, but the Sidewinders answered with six in their half of the frame to begin the slugfest, eventually setting single-game franchise records for runs and hits (27). Outfielder Brian Gordon had a pretty good day as well: He fell a double short of the cycle, going 3-for-6 with a triple, home run and seven RBIs.
Edmontons new affiliation with the Exposthe first time Montreal has had an affiliate in the PCLdidnt start out very well. The Trappers were hitting .281 as a team, third in the league, but the staff ERA was a league-worst 9.94 during an 0-5 start. To make matters worse, they had also committed 16 errors in those five games.
Colorado Springs third baseman Garrett Atkins, one of the final cuts from the Rockies spring camp, continued his hot streak with a 10-for-17 start for the Sky Sox. Atkins hit .538 (21-for-39) during spring training.
The Sky Sox got a strong pitching outing, albeit a brief one, from lefthander Cory Vance in a 1-0 win over New Orleans. In the the rain-shortened five-inning contest, Vance allowed only a fourth-inning single to Zephyrs outfielder Henri Stanley. Losing pitcher Scott Linebrink allowed just the lone run on six hits.
Beyond the big bats, you could find strong pitching performances in the PCLs opening week. Nashville pitchers combined for two shutouts as the Sounds won all three games in their rain-shortened series with the Iowa Cubs.
The new Albuquerque Isotopes had all four starters work at least five innings as they took three of four in their first series, at Memphis. However, they were the victims of a perfect game by the Sounds John Wasdin to open their second series (see Leading Off on Page 5).
And while the parent club was off to a surprising 5-0 start behind young power arms, Omaha righthander Kyle Snyder threw six shutout innings in his first start to help the O-Royals take three of four from New Orleans.
As part of the leagues year-long centennial celebration, the PCL is resurrecting its hall of fame and has announced 21 new members to be inducted into its Class of 2003. The most notable: Joe DiMaggio, who starred for his hometown San Francisco Seals from 1932-35.