Winter Wonders: Nov. 6

Yankees pitchers getting their feet wet in Hawaii




HONOLULU--The Yankees spent $3.35 million to sign righthanders Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain, their first two picks in June.

And then they sent them to Hawaii.

Of course, they are not on vacation. They are here to adjust to pro ball while pitching for the West Oahu CaneFires of Hawaii Winter Baseball. Three other Yankees pitchers--righthanders Christian Garcia, Jeff Marquez and Mark Melancon--joined them. (Melancon went home early with a sore arm, replaced by lefthander Michael Dunn.) But as first-round picks, Chamberlain and Kennedy were earning the lion's share of attention.

"(Kennedy and Chamberlain) both have very limited pro-ball experience," said CaneFires' pitching coach Scott Aldred of the top two draft picks. "This is their first real taste of pro ball."

Kennedy, who signed for $2.25 million after his junior season at Southern California as the 21st overall selection, and Chamberlain, who got $1.1 million as the 41st pick after his junior year at Nebraska, are pretty much getting their pro start in paradise.

Because both signed late, Kennedy made only one start, going 22⁄3 innings for short-season Staten Island, while Chamberlain said he had just two innings in the Yankees' mini-camp. They're here to make up for lost time.

"That's what the Yankees are using this for," Aldred said of the HWB experience.

"I'm just trying to get the feel of pro baseball because I'm new," said Kennedy, who pitched here in February for the Trojans against the University of Hawaii in a 4-3 loss to Steven Wright, the Cleveland Indians' second-round pick. "It's a little different tempo than how college was. You see better hitters than you have in college and the guys that come out of high school. I'm just trying to get used to the different batters."

Through Oct. 31, Chamberlain was 1-2, 2.89 and ranked second in the league with 25 strikeouts in just 19 innings, all the while using a fastball sitting in the 94-97 mph range.

But Kennedy (0-2, 5.79) hadn't fared as well in his five appearances, though he had 19 strikeouts in just 14 innings. His ERA ballooned after he gave up eight runs in 11⁄3 innings as a starter in an 8-1 loss to Honolulu on Oct. 22.

"He's struggling a little bit to get his rhythm," Aldred said. "We're working on some things here. We've shortened his stride length, and that can be an adjustment while he's trying to compete at the same time."

Aldred said college pitchers also need to change their mindset about pitching to batters with wood bats. There is no need to fear metal anymore.

"We want to challenge them to pitch with their fastball, use the power in their arms," Aldred said.

Chamberlain seems to have grasped the concept. "You have to learn to pitch to contact and just trust your fastball more," he said, "because that allows your secondary stuff to be better."

Although both are behind in terms of experience to the rest of the league, each said the break over the summer helped.

Kennedy, who logged 102 innings for the Trojans this past season, did throw bullpen sessions while negotiating with New York.

"The rest did help," the 6-foot, 190-pounder said. "If I was throwing the whole time (and) then came out here, that would've been a lot of innings. That would've been a lot of stress on my arm pitching from February all the way to November."

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Chamberlain agreed. He pitched 89 innings for the Cornhuskers, but missed two starts, he said, once to an arm injury and the other "because it was 30 degrees."

"It was nice to enjoy my family and take a break from the game because it's not just physically you get worn down, but mentally you get worn down," he said.

As a result, Chamberlain has felt strong, adding the warm climate helps.

"I was 93 to 97 (mph) the whole game, so my arm feels good and it's nice pitching in this weather," he said after a recent outing. "It doesn't take too long to get loose or stay loose."

Chamberlain added the league isn't just helping him as a pitcher, but as a person as well.

"You have to open yourself up because your teammates are from everywhere else," said Chamberlain, a Native American from Nebraska. "We have Japanese guys, so you have to go out of your comfort zone to make others feel comfortable. You learn the new language. I'm going to learn so much because of the fun you have on the off days. I think all around, I'm going to be a better person by just being here."

Kennedy, who is from Huntington Beach, Calif., would like to visit the Banzai Pipeline to see some of the major pro surf meets in November, when the giant waves start pounding Oahu's north shore. Back home, he surfs at Trestles, sort of the equivalent of the Pipeline. But he manages to keep his priorities in order.

"I'm here to have fun, but this is my job," he said. "I want to get better and I want to do well here."

--STACY KANESHIRO

FALL GUYS

• Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles lefthander Kanehisa Arime, the league's wins leader with three, gave up his first run after 26 consecutive scoreless innings to start the season in an 8-1 win for Honolulu against West Oahu on Oct. 22. At 28, he is the senior member of the league.

"(The Golden Eagles) sent me here to experience a different kind of baseball environment," Arime said through an interpreter. "And I want to develop my changeup. I want to learn from the American coaches and American teammates."

Arime just completed his fifth pro season in Nippon Professional Baseball. He was drafted in 2002 by the then-Kintetsu Buffaloes (later merged with Orix) out of a corporate league, in which he played for five years after graduating from high school in Okinawa. Corporate leagues are considered amateur in Japan.

• Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes got his first taste of life on the infield in the Arizona Fall League. And if moving to first in the prospect-laden league wasn't enough, Dukes had to do it in front of Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and big league manager Joe Madden over his first two games.

"Oh he's raw, no doubt--the footwork, the range . . . he's got a lot of work to do," a scout with an NL club said. "But I'll tell you--he's got instincts. He gets to the bag pretty good and the guy has real soft hands. He's showed he can pick it when he has to."

The Rays are hoping to get Dukes a first base job in the Dominican or Venezuela when the Fall League ends, but getting the 22-year-old more at-bats is a priority, so he could move back to the outfield for the remainder of the winter.

• Not especially known for his defensive prowess, Astros outfielder Hunter Pence was playing a solid center field and spent time in right field as well for Mesa in the AFL. "He's the guy that jumps out at me the most right now," Solar Sox manager Pat Listach said. "He can really run for a big guy. He's strong, he's disciplined, he keeps his head in the game all the time. He's shown both pull and oppo power. He doesn't have a textbook approach at the plate, but he just gets it done."