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Compiled by John Manuel
The way Brandon McCarthy talks about it, pitching in big league camp was remarkably similar to pitching in the places of his past. And perhaps in stunning fashion to everyone but him, the results have been the same all spring for the White Sox righthander.
McCarthy, a 17th-round pick of the Sox in 2002 out of Lamar (Colo.) Community College, was the talk of Chicago’s major league camp, going 3-0, 0.59 with nine strikeouts and one walk in 151/3 innings. That effort, along with a spring foot injury to lefthander Mark Buehrle that opened a spot in the rotation, prompted the White Sox to give McCarthy the nod to start the second game of the season at U.S. Cellular Field against the Indians.
“I’ve never seen anything like that kid,” White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen told the Peoria Journal-Star. “He’s got a great future in the big leagues.”
Most 21-year-olds in their first big league camp would understandably be a bit nervous or star-struck by the players around them, some of them players they grew up watching. But McCarthy is no ordinary 21-year-old, as he proved in outing after outing in March.
“This was my first big league experience, but honestly the only time that happened this spring was meeting Frank Thomas,” McCarthy said. “I wasn’t awestruck by anyone other than him. It just never hit me. When I got out there in big league games the first few times, I didn’t notice the actual hitter. I just made my pitches and did what I had to do.”
When he found out he was headed to camp as a nonroster invitee, McCarthy figured he didn’t have much of a chance of sticking with the big league club. The White Sox had signed veteran Orlando Hernandez to a two-year deal to round out a projected rotation that also included Buehrle, Jose Contreras and Jon Garland. But he also decided he had nothing to lose.
“I knew that after they signed El Duque that I probably didn’t have much of a chance, so I just took a kind of ignorance-is-bliss approach,” McCarthy said. “My goal was to make an impression on the coaching staff there and let them know that if someone went down, I would be ready and they could feel confident in giving me an opportunity.”
That happened, at least in the short term, when Buehrle broke a bone in his left foot while shagging fly balls, keeping him out of at least the home opener and opening a door for the 6-foot-7, 190-pounder.
“I wanted to make it tough for them,” he said. “I wanted to give them some sleepless nights.”
That’s the attitude McCarthy’s carried since junior college—never give in and never be intimidated. That kind of makeup, along with his lanky build and pure stuff, bring former White Sox righthander Jack McDowell to mind. But McCarthy is more polished at a young age than McDowell was.
“I just have never been intimidated by certain people,” McCarthy said. “In high school I let people do that to me and I learned pretty quickly how bad of a thing that can be. You just have to realize that (hitters) get themselves out for the most part. It’s a different nature when (Vladimir Guerrero) or (Mark) Teixeira is in the box, certainly, but I just try to take the same mentality against each hitter. You attack different hitters in different ways, but your mentality has to be the same. And I’ve never been scared of anybody.
“It’s just having conviction in what you’re going to throw. It takes confidence, yeah, but I think the maturity is there more so in the past couple years than it ever was before. I have a lot stronger belief in my stuff.”
And that stuff is quality. McCarthy relies on a 90 mph two-seam fastball, a 92-93 four-seamer, a plus curve and an improving changeup he says has been the difference maker for him in camp. He sailed through three minor league levels last season, posted a 17-6, 3.13 record between low Class A Kannapolis, high Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. He led the Rookie-level Arizona and Pioneer leagues in strikeouts in his first two pro seasons, then topped all the minors in whiffs with 202 in 2004.
“That guy, he’s legit,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Chicago Tribune after McCarthy held Los Angeles to two hits over five innings. “He’s got a good over-the-top delivery. His fastball is hard, he hits spots, got a good breaking ball, changeup. I’m not sure where he is on their depth chart, but I’m sure he’s making a name for himself over there.”
But making a name for himself is far from McCarthy’s mind. As the whirlwind of attention fixes him for a target, he is still grounded when he looks back on his success thus far.
“It’s something I try not to think about and I’m not going to try to sound arrogant when I say this, but I’ve always expected this of myself,” McCarthy said. “I just knew that if I made the right decisions and kept doing things the same way that I could be successful. I knew that my body would keep growing and I would keep learning. There are always a lot of things to learn, but I knew that the wealth of information would keep coming and grow deeper as I moved up to the higher levels.
“So there really isn’t a whole lot of surprise in what I’ve done. When I look at it realistically there is, but it was always my goal to get to the big leagues by the age of 21. Some people thought that was a little too lofty, even last year, but I’ve always pushed myself and believed I could accomplish that.”
Rockies’ Experienced Rookies
TUCSON, Ariz.—The Rockies are the only team that isn’t often talked about as a possible favorite in what figures to be a wide-open National League West race. There’s a good reason for that. Besides first baseman Todd Helton and center fielder Preston Wilson, rookies and second-year players are likely to make up the rest of the team’s lineup.
Brief callups at the end of last season may make the difference for three rookie hitters expected to seize starting jobs. Third baseman Garrett Atkins, shortstop Clint Barmes and catcher J.D. Closser gained valuable perspective and experience in their big league auditions late last season.
It was Atkins’ second taste, as a strong performances at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2003 prompted the Rockies to give him a look. After hitting .366-15-94 in 445 at-bats last summer at Colorado Springs and .357-1-8 in 28 at-bats with the Rockies, he entered this spring as the favorite for the starting third-base job.
“I learned a little bit from my callup in 2003, and hopefully I can take something from last year,” said Atkins. “Even a little big league experience can go a long way.”
Atkins struggled in 25 big league games in 2003, batting just .159 with 14 strikeouts and no home runs. But he improved considerably last season, not only leading the Pacific Coast League in average, but more than holding his own in a 15-game big league stint.
If there was a knock on the 25-year-old as he developed in the Rockies’ system, it was his relative lack of power for a corner infielder. He posted a career-high in homers last year at Colorado Springs and is comfortable with his offensive package. He was hitting .432 with one homer in his first 37 spring at-bats.
“I don’t think about it,” said Atkins, a fifth-round pick in 2000 out of UCLA. “The organization knows what I can do and they seem to be OK with it. As long as I continue to hit line drives and drive in runs, I’ll be okay. Hopefully, the power will come.”
Even if it does, Atkins’ hold on the third-base job may be short-lived, considering the top prospect in the organization is another third baseman, 19-year-old Ian Stewart. The Rockies have other options at third such as Jeff Baker, who finished last year in Double-A, and 2004 fifth-round pick Matt Macri, so the time for Atkins to seize the job is now.
Joining Atkins on the left side of the Rockies infield is Barmes, a converted outfielder who impressed the Rockies enough in 20 games last season to earn the starting shortstop job this year. Barmes, 26, saw 12 games of big league action in 2003, and that experience helped him hit the ground running when he was again called up last September, when he hit .282-2-10 in 71 big league at-bats.
“I feel like every year I’ve played I’ve gotten better,” said Barmes, a 10th-round pick in 2000 out of Indiana State.
The numbers support him. In 2003, Barmes led the PCL in doubles with 35, and last year his 175 hits were a league high.
But what should endear Barmes to Rockies fans is his all-out style of play in the field. Rarely does a game go by without Barmes diving for a grounder up the middle or deep in the hole. This year, he hopes to be as scrappy with the bat as he is in the field. He was 7-for-35 to start the spring with only one extra-base hit.
“I want to have as many quality at-bats as I can,” he said. “One thing I learned last year was to concentrate on doing at least one good thing every day to help the team win, whether it’s taking a walk or moving a guy over.”
That lesson was one of several positives Barmes got out of last year’s callup.
“When I was called up last year my confidence skyrocketed, and it made a huge difference in my play,” he said. “I’m going into this season still feeling confident.”
The rookie who had the most to gain from a taste of the big leagues was Closser. Not only must he consistently hit big league pitching and handle the physical demands of catching, he also has the burden of earning the trust of the pitching staff.
That heavy responsibility may be why Closser was in line to be the first everyday rookie catcher in the National League since Jason Kendall did it in 1996 with Pittsburgh. Starting 28 of the Rockies’ final 50 games in 2004, however, has primed him for the task.
“The trust-building process started last year, and the whole starting rotation is back this year,” he said. “Getting to the big leagues last year was a good opportunity to see what those guys were like. Now it’s just a matter of continuing to talk to them, executing and having success out on the field.”
Closser is also comforted to have two veteran catchers behind him. Both Charles Johnson and Todd Greene return to the Rockies this year to spell Closser, 25, when he needs a break and offer him advice when he asks. They also were pushing him for playing time as he got off to a slow 3-for-28 start in the spring.
“It definitely helps having those guys around,” said Closser. “They know what they’re doing, and hopefully what I take from them accelerates the learning process for me.”
If everything clicks for Closser, he will offer the Rockies a switch-hitting bat with some power. Last season, he hit .319-1-10 in 133 at-bats for the Rockies, and batted .299-7-54 in 298 at-bats at Triple-A.
The big league experience they have coming into this season makes initial success a little likelier for Closser, Barmes and Atkins. If nothing else, it helped Johnson, Helton, Wilson and other Rockies veterans in the clubhouse get used to the young players.
“I think this group has solid minor league credentials,” farm director Bill Geivett said. “They have all performed well in Triple-A, and they have not been rushed in their development.
“This group cares about each other. Anyone who plays the game the right way would love these guys. They are very professional in their work and they are great teammates.”
Forcing The Timetable
The Blue Jays don’t necessarily need outfielder Gabe Gross in Toronto this season. After all, they are set in the outfield corners with second-year player Alex Rios in right and scrappy Frank Catalanotto and Reed Johnson in left.
Nevertheless, Gross was trying to force his way into the Blue Jays’ plans with a big spring. Gross, the organization’s No. 11 prospect, hit just .209-3-16 in 129 at-bats for the Jays last fall in his first big league trial. That followed a .294-9-54 season at Triple-A Syracuse in 377 at-bats.
But in one month of spring play, the 2001 first-round pick out of Auburn had nearly matched his Triple-A home run total already with seven in his first 32 at-bats, leaving him one homer behind the franchise’s single-season spring record set by recently departed free agent Carlos Delgado.
“We’re calling him ‘Babe Gross’ now,” one Jays official joked. “It’s a nice surprise. It’s just spring training and you don’t want to get too excited, but he’s got a lot going for him.”
Gross has a somewhat long swing. He’s made progress getting shorter and quicker to the ball this spring, but he’s also started adjusting to the speed and quality of play after getting his first taste of the big leagues last fall.
He’s followed a similar pattern throughout his career. He hit just .238 with a .380 slugging percentage in 2002 in his first stint at Double-A, with Tennessee, but conquered the level the next season, batting .319 while slugging .481. The same was true of Triple-A, hitting .264-5-23 in 182 at-bats in his first try at Syracuse prior to last season’s solid performance.
“He’s athletic, he’s strong and he’s got some aptitude,” the club official said. “He’s always taken about half a year to adjust to a level. What (general manager J.P. Ricciardi) did was get that adjustment period out of the way at the end of last season, and he’s looking locked in right now.”
Gross can play either left or right field, with the arm strength befitting a former Auburn quarterback. Now he’s hitting with the power befitting a football player.
• Another player forcing his way into major league roster talk was Rangers infielder Ian Kinsler, who was taking advantage of an injury to Alfonso Soriano to get extensive work at second base in big league camp. Kinsler, a 17th-round pick in 2003, doesn’t need to be protected on the 40-man roster, but he has continued the momentum he built during his stellar 2004 season (.345-20-99), which finished in Double-A. “I was skeptical until I saw him this spring,” one scout said. “He has good at-bat after good at-bat. He looks fine at second base, too; I saw him hang tough on the double play, and he seems to have had no problem making the move.”
• The Devil Rays were surprised when 32-year-old Danny Bautista retired, leaving their outfield thinner than expected. Already without Rocco Baldelli, out until mid-summer due to an offseason knee injury, the Rays had sent outfielders Joey Gathright and Jonny Gomes to minor league camp, and they were expected to start the season at Triple-A Durham. GM Chuck LaMar and manager Lou Piniella insist they haven’t considered promoting Delmon Young to the majors from low Class A Charleston, where Young hit .322-25-116 last season. LaMar told the Tampa Tribune, however, “I don’t think there’s any question, (Young) probably is the best right fielder we could get our hands on right now.”
• The Nationals decided they wanted to retain Tyrell Godwin enough to give up a player to keep him, trading the Blue Jays lefthander Aaron Wideman for Godwin, whom they had picked in the major league Rule 5 draft in December. By acquiring his rights in a trade, the Nationals can keep Godwin and send him to the minor leagues, likely to their Triple-A New Orleans affiliate. Godwin, a two-time first-round pick and former North Carolina two-sport athlete, hit .253-6-40 with 42 stolen bases at Double-A New Hampshire last year. The Jays get a Canadian in Wideman, a 19-year-old Ontario native who went 3-1, 1.81 in 10 starts at short-season Vermont last season.
• The Yankees signed 19-year-old shortstop Ramiro Pena out of Mexico to a minor league contract, with a $125,000 bonus. Pena immediately improves the organization’s depth at shortstop. Pena, a switch-hitter, comes from an athletic background, as his father and uncle both played for the Mexican League’s Monterrey Sultans, and he’s considered an above-average defender. He was expected to start the season in extended spring training, then join short-season Staten Island. He gives the Yankees another prospect at shortstop, helping to bulk up a thin position. The stars of Hector Made and Ferdin Tejada dimmed in 2004 as their bats failed to keep up with their defensive skills, and the Yankees sent Joaquin Arias to the Rangers last spring in the Alex Rodriguez trade.