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Winter Wonders

Compiled by Chris Kline
December 12, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela--After briefly retiring from baseball in 2003, 22-year-old righthander Charles Haeger was added to the White Sox 40-man roster. Not bad for someone who went 1-6, 5.18 in 57 innings at Rookie-level Bristol in 2004.

Haeger's season with the La Guaira Sharks in the Venezuelan League got off to a hot start, earning him player of the week honors in the third week of the season. That week, Haeger pitched 16 innings, giving up two runs on 14 hits. He walked four and struck out seven, going 2-0, 1.13 over that span.

Yet, as hitters became a little more familiar with Haeger, they caught on to the knuckleballer. "In a season this short, hitters catch on very quickly," Sharks pitching coach Robert Espinosa said. "I don't think he was pitching any different."

Haeger ended his winter league stint early after finding out he had made the Sox roster. He finished 4-3, 4.74 in 44 innings, striking out 17 and walking 23. Despite ending on a bad note, Espinosa seems impressed by the 25th-round pick in 2001 and more than a little disappointed by Haeger's early departure.

"He was very effective," Espinosa said. "His four wins show as much. He was consistent. His decision took (Sox third base coach and Sharks manager) Joey Cora and I by surprise."

Haeger had intended to pitch the entire season, but wanted to rest up and get ready for his first spring training in big league camp. Starting with high Class A Winston-Salem, then Double-A Birmingham, and finally the Sharks, Haeger threw slightly over 200 innings in 2005, far eclipsing his previous high of 130 innings. He also fared better at Winston-Salem and Birmingham, going 14-5, 3.50 combined.

But Haeger, to his credit, is not only upbeat about his season and being named to the 40-man, but seems to have grown up a bit during this winter league. "Part of me would've liked to end on a better note," Haeger said. "But of eight starts, two were bad. If I can do that, I'll be pretty happy with the results."

Although Haeger failed to cut down on his walks, his main goal during the winter league season, he learned something about mental preparation. He admits that in one of his bad starts, "I let walks and a bad play on a bunt take me out of the game mentally. That's my only regret. I have to be more mentally strong in situations I can control. I'm normally calm, but that time I got frustrated."

As Espinosa makes very clear, Haeger is a talented prospect that had a couple bad outings. Everyone expected him to bounce back, but big league dreams led him elsewhere. For now, Haeger plans to spend December resting up before going into high gear come the new year, starting his throwing program, weight lifting, and preparing for game situations.

Besides renewed mental strength, Haeger has been working on a slurvy breaking ball to add to his arsenal.

"I'm just starting to play with it," he said. According to Espinosa, the inspiration came from manager Cora, who faced Tim Wakefield and pointed out that the Red Sox knuckleballer varied his pitches by throwing the occasional breaking ball and a fastball.

Haeger agrees that mixing it up should help keep hitters guessing. "Anytime you have another pitch you can throw for a strike, it's always to your advantage," Haeger said.

While he works on a new pitch, Haeger will also be thinking about how to cut down on his walks. By protecting a young pitcher with some control issues, the Sox showed plenty of confidence in Haeger. And if anything, a rough finish with the Sharks might have been the best thing to happen to the righthander.

--JOSE OROZCO

Big Power

Indians first baseman Ryan Mulhern got off to a slow start for Aguilas in the Dominican League, hitting just .227 with 21 strikeouts over his first 60-at-bats.

But Mulhern, an 11th-round pick out of South Alabama in 2003, started making more consistent contact, upping his average to .252 through 111 at-bats. The Tribe sent Mulhern to the Dominican to specifically work on pitch recognition and to square up breaking balls more consistently.

"He's there to face better pitching on a constant basis and to see more and more offspeed stuff," Indians farm director John Farrell said. "He was one of the guys we felt could handle that culture change and the rise in competition level to come into spring training better prepared for the pitching he's going to face at the upper levels.

"It takes him some time to settle in and get comfortable. And he needs that time, he needs everyday at-bats. When he gets them, he produces like an everyday player."

Mulhern had a breakout year in 2005, belting 32 homers between high Class A Kinston and Double-A Akron. He's kept up that power surge, hitting seven more for Aguilas. The power numbers are intriguing, and could be to other clubs as well since Mulhern was left off the 40-man roster and will be exposed to the Rule 5 draft.

But some scouts raised concerns about that much power coming so quickly--Mulhern hit just 12 homers in his first two seasons as a pro, and the robust numbers he put up in 2005 began as a 24-year-old in high Class A.

"No doubt he lit the Carolina League up," one scout from an American League club said. "But you take into account his age and experience level and you expect a guy with that much raw power to hit some home runs. Maybe he's figured it all out, but I don't Rule 5 a guy with those strikeouts who's limited to first base."

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• Miguel Montero is hitting .313-4-14 in 99 at-bats for Pastora in the Venezuelan League. "He is an intelligent hitter with power," Pastora manager Carlos Acosta said. "He'll be another Pastora big leaguer in the short term, 2007 at the latest." Montero was added to the Diamondbacks' 40-man roster, surpassing Phil Avlas on Arizona's depth chart, who was left off and eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

• Walter Young was holding his own on a team of top prospects for La Guaira in the Venezuelan League. The slugger had only hit three home runs, but still managed to drive in 20 runs and hit .308 in 120 at-bats. At Triple-A Ottawa, Young hit .288-13-81 in 466 at-bats. After hitting .303-1-3 in 33 at-bats in the big leagues in September, Young seems poised to come in to spring training vying for the everyday first base job in Baltimore.

• Phillies righthander Gavin Floyd continues to try to right the ship after battling through adversity for the first time in his career in 2005. Floyd went 6-9, 6.19 in 138 innings at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre during the regular season, and the Phillies sent him to the Puerto Rico Winter League to further hone his mechanics. In his first three starts for Arecibo, Floyd was 0-0, 4.63 with a 10-6 strikeout-walk ratio in 12 innings.

• The Devil Rays sent righthander Dewon Brazleton to Puerto Rico to get more innings under his belt after the first-round pick in 2001 missed much of the regular season on the restricted list. Brazelton made 20 starts for Tampa Bay in 2005, going 1-8, 7.61 in 71 innings. He was getting hit hard over his first two starts for Lanzadores, allowing 14 hits--including three homers--over his first eight innings.

• Indians outfielder Ben Francisco keeps showing the ability to hit for power for Culican in the Mexican Pacfic League. Francisco, a fifth-round pick in 2002 out of UCLA, is hitting .267-7-17 in 146 at-bats. He finished the regular season strong, hitting .398 in August at Double-A Akron.

 
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