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Winter Wonders

Compiled by Chris Kline
January 5, 2005

Davis finds fun in the sun

CULIACAN, Mexico--The way Rajai Davis saw it, a season of winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League was, at the very least, better than the alternative: another winter back home in Connecticut, working maintenance and shoveling snow.

"Shoveling snow, that wasn't fun," he said prior to a recent matchup between his Guasave Algodoneros and the Culiacan Tomateros. "This is fun. There's no snow here, and there's no sign of snow, either. My mom e-mailed me and told me they had a snowstorm the other day. All I told her was I was on the beach."

Now in the midst of his first-ever visit to Mexico, the Pirates' outfielder is finding that the Pacific League offers much more than an escape from the New England winter. It's a chance to get out of his comfort zone and confront new challenges, both on and off the field.

First, there's his spot in the Algodoneros' batting order. Normally a leadoff hitter, Davis found that position occupied by Demond Smith, an established veteran in Mexican baseball and a former .400 hitter in the league. So he spent his first few weeks hitting in the seventh and eighth spots.

"I've had to adjust to not getting up as much, (but still) trying to get on base and trying to do what I do," he said. "Lately, I really haven't had the opportunity to get on base and steal bases like I want to; it seems like every time I get on there's already somebody else on."

Which explains why after his first 50 plate appearances in Mexico, the man who swiped 57 bases in 2004 with Class A Lynchburg and 45 last season with Double-A Altoona had just six attempted steals (and was caught twice).

Still, he was taking the situation in stride.

"It's just one of the challenges I have to deal with, being put in different situations and seeing how I react," he said.

Davis has also had to react to a new defensive situation in Mexico. Again, he found his preferred center field spot occupied by Smith, and so he shifted to left--a relatively easy transition, he insisted, after splitting a season in low Class A Hickory between center and left in 2003.

At the plate, Davis has been adapting to Mexican pitchers, legendary for their endless assortment of breaking balls and offspeed pitches.

"Even the closers come in throwing sliders," he said. "I've definitely seen a lot of breaking stuff, which is good for me to see and learn to recognize better."

On top of the new looks on the field, Davis has experienced a ballpark atmosphere quite unlike any he encountered before. Games in Mexico can at times seem like non-stop fiestas, with oversized P.A. systems blaring Latin music between every pitch, and pom-pom waving cheerleaders dancing on the tops of the dugouts.

"Cheerleaders at a baseball game? I didn't believe it until I saw it for myself," he said. "It's definitely a fun experience."

The language barrier has also been a challenge, but it is one that he has embraced. Davis studied five years of Spanish in junior and senior high school, and while he has found authentic Spanish quite different from the classroom variety, he has no shortage of tutors. His teammates recognize and appreciate his effort, he says, and even the Algodoneros' batting practice pitcher has chimed in with help on verb conjugations.

And as he has become more acclimated to his new surroundings, his play has picked up as well. In the series opener against Culiacan, Davis went 2-for-3 to raise his average from .267 to .292. When he arrived at the ballpark for the second game of the three-game set, he had been elevated to the number two spot in the lineup. He responded in his first at-bat by beating out a routine grounder to Culiacan's surprised second baseman, Jorge Cantu.

Overall, the switch-hitter was batting .310-1-3 in 58 at-bats.

Davis is known for a batter's box ritual that, at times, looks as though he is talking to his bat. Asked if he had thought about speaking to his bat in Spanish, he laughed.

"I might try that one," he said. "But my bats have been doing pretty well lately, so they probably don't need to be talked to, in English or Spanish."

--JONATHAN CLARK

Owens breaks out in Puerto Rico

As a catcher at Division II Barry University in Miami, Henry Owens had his share of success but never believed professional baseball was in his future.

"My focus throughout college was going to medical school, that was my intention," Owens said. "My intention was not to play professional baseball. I didn't think I had a chance."

More than four years later, Owens is on the big league radar, having been added to the Mets' 40-man roster as a reliever, and has been reaffirming the Mets' faith with an impressive stint with Caguas of the Puerto Rican league. In 15 innings, the 26-year-old had a 3.07 ERA with 23 strikeouts, three walks and two saves.

"He has been one of the few bright spots on our pitching staff," Caguas GM and Rangers scout Frankie Thon said. "With the economic problems all the teams here are facing, we had to sign imported players from Class A this winter to save money. He stood out while I was scouting the Florida State League this summer and I got him under contract very early."

As a senior at Barry, Owens hit .277-6-20 as a part-time catcher. Scouts noticed his arm from behind the plate and asked him to throw some bullpen sessions for them. Having never pitched before, it was a challenge.

"I felt pretty lost," Owens said. "Basically they told me to get on the mound and throw as hard as I could."

As he had shown as a catcher, Owens displayed exceptional arm speed and strength and after going undrafted in 2001 was signed by Delvy Santiago, then a Pirates scout. From the outset, Owens was able to strike out hitters with an exceptional fastball. He was throwing in the low 90s when he made his pro debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2001, and was sitting at 95 mph and touching 98 by 2002, when he was named the No. 12 prospect in the short-season New York-Penn League after posting a 2.62 ERA with 63 punchouts in 45 innings.

"I never really had too much of a problem throwing strikes and being competitive. The thing that took me awhile was my secondary pitches," said Owens, who threw a curveball for his first three seasons. "It wasn't until (2004) that I started throwing a slider, and it wasn't until this year that it emerged as an effective pitch for me."

Owens might have seen that pitch emerge earlier, but the Miami native was sidetracked by elbow tendinitis and back problems while with high Class A Lynchburg in 2004. As a result of the injury, his stuff was down, his numbers suffered and he ended up being selected by the Mets in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.

Unfortunately, his elbow and back problems lingered through the first two months of the season, and he posted a 5.08 ERA in 28 innings. Finally healthy in June, Owens dominated the rest of the way, allowing three earned runs in his final 26 innings while fanning 41 at high Class A St. Lucie. More importantly, he started to show signs of a slider to go with a lively fastball that was sitting in the 94-96 mph range.

"Has to come up with that second pitch, using it when he is behind in the count or on a night when he is not throwing the fastball the way he wants to," Mets coordinator of instruction Bobby Floyd said. "When you look at big league hitters, 97 does not scare them. Guys like (Bobby) Jenks and (Brad) Lidge, they have nasty sliders to go with the high velocity."

After a stop in the Arizona Fall League, Owens has started to flash the slider more consistently since joining Caguas.

"The biggest thing with that pitch was keeping the same mentality as the fastball," said Owens, who has also reportedly hit 100 mph in Puerto Rico. "Not trying to make it break or make it do anything, but find a comfortable grip and throw it like a fastball. By no means is the pitch where I want it to be yet, but it is definitely on its way and it has definitely been effective."

Owens is trying to develop a second slider with more velocity and less break that he can command more easily, and he will likely pitch at Double-A Binghamton next season.

"I know one thing," Floyd said. "If there is any chance that (the slider) can be a major league pitch, he will make it one because he is an outstanding worker and a smart kid as well."

--MATTHEW MEYERS

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• Yankees outfielder Melky Cabrera was putting together a solid winter in the Dominican League, hitting .298-0-11 in 84 at-bats for Aguilas. Cabrera, who bounced around Double-A Trenton, Triple-A Columbus and the big leagues in 2005 before finishing the year with the Thunder, was a perfect 5-for-5 in steal attempts and had a .393 on-base percentage.

• Rangers righthander Edison Volquez has made just four starts thus far for Azucareros in the Dominican League, but they were all quality outings. Volquez, who went a combined 6-9, 4.10 in 124 innings between high Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco in 2005, was 1-0, 2.51 with a 15-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 14 innings.

• White Sox catcher Chris Stewart was always known more for his defense than his bat, but he put together a solid offensive season in 2005, hitting .286-11-51 in 311 at-bats at Double-A Birmingham. That success has carried over this winter, as Stewart, a 12th-round pick in 2001, was batting .320-0-16 in 97 at bats for Azucareros in the Dominican League.

• Twins righthander J.D. Durbin was getting hit hard in Venezuela. Durbin, a second-round pick in 2000, went 0-3, 7.04, allowing 22 hits over 15 innings. Durbin spent 2005 at Triple-A Rochester, where he went 5-5, 4.30 in 104 innings.

 
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