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Finally healthy, Niekro hones his game in the Arizona Fall League

Compiled by Josh Boyd
November 12, 2002

Player Perspective
Jonathan Figueroa, lhp, Dodgers

Age: 19. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 200.

Signed: Venezuela, 2002.

The Dodgers signed Figueroa to a $500,000 bonus after he spent more than a year attending Perfect Game showcases across the country. He debuted for Rookie-level Great Falls this season and earned a promotion to low Class A South Georgia after limiting hitters to a .147 average. Armed with an 89-94 mph fastball and nasty breaking ball, Figueroa finished his first season 7-3, 1.42 with 105 strikeouts in 75 innings. He lives in Tampa with his fiancée, and he says he learned to speak English by watching television with the closed-captions turned on.

Stuff: "In spring training, I had a little problem controlling my fastball. I throw from a high three-quarters slot, and the ball moves a lot–some like a cutter and some sink. My curveball is very good–nasty. I can throw it any time in any count. My changeup needs work. I worked on it during instructional league. If I want to be a starting pitcher, I need three pitches. I pitched well in the South Atlantic League, but I need another pitch to feel comfortable at higher levels. With my changeup, I’m working on my balance. I rush my body. I need to keep my arm behind my body. I throw high three-quarters to righties, and a little lower to lefties. Sometimes the curveball is like a slider to lefties."

Exposure: "I first came (to the U.S.) in December 2000 at the showcase in Fort Myers. Scouts were asking me why nobody had signed me."

Becoming a pitcher: "I used to play first base, and one day a scout told me to pitch. I told him I want to hit and be like (Rafael) Palmeiro. He said, ‘You have a chance as a pitcher.’ I couldn’t run. When I threw my first pitch, I threw very slow. He told me, ‘You have very good projection.’ "

As a hitter: "I only hit line drives. I was not a power hitter. When I started pitching, I had to say ‘Forget first base.’ "

International competition: "In 1999, I played for the national team in Ecuador. We faced Cuba. I said ‘Oh my God, this is Cuba.’ But I threw six innings and struck out 12 and only gave up two hits."

Goals: "I want to play in the major leagues for a long, long time. I want to be a better pitcher and a better person than I am now. I don’t want to forget what I have to do. I want to stay humble. I want to be like a combination of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling because one is a lefty like me and the other learns all the things he can."

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–Unlike his father Joe and uncle Phil, Lance Niekro does his damage with the bat and saves his knuckleball for emergencies.

Unforunately, though, most of the damage over the last two years has been to the 23-year-old Niekro’s body. He has missed more than 150 games over the last two seasons with shoulder and wrist injuries. After playing in just 79 games at Double-A Shreveport this season, he is making up for lost at-bats in the Arizona Fall League.

Drafted out of Florida Southern in the second round of the 2000 draft, Niekro moved from third base to first after returning from wrist surgery earlier this year. Shoulder surgery limited him to 42 games for Class A San Jose in 2001.

"Coming back this year, my muscle memory . . . I forgot where my arm angle was when I was throwing," he said. "They put me at first so I wouldn’t think about it as much."

Niekro also let his defensive struggles affect him at the plate, so the move has allowed him to focus more on what he does best: rake.

An American League scout who saw Niekro during his 1999 near-triple crown effort in the Cape Cod League said he’ll hit at any level because of the backspin he puts on the ball.

"He going to be a power bat," the scout said. "He has a short, compact, direct stroke. It’s smooth and effortless. He could be a .300 hitter with 25-home run power. He has tremendous hand-eye coordination and always hits the ball hard."

Niekro, whose shoulder problems date back to his junior season of college, has yet to show the power scouts project.

"I’d like to hit more home runs," Niekro said. "I think I’m a pretty good contact hitter. Down the line, I’d like to get my power numbers up. Right now, I am almost gap-to-gap, but I want to mix in a few more HRs."

After hitting seven home runs as a junior, he has connected for just 12 in 656 at-bats as a pro. His .320 average was 10th in the AFL, and he hadn’t homered in 79 at-bats. But Niekro said his top priority for the fall league was to work on his pitch selection.

"I tend to swing a lot," he said after drawing just seven walks in 297 Double-A at-bats. "I wasn’t used to pitchers finding a hole in my swing. That’s what they are finding now."

Joe Niekro hit just .156 over his 22-year career (he did win 221 games), but he still offers his son hitting tips.

"The only advice he gives me is keep your head in and swing hard," Niekro said. "Don’t think too much at the plate."

Contributing: Chris Sears (Chandler, Ariz.).

• The Yomiuri Giants put the Seibu Lions away with a four-game sweep in the Japan Series, but more important–at least for prospect watchers–was seeing Japanese superstars Hideki Matsui and Kazuo Matsui on display.

Hideki Matsui has already sparked interest from the Yankees, among other major league teams. He led the Central League with 50 home runs, 107 RBIs, 112 runs and 114 walks. A center fielder for the Giants, he projects as a corner outfielder in the major leagues. According to The Daily Yomiuri, Hideki Matsui "won’t turn on really good fastballs, and when behind in the count will go fishing for sliders away." An American League international scout says the player nicknamed Godzilla will be a formidable middle-of-the-lineup presence: "He’s a potential all-star. Arguably the best position player in Japan. He has a bit of that Japanese, step-in-the-bucket approach, but he is extremely strong, has excellent raw power and doesn’t miss when he gets his pitch. He is an intelligent hitter. He is a power hitter who can also hit (for average). He’s a lot bigger and stronger than everybody else in Japan. He’s Japan’s version of (Jason) Giambi."

Known among scouts as the "little Matsui," Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui broke out with a career-best 36 home runs this year. Unlike Hideki Matusi, the 27-year-old isn’t likely to declare for free agency until after the 2003 season. The scout said it was a split decision on which Matsui would have a bigger impact in the U.S. "I’ve always had big Matsui just ahead of little Matsui," he said. "Little Matsui is a switch-hitting shortstop who can really run, and he’s probably a safer bet to hit for average. For me those two guys are easily the two best position players in Japan."

• The Yankees also had their eyes on the Asian Games, where righthander Chien-Ming Wang helped Taiwan to a silver medal. Wang, who went 6-1, 1.72 for short-season Staten Island this year coming off shoulder surgery, went 1-1 in two starts for Taiwan. He avenged his opening-game loss to Japan with a victory to push Taiwan into the gold-medal game (which it lost to Korea). Wang struck out 10 in 723 shutout innings. Wang’s arm looks sound a year after the Yankees wondered whether they would ever see the same pitcher they signed to a $1.9 million bonus in 2000.

Dodgers 21-year-old Hong-Chih Kuo, who has as much upside as any lefthander in the minors, made two relief appearances for Taiwan with less encouraging results. More than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Kuo pitched just 14 innings between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Class A Vero Beach this season. Kuo regularly registers 96-97 mph with his fastball, but he has logged just 36 innings in three seasons since the Dodgers signed him for $1.25 million.

Contributing: Gary Garland.

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