"And the question was asked, is he like Juan Cruz?"
Memories of Cruz in a Cubs uniform are not universally fond.
There was the Juan Cruz who came of age in the Cubs' system and once had all the promise of becoming a future star and long-term starter.
But there was also the Juan Cruz who, while largely misused, got demoted, promoted, demoted, promoted again, and eventually traded.
Now there's the Arizona Diamondbacks' Juan Cruz – he of the 87 strikeouts in 61 innings and .204 average against in relief this past season.
The thought of Cruz Part Deux rejoining the Cubs' system probably doesn't do it for a lot of folks, but nobody is putting the cart before the horse just yet.
Yes, Cruz and Ascanio are fairly similar in terms of build (sans 20 pounds give or take) and yes, they are both right-handers.
But the Cubs' scouts in charge of doing their homework on Ascanio – namely Sam Hughes and Ken Kravec – felt that Ascanio stood out from Cruz, Wilken said.
"What Sam said and what Ken Kravec backed up was that this guy has a little stronger body than Juan Cruz," said Wilken. "That's pretty much what we got on him."
Ascanio made 13 appearances with Atlanta this past season and was 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA in 16 innings. He struck out 13 batters and walked six.
The right-hander spent most of 2007 at Class AA Mississippi, going 2-2 with 10 saves, a 2.54 ERA, and 71 strikeouts and 18 walks in 78 innings.
"He's got a plus-fastball and an average slider that has a chance to get better, along with a pretty good changeup," said Wilken. "His fastball is anywhere from 92 to 97."
Bill Shanks, author of the book ‘Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team' and publisher of TheBravesShow.com, says that Ascanio lives off his fastball.
"He's always been a real decent pitching prospect out of the bullpen," Shanks said. "He just comes out at you, is aggressive, and throws gas."
Shanks also said that Ascanio endured himself to veteran Atlanta manager Bobby Cox this past season while with the Braves' big league team.
"Bobby loved him and really thought he was a good pitcher," said Shanks, a frequent guest host and contributor to the Braves' Radio Network.
"Now, he had some issues with Jeff Blauser a couple of years ago, but I think that was more Blauser's fault than Ascanio's," added Shanks.
(Blauser is a former big league shortstop who spent time with both the Cubs and Braves in the 90s. He managed Ascanio at Mississippi in 2006.)
Ascanio joined the Braves' system in 2002 after he was signed out of Maracas, Venezuela, in late 2001. Prior to making his big league debut this past season, he progressed a level through the farm system each year.
In 135 games in the minor leagues, Ascanio has to date spent all but 19 as a reliever. Wilken said he envisions Ascanio in the bullpen in 2008, but added: "It might make you wonder – a guy with three average pitches or better. You never know. I think that's (relieving) the preliminary thought, though."
Said Shanks: "They Braves had tinkered with maybe putting him in the rotation. But I think with his fastball, he's someone that can come right out of the bullpen and throw gas right at you."
Ohman Won't Be Missed
I'll admit it; I don't like Will Ohman.
And, just from going off a couple of things that some of his teammates this past season said to me, I get the feeling they don't like him, either.
The fans in Chicago were certainly never fond of Ohman. Perhaps just as well, I got the distinct impression that he was never fond of them.
I personally found Ohman to be rude, condescending, immature, and overly self-centered; the kind of person who felt that I came to the ballpark only because he was at the ballpark.
One of Ohman's teammates during his brief stay at Triple-A this past season found him to be, in his own words, "a real piece of [excrement]."
For all of the surprising trades that Jim Hendry has made in his long tenure as Cubs General Manager, this trade was perhaps the least surprising.
As most everyone knows, Ohman conveniently claimed that he had been pitching with a bum shoulder after being sent down to the minor leagues in August.
Supposedly, this did not sit well with his teammates in Chicago, to say nothing of the Cubs' front office and the team's trainers.
It most certainly did not sit well with the guys in the Iowa clubhouse, many of whom were pitchers that have for the longest been dying to receive the same opportunity to pitch in Chicago that Ohman was endlessly afforded.
In short, Will Ohman was no longer wanted in the Cubs' organization.
Hendry saw an opportunity to rid his team of a consensus clubhouse cancer, all the while gaining something in return. He seized on that opportunity, leaving Ohman lucky enough to get a second chance with another club.
Commenting on the addition of Ohman, Braves General Manager Frank Wren described it as "exactly what we were looking for."
I don't know as much about the Atlanta Braves as I used to. I do know they were looking for a left-handed reliever to off-set the expected loss of Ron Mahay and to complement Royce Ring in their bullpen. From that standpoint, perhaps Ohman really was exactly who the Braves were looking for.
But what I know most about the Braves' organization is that it is one that has always prided itself on featuring players with the utmost class and character, and that these are traits that Ohman has at times failed to display.