Pitchers, Catchers Report Soon

Long before this winter's wacky weather lets up, pitchers and catchers will begin to descend on Vero Beach for 2005 spring training. It will be the first look the Dodgers brass, coaches, scouts and east coast fans will get a look at new catching phenom Dioner Navarro.

Old time scouts (in the pre watered down days before expansion hustled players prematurely to the big leagues) used to say a batter needed 2,000 at bats before he was ready to be considered ready to be a major league hitter. Navarro, James Loney and the other jewels in Dodgers system are well short of that mark. Even at the tender age of 20, Navarro has had more at bats than most, coming from the islands where kids start earlier and play year round.

The Indians Victor Martinez led all his minor leagues in average, but was not considered a power threat -- UNTIL his rookie big league season. Learning to pull the ball can be an acquired skill, so there's hope for Navarro someday following behind Martinez.

The same old time scouts opined that a pitcher had to notch 1,000 innings on the mound before they "learned" the art of pitching. So pitching gurus will try to get a leg up on how the bevy of Dodgers minor league pitchers are faring on that trek. Some, like Edwin Jackson, were rushed to the big leagues very, very early in their learning process. Others like Ryan Rupe, signed by the Dodgers after an early big league stint and time in Japan, could surprise.

The Dodgers will want to take a close look at Rule 5 draftee Dennis Houlton (from the Astros). Scouts question his stuff, but shake their heads when all the kid has done is continue to get batters out wherever he's been.

Our old scout buddies were quick to admit that if anyone could figure out what was inside a player's head, they could make a million in a hurry. How does a kid, who had easy pickings in high school and on sandlots, handle "failure", i.e., does he learn when hitters hit not only his "mistake" pitches, but his good stuff thrown exactly where he wants it. Same with hitters. It's easy to hit "mistakes", i.e. a curve that hangs, a change up over the middle, the fast ball with no movement. But what kid can hit non-mistakes or good pitches.

Another scouting axiom is that players raised in the north, or players with big size take longer than usual to mature. They've played less, they often aren't full grown (even without enhancements). Kids from the islands can grow bigger in a hurry too - particularly after they get a steady diet of body building food (which they often didn't have or could afford at home). We remember the early days of Ramon Mondesi before he bulked up. He wasn't taking bad stuff, he just never saw a meal he didn't like in the US.

The first thing Sandy Koufax would always look at was the size of a pitcher's hands. Koufax, slender and under six feet, had the hands of a guy like Randy Johnson. There's the idea short pitchers (Pedro Martinez) can't win, but sometimes it is not the overall size, but the size of the hands --long fingers to get different grips on different pitches.

The Dodgers will get their first look at Derek Lowe. Was he the hurler who won the final games in the Red Sox storied division, league and world series championship? How come noted pitching coach Dave Wallace couldn't get Lowe out of his early and midseason funk? Will he fare better under Jim Colbern's daily tutelage?

While catcher Navarro matures, Dodger fans will likely be surprised at the work of journeyman Paul Bako. Whenever pitchers have consistent and regular success, always look who's behind the plate. Bako made Braves and Cubs hurlers look really good when he was behind the plate. Ask Greg Maddox.

Yhency Brazoban is still an infant as a pitcher. How much better can he be? Will the Dodgers smile when they think they almost lost him over the winter. Many teams offering names to the Dodgers wanted Brazoban in return.

When the hitters arrive, it will be interesting to see if hitting coach Tim Wallach can retool the hard hitting but infrequent bat of new third baseman Jose Valentin.

Soon, soon, the sound of pitches exploding in the catchers mitts will begin to warm the minds and hearts of baseball fans everywhere -- even if the winter weather chills our old bones.