Young Lefty Gunning for Comeback

VERO BEACH, Florida-- You don't see his name on the list of hot prospects. After two dismal seasons and the emergence of a seeming horde of young studs, Jonathan Figueroa has become something of a forgotten man. It may be hard for you even to remember that a relatively short time ago, he was regarded as one of the most likely young pitchers in the game.

That fall from grace is something that Figueroa is determined to reverse. After all, l he's only 21 now and has arrived in camp in excellent shape. "I've been working out all winter very hard," the native of Venezuela declares. "I'm ready to get to where I should be."

And that could be something special for that is what he seemed surely to be as a rookie in 2002. He had come to this country the previous year to participate in many of the various Showcases that are held all about the country. At every stop, his stock improved and his price rose accordingly. As a non-American who was not attending school here, he was a free agent.

His last stop on the tour was Los Angeles. There the Dodgers corralled him for the $500,000 bonus. They not only liked his pitches, they were impressed with his demeanor and intelligence. That next summer, it looked like he was a bargain.

That season he began at Great Falls in the Pioneer League. After seven starts, he had a 1.42 ERA and had already been named the league's Pitcher of the Week twice. He was 18 at the time and he had the league outclassed. So, he was whisked off to South Georgia in the low A South Atlantic League where he was every bit as effective. He matched that miniscule 1.42 mark while striking out 57 batters in 44 innings. Obviously, he was a coming force.

Then it all unraveled. Ordered not to pitch in his homeland over the winter because of the number of innings he had pitched, he proceeded to get sadly out of shape. When he arrived in this country for spring training in 2003, he began to rush matters, groping for that command that had left him. Tendinitis soon developed in his left arm which led in turn to an altered pitching style.

It had been envisioned that he'd start the year at Vero Beach, then move up to Jacksonville. Instead, he was back at South Georgia only this time to become a feast for opposing hitters who liberally cuffed him around so that he wound up winning just one game, losing eight while his ERA inflated to 4.94.

He did pitch in Venezuela over the next winter and seemed at times to be regaining his strength and rhythm. However, last spring at Vero Beach he was placed in the bullpen to work on matters. It didn't take. In 17 games (only one a start) he was 0-1 with a 7.00 ERA so back to Georgia he went once more.

There he was placed in the rotation as more tinkering with his arm slot continued. There were moments when he seemed to be finding the key; others where he was still lost in the wilderness. He wound up 3-7, 6.90, hardly impressive. Yet, as statistics often can be, that's a bit deceiving. Most of the bad times came early. Late in the season, he had several encouraging outings.

Now, he reports, his fast ball, which had lost its sizzle, is back up in the 91-94 mph range. And he feels he's close to being comfortable on the mound again. "I have to throw from three-quarters," he asserts. "I still get out of it now and then but I feel I'm just about what I was before."

Few bits of business would delight the Dodgers more if it is so for,on his game, he throws his fast ball, a sharp curve and deceptive change from an angle that seems nigh impossible for left-handed hitters to fathom and almost as hard on the right-handed ones.

His 6-5 inch frame has been sculpted to a solid 225. His appearance is impressive, his demeanor, likewise. Of course, he has to demonstrate that he's emerged on the mound. If he does, you'll be hearing his name uttered with Billingsley, Tiffany, Broxton et al as a special prospect once more.