Dodger Youngster Doesn't Dig El Paso

Beltran Perez has returned to AA ball -- this time rather quietly. No fanfare. No cries of "Watch this guy! He's a prospect!" Not at all like it was after his 2001 season. That, however, was BEP -- Before El Paso.

In that year 2001, Perez was employed by the Arizona Diamondbacks and he wasn't just another pitcher. No, he was that organization's Pitcher of the Year. Why not? Working for South Bend in the low A Midwest League, he was 12-4 with a 2.81 ERA. He threw 160 innings and struck out 157 batters. He had a low 90's fast ball, a wicked slider and a dandy changeup. Hoo, boy, was he something special.

But then came El Paso which just happens to be the D'backs' AA affiliate. Situated out there in West Texas with hot, dry air and beckoning fences. The land of .330 batting averages and stratospheric ERA's. As Perez was to find out-rudely.

Halfway through the 2002 season, he had been whacked about to a 3-8, 5.47 ERA. He didn't know they came that high. So he was sent back to the California League for his own survival and seemed to recover nicely- 3-2, 2.51. That's more like it.

So, he tried El Paso in 2003. Stayed there the whole season, too, though he wished he hadn't. 2-11, 5.30. Marks like that don't get you to AAA so Arizona sent him back to the cauldron once more. Are these guys sadists or what? 2-6, 4.41.

By then, of course, that "bright prospect" label had lost its shine. Thus, this past winter, he was passed on to the Dodgers along with Danny Muegge and William Juarez plus catcher Dioner Navarro picked up from the Yankees for Shawn Green. A throw-in but one who still had good stuff so the Dodgers could always hope. And, after all, they don't have El Paso in their system.

They did send Perez back a notch to Vero Beach, install him in the bullpen as a set-up man and work on his psyche which naturally had suffered. He started getting something of his old form back, kept making better appearances and when he was 3-2, 3.78 with 33 strikeouts in the same number of innings, was moved up to Jacksonville where the humidity may make you gasp at times but where a handle hit doesn't fly 400 feet either.

He's currently enrolled in the ever-growing Kenny Howell School of Relief Pitching. It's a diversified group with no fewer than nine current members being eligible to save games. Nice to say that Beltran is fitting right in. He has a 1.46 ERA and has already saved three games. Opponents are being held to a .167 average.

At 23, he's hardly among the geriatric set, hasn't been bothered by arm trouble and still has that assortment of good pitches so this righthander, a native of the Dominican Republic, looks like a fine pickup. Especially since he doesn't have El Paso to contend with anymore.

Now, if he can just figure out a way to jump over Las Vegas.