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Waiting on Mondesi

Blue Jays challenge outfielder to live up to his billing

Posted: Tuesday March 12, 2002 12:17 AM
Updated: Tuesday March 12, 2002 12:55 PM
 

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There are only a few players in the major leagues that have the kind of tools that Raul Mondesi has. Of those, there may be only a couple who have done less with those talents than the sometimes-maddeningly mediocre Mondesi.

After a winter of trying to trade their under-performing superstar, the Toronto Blue Jays are now stuck with finding some way to snap Mondesi out of his so-so ways. They have to pay him -- no one wanted to take on the $11 million this year, let alone the $13 million for next season -- so now the Jays are determined to get the most out of him.

"Mondy has more talent in every aspect of his game," Toronto manager Buck Martinez said the other day, "than anyone I've ever seen."

The Blue Jays have the nucleus of a fine, strong, young team with or without Mondesi. With guys like Carlos Delgado, Jose Cruz Jr. and Shannon Stewart, the Jays will be a thorn in the American League East.

With Mondesi playing anywhere close to his ability, the Jays could become even more than that.

Raul Mondesi Raul Mondesi posted a career-low .252 average last year. AP  

Playing up to his ability, though, has been a problem for Mondesi, even from his days in Los Angeles as a superstar-in-waiting for the Dodgers. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1994, hitting .306 with 16 homers and 56 RBIs in 112 games.

He has stunned with his speed (he stole 36 bases in 1999), his strong arm from the outfield (he had 16 assists in both 1994 and '95 and 17 last season, tops in the AL) and his power (he's had at least 24 home runs every season since his rookie year, with a high of 33 in 1999).

But he's never put it all together. Last year, he slid to a career-low .252 average. He hasn't hit .300 since he hit .310 in 1997. His emotions -- Mondesi gladly will tell you he's an emotional player -- often get the worst of him.

This season, though, everybody is looking for a change.

"Mondy has as much raw talent as anybody in the game. I don't know if he's ever been given a solid gameplan," Martinez said. "I think he's primed for great things."

Mondesi has worked closely this spring with coach Mike Barnett, who has made some slight adjustments to the way batting practice is run that have gone over well. Mondesi also lifted weights in the offseason -- honestly, he says, for the first time in his career -- and claims to be in the best shape of his life.

"I've been working hard, running, throwing, in the weight room. So I feel different. I feel stronger," he says. "I never did it [weight room] before. I've done it before, but never serious before."

Mondesi had a sit-down with Toronto's general manager, J.P. Ricciardi, who challenged the outfielder to put his best game forward this season. If Mondesi wants to get out of Toronto any time soon, he'll have to start playing like the All-Star that the Jays thought they were getting back in 1999.

No one knows that more than Mondesi.

"I'm gonna be ready. Whatever happens happens. If they trade me, they trade me," he said. "I know, wherever I go, I'm going to play every day, because of money.

"Whatever. To me, I'll play anywhere. Any team. Any city. I'm here just to play baseball, whatever city."

Mondesi has a goal to drive in 100 runs this season -- he's never had 100 RBIs in a season -- but, more than that, he wants to prove that he can be the player that so many think he should be. He turns 31 on Tuesday. This should be the prime time of his career.

Mondesi, leaning close in the home clubhouse at Dunedin Stadium, said it will be.

"I'm gonna do it," he said. "I know it. I feel it."

An L.A. ensemble

Dodgers manager Jim Tracy says his exhibition experiment of going with a bullpen by committee is going just dandy. Not that the Dodgers have any great choice in the matter.

"These guys aren't afraid to take the ball a couple, three days in a row," he said. "You have to have that mentality, 'cause if you don't, you're spinning your wheels. And we're not. We're not."

The Dodgers don't have one closer, they have at least two would-be closers -- Matt Herges and Paul Quantrill. They have 39-year-old Terry Mulholland, who fits into the pen in a lot of places, though not as a closer. They have Giovanni Carrara, who might be a closer and might not. And they have a bunch of other guys, though nobody that is a guaranteed lights-out guy in the pen.

"But they all expect the ball, they all want the ball," Tracy said.

Tracy reserved special praise for Mulholland, who the skipper says is going out of his way to pass on the wisdom he has gained from 15 years in the big leagues. Mulholland could be used in short relief or long relief and may be called upon for a start here or there. "That," Tracy says, "is not letting your ego get in the way."

Perfectly happy

With everything going on around the Red Sox -- new GM, new manager, no Carl Everett -- it may have been easy to miss the fact that the team has found a nice No. 2 to the incomparable Pedro Martinez.

John Burkett has pitched six spring training innings so far and has yet to give up a hit. The longtime and well-traveled right-hander, who won 22 games for the San Francisco Giants back in 1993, had a rebirth of sorts last season in Atlanta, where he had a 3.04 ERA.

Many people credit his time spent around the craftsman-like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine for Burkett's resurgence. And Burkett will tell you that helped.

But Burkett has worked on a cut fastball in the past year or so that has changed his game around. Last year, he had 187 strikeouts, 42 more than he threw in that '93 season -- even though he threw in about 12 fewer innings.

It all proves that, for pitchers, it's not who you know but what you throw.

Camping out ...

St. Louis' So Taguchi was hitless in his first 14 at-bats this spring. He had four hits in his next eight at-bats, though, and was hitting .182 through Sunday ... Hot at the hot corner this exhibition season: Joe Crede of the Chicago White Sox and Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers. The two prospects are showing that spring training pitching is no match for them. Through Sunday, Crede was hitting .464, tops among all hitters. Blalock was third at .414 ... Indians outfielder Brady Anderson, who once hit 50 homers in a season but had only eight last year, has two dingers this exhibition season (through Sunday) for a team looking for all the power it can get. But wait: Both came in the same game on one of those windblown Florida afternoons. Let's just say he's not going to make people forget Juan Gonzalez ... Strikeout king Nolan Ryan is lending some expertise to the Texas pitching staff for the next several days. What the Texas pitching staff needs, though, is his arm ... The Braves switched hitting coaches this winter, canning Merv Rettenmund in favor of Terry Pendleton. One of the main projects for Pendleton is to try to find a way to get Andruw Jones -- who hit only .251 last season, though he drove in 104 runs -- a little more consistent at the plate. There's work yet to be done. In eight spring training games and 23 at-bats, Jones is hitting only .130, with his only hits two singles and a double.

John Donovan covers baseball for CNNSI.com. His Spring Training Buzz will run each Tuesday and Thursday until Opening Day.


 
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