Over the past six years has any other pitcher been as disappointing as often as righthander Brett Tomko? Whether it was during his three seasons with the Reds, two with the Mariners or last year with the Padres, he has repeatedly failed to measure up to expectations. The line between stardom and obscurity is as thin as dental floss, and Tomko knows that he could go either way. "This is it," says the soon-to-be 30-year-old. "The best opportunity I've ever had."
When Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty traded reliever Luther Hackman and a minor league pitcher to San Diego for Tomko in December, his rationale was similar to that of the other general managers who had acquired the 6'4", 215-pound Californian: He has great stuff, and if we can straighten him out.... Indeed, turning Tomko into a consistent winner—his career record is 49-42 with a 4.46 ERA—has been as difficult as picking the winning Lotto numbers. More than anything, he's been prone to yielding big innings that have turned good performances into bad ones. Yet Tomko's slider is one of the National League's best, and the sinker he has developed makes righthanded swingers look like marionettes tangled in their strings. St. Louis, in fact, is counting on him to be its No. 3 starter.
"We believe Brett is about to break out and develop into something special," says Jocketty. "Sometimes it takes a young arm longer to develop. The tools are there, but it goes a little slower than the team expects. Brett's at the point in which it's all set to come together."
This year the Cardinals' biggest concern is their rotation, which, save for ace righthander Matt Morris, is filled with question marks. Since the beginning of last season St. Louis has lost three starters—Darryl Kile, who died of a heart attack last June, Andy Benes, who retired, and Chuck Finley, a 40-year-old free agent who was not re-signed. The No. 2 starter, Woody Williams, has gone 16-5 in his 1� seasons with the Cardinals, but he's been on the disabled list six times in the last eight years. In 2002 Williams pitched in only 17 games because of a strained left oblique muscle. One morning last month centerfielder Jim Edmonds spotted Williams walking through the clubhouse wearing an old pair of Nikes and hollered, "Hey, Woody! I guess if you only pitch five games a year, you don't wear those things out." Williams didn't even smile.
Tomko, on the other hand, has been grinning ear to ear. Two seasons ago he was struggling so much that Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella sent him to Triple A Tacoma. The demotion floored the cocky Tomko, and he demanded a trade. "That was the lowest point of my career," he says, "and the best thing that ever happened to me."
Tomko worked hard with Tacoma pitching coach Chris Bosio, who taught him the sinker. "But most important, he motivated me," Tomko says. "I realized that I had plateaued. I could either learn some new tricks or spend my career being mediocre." Tomko was so inspired by his experience in the minors that when the Mariners considered recalling him in September, he asked to stay in Tacoma to help the Rainiers in their playoff push.
While Tomko's 10-10 record last season doesn't look like much, he pitched some of the best games of his career. The Padres ranked 14th in the National League in runs scored, and Tomko often suffered because of it. Eight of Tomko's 32 starts ended in one-run defeats for San Diego; four times he gave up one run or less without getting a decision. "If I gave up three runs," he says, "there was a good chance we'd lose. That gets to you."
With Tomko eligible for arbitration, Padres general manager Kevin Towers knew his payroll couldn't accommodate the $3 million-plus salary Tomko would likely command. (He agreed to a one-year, $3.3 million deal with St. Louis.) Four teams in addition to the Cardinals—Atlanta, Boston, Philadelphia and Texas—tried to work out a trade for him. When the swap with St. Louis was announced, Tomko jumped for joy.
"I've been called a potential 15- to 20-game winner for years," he says. "If there's a place for me to make that happen, it's here. It's now."