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3.19.2004

Cuidado con El Merkin

Complaints about the news-free optimism of spring training are nearly as much cliché as the clichés of the optimists. So I won't bore you by whining about yet another article on Scott Eyre's new-found focus, or Matt Herges's inner calm, or Robb Nen's patient, courageous...sorry, I promised not to do that.

But a report yesterday in Baseball America made me do two things: 1) tingle with excitement, the nonsexual kind, of course and 2) squint my eyes and think, "Where have I heard this before?"

Here's the report in question:

Valdez started by retiring Eugene Kingsale on a soft fly to center field, then got into a groove. He ran his fastball up to 99 mph against veteran catcher Tom Wilson, regularly pitching in the 96-98 mph range against the seven batters he faced. Just as impressively, he retired the veteran on an 87 mph slider, with Wilson rolling it over weakly to shortstop. Valdez also overpowered Jeff Cirillo to follow, sawing him off with a 96 mph fastball in on his hands and retiring him on a 1-3 putout.

The Valdez in question is of course Merkin, the Giants' pitching prospect whom the front office has been touting as a potential surprise this spring and maybe, perhaps, youneverknow, a possible big-leaguer sooner than you think. The above writer, John Manuel, enthusiastically throws fuel on that fire after seeing Valdez throw only two innings against decidedly scrub-level talent. The main reason: a fastball in the high 90s.

Let's see...fastball in the high 90s....fastball in the high 90s....what else starts with "F" other than "fastball in the high 90s"?

Foppert. As in, Jesse.

As in, the kid last year who supposedly threw lights-out in the spring, with a fastball in the high 90s that mysteriously disappeared once he reached the majors. So did his right elbow ligament, but it's unclear if the ligament damage was the reason for the discrepancy between the wild-eyed reports of high velocity in the minors and spring training and the more modest radar readings once he reached the bigs.

I hope the Giants don't break camp with The Player Formerly Known as Manuel Mateo in tow. Let the kid start in AA-ball, blow people away for half a year, then re-evaluate. I'm not saying a jump to the majors now would result in a Foppert-like disappointment, or even injury. But I'm extremely wary of this Saguaro Disease that infects baseball writers and radar guns every March. If he throws 97 consistently in Norwich, I'll be more convinced.


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