A's early push has shoved Van Poppel

INSIDE PITCH

May 04, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

There's an excellent chance that Oakland Athletics right-hander Todd Van Poppel could be pitching for his job against the Orioles tonight. It wasn't supposed to be -- and shouldn't have been -- this way.

What has happened to Van Poppel is yet another classic example of what happens when on-the-job training takes place in the big leagues. At the age of 23, the right-hander should be getting himself established. Instead he's trying to keep his career from going into reverse.

You'll recall Van Poppel was touted as the best available player in the 1990 draft. Most teams, however, were convinced he was going to college and dropped him off their list of first-round prospects.

But the A's, who were in the midst of three straight American League pennants, gambled one of the extra picks they had as compensation for lost free agents. When they were able to sign Van Poppel, it was considered a major coup, but they couldn't have foreseen what would happen next.

The once-vaunted pitching staff disintegrated almost overnight. Being the best prospect in the organization, Van Poppel was pushed ahead of schedule. He arrived in the big leagues the year after he was drafted, before his 20th birthday.

During the rush, Van Poppel suffered a strained shoulder that caused him to miss most of the 1992 season. Last year he split time between Triple-A and the major leagues and, through necessity, managed to win a spot in the A's starting rotation this year.

So far Van Poppel (0-3, 11.49 ERA) has been a huge disappointment, despite his tender age of 22. Overlooked is the fact that this once prized prospect has spent only one full year in the minor leagues.

He's undoubtedly been deterred by his injury, but his development also has been stymied by his quick advancement to the big leagues. It is a common mistake made by teams in trouble who too often cannot resist the temptation to cash in a phenom ahead of his time.

The Orioles went through a similar process with Arthur Rhodes ** and, to a lesser degree, Ben McDonald, who at least had three years of college experience.

In each case there was an early dividend, but the payoff on the long-term investment was delayed.

The A's can only hope Van Poppel is healthy enough to live up to his potential.

But for the moment all they have is a kid with considerable promise trying to survive at a level he reached far too soon.

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