Among Orioles' top prospects, Ochoa is armed and prosperous

September 03, 1994|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,Sun Staff Writer

The Arm.

No matter how high Alex Ochoa's batting average climbs, how many runs he drives in or how many bases he steals, that major-league throwing arm, the one that can cut down unsuspecting runners with a vicious flair, is his signature item.

It is the primary topic when a conversation turns to Ochoa, who is always among the first Orioles farmhands mentioned when opposing teams talk trade.

"I can't explain my arm," said Ochoa. "It has always been strong, just something that God gave me. My first year [1991, Gulf Coast League] I played center field, but because of my arm they put me in right. That's where I hope to play in the majors."

Al Bumbry, who spent 13 seasons in the Orioles' outfield, is a Bowie coach who has worked diligently with Ochoa. He agrees "his arm is obviously his strongest suit."

Ochoa, 22, is right on course for right field in Camden Yards. With each succeeding season, he has risen in Baseball America's ratings of the prospects in his respective leagues, ranking only behind teammate Curtis Goodwin last year in the Single-A Carolina League.

He won the Brooks Robinson Award given by the Orioles' minor-league department as the best hitter in the organization after batting .276 with 84 runs scored, 90 RBIs and 34 steals for the 1993 Frederick Keys.

"It's nice to know what you do is appreciated," said Ochoa. "I feel like I did something last year and the right people recognized it."

And he is finishing this year with a flourish for the Double-A Bowie Baysox, batting .400 over a 30-game span to push his average above .300.

His power numbers have improved yearly as he gains strength, although Ochoa is not considered a pure slugger, and he is delivering one clutch hit after another for a team headed to the playoffs.

Such feats do not surprise the Orioles' brass, who received a first-hand glimpse of Ochoa's prowess this past spring training, when he went 11-for-18 before being optioned. That spring, he said he learned "that I could play at that level. It was a boost for my confidence."

But there remains a need to harness Ochoa's immense talent, to refine it and channel it into the ability to make major-league decisions.

Neither Bumbry nor Bowie manager Pete Mackanin doubts Ochoa will be a big-league player, and they agree the time is not yet here.

"He's has blue-chip potential in every area," said Mackanin. "But there's no way at this moment you want to depend on him in the majors. Maybe at some point late next season he'll be ready."

Defensively, Ochoa has had a tendency to dare runners to take an extra base because of the supreme confidence in his arm.

However, Mackanin said many times that will cost him in the majors because "guys like Kenny Lofton would be standing on the next base while he's still holding the ball."

He also occasionally makes throws that have no chance of nailing the runner. "It is important for him to learn when he has a shot at getting somebody and when he doesn't," Bumbry said.

Bumbry also is instructing Ochoa on how to chase down fly balls over his head and a new approach to catching balls on the dead run.

Ochoa has run with his arm outstretched for six steps, and Bumbry has been teaching him to extend the arm on his last stride.

"I've learned a lot this year. It's why my errors have come down," said Ochoa. "I'm more selective about when and where to throw. Al has taught me a little more about how to play the outfield every day."

At the plate, Mackanin projects Ochoa as a 15-homer player after his upper body fully matures and said "he has a lot of positives as a hitter.

"A lot of good hitters are like Alex. They start as opposite-field guys and learn to turn on the ball. He can do that. Right now, he's like a guy who throws 99 mph but has to learn how to corral it and throw at 97 or 98 percent of that to gain control."

But Mackanin said Ochoa must be more disciplined at the plate, especially in clutch situations, and Bumbry added that "his thought processes have to be better. He has to go up there knowing what to do to improve his chances of doing what he wants in a given situation."

The willingness is there. Ochoa responds well to instruction and is a bright pupil, the son of a practicing physician in Miami. His parents migrated from Cuba in 1971 only months before Alex was born.

"He's very receptive," said Bumbry. "Alex picks up things easily and he'll work on suggestions. He's not afraid to try something."

Ochoa will take his arm and his bat to the Arizona Fall League, take two months off and then report to spring training as a member of the 40-man roster.

He and Goodwin probably will start next season in Rochester. From there, it is just a matter of how long before they hit The Show.

Through and through, Ochoa is a baseball freak.

"My dad wouldn't let me play football because he feared I'd get hurt," he said. "I don't do much of anything besides baseball except play a little golf. I've always loved this game the most."

Now, it is a matter of mastering the nuances.

"Maybe it's good if he isn't called up at the end this year," said Mackanin. "I'd hate to see him go to the bigs and do something that would get him into disfavor. He's sitting in a great position. All he has to do is learn a lot of little things."

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