O's prospect Pickering takes Hawaii by storm First baseman puts up big numbers in winter ball

Minor-league notebook

December 28, 1997|By Brant James | Brant James,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

After consecutive summers of surpassing expectations at Rookie-level Bluefield and Single-A Delmarva, Orioles first base prospect Calvin Pickering could have turned his recent stint in the Hawaiian Winter League into a working vacation.

But Pickering used his two months in paradise to expedite his timetable to Baltimore.

The 6-foot-5, 283-pound slugger, playing with four other Orioles minor-leaguers for the Maui Stingrays, was co-leader of the Hawaiian league in homers (10), finished sixth in batting (.301) and second in on-base percentage (.426) and slugging (.558), all against tougher competition than he had ever faced. Still, the 21-year-old played himself into the midseason all-star game, where he doubled and drove in the winning run.

"I reached all the goals I set for myself," said Pickering, who in his second pro season earned Orioles Minor League Player of the Year honors by hitting .325 with 18 homers at Bluefield, and followed that up by batting .311 with 25 homers for the Shorebirds last season. "I was just trying to go out on the field and do my thing. I think I showed I could handle it."

The talent level in the Hawaiian circuit is generally considered high-A or better, and the large number of Japanese league pitchers assured much practice hitting breaking pitches.

Double-A Bowie Baysox manager Joe Ferguson directed the Stingrays this winter and was pleasantly surprised by his first personal work with Pickering.

"He was one of the very best, if not the best, player there. He mastered this league," Ferguson said. "Everything he hit was hard, and his approach to the plate for a young guy was very good. He obviously got a lot out of it."

Ferguson said one of the main things Pickering accomplished was eliminating an uppercut from his swing. The adjustment produced more line drives, but did not hinder his power in ballparks where gusting winds turn high drives into lazy flies.

"Three of the four parks here seem to have wind blowing in, left to right, all the time," Ferguson said. "In a more conducive environment he hits five or six more out. But the important thing was he hit with power to all fields."

Ferguson has told Orioles director of player development Syd Thrift he believes Pickering will be ready to play for him with the Baysox this summer. Pickering seems to have the same notion.

"It's good to see different levels of pitching," he said. "I'll see Double-A next year, and I'll see how it goes."

Boys of winter

Other notable winter performances for Orioles minor-leaguers include: right-hander Ryan Kohlmeier, 20, led the HWL with eight saves, posted a 3.18 ERA and struck out 35 batters in 22 2/3 innings; slugging outfielder Danny Clyburn, 23, made a push for a spot on the Orioles' 25-man roster with a .312 batting average and a .581 slugging average in the talent-rich Arizona Fall League; catcher Jim Foster, 26, unprotected, but untaken in the Rule 5 Draft, hit .347 with a .421 on-base average and is expected to start the season at Triple-A Rochester; right-handed reliever Steve Montgomery, 23, the Orioles' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, finished with a 2.54 ERA and 46 strikeouts in 39 innings in the AFL; right-handed reliever Chad Paronto, 22, is 3-1 with an 0.93 ERA and has 30 strikeouts in 29 innings in the Australian League.

Less is more

Pickering will be among three of the Orioles' top prospects taking part in a two-week weight-reduction program at Duke University beginning Jan. 5. Pickering, who was generously listed at 283 pounds last season, and right-handed starting pitchers Rocky Coppinger (225) and Sidney Ponson (220) volunteered for the program under "encouragement" from the Orioles. Major-leaguers such as Cecil Fielder have undertaken the program in recent years, but Thrift believes this is the first instance of a club sending minor-leaguers.

"All three of them are heavy, and they know it," Thrift said. "And they know it hurts them. We're trying to be pro-active as an organization, and we feel the right time to attack it is now."

Coppinger and Ponson have had elbow problems in the past two seasons, which could in part be attributed to their conditioning.

The Duke program will emphasize lifestyle changes in exercise, and most importantly, Thrift said, diet, which in the minors is often cheeseburgers or hot dogs for two meals a day.

"Nutrition is the most neglected part of developing a minor-leaguer," he said.

Thrift said Pickering owes it to himself to take the program seriously.

"If Pickering can get to the right weight, he will play in the major leagues," he said, "and he will play there for a long time."

Minor setback

Third baseman Ryan Minor, the Orioles' Minor League Player of the Year last season with Delmarva, played just three games in the AFL because of a lingering bone bruise on his glove hand. Minor is expected to be fully recovered well before spring training, where Thrift sees the 23-year-old making a strong push to skip Single-A Frederick and start the season at Bowie. Minor hit .307 with 24 homers with the Shorebirds last season and was voted the top prospect in the South Atlantic League.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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