Pope beginning to break out

Baseball

Minor leagues

July 31, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

The line on Orioles prospect Kieron Pope coming into this season had always been the same.

He had the foot and bat speed to be a superstar. But those abilities did not always translate to excellence on the baseball field.

Take Pope's professional debut last year for Rookie-level Bluefield. He put up an eight-game hitting streak in his first two weeks but overall, he batted .228 and struck out 62 times in 149 at-bats. That would equate to more than 200 strikeouts in a full season.

Pope was raw enough that he didn't start with a full-season team this year. One prospect evaluator said in the preseason that Pope could either be a superstar or completely forgotten in three years.

If his return performance at Bluefield is any indication, it won't be the latter. The outfielder is batting .357 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 126 at-bats.

"His biggest improvement is in recognizing pitches," said Orioles minor league director David Stockstill. "He studies the game very well, and he's really come a long way."

Stockstill recently watched Pope reach an outside pitch and drive it over the wall into right field, something that probably wouldn't have happened last season.

Pope's athletic gifts were obvious from early in his high school career. He was in line to be the starting quarterback for East Coweta High School in the Atlanta area. But he gave up football to focus on baseball as a sophomore. He played on strong teams there and was often overshadowed. Even then, he was known as a phenomenal talent who sometimes struggled with finer points, such as hitting a curveball.

But he had a strong senior season, batting .443 and earning a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He turned the Bulldogs down after the Orioles drafted him in the fourth round of last year's draft.

Pope then had his difficult debut with Bluefield. "He was like a lot of young kids," Stockstill said. "He was swinging as hard as he could at the ball instead of seeing it and tracking it all the way to the plate. And, he was seeing pitches he had never seen before."

The Orioles decided to keep Pope in Florida for extended training this spring so he could receive more intensive instruction, especially on pitch recognition. He's made much better contact since returning to Bluefield, allowing his impressive power to shine through more often.

Skeptics may note that Pope has 34 strikeouts against only 10 walks in 35 games. But the Orioles have seen so much improvement already that they're optimistic.

"He may have the most raw power of anybody in the organization," Stockstill said. "His other tools are very good, but the power is the outstanding one. It's right at the top of the scale."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

On deck

Fans who want to see rising left-hander Garrett Olson at Bowie can catch him Wednesday in the middle game of three against the Connecticut Defenders.

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