At first glance, Todd Van Poppel might seem to be a bit of a disappointment this year.
After all, this 19-year-old right-hander - who received $500,000 just for signing his name on an Oakland Athletics contract, whose baseball cards are already selling at prices normally reserved for established major league stars - has lost more than twice as many games as he's won with the Class AA Huntsville Stars.But if you look a little closer, there's nothing to suggest that Van Poppel's fast track to the majors has been derailed.
"He's got an explosive fastball. Once he learns to use his curve ball and changeup, he's going to be a dominant big league pitcher," said Walt Jocketty, Oakland's director of baseball administration.
"The main thing is he's so fluid," said Bert Bradley, Huntsville's pitching coach. "He has such an easy motion."
A year out of high school, Van Poppel and his mid-90s mph fastball are just two steps away from the major leagues with an organization that has no reason to rush him. He's the youngest player in the Southern League, where most players are at least three or four years his senior.
"We wanted to challenge him a little bit, and I think the challenge has been good for him," Jocketty said.
Van Poppel, who signed for $1.2 million over three years, hasn't received much help from his Huntsville teammates, who usually make two or three errors a game. His ERA is 3.56 despite a 5-11 record. Almost one-third of his runs have been unearned.
"He's had to learn a lot of lessons that he may not have learned if he'd been winning all the time," Bradley said. "The most significant thing he's learned is how to control himself through adversity. . . . He's pitched well enough to be 12-5 rather than 5-11."
Van Poppel, who has a baby face to go along with a big leaguer's body - 6-foot-5, 210 pounds - said the only thing he's lacking is experience.
"Everyone here has three or four years of minor league experience," he said recently in the locker room at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, where the Stars had just lost to the hometown Birmingham Barons. "I'm not going out there and blowing people away. I'm learning how to pitch the right way."
Van Poppel is a native of Arlington, Texas, where he compiled a 4.0 grade-point average in high school while starring in baseball and football. He was considered the top prospect in last year's baseball draft, but most teams backed away after he insisted he would attend the University of Texas.
When Oakland took a chance with the 13th pick, Van Poppel was quoted as saying: "If they think they can buy me, they're wrong."
The A's won him over, though, and Van Poppel continues to insist it wasn't only the money that convinced him to forego college.
"Oakland said they would make sure I was not rushed to the majors, that I would not be hurt physically or mentally. Off the field, they said they would make sure I wasn't abused by the older guys, that I would be around nice people," Van Poppel said.
"I didn't know about the money until I was already ready to sign."
Ah, the money.
Van Poppel's contract was startling for someone who had nothing to offer but promise: a $500,000 signing bonus, $100,000 for the eight games he appeared in last year in Class A, $200,000 this season and $400,000 in 1992 - all guaranteed.
So far, Oakland officials think it is money well spent.
"He's a very mature kid on and off the field," Jocketty said. "There's been an awful lot of attention on him, but he's handled it like a veteran. You wouldn't believe he's only 19 years old."
Van Poppel is getting a taste of what big league stardom might be like.
"Everywhere I go, there's 30 or 40 people waiting around, wanting me to sign autographs," he said. "Sometimes I've got to be a jerk. I don't like being a jerk, but I've learned that you can't please everybody."
At Huntsville, Van Poppel has been brought along slowly. He's averaged less than six innings in his 20 starts, with one complete game. Recently he missed a start because of some tightness in his valuable right elbow, but team officials said it's nothing serious. They just didn't want to take any chances.
"He struggled early with throwing strikes and getting ahead of the hitters," Bradley said. "One thing he has to do is improve his changeup and get more consistency with throwing strikes with his other two pitches."
In 1111/3 innings, Van Poppel has walked 74, but he insists his control is not as bad as those numbers might indicate.
"This is the first time I've really had to pitch instead of just throw because they can hit my fastball up here," he said. "The walks have caused me a lot of trouble. . . . But I'm not concerned. I'm not missing by a lot."
Oakland doesn't believe he can miss, either. But when can we expect to see Todd Matthew Van Poppel in the big leagues? Two years, perhaps?
"If not sooner," Jocketty said.