Gomes has some serious strength

Originally Published: May 4, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

They are the next line, the line below the stars, but the line that clearly is on the rise. Their next stop could be their first All-Star Game -- and after that, perhaps even bigger things. Here are five players who are off to good starts, which might be a sign of things to come.


brandon webb
Webb
Webb, who will turn 27 on May 9, has become the staff ace. He is 4-0 with a 2.22 ERA, fifth best in the National League. Webb is throwing more curveballs and change-ups than usual so hitters can't sit on his sinker. And he has varied his sinker, throwing it in to left-handed hitters instead of always going away. The sinker is nearly unhittable for right-handed hitters. "He has the best sinker in the game," said Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin. "He throws it right over the top. To a right-handed hitter, it just disappears."

In 2004, Webb led the NL in losses, walks, wild pitches and stolen bases allowed. But he has improved his control (six walks in 44 2/3 innings), his defense, his holding of baserunners and his bunting.


kevin mench
Mench
All we ever hear about him is that his feet are too big for his shoes and his head is bigger than anyone's. What we don't hear enough is how strong he is. "He is country strong," said Rangers manager Buck Showalter. "Kevin can move the ball."

Mench has always had that ability. He hit 26 home runs in 2004 and 25 in 2005. Last year, he hit home runs in three consecutive innings, the seventh player in history to do that. This year, he hit home runs in seven straight games: Only Dale Long, Ken Griffey Jr. and Don Mattingly have a longer streak in baseball history. All seven of the homers came after it was determined that his shoes were too small -- he should be wearing a size 12½ instead of a 12. But it really isn't the shoes. What Mench, 28, has done a better job of this year is concentrating. In recent years, he has drifted off and given away at-bats. Not this season.

He also got mad this year -- he was hit by a pitch by Barry Zito -- for the first time teammates can remember. He's such a nice guy that he puts up with the ribbing of his playful teammates, especially about his size 8 head. Three years ago, they gave him the nickname "Shrek" because of his head size. That year, on Beach Blanket Night at the then-Ballpark in Arlington, one of his teammates wrote "Kevin's Bandana" on a beach blanket and hung it in his locker. Everyone laughed, including Mench. He says a large head size kind of runs in the family.

"My brother's head is bigger than mine," Mench once said.


jonny gomes
Gomes
"Have you seen his arms?" one scout asked. "Have you seen how far he hits the ball?" Yes, and yes. Gomes has some serious strength, which we saw last season when he hit 21 home runs in 348 at-bats. This year, he hit 11 home runs in April: Only Albert Pujols, Luis Gonzalez and Griffey have hit more home runs in April.

Gomes, 25, plays with a joy like few others, as if he's always playing his first game in the major leagues. And he plays every game as though it's his last because of what he has been through. In high school, after some family hardship, he briefly lived in a car. Also in high school, he was involved in a car accident in which his best friend, who was sitting next to him in the back, was killed. At age 21, Gomes had a heart attack. "The doctor told me if I wasn't an athlete and in good shape," Gomes said, "I would have died." His enthusiasm is real and genuine -- he takes it into every at-bat. And in order to improve his defense, he went to Mexico for a month to play winter ball in December. You don't see that much in young players.


cliff lee
Lee
Lee is 27 years old and has a 37-19 career record. Only two active left-handed pitchers are that young and have a winning percentage that high (.661) with at least 50 decisions: the Twins' Johan Santana and the Cardinals' Mark Mulder. Before them, the last left-hander with those qualifications was Don Gullet 30 years ago. Last season, Lee went 18-5 (he became the first Indian to lead the league in winning percentage since Bob Feller in 1951) and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

Lee is very deceptive because he throws across his body but still throws from over the top: Most pitchers who throw across their body have more of a three-quarters delivery. This allows him to hide the ball very well. The danger with those mechanics is that, on occasion, he might get fouled up, which could lead to some hot and cold spells. But, says one scout who has seen Lee plenty of times in the last two years, "I've rarely seen him cold. His stuff is firm; his delivery is kind of funky; and he really loves to compete out there."


nick johnson
Johnson
Entering play May 3, Johnson is hitting .327 with six home runs (playing half his games in a very large ballpark), and is 10th in the National League with a .441 on-base percentage. Johnson, 27, always has had great plate discipline, even when he broke in with the Yankees as a rookie. His only drawback so far has been his inability to stay healthy.

"I've always liked him at the plate," one scout said. "He is very selective up there. He uses the whole field, but when he sits on a pitch, he can hit it out of the park. I think his best years are to come. If it weren't for that park, he easily would hit 30 homers every year."

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.