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A Major Talent : Dodgers' Bonus Baby Darren Dreifort Looks Like a Good Bet to Make the Team

March 13, 1994|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — It's all over now, the contract squabbles, the criticism, the midnight wake-up calls to his father from the press.

Eyes no longer roll in the Dodger clubhouse at the mention of Darren Dreifort, and the bullpen has long retired the debate about his demands.

Now, the conversation is more about whose job Dreifort is going to take.

"Does he have a chance to make the team?" Manager Tom Lasorda said. "Yes, he has a chance."

The kid from Wichita State has a very good chance to make the team, and all the other Dodger pitchers know it. Even if they haven't seen Dreifort throw, they know.

"He looks like a guy who has such low blood pressure that nothing really excites him," Orel Hershiser said. "Dreifort just looks like a reliever, like a guy who could absorb a loss the night before and walk through the locker room with the same expressions and same mannerisms the next day.

"He doesn't look like one of those hyper, Mitch Williams type of relievers. He looks like one of the laid-back kind, like Alejandro Pena, whose nickname was Slow, because he did everything slow. We used to say that Pena stands slow. Dreifort looks like that kind of guy--he stands slow."

Dreifort seems unfazed by all the commotion about him, and he doesn't understand why his pitching is such a big deal, or if it even is. But if Dreifort, 21, makes the team, he could be one of the first Dodgers to skip past the minor leagues since Sandy Koufax. Chan Ho Park, who is pegged as a starter, could be the other.

It's not a question of if Dreifort or Park will make the big club, but when. If they are not on

the team when camp breaks in three weeks, insiders say, look for them to make it during the season.

"I'm sure people are worried about their jobs," Hershiser said. "One guy is bumping into the relief group and one is bumping into a group of starters who didn't miss a start last year. The relief group lost one guy in Pedro Martinez, but it is also a group that is very secure in their positions, at least at the top with Todd Worrell, Jim Gott and Roger McDowell. So we are probably talking about the other two or three spots in the bullpen."

The Dodgers probably will carry 11 pitchers, but even if they carry 10 Dreifort could be included. The right-hander was a middle reliever in college, but when he entered a game he usually closed it, regardless of the number of innings remaining. Last season, the other three spots in the bullpen were filled by Martinez, Omar Daal, a left-hander, and Ricky Trlicek. This spring the Dodgers are again holding a left-handed tryout with six pitchers and are also taking a good look at right-handers Rudy Seanez and John DeSilva. But no reliever is getting a better look than Dreifort.

"As far as the type of pitches that Darren has, as far as an immediate impact at the major league level, Darren is probably better suited for a relief role," said Fred Claire, executive vice president. "Pitching talent at some point defines its role. If you look back at some of the pitchers who came up through the Dodger system, Bobby Welch or Orel Hershiser, they pitched in whatever role that was there, they just wanted the chance. That's when the arm is so good and the ability is so good that you just see where it fits. It doesn't have to be determined from Day One."

Dreifort has three pitches, a sinking fastball that drops about six inches over the plate, a slider and a slow curve he learned about two weeks ago. Pitching coach Ron Perranoski says Dreifort's fastball away is virtually unhittable. He needs work, but Perranoski doesn't mind, because Dreifort and Park rank alongside other promising pitchers he has worked with, including Steve Howe and Dave Stewart.

"He has the stuff to make it," Perranoski said of Dreifort. "You are going to see improvement before the spring is over in the consistency of his control. He's a fast learner and I like his confidence. He can intimidate a hitter, and when he learns to use both sides of the plate, he will really intimidate.

"He's very coachable, and I like his makeup and his approach. If something bothers him out there, he doesn't mention it, he keeps it inside. . . . He just has that poise and that presence, you just see it."

*

It was with trepidation that Dreifort walked into the Dodger clubhouse one day last September. After months of turning down hundreds of thousands and eventually a million dollars from the Dodgers, Dreifort finally signed for a bonus of $1.3 million. He was the top college pitcher in the nation and the Dodgers selected him first in the 1993 draft, the second player chosen overall. But the negotiations were anything but easy.

Dreifort's side was handled by his father, John, who is the interim vice president at Wichita State and chairman of the history department. He was advised by agent Scott Boras, but everything was kept within the rules to secure Darren's NCAA eligibility in case Darren returned to school for his senior year.

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