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Speeding toward majors at 100 mph

Hard-throwing Jesus Colome, 21, has an excellent chance to be with the Rays in April.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Jesus Colome, relaxing at the Ray Naimoli complex, is cocky but learned that developing work habits was more important than being Mr. Suave.

By MARC TOPKIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- It's probably a good thing the oranges weren't selling well that hot summer day outside the small ballpark field on the edge of the Dominican Republic city of San Pedro de Macoris.

If there'd been a crowd, there's a chance the man might not have noticed the tall, thin 11-year-old boy hawking the fruit for a peso (about 7 cents) apiece. Might not have inquired if the kid played baseball. Might not have asked him if he wouldn't rather join a youth league team than hang around outside.

And -- 10 years, two countries and a trade later -- Jesus Colome might not be considered one of the most dazzling young pitching prospects in the game.

"Put it this way," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said, "he's the type of pitcher a young organization can build around."

The Rays paid heavily to get Colome from the A's, giving up trusted late-inning reliever Jim Mecir, but believe the lithe 21-year-old right-hander will soon prove to be well worth the investment.

"Jesus Colome has one of the finest arms in minor-league baseball, which immediately makes him one of the finest pitching prospects in the minor leagues," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "But there's a very fine line between prospect and player, and that's where Jesus Colome over the next few months to few years has to establish himself."

Colome is 6 feet 2 and 170 pounds, and when you look at him you might see a resemblance to Pedro Martinez. When you watch him pitch, you're more likely to think of Mariano Rivera.

Colome (pronounced KOLL-a-may) reached the Double-A level for the first time last season and while the Rays are being cautious in their public comments and projections, there is a very real chance he'll be pitching in the big leagues this season, possibly even in April. Colome has been a starter throughout the minors, but the Rays have discussed him as a future closer, and if he makes the team this year, he likely will be in the bullpen.

That might seem like a big jump, but you have to consider how far he has come.

Colome is the youngest of eight children in a family that has never had much money. His father, Bolo, is retired from a gas station job and his mother, Gregoria, doesn't work outside the house. One older brother played a year in the Cubs minor-league system but has come back home to live.

Until Cavita Rekillo saw Colome outside the summer league game that day, Colome's baseball was limited to the streets and vacant lots around San Pedro playing with a ball made of paper and tape.

Rekillo got Colome into an organized league, but that was just a start. Even when an A's scout brought Colome to their Santo Domingo training complex for a tryout a few years later, there was no reason to think he'd be something special.

Colome, 17 at the time, topped out at about 82-83 mph, but the A's were intrigued enough to sign him in September 1996 for about $3,000.

"We signed him as one of those kids you wanted to give a chance to," said Raymond Abreu, the A's Dominican coordinator. "He was a projectable kid with a good body."

In the 1997 Dominican Summer League, Colome got his fastball up into the high 80 mph range. He was growing, getting stronger with a better diet, learning how to pitch. In the rookie-level Arizona League the next year, he was clocked in the low 90s. At Class A Modesto in 1999, he had an inning, Beane said, in which every pitch was 100 or higher. "Nobody believed it," Beane said. "We thought the gun was broken."

"What we saw was a guy with a real quick arm but not a lot of velocity," Oakland farm director Keith Lieppman said. "We thought it was great he got to 92 one year. And his velocity kept climbing. He got to 95, and all of a sudden to 97. It was an amazing transformation."

How did it happen? Colome shrugs and smiles. Mixing English and Spanish, he says he put on about 25 pounds since he signed and has worked hard, but isn't quite sure either. "I was very surprised," he said.

The overpowering velocity -- "He doesn't throw hard," Beane said, "he throws real hard." -- has become Colome's most identifiable trait, but it is not all he has going for him.

"Outside of his fastball, it's probably his cockiness," said Eddie Bane, LaMar's special assistant who scouted Colome. "He knows how good he is. And the fact that he threw 101 (mph) last year doesn't hurt."

With the continued development of a slider and changeup, Colome has the tools to be successful, and most likely dominating, in the big leagues.

The unknowns are when, or if, he will develop enough to use them. "He just needs to continue to mature to become the player that his ability should enable him to be," LaMar said.

Maturity was an issue during Colome's early days in the Oakland organization, though Lieppman said the language barrier may have been a factor.

"He was a raw, undisciplined kid who was starting to put it together," Lieppman said. "At times he felt like people weren't paying enough attention to him. We helped him understand it's okay to have a little cool in you, but let's work on good work habits rather than be Mr. Suave."

Lieppman said Colome's toughness also was questioned. "Early on if he had a blister or something he'd not be real quick about wanting to go back out there," he said. "But last year, he was a bulldog. He made every start he could. His mental game improved so much. He would get distracted very early in his career but now he takes it seriously with focus and concentration."

Colome was the most coveted prospect in the Oakland system, and Beane said it was a tough trade to make. "We had no illusions he wasn't going to excite people," Beane said. "We anticipate this guy being a thorn in our side for the next few years. The only antiseptic for us is that we've got Mecir."

The Rays say they like everything they have seen, including Colome's one-inning exhibition debut Saturday. Colome did miss the final few weeks of the Double-A season with forearm tightness, but slight mechanical adjustments may eliminate future problems.

This is a pivotal time for Colome. His parents, who essentially lost their home in Hurricane Georges, are depending on him for financial support. He is making the adjustment to a new organization and trying to make new friends. He for the first time has a chance to make it to the major leagues, though he is unsure of just what he has to do to get there. And he has the burden of expectation of being the next great prospect.

"I think," Colome said, "it tops selling oranges."

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