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IZZY THE ONE? NEWCOMER IZTURIS STILL A BIT OF A MYSTERY.

Byline: Brian Dohn Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Fla. - Eric Karros heard rumblings about Cesar Izturis being a slick-fielding shortstop, but didn't know much else about him. Marquis Grissom did some baserunning drills with Izturis and surmised he possesses strong instincts, but that's all he could figure out.

Paul Lo Duca said he hasn't met Izturis, and Mark Grudzielanek doesn't know much about him either.

Izturis, acquired from Toronto in a December trade, has spent his first two weeks of Dodgers camp keeping quiet and staying out of the way of most veterans, who have yet to engage in much meaningful talk with him.

But beyond the parameters of Dodgertown, the baseball world apparently knows all about about Izturis. Scouts, front-office personnel and several former teammates speak of a wonderfully gifted player and intelligent kid who will end the Dodgers' merry-go-round at shortstop.

Izturis, 22, is bidding to become the sixth different Dodgers opening-day shortstop in the past six years. Greg Gagne, Jose Vizcaino, Grudzielanek, Kevin Elster and incumbent Alex Cora have come before.

``I've seen Cora play and there's no doubt Izturis should win that job easily,'' said Toronto vice president Tim Wilken, who scouts the major leagues and is in charge of player procurement for the Blue Jays. ``He's got very good baseball instincts. I think definitely there may be some jitters early, but I think you have the potential to have one of the five best defensive shortstops in the National League.''

Izturis, generously listed at 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, is labeled as an Omar Vizquel-type, something that makes him smile. He grew up in Venezuela idolizing fellow countrymen Vizquel and Luis Sojo, and he played with them in the Venezuelan winter league.

Dodgers reliever Givoanni Carrara spent the past four winters playing with Izturis, and said the young shortstop would not have difficulty dealing with the pressure of playing in Los Angeles because of the pressure he faced in Venezuela.

``I've known this kid since he was 16 years old, and he's a hard worker,'' Sojo said. ``You don't see that in a lot of kids anymore. A lot of them (sign the contract) and then, `If I make it, I make it.' But he was the same kid. A lot of kids want to make it to the major leagues, but when you hear a kid talk about baseball all the time, that's a dream.

``He's always asking, `Did I do this right? Did I do that right?' He wants to know about the game. He is a little guy and he had to work hard, go farther, to get there. He reminds me a lot of Omar Vizquel, he's the same type of player.''

Dodgers manager Jim Tracy watched Izturis' first workout in spring training and was blown away by his soft hands. It was the first time Tracy saw Izturis in person.

``He has a presence about him,'' Tracy said. ``He has a demeanor about him where he just gradually slides and all of a sudden you look up and he's right where he's supposed to be. So that tells you something about his feet.

``I think you can say he has great hands. From my vantage point, you see a real bad hop, a nasty hop, and with this guy all you see is his glove hand respond to it. We saw the bad hop, we know it was a nasty hop. He really doesn't care.''

The great hands and fluid fielding ability are the staples of Izturis' game. Wilken said Izturis will dazzle at times, but he also possesses the steadiness to perhaps win a Gold Glove one day.

Reliever Paul Quantrill, who was acquired with Izturis for Luke Prokopec and a minor-leaguer during the winter, recalled a rehab appearance for Single-A Dunedin in 1999 when Izturis and Mike Young, now with Texas, were playing middle infield.

At times, he said, Young and Izturis would switch positions every other inning to gain experience at shortstop and second base.

``They were playing up the middle as good as anyone I've probably had as a pair, even in the big leagues, and that was in A-ball,'' Quantrill said. ``They were just fantastic. He's just a very gifted, young guy. He's a quiet guy. That's what I like about Izzy.

``He probably understands that he's very gifted but he doesn't take anything for granted. He just fits in well. He carries himself well for a young guy up here. He's got the skills you can't teach. He's got the hands, the feel.''

But can he hit?

Several scouts said Izturis, a switch-hitter stronger from the right side, could hit .270 to .300 once he learns major-league pitchers. Trying to gauge his offense is difficult now because, Wilken admits, Izturis was rushed through the minor leagues because of Toronto's crowded shortstop situation.

After batting .308 with 77 RBI and 32 stolen bases for Dunedin, Izturis jumped to Triple-A Syracuse so hot prospect Felipe Lopez could play at Double-A. Izturis was dominated by pitchers the first year at Syracuse, but he did hit .292 the next year.

In limited time with the Blue Jays last year, Izturis, who played mostly second base, hit .269 with two homers and nine RBI. But scouts believe he will hit because he makes contact - in 1,957 minor-league at-bats, Izturis struck out 194 times.

``I know I have to work hard on my offense,'' Izturis said. ``It's what I've been doing for the last weeks. I come in and take grounders and work on my defense, too, but I also have to work on my offense. I know I have to keep working.''

One question keeps coming up: If Izturis is so talented and such a wonderful individual, why was Toronto willing to trade him?

``Lopez is a five-tool player,'' Wilken said. ``He can hit 20 to 30 homers one season.''

Izturis lacks size and isn't the swiftest on the base paths, but Dodgers general manager Dan Evans said Izturis eventually could become a leadoff threat.

Upgrading the athleticism through the middle of the field was an offseason goal, and Evans believes Izturis does that. Tracy often said defense is the priority on a club that plans to compete for a playoff spot because of its pitching depth, and Izturis should help.

``He has great hands, good range, great reflexes for a shortstop,'' longtime Dodgers scout Ralph Avila said. ``He has excellent footwork, good arm strength, turns the double play pretty good. Defensively, I really like him. What I saw in the five games in the Caribbean Series, he makes all the plays. Goes to his left, to his right, charges the groundball. He really impressed me defensively. He's going to be improving every day.''

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Athletic shortstop Cesar Izturis' defensive instincts have turned heads at Dodgertown, and he could become the opening-day starter.

Rick Silva/Associated Press

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Mar 3, 2002
Words:1154
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