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World Futures notebook
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07/13/2003  8:12 PM ET 
World Futures notebook
Toronto's Rios learning to relax at the plate
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Justin Huber, an Australian-born catcher, was recently promoted to the Mets' Double-A team. (Eliot Schechter/Getty Images)
CHICAGO -- Rather than taking on the added pressure of showcasing his talents on a big-time stage, Toronto Blue Jays prospect Alexis Rios decided to relax some during the RadioShack All-Star Futures Game at U.S. Cellular Field.

Rios agreed to be wired with a microphone and followed with cameras by Major League Baseball Productions as he performed for the World team against the USA in Sunday afternoon's fifth annual contest of baseball's top prospects.

"I'm trying not to put any pressure on myself, just have fun," Rios said.

Rios has learned that sometimes it's better to slow down. In fact, slowing down could turn out to get him to his big-league future quicker. At Double-A New Haven, Rios leads the Eastern League in batting (.348), hits (115) and triples (eight), and is in the top five in slugging percentage (.518), doubles (22) and extra-base hits (36).

And he still hasn't learned patience at the plate.

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"I need to work on taking more pitches, every at-bat," Rios said. "I don't do that too much. I like to swing at the first pitch."

Of course, not long after saying that, Rios knocked a first pitch from Mariners prospect Clint Nagoette for a home run in the fourth inning Sunday. But still, Rios believes he is on the right track.

Such aggressive strategy has worked for him in the past. It helped him achieve a .305 average in a breakthrough performance at Single-A Dunedin last season. But a higher level, with opponents confident in breaking and off-speed stuff, means adjustment time for Rios, 22, from Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

"When I was young, I saw fastballs most of the time on the first pitch," Rios said. "But now I've got to get more patient. I'm seeing curveballs a lot. You swing, and you're behind. I don't want to go totally the other way, just be a little more patient."

Take it easy: While Rios is relaxing at the plate, Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Jose Castillo is learning to take it easy when it comes to throwing.

After making 253 appearances at shortstop in 2001 and 2002, Castillo is being used more at second base (41 games) than at short (38 games) at Double-A Altoona.

"They said that by learning second base, it might get me to the big leagues," said Castillo, batting .280 with four homers, 39 RBIs and 14 stolen bases. "But the thing I liked about shortstop is I could really throw the ball hard. At second, when I make a throw, I have to be easy."

He wasn't forgotten: New York Mets Australian catching prospect Justin Huber played in last year's Futures Game in Milwaukee and went a quiet 0-for-2.

After starting this year slowly and battling nagging injuries at Single-A St. Lucie, Huber was afraid he would become as forgettable as his appearance in last year's Future's Game. But Huber brought his batting average to .284, with nine home runs and 36 RBIs and earned a promotion to Double-A Binghamton.

After striking out 30 times and walking 17 in 50 Single-A games, Huber has struck out seven and walked seven times -- with a homer and eight RBIs -- through 12 games at Binghamton.

"Just getting the chance to be here after getting off to a slow start with injuries and what not, this is good for my confidence," Huber said. "I just felt like I was up against my entire body for most of the first month. But now it's going the other way. I'm feeling good. I want to get on to the second half and do my thing."

A different look: Colorado Rockies right-handed pitching prospect Chin-hui Tsao, 22, who leads the Double-A Texas League with 118 strikeouts, was chosen to the Futures Game in 2000 as a 19-year-old but didn't pitch.

Back then, though, Tsao fashioned an 11-8 record and 2.73 ERA -- at full-season Single-A Asheville, a high step for someone just out of high school in Taiwan -- mainly by using a devastating slider.

Those who saw him then see a different pitcher now.

Tsao underwent Tommy John elbow surgery in 2001 and appeared in just 12 games last season. When he did return, the Rockies limited his sliders to no more than one an inning. This year, he is not throwing as many sliders because the pitch isn't breaking as sharply -- he says it's acting like a cutter.

But his fastball is running in from the low-to-mid 90s and he is real happy with his circle changeup. Just a week ago, he began using a two-seam sinking fastball that can help him accomplish another goal -- keeping the ball out of the air. He is excited about it.

"I never threw it before -- it was always a four-seamer -- but it was working last week," said Tsao, who struck out one and gave up a hit in one scoreless inning on Sunday. "My changeup is better than my slider."

Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said recently that if the Rockies need Tsao -- they're taking a look at breaking some of their young prospects in the bullpen -- they have no qualms about having him skip Triple-A Colorado Springs. Tsao spent most of his recovery from injury studying English and the America culture, and is much smoother in communicating than he was even at the start of the season.

Worth the wait: While Sunday's game showcased those on the cusp of the Majors -- such as World starting pitcher Rich Harden, a Canadian whose next start is expected to come in an Oakland Athletics uniform -- it's good for those who are a long way from the top.

For example, Boston Red Sox right-handed prospect Jorge De La Rosa, 22, is third in the Eastern League at Double-A Portland in strikeouts with 83. But because he threw 138 2/3 last season in his first year as a starter and pitched a heavy workload in winter ball, the Red Sox have been limiting him to not much more than five innings per start.

Ron Johnson, De La Rosa's manager at Portland and a coach with the World team, said they want De La Rosa, from Mexico, to learn to continue sharpening command of his fastball, changeup and curveball before pushing the track to the Majors.

"With him, it's just about commanding two things, his pitches and himself," said Johnson, who added that it would make sense to keep De La Rosa in Double-A this year, see if he can make the jump to Triple-A at the start of next season, then be judged on merit late next season. "With George, thus far he's done outstanding.

"He's gone from being a reliever two years ago when we first got him. Now he's able to go out and understand what he has. So if he does give up a run, he doesn't lose his confidence or his exposure. He realizes he's always a pitch away from getting out of an inning with the stuff he has."

De La Rosa pitched for two years in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization and one in the Mexican League before the Red Sox signed him for the 2001 season.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.





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