02/06/2004 3:16 PM ET
Lehr hoping for his big break
Right-hander in running for spot in A's bullpen
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Justin Lehr has spent the winter in the Puerto Rican baseball league, and boy, can he tell you some stories.
|Justin Lehr hopes to earn a spot in the A's bullpen this spring. (Doug Miller/MLB.com)
There's the one about the pitcher who spent a month in jail because he was caught driving a stolen car down the streets of San Juan.
There's the one about the player who got called out on strikes and whose family members bum-rushed the umpire in the parking lot after the game.
And then there's his own story, the one he hopes will have a happy, Major League ending.
Lehr, 26, has been quietly moving up the rungs of the Oakland Athletics' minor-league relief-pitching ladder. He made it to Triple-A Sacramento last year and impressed, compiling a 3.27 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 75 innings.
He was added to the A's 40-man roster and has been told he's in the mix for a spot in the Oakland bullpen. But it's not going to be easy.
Despite the fact that Oakland lost All-Star closer Keith Foulke to free agency, they rebuilt a solid, veteran relief corps headed by new closer Arthur Rhodes, reliable setup men Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon, middle men Chris Hammond and Jim Mecir, and long man Chad Harville.
"It's a huge challenge," Lehr says. "The A's are stocked in the bullpen and have the luxury of choosing between guys with a lot of big-league experience. I have my work cut out for me."
To that end, Lehr has been honing his craft in the Caribbean.
Pitching for the Ponce Lions, Lehr was promoted from setup man to closer early in the season and finished with a 1.11 ERA and eight saves in 19 appearances.
Along the way, he learned a split-fingered fastball, a pitch that has been working well with his repertoire of a low-90s sinking fastball, a cutter and a big curveball.
"He has Major League stuff right now," says Jose Cruz, the former big-league All-Star who is Lehr's manager with Ponce.
"He's got a good sinker and a split, but his weapon is really his breaking ball. It's a Major League breaking ball for sure.
"I have all the confidence in the world to use him to close games because he's done a great job for us in the regular season. He's a bulldog."
Lehr was selected in the eighth round of the First-Year Player Draft in 1999 and says he was convinced early on that it wouldn't be long before he advanced to the Majors.
"When you're in A-ball you expect it," Lehr says. "But then, when you get to Double-A, you realize there's a lot more developing you need to do. To be honest, last season was the only season I felt like I was really ready to go into the Major Leagues."
The A's didn't seem to agree, though.
Despite Lehr's good numbers, the A's didn't add him to the Major League roster when September came along. Lehr says he was disappointed but understanding of the situation.
"I wasn't expecting to get called up, but I was hoping," Lehr says. "I wanted the chance and didn't get it. They were in a playoff race and weren't going to use me, so it made sense. I just wish I could have gone up."
Despite that letdown, Lehr says his confidence has risen this winter.
He says that getting closing experience has been invaluable and that he's made enough adjustments to get the consistency he'll need to crack the A's roster out of Spring Training.
"Pitching the ninth with a one-run lead vs. quality hitters you haven't seen is a big step," Lehr said. "It's tough down here. You can wear a big inning if you're not really good that day."
So Lehr will try to be really good every day in Spring Training and hope A's manager Ken Macha and Co. see enough to give him his big break.
From Macha's perspective, it's not impossible.
"I'm not ruling anybody out at this point," Macha said. "Some guys are ahead of some guys, but Spring Training doesn't always go to plan."
Right now, that's all Lehr really wants to know, he says.
"I just want an opportunity," he says.
"I feel like I've done well, so I'll have to keep doing what I'm doing."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.