Sunday, February 29, 2004

Nomad hoping he's finally found home

In 8th organization, Van Poppel just wants to pitch

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SARASOTA, Fla. - Todd Van Poppel doesn't concern himself with what role the Reds have planned for him.

Pitcher Todd Van Poppel.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
"I'm not really worried about it," Van Poppel said. "I told them, 'Whatever you guys need me to do is fine.' I want to go out and play."

It's an attitude like that which makes Van Poppel so valuable to the Reds. The vast majority of the Reds' pitching staff is young. That often means fragile arms and egos.

Van Poppel has neither.

"I've done just about everything. I've closed, I've started, I've setup, I've long relieved," he said. "I've always stayed healthy. I'm at the point in my career where I don't worry about what position I'm in as long as I'm pitching."

Van Poppel, the 32-year-old right-hander, has had enough ups and downs in his career that he can handle the uncertainty of his role.

"He's the type who is always willing to pitch no matter the situation," pitching coach Don Gullett said. "He's done it all in his career, and it shows."

Van Poppel told the Reds when he signed a minor league deal this offseason that he just wanted a fair shot.

"I just wanted to make sure the Reds had interest and I was going to get a chance," he said. "That's my biggest thing. I just want to make sure I get a chance to play."

The Reds picked Van Poppel off the baseball scrap heap after he was released by the Texas Rangers June 4.

He was willing to pitch in the minors to get his career back on track. He showed enough in Louisville - he was 4-3 with a 3.17 ERA - that the Reds called in early July. Then-Reds manager Bob Boone was impressed enough with Van Poppel's 93-mph stuff that he quickly moved into a setup role.

Van Poppel struggled. He allowed eight runs in 5 1/3 innings, earning a quick trip back to Louisville.

The Reds brought him up again in early September. This time, he pitched much better.

His first appearance showed what kind of arm he had. He replaced Aaron Harang after one inning in Sept. 5 game at St. Louis after Harang injured his back. Van Poppel pitched six innings of shutout relief.

"I feel like I can pitch back-to-back-to-back days if I need to, or I can go out there and throw 120 pitches every fifth day," he said. "I try to condition myself well enough to handle whatever."

After the long relief outing, Van Poppel made four starts to close out the year. He went at least six innings in each of them. He was 2-1 with a 3.70 ERA in his second stint of the season with the Reds.

"He's showed he is very resilient," Gullett said. "He can go multi-days in a row and multi-innings."

Van Poppel wanted to come back to the Reds for the stability factor. The Reds are his eighth organization - ninth if you count his two stints with Texas.

"I enjoyed being here at the end of last season," he said. "Gully was good to me and so was (manager Dave) Miley when I was in Louisville and up here. It's a situation where I wanted to stay in one place. I enjoyed it. I did pretty much everything I could to get back."

Van Poppel is the senior pitcher on the pitching staff. He first pitched in the majors in 1991, the year after he was a first-round draft pick of the Oakland A's. He's there if players want advice, but he doesn't force it.

"The game's changed a little bit. Players don't talk the game as much as they used to," Van Poppel said. "When I came up, you went to the veterans a lot more."

Van Poppel wasn't knocking anyone.

"When I was younger, guys would tell me things, I thought I understood it," Van Poppel said.

"But I really didn't truly understand it until I went through it. I'm grateful for the things those guys taught me. I was blessed I came up with such an old, veteran Oakland team. That taught me to respect the game."

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