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Mel Rojas is the most recent graduate of Expos U, a splendid
Canadian institution that graduates free agents into the
baseball job market, where they can earn real money. In Rojas's
case the Cubs were only too happy to pay $13.75 million for
three seasons in a classic case of trickle-up economics. Rojas
is not only a first-rate closer, but he also figures to make
many of his new teammates better. Chicago got whacked in the
late innings in 1996--the Cubs blew 17 of 51 save opportunities
and lost 34 games by one run--and the presence of Rojas allows
Turk Wendell, last season's closer, to become the setup man or a
starter, and it gives another promising reliever, Terry Adams, a
few more years to understudy in a setup role.

"The closer not only has an impact on your club, but on the
opposing club too," manager Jim Riggleman says. "He can give the
other team that deflated feeling. Last year when we gave the
ball to Turk or Adams or Bob Patterson at the end of the game,
our players were thinking, Hey, they have the ability, they can
get those key outs. But the other club wasn't thinking that way.
We didn't have that aura. Now we do."

Rojas, a 30-year-old righthander, was the most effective closer
in the majors during the second half of last season, when he had
24 of his 35 saves and an 0.96 ERA. He converted 23 straight
saves as Montreal kept nipping at the heels of the Braves in the
National League East. But the numbers that most impressed
Chicago general manager Ed Lynch were the .147 batting average
and 52 strikeouts by the 129 lefthanded hitters Rojas faced, his
ability to ice runners in scoring position with punch-outs--he
averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings--and his 3:1 ratio of
ground-ball to fly-ball outs.

Although he has a heavy fastball and slider, Rojas's nastiest
pitch is a forkball, which crosses the plate and burrows into
the dirt. When the Wrigley Field breezes are blowing out, there
is no more precious commodity than a simple 6-3 putout. "That
stadium doesn't matter," says Rojas. "I've pitched a lot there
[3-0 with a 3.82 ERA]. If my stuff is good, I don't even think
about the ballpark. If it's not, they'll hit it no matter where
you're pitching."

In the opinion of Riggleman, Rojas's stuff and his ability to
work two innings effectively put him among the top four closers
in baseball. If Rojas lacks the name recognition of the Rangers'
John Wetteland or the Braves' Mark Wohlers, remember where he
did his undergraduate work. He was pitching for his uncle, Expos
manager Felipe Alou, but Rojas knew he would have to move on to
cash in. When Cubs headhunters inquired about his career plans,
he never even thought about hanging around Montreal.

"I was his manager in Indianapolis in 1990 when his first child
was born, and Mel was really struggling financially," says Tim
Johnson, who now manages Chicago's Triple A team. "Joe Kerrigan
[now Boston's pitching coach] and I bought him a stack of
diapers as a baby gift. Look at Mel now. He can afford to buy
the whole diaper factory."




CF Brian McRae
.360 on-base percentage in 1996 low for leadoff man

2B Ryne Sandberg
Fanned career-high 116 times last season

1B Mark Grace
A Top 10 batter seven of last nine years

RF Sammy Sosa
Looks fully recovered from broken right hand

SS Shawon Dunston
Made 15 errors in 82 games last season with Giants

LF Brooks Kieschnick
Rookie slugger whiffed 108 times in 441 Triple A at bats

C Scott Servais
Threw out just 28.8% of runners trying to steal in '96

3B Kevin Orie
Rookie becomes 77th Cubs third baseman since '73

Ace Steve Trachsel
Held hitters to .235 average, eighth-lowest in league

Closer Mel Rojas
Struck out 92 batters in 81 innings last season


The Cubs haven't used a lefthander as a starter in the 421 games
since Greg Hibbard started on Sept. 23, 1993. During the 1990s,
in fact, Hibbard is the only southpaw to start as many as 20
games in a season for Chicago, but he left the team after that
'93 campaign. The Cubs finally have a new lefty in the rotation:
free-agent pickup Terry Mulholland, who has started at least 20
games in all but one season this decade.