OAKLAND, AUG. 9 -- Four games into Todd Van Poppel's professional career, the Oakland Athletics are confident that their $1.2 million investment in a high school pitcher from Arlington, Tex., will prove to be a bargain.
Oakland's management held its collective breath upon hearing 18-year-old Van Poppel's asking price after the A's selected him in June's amateur draft. It took a $500,000 signing bonus to keep him from going to the University of Texas -- as he had pledged to do for months, discouraging those teams that passed on Van Poppel and enabling the A's to take him with the 14th pick.
Oakland took the risk because the A's had five of the first 41 draft picks after losing free agents Dave Parker, Storm Davis and Tony Phillips during the winter. Also, General Manager Sandy Alderson was confident he could pull Van Poppel away from the Longhorns and dreams of the 1992 Olympics with the promise of a chance to be on a World Series champion within three years.
"I didn't make a choice that was against Texas or college baseball," Van Poppel said by telephone this week from Medford, Ore., where he is pitching for the Class A Southern Oregon A's. "I made a choice that was for the A's."
The decision seemingly will prove beneficial to both sides. Van Poppel has his three-year guaranteed contract -- the first such major league contract ever given a high school player -- and is on his way to proving that Oakland's money was wisely spent.
In his first four games with Southern Oregon, Van Poppel has surrendered one run, seven hits and seven walks while striking out 27 in 19 innings. His first pro victory came Tuesday night in Medford, when he went six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts against the Bellingham Mariners.
Solidly built at 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds and unusually mature, Van Poppel has a 90-plus mph fastball and snapping curve. A's scouts say he will have to develop another off-speed pitch but are confident he can do so with little difficulty.
Even while cautioning about the dangers of being blinded by Van Poppel's precocious talent and rushing him along too quickly, Oakland officials talk of perhaps having him in their starting rotation in 1992.
"You're talking about one of the best pitching prospects in a long, long time," Alderson said. "We won't push him unreasonably, but then again, we won't hesitate to have him around as soon as he's ready."