FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 25 -- The Cleveland Indians designated pitcher Jeremy Guthrie for assignment, a process that basically puts a player in roster limbo, while Guthrie was driving to visit friends in Las Vegas during the offseason. For some, such news would have ruined a vacation.
Instead, Guthrie welcomed the telephone call. For the first time in his career, Guthrie was free of the pressure that accompanies a top prospect. No longer would his progress be watched obsessively by fans and team executives. Guthrie, who was claimed by the Baltimore Orioles on waivers, could be just another anonymous player trying to reach the majors.
"I smiled when they called me," he said.
Spring is a perfect time for new beginnings, and so it is for Guthrie and infielder Luis Montanez, once highly regarded first-round draft picks who are trying to revive their careers with the Orioles.
Eight years ago, Guthrie, 27, after his freshman season at Brigham Young University, went on a two-year Mormon mission to Spain. In those two years, he did not pick up a baseball. When he returned, Guthrie, who had transferred to Stanford, discovered he was throwing better than he did before the trip. His fastball, which once topped out at 93 mph, reached 97 mph.
"When I got home, I was blessed tremendously," Guthrie said. "I was never considered any type of prospect before college or my freshman year of college. Yet after I returned, all of a sudden they were talking first round."
Montanez, 25, feels similarly blessed. His father, also named Luis, was a professional player in Puerto Rico, but Luis Jr. didn't take up baseball until he was 11 years old.
"Actually my first year I was horrible," Montanez said. "I had two hits the entire season."
Montanez was so distraught over his failing, he quit baseball for a year. When he returned: "All of a sudden I was good. I don't know how. A miracle from God. A divine providence."
By his sophomore season at Coral Park High School in Miami, Montanez had scouts watching. He believes one particular play made him a top prospect. During an important district game, Montanez, after running up the middle to field a ground ball, dived to prevent a base hit.
"The ball jumped up and I kind of reacted to it, caught it, came up with the throw, got the out and saved a couple runs," he said. "It was like an Ozzie Smith-type play. From that day, I started to get a lot of attention. When I go back to Miami, people keep talking about it."
Montanez was selected by the Chicago Cubs with the third overall pick in the 2000 draft, but never advanced past Class AAA. He's a career .273 hitter in the minors.
"He might have had too high expectations on himself and the club pushed him a little too hard as well," said John Stockstill, the Orioles' director of scouting, who previously was the director of scouting for the Cubs.
Guthrie was taken with the 22nd pick overall of the 2002 draft, yet he never lived up to expectations. In 37 innings with the Indians, he had a 6.08 ERA.
"Our only real mistake with him was to underestimate the development time he needed to become a finished ML pitcher," Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro wrote in an e-mail. "In hindsight, we regret signing him to a ML contract out of the draft as that sped up his timeframe. I wish we still had him in the organization and feel he will pitch in the ML's for quite some time."
Guthrie is long, lean and athletic, the same qualities that made him a successful high school quarterback, and he has made an impression on pitching coach Leo Mazzone.
"Right now he's throwing strikes with all his pitches," Mazzone said. "We'll see more when the games start, so that will mean a lot more than just practice and side sessions. But he has an assortment of good pitches and we'll see how he reacts in the game."
The Orioles likely need to keep Guthrie on the major league roster to keep him in the organization, because he is out of options. Montanez likely will begin the season in Class AAA Norfolk.
"At this point, with all of them when they get to this level, it's all bat," Stockstill said.
"If he hits enough he can play every day in the big leagues for a long time. If he doesn't, it's finding a position that he can be versatile enough to help."