The Boston Red Sox hit pay dirt once before in transforming a pitcher into a hitter.
While no one expects GreenJackets first baseman Luis Garcia to become the next Babe Ruth, the 21-year-old is well on his way to giving the Red Sox another successful conversion project.
"I was having arm problems, so they decided to make me a hitter and see what I could do," said Garcia, one of five Jackets who will play for the Southern Division tonight at 7 in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, S.C.
"So far, it's gone OK. I always felt I could be a pretty good hitter."
Pretty good, indeed.
Coming off his first season as an everyday player last year -- when he batted .330 with 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 188 at-bats for Mexico of the rookie-level Arizona League -- Garcia posted big numbers in the first half for the Jackets this season as a pro.
After batting well over .300 for most of the season, Garcia's bat has cooled somewhat, but he still is among the team leaders in several categories. In 223 at-bats, the 6-foot-4, 190-pounder is batting .278 with a team-high 11 home runs and 44 RBI.
Red Sox farm director Kent Qualls also is pleased with how Garcia has improved defensively.
"He was a pitcher two years ago and hasn't played a position much, so he's been a pleasant surprise," Qualls said. "Primarily, he has played the outfield but is much improved at first base. If he continues to progress there, he'll only add to his value."
Garcia's big first half earned him a spot in the starting lineup for the Southern Division stars, along with teammate Chris Warren, who makes the start in left field tonight.
Augusta center fielder Lew Ford and pitchers Brad Baker and B.J. Leach also were named to the Southern Division All Stars as reserves.
Garcia was signed by the Red Sox as a free agent in 1996 and had a solid pro debut that year as a pitcher, going 2-0 with a 3.75 ERA in 14 relief appearances in the Dominican Summer League.
In 1997, he went 1-5 with a 4.10 ERA, splitting his time between the Dominican Red Sox and Fort Myers of the rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Then, after making only three appearances in 1998, Garcia began experiencing arm problems and underwent shoulder surgery.
"In a way, I'm glad that happened because I think I have a better chance to make the major leagues as a hitter than I did as a pitcher," Garcia said.
With Mexico in 1999, Garcia led the Arizona League in home runs (13), extra-base hits (28) and slugging percentage (.649); finished tied for fourth in triples (6) and RBI (40) and sixth in batting average (.330).
"He has the potential to be something special," Jackets manager Mike Boulanger said. "He has a great swing and outstanding work ethic, and he's going to get better and better as he gets more at-bats and gains more confidence at the plate. He's also improved defensively, and I think he can be an outstanding defensive first baseman."
Garcia says being named to the All-Star team drives him to work even harder.
"It's a big motivator for me," Garcia said. "It is a nice honor, and I want to show the organization that I deserve to be an all-star."
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