VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Dave Stewart, the only pitcher in the last quarter century to win 20 games four consecutive seasons, has this to say about top Dodger pitching prospect Chad Billingsley:
"He's going to be far better than I ever was."
Here's the fine print: Stewart is Billingsley's agent.
Disclaimer aside, Stewart isn't alone in his praise for Billingsley, the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year two years running.
"He's going to be there real soon," said Ken Howell, meaning Billingsley's anticipated arrival in the Major Leagues. Howell has been Billingsley's pitching coach the last two seasons and will be with him at Triple-A Las Vegas this year, for as long as Billingsley is there.
"It's not just one or two of us in the organization that feels this way about him," said Rick Honeycutt, the who was the organization pitching coordinator until a recent promotion to Major League pitching coach. "A lot of eyes were watching that Double-A Jacksonville team last year. Other teams feel the same way about him. Over the second half, he was just lights out. He's the total package."
Billingsley, 21, was a first-round pick out of Defiance (Ohio) High School. In three Minor League seasons, he is 29-14 with a 3.01 ERA. He's a power pitcher with a thick trunk (244 pounds) on a 6-foot frame. He's built a little like Tom Seaver, although he said Nolan Ryan "was my role model."
"I started pitching when I was 7, and when I was 8 my dad had a stroke and became disabled, and he was my pitching coach," said Billingsley. "He worked for General Motors (and) didn't really know anything about baseball mechanics, but he researched and bought books and videos and zeroed in on Ryan because of his mechanics and molded me into something like that, even with the huge leg kick.
"Everything Ryan has said he did, that's what my dad had me do. I even picked up my grip looking at his grip on a baseball card. My dad got all the tools Ryan used, like a little baseball that helped with my control and various weights. My dad knows me best. My success is his success."
Howell said the biggest difference between Billingsley today and the one of two years ago is mechanical -- a lot of the rough edges have smoothed out, even though in his first spring appearances he's overthrown to the first few batters he's faced.
"He still tends to speed his body up, especially at the start of a game, and he is just starting to understand that he needs to slow the body down," said Howell. "In this first Major League camp, with the atmosphere, the excitement, he's gotten hyped up at the start and the next inning he's settled down."
Although the Dodgers farm system hasn't produced a superstar pitcher since Pedro Martinez and there is internal support to rush Billingsley to the Major Leagues sooner rather than later, new general manager Ned Colletti has resisted, instead signing free agent Brett Tomko and trading for Jae Seo to bide time for the kid's arrival.
Colletti didn't need to be an eyewitness to understand what happened to Edwin Jackson, the last Dodger "phenom" pitcher to veer off-course. The next phenom knows Jackson's saga all too well.
"When Edwin got sent down to Jacksonville last year, we were roommates for a while," said Billingsley. "What I think is that he tried to do too much and lost confidence in himself. A lot of this game is mental and it gets tough if your head isn't on straight. He told me he was getting a lot of information from a lot of people and I think he just lost confidence."
Now Billingsley is considered the next Jackson, at least in ability, and such expectations can set the bar awfully high. In his debut, Jackson beat Randy Johnson on his 20th birthday, and five months later came to his first Spring Training being compared to Doc Gooden. A spot in the rotation was his to lose, which he did. Billingsley hasn't made a pitch above Double-A, yet all eyes are on him.
"I don't get caught up in that," he said. "I've been compared to so many big names. I'm not trying to be like anybody else."
Stewart said Billingsley will succeed because he not only has immense talent, but the work ethic to harness and refine it.
"With his attitude to go after it, he has a real high ceiling," said Stewart.
But better than a four-time 20-game winner?
"He's going to be real good," said Stewart. "But I wouldn't put him in a big game against me."