Top prospect barred from pitching for Canada

OTTAWA -- The Colorado Rockies refused to let prized
pitching prospect Jeff Francis go to Athens, which means Canada's
Olympic baseball team is looking for a new ace.

Baseball Canada received a fax from the Rockies on Monday
informing them that the 23-year-old left-hander from North Delta,
British Columbia, won't be pitching in the Summer Games.

That could be good news for Francis -- maybe Colorado plans to
call him up soon from Triple-A. But it's a tough loss for a
Canadian team already missing slugger Justin Morneau, now the
starting first baseman for the Minnesota Twins.

"We are disappointed with the decision the Rockies have made,
as we felt the Olympics would be a tremendous opportunity for Jeff
and that our club would benefit from his participation," said Greg
Hamilton, director of national teams for Baseball Canada.
"However, we respect and accept Colorado's decision. Furthermore,
we wish Jeff the very best as he embarks on what promises to be a
very successful career."

Francis is 2-2 with a 1.97 ERA in five starts for Triple-A
Colorado Springs since he was promoted from Double-A Tulsa in
mid-July. He has struck out 39 and walked only three in 32 innings.

He went 13-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 17 starts with Tulsa this
season, striking out 147 and walking 22 in 113 2-3 innings.

Francis was selected in the first round of the 2002 draft, ninth
overall, and pitched a no-hitter for Class A Visalia in 2003.

A Rockies spokesman said the team would make an official
announcement about Francis' future Tuesday.

"Obviously, everybody would love to play for their country in
the Olympics, but maybe it means that there is something else in
store," Francis told the Rocky Mountain News. "All I can do is
wait and see what their plans are."

Baseball Canada didn't immediately pick a replacement for him,
though it was expected to be a position player.

The national team is in Nettuno, Italy, where it is playing in a
warmup tournament. Canada improved to 3-0 with a 7-4 win Monday
over Italy. The club plays Taiwan on Tuesday before flying to
Athens on Wednesday.

Francis was to pitch in Canada's Olympic opener against Taiwan
next Sunday, then against Japan on Aug. 20 and in the gold-medal
game if the team made it that far.

"Our club has faced adversity before and we remain determined
to forge ahead with the strong talent assembled on our team," said
manager Ernie Whitt, a former catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We have alternatives in place which we will implement in the best
interests of our team and we will carry forward with our quest for
success in Athens."