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Stars of the future

Special to

September 16

The wild card is like Hillary Clinton. There is no middle ground, no blasè take-it-or-leave it. But whether you love it or you burned your Johnny Kucks rookie card protesting it, this is its reality: the Braves-Mets series beginning Monday isn't as important as the Red Sox-Indians showdown. And since the Boston-Cleveland wild-card chase also involves the Mariners and Athletics, it makes events more interesting in the American League because the Mets and Braves are going to be playing in October and two of those American League teams are not.

There are those who are concerned right now with issues far beyond this Halloween. Thus many look forward to the Arizona Fall or Instructional leagues, or even winter ball. Others poll their caucuses to determine who are the stars of the future. Baseball America always does it top 20 rookies in the majors and also picked 6-11 White Sox (and Olympian) right-hander Jon Rauch as its minor league player of the year, while USA Today and the respected Rod Beaton picked 19-year old Devil Rays OF Josh Hamilton as its minor league player of the year.

And here is another set of poll questions asked of more than a dozen general managers, front-office personnel and scouting directors:

1. If you could have one player at each position in the minors on Sept. 1, whom would you choose?
2. If you had to hire a manager tomorrow and it had to be someone who'd never managed before, to whom would you make the first call?
3. If an owner called and said, "Name me someone who'll be a great general manager 10 years from now and he can't have been a No .1 anywhere yet," whom would you recommend?

With props to USA Today, Hamilton was the only player named on every ballot. A late-season injury kept the 6-6 giant -- he of the size 19 shoes -- from moving up to Double-A, but Hamilton is clearly a monster prospect in an organization that appears to be a couple of years away from being the next Oakland Athletics. It should be noted that the three players that got the next most notice were all pitchers, Cleveland monster lefty C.C. Sabathia, Seattle's 6-11 Ryan Anderson and Florida right-hander Josh Beckett.

"There are more high-ceiling pitching prospects out there than positional players," says one personnel director. "You can throw three or four of those White Sox pitchers, Ben Sheets (Milwaukee) and Kurt Ainsworth (San Francisco) into that pitching mix of potential No. 1 starters."

Here are the consensus winners as the top prospects:

First base: Carlos Pena of the Rangers, who had a monster year in Double-A and made dramatic improvement in both pitch selection and power, won in a walk. "He's got great instincts, he's very smart and is a Gold Glove defender," says one GM. "Most of all, he loves the game and players all love him." Despite missing the season with a wrist injury, the Yankees' Nick Johnson got a couple of mentions, and Oakland's Jason Hart, who had a productive Double-A season, got one.

Second base: This was very close between Oakland's Jose Ortiz, Tampa's Brent Abernathy, Texas' Jason Romano and Atlanta's Marcus Giles, with a mention for Seattle's Antonio Perez and Florida's Pablo Ozuna. Ortiz won, slightly. "He could be a 30-homer, 50-double, 40-steal offensive player," says one scout. "But Giles could be a 35-homer guy, as well."

Third base: No surprise, as the Padres' Sean Burroughs won in a walk. This is a thin position throughout baseball, with Joe Crede of the White Sox and Michael Cuddyer of the Twins getting mentions, Cuddyer despite his first disappointing season (at Double-A New Britain). "Burroughs is going to be great," says a personnel director, "but if Aubrey Huff of the Devil Rays or Albert Pujols of the Cardinals can play the position defensively, they could be offensive impact players."

Shortstop: At a time when the American League is ripe with star shortstops, the perception is that there is less coming in with the next tide. Alfonso Soriano of the Yankees got the most mention, but no one seems convinced he is a shortstop. Houston's Adam Everett and Toronto's Felipe Lopez got the next most votes, but Everett is more of a defensive whiz and Lopez still has a long way to go.

Outfield: Hamilton, Corey Patterson of the Cubs and Alex Escobar of the Mets were the winners. But there were a lot of other mentions. Toronto's Vernon Wells was only a vote short of Patterson and Escobar, while Montreal's Milton Bradley was next, followed by Tampa's Carl Crawford, speedy Brian Cole of the Mets, Texas' pure hitter Kevin Mench, Arizona's Jack Cust and Cincinnati's Adam Dunn.

Catcher: "Good luck," wrote one GM, and the results showed there aren't too many catching stars evident on the horizon. The only catcher to get more than one mention is an 18-year old who was selected in this June's draft -- Scott Heard of the Rangers, a natural receiver whose bat was questioned before he hit .360 in rookie ball. Others receiving votes, as they say in the USA Today/ESPN polls, included Pittsburgh's J.R. House, Jeff Goldbach of the Cubs, Boston's Steve Lomasney, Oakland's Miguel Olivo and Seattle's Ryan Christiansen. Several ballots left catcher blank.

Left-hander: Anderson and Sabathia were on every ballot, but one scout added Baltimore's Rich Stahl, a member of Tony DeMacio's terrific 1999 draft class.

Right-hander: Beckett got by far the most mentions, followed by Sheets, who has been so impressive with the Olympic team that Tommy Lasorda has assured him that if they get to a medal game, it's his start. Ainsworth and Rauch were also mentioned.

Managers of the future
The second question obviously brought a broad range of answers, or, better put, suggestions. But one name got a half-dozen mentions and most of them were very strong recommendations: Paul Molitor. "He can do anything he wants in the game," says one assistant GM. "He's got presence, he's smart, he doesn't have a lot of ego and he's exceedingly decent. He could be a star, and don't be surprised if he isn't in Toronto next season." George Brett drew some mentions, but as the Indians and Rockies found out last winter when they tried to interview him for their openings, George isn't likely to leave home and ride the front seat of the bus.

Dodgers coach Glenn Hoffman got several mentions and one executive called him "the next Joe Torre," but technically he managed the Dodgers on an interim basis in 1998; there are a lot of ex-Dodger players who will never understand why he was replaced. Oakland coach Ken Macha, Yankees coach Willie Randolph and Arizona's Carlos Tosca all received so much support that it is obvious each will end up a major-league manager in the near future, and in Tosca's case, he could be first in line if Buck Showalter is fired.

Other coaches mentioned include Clint Hurdle of the Rockies, Jerry Narron of the Rangers and Grady Little of the Indians. Indians Triple-A manager Joel Skinner got four separate mentions, by far the most. Trey Hillman of Columbus and Chris Cron of Colorado Springs got votes as well.

General managers of the future
As for the prospective general managers, there is one separate category -- Dan Evans, the White Sox' assistant GM and director of baseball operation. "The best thing about Chicago's success is that now their organization will be recognized," says one of Evans' peers. In the past Evans has been runner-up for at least three jobs, he's been part of a rising organization working with a brilliant personnel GM in Ron Schueler, in a structure with highly respected baseball men Larry Monroe and Duane Shaffer.

He's also learned what it's like to work for an eccentric, albeit brilliant, owner. "It's a joke that Dan Evans hasn't gotten a job," says another GM. "His time has come." Next most mentions? Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette and Yankees' vice president Mark Newman.

It speaks volumes about the organization John Hart built in Cleveland that months after Dan O'Dowd went on to the Rockies there were several votes for several current and former Indians executives. Current assistant GM Mark Shapiro and his assistant Chris Antonetti got several mentions, as did former Indians and current Oakland assistant Paul DePodesta and Colorado assistant Josh Byrnes. San Diego's director of baseball operations Theo Epstein (touted by Larry Lucchino as a future commissioner), Cincinnati's Tim Naehring, Florida's Dave Littlefield and Pittsburgh's Roy Smith were all mentioned.

Cleveland deserves a lot of credit, because there may be more bright, young, ambitious visionaries coming into the game than ever before. "Part of it is the Sandy Alderson syndrome, where a lot of these brilliant young kids from Harvard, Princeton, Amherst and Yale, who love baseball, decided that if Alderson can succeed, they want to try," says one GM. "But the Indians never stopped trying to hire those types. Now you have Oakland, Colorado, San Diego and some other clubs doing the same. It indicates a bright future for the sport."

Don't write off youthful White Sox, A's
The A's may have been dealt a serious blow to their postseason aspirations with the loss of rookie Mark Mulder, who aggravated a bulging disc in his back while lifting 365 pounds. Doctors told the club that Mulder had this back problem, that the injury could have occurred covering first and that the club's weight program has been beneficial to pitchers, but the 23-year old lefty had pitched extremely well lately. If the A's make it into the playoffs, they could be a little like the '85 Royals with Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson, as Tim Hudson and Barry Zito are two of the best and most poised young pitchers in the game and capable of beating anyone, anytime, anywhere.

Everyone acknowledges that the Yankees will be very difficult to beat in the American League postseason, but for people to write off Chicago, Oakland or Seattle is a big mistake. "The A's or Mariners can win at least one series because of their pitching," says one AL scout. And even if the White Sox don't have Cal Eldred or James Baldwin for the playoffs, Mike Sirotka (third in the AL in ERA) and Jim Parque can beat most anyone, and one thing should be very clear -- the White Sox have the best run differential in the AL (139 heading into the weekend, four better than the Yankees, 28 runs better than Seattle) for several reasons other than their ability to mash.

Incidentally, the Giants (181) have by far the best run differential in the majors, with the Cardinals (114) next in the NL. This White Sox team may be like the 1971 Oakland Athletics, 1991 Toronto Blue Jays or 1972-73 Cincinnati Reds in that they are the brink of being an elite team, one that needs a couple of tweaks to make it a World Series contender. Schueler was quoted this week as saying that they need to address the defense at shortstop this offseason, although he didn't mention Alex Rodriguez, Alex Gonzalez or Mike Bordick. Jose Valentin has been a lightning rod on offense, but his 35 errors put him in the shadow of the 42 made by Jose Offerman in 1992, the most errors by a shortstop in the last 20 years.

Chicago could also use a stalwart No. 1 veteran in front of their phalanx of talented young pitchers, and stories are already circulating that once Mike Mussina passed on the six-year, $72M offer by Peter Angelos that his agent Arn Tellum is going to hook Mussina with Reinsdorf, with whom Tellum has done many NBA deals. Of course, those stories get started everywhere these days. There are those around the Mets who are scared that Mike Hampton will end up in ... yes ... Atlanta, an hour flight from his Florida home. The Braves will have to do some payroll maneuvering, but anything's possible as long as they get Andruw Jones tied up -- while Scott Boras knows that Jones could be the next A-Rod when his free agent time comes.

Pondering all this, take a look at the teams with the most payroll committed for 2001:

Team 2001 $$$ Players
Boston $79M 15
Los Angeles $76 M 13
Atlanta $70M 9
Arizona $69M 12
Mets $62M 11
Cleveland $57M 14
Yankees $53M 12

Now, there are a lot of future costs. The Red Sox have five arbitration cases plus a decision to be made on Ramon Martinez's $8 million option in addition to the $79 million in contracts and options they have committed. The Yankees have Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada in arbitration after signing Denny Neagle, the Braves have Andruw Jones and Kevin Millwood in arbitration, the Mets have several free agents including Hampton and Rick Reed and the Dodgers have to re-sign Darren Dreifort and deal with Chan Ho Park in arbitration one year from his free agency. If the Cardinals pick up the options on Mark McGwire, Pat Hentgen and Darryl Kile, they'll be over $60 million with 14 players, and Cleveland has to either take Kenny Lofton's $8 million option or bid on free agent Manny Ramirez.

When you look at these, then look at the White Sox with a 2001 commitment of only $21.3 million with a new, improved park on the way ... watch out. That loyalty that Chicagoans pour towards the Forever .500 Cubs is going to be put to the test.

News and notes

  • Pat Hentgen is the latest Cardinal to suggest that Mike Matheny is team's most valuable player, for guiding a pitching staff that includes tough veterans like Kile and Hentgen to unproven pitchers like Garrett Stephenson, Rick Ankiel and Britt Reames. "He should win a Gold Glove," Hentgen said of Matheny. "He's the best, the way he positions himself and blocks balls in the dirt and throws out runners. We all have so much confidence in everything about him." It is typical of Hentgen to defer credit after throwing his first shutout and hitting the 15-win mark -- he's 11-4, 3.71 in his last 18 starts -- but Matheny has been a huge part of that team's success.

    It was wise that the White Sox got Charles Johnson when they did, as he's had to catch 19 different pitchers in less than seven weeks. Posada's pace has been a major factor in the way the Yankees starters have progressed. And one of the biggest reasons other than Pedro Martinez that the Red Sox have led the AL in pitching most of this season has been their duo of Jason Varitek and Scott Hatteberg. "When you follow the Red Sox for awhile, you notice that they play hitters different and more effectively than any team in their league," says one scout. "That's credit to Jimy Williams and his coaches (Joe Kerrrigan, John Cumberland, Buddy Bailey) who obviously work so hard to set up those defenses. But the more I watch Varitek and Hatteberg, the more I'm impressed with the way they unselfishly give themselves for the pitchers, how creative and decisive they are and how hard they play."

  • In Los Angeles, there are reports that the Dodgers have decided to let Todd Hundley walk. However, Dodger president Bob Daly is privately stating they'll still go after Hundley as a free agent, that the pitchers like him and he's a 35-40 home run threat. Hmm. Could it be that with Dreifort, Park, Chad Krueter and Angel Pena all represented by the same agent, that there's some manipulation going on? It's that time of the season.

    A few things worth mentioning

  • After all the things John Moores has done for San Diego, for the FBI to be called in because a city council member made $7,200 off a stock tip from one of his employees prior to the unanimous approval of his park bonding seems incredulous. Funny, politicians from each party are never called for looking the other way or doling out goodies for huge contributors.

  • There are a lot of rumblings that the Yankees' brilliant young GM Brian Cashman is headed to the commissioner's office.

  • Delino DeShields is headed to left field next season, and the Orioles will let Jerry Hairston play second base. How this all plays out with Brady Anderson and Albert Belle -- who doesn't take to being a DH -- remains to be seen.

  • The Indians are privately extremely disappointed in Chuck Finley, not for his soul, but for his arm. They signed him to be their September avenging angel, and he's been more like Kent Mercker than Tom Glavine. The Indians are 15-15 when he starts, compared to 16-15 when Steve Woodard, Jim Brower or Jaime Navarro starts.

  • Troy Glaus' 41 homers are the most by an AL third baseman since Al Rosen hit 43 in 1953.

  • Kevin Millwood and Bartolo Colon are the leaders in career wins by pitchers under 25 with 50.

  • Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart averaged 18 errors a season in his five-year career with the Pirates. Kevin Young has 40 in 1999-2000.

  • How hot is Johnny Damon? Going into the weekend, since the All-Star break he had as many four-plus hit games, eight, as games in which he had no hits. Think about that.

  • Brian Bohanon has the best road ERA in the National League among pitchers with at least 70 road innings, at 2.80. Randy Johnson (2.84) and Greg Maddux (3.03) follow.

  • Antonio Alfonseca aggravates many opponents by twirling his arm like Roy Rogers after striking out batters, and this week Arizona's Greg Colbrunn took such offense that he got into a screaming match with Alfonseca and had to be restrained by Mike Lowell. According to Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald, Arizona players were told by Marlins players that they, too, are embarrassed by Alfonseca's antics.

  • As the White Sox players began stretching before Tuesday night's game with the Tigers, the Comiskey Park megaboard began showing highlights from April's ugly brawl between the Chisox and Tigers. Coaches Nardi Contreras and Art Kusnyer called the booth and had it stopped.

  • Gerald Williams' appeal of his five-game suspension for charging Pedro Martinez keeps being postponed because Paul Beeston is so hard at work in TV negotiations. Williams wants it wrapped up because he wants to play in Tampa's final three games against Boston.

  • It appears the new Jays' ownership has all but officially taken care of Gord Ash.

  • The Padres are going to give second-round pick Xavier Nady first-round money to keep him from returning to Cal because they need power and they still feel the ramifications of not signing some previous second-round picks -- Troy Glaus, Todd Helton, Geoff Jenkins. Nady likely will play the outfield. The only first-round pick left unsigned is California high school RHP Matt Harrington, whose negotiations between the Rockies and agent Tommy Tanzer have been, to be gentle, bloody.

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive

    Gammons: When good teams go bad
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