Sunday, July 11, 2004
Updated: July 12, 3:19 PM ET
Future bright for U.S.-born infielders
By Jayson Stark
"I've seen the future, and it's much like the present -- only longer."
-- The late, great Dan Quisenberry
HOUSTON -- It isn't every day that the future appears in front of your eyes.
Unless you're down at the multiplex or something.
But in baseball, we get lucky. We get to see the future every single year, without ever subjecting ourselves to any bad sci-fi.
By a remarkable coincidence, the future seems to arrive every year right about the same time, too. Just turn your attention every July to one of baseball's most inspired innovations -- the Futures Game -- and there it is.
But never has the future seemed so easy to see as it did Sunday, when the United States rolled out an infield full of people you'll be seeing again very soon.
In the real All Star Game.
Over at first base, there was Brewers masher Prince (Son of Cecil) Fielder. Just turned 20 years old two months ago. Already owns 54 minor-league homers in barely 1,000 at-bats.
At second, you had a fellow named Rickie Weeks, a 21-year-old megatalent who was the second player picked -- also by the Brewers -- in the entire 2003 draft. In 211 minor-league games, this guy already has cranked out 57 doubles, eight triples, 18 homers and 46 stolen bases.
At short was the first pick in the 2002 draft, do-it-all Devil Rays phenom B.J. Upton. When a guy whooshes all the way to Triple-A by age 19, it kind of explains why he was chosen by Baseball America as the No. 1 prospect in the minor leagues.
And at third was Upton's one-time high school teammate in Chesapeake, Va. -- Mets third baseman of the future (the reallllllly near future) David Wright. The Mets are trying to trade Ty Wigginton to create a big-league vacancy for Wright. Might have something to do with the fact he was hitting .363 in the Double-A Eastern League when the Mets bumped him up to Triple-A last month.
But the question isn't how good these guys are right now. The question is only how great they're going to be down the road.
"If you're just looking at their potential ceiling," said Phillies scouting director Mike Arbuckle, "I don't think there's any question this is a group with the highest ceiling of any [American-born infield] we've ever seen in this [Futures] game."
It's hard to believe that, with all the talent that has passed through the Futures Game in its six seasons of life, only two U.S. infielders have ever played in both a Futures Game and an All-Star Game -- Marcus Giles and Hank Blalock.
But if this year's crew doesn't reverse that history in the next five years, it will just mean a lot of great scouting minds are going to be more wrong than they have ever been about anything.
"All these guys have a chance to be impact players," said Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo. "You've got a quality guy in every spot. If we're talking about guys with a chance to hit in the middle of the lineup and impact the game, then we're not just talking about nice little catch-and-throw guys who can play shortstop. These types of guys don't come around very often."
But the group doesn't end with those four, either. We haven't even mentioned Angels third baseman Dallas McPherson, who is hitting .327 with 28 homers this year between Double-A and Triple-A.
Or Astros second baseman Chris Burke, who has stolen 56 bases in the last season and a half.
Or Indians first baseman Michael Aubrey, who has lived up to his hit-machine billing with a .331 career minor-league batting average, 87 RBI in the first 88 games of his career and a career on-base percentage of nearly .420.
Or the guy who turned out to be the MVP of this game -- Blue Jays shortstop Aaron Hill, who bashed what turned out to be a game-deciding two-run double in the fifth inning, then said: "The first four innings, I kept looking over at that speedometer [i.e., radar gun] and saw all those 96s, 97s and 98s. ... Thank God I got a changeup."
We hear all the time these days that the future of baseball is going to be found in Latin America or the Pacific Rim, because American kids just don't play enough baseball. But it turns out, if these guys are any indication, that there is hope for baseball in the U.S. of A. after all.
"They come in all shapes, sizes and colors," Rizzo said. "And they come from all parts of the country and world. ... But we're seeing today there are a heck of a lot of good American players who are on the cusp of getting to the big leagues. And not just getting there -- but getting there and staying there and having an impact on their club."
These guys also came with their own behind-the-scene plot lines Sunday. So let's take a look at a few of them:
|B.J. Upton, right, was the Devil Rays' first-round pick (second overall) in the 2002 draft.|
We asked a group of scouts to assess our Infield of the Future. And there was hardly a reservation about any of them to be found:
Upton: "He's the guy with the best tools on the field. He can do everything. Or at least he will as he matures and figures it out. He's a plus runner, a plus thrower. He can be a plus defensive shortstop. He's going to be a plus hitter, and he'll have power to go along with it."
Weeks: "Really good tools. Really good athlete. He can hit. He's got some power. In a lot of ways, he's a lot like Upton. Upton's got better tools, but there are some questions about Upton's makeup. For Weeks, that's a strength. He's a real front-line guy who's going to make some All-Star teams. He's a guy you can build around."
Fielder: "Unbelievable power. This guy can hit balls out of sight. With him and Weeks and some of the other young players the Brewers have, if they just stay healthy and do what they're capable of, in four or five years they have a chance to be a really good team for a long time."
Wright: "I've always liked David Wright. I liked him from the first time I saw him in high school. He's going to be a really good all-around player. He's a plus defensive guy. He can hit. And he can hit with power. And he's got really good makeup. This guy may finally solve the Mets' third-base problems for a long time."
McPherson: "He's going to hit. There's no question about that. I don't think he'll be as good defensively as Wright. But he's still going to be a real good front-line, quality player."
Aubrey: "He doesn't have the power that Fielder has. But he'll be a better all-around player."
Burke: "This guy can play. He's a baseball player. He knows how to play. And he's a great base-stealer. This guy is going to steal a lot of bases in the big leagues."
||If you're just looking at their potential ceiling. I don't think there's any question this is a group with the highest ceiling of any [American-born infield] we've ever seen in this [Futures] game. "
||— Mike Arbuckle, Phillies
Aw, the heck with those scouts. We asked these players to scout each other:
Upton on Weeks: "This guy can do anything you ask out of a player. He can run. He can hit. He can hit for power and average. He's got a great arm. People say we're similar. But I think he's better defensively than I am."
Weeks on Upton: "He's so young. And to have that much talent, if he puts it all together, he has a great future. You watch his teams play, he stands out right away.
Weeks on Fielder (his roommate): "I can't believe those 450-foot home runs he hits. He hit one ball that came down behind some trees behind the fence. I mean, I guess it came down. I don't know for sure if it ever landed."
Fielder on Weeks: "Whatever the highest number you can give a guy when you scout him, that's what he should get. He's a great player. He can run, hit, throw, play defense. He does everything."
Fielder on Upton: "Same as Ricky. He does everything. What's the highest number you can give -- 80, right? Well, he gets all 80s."
Fielder on Wright: "Same thing, man. All 80s. I never really saw him play. But he's here. So I'm giving him 80s, sight unseen."
Fielder on himself: "I don't get 80s because I don't think I'm that good. I just go up and swing hard in case I hit it."
Boyhood Buddies (Upton and Wright)
They grew up in the same Washington, D.C. suburb (Chesapeake, Va.). They've known each other since elementary school. They played on the same middle-school basketball team. They played on the same high school baseball team.
So what were the odds of Upton and Wright playing together, on the left side of the same infield, in a Futures Game?
"It's every kid's dream," Wright said, "to be drafted and play professional baseball and get to the big leagues. So we're very fortunate that we're both getting to live that dream. For me and him to be manning the left side of the infield in a game like this is really special."
OK, enough of that mushiness. Wright now reveals what you never knew about Upton:
"He likes to run his mouth," Wright said. "He likes to talk a little bit, so he gets everybody all fired up. So we've had some real battles, even off the baseball field. Anything you can play and compete in, we've battled in. We could be playing checkers or chess, and we'd probably end up rumbling on the floor."
And now the rebuttal, from Upton:
"Oh, I'm the one that likes to talk, huh?" Upton chuckled. "No way, man. It's all him. That's all he does is talk. It's not me. He's always talking. ... Like when we play PlayStation and I beat him. He's saying, 'I never played this before.' That's just him. He's always whining.
"It's a never-ending battle, me and him. And it'll never end -- not until we stop playing. We're Jordan and Bird, Bird and Magic. It's never gonna stop."
Father and Son
|Prince Fielder has big-league bloodlines and a power bat.|
Once upon a time, back in the early '90s, a guy named Cecil Fielder played in three All-Star games. And he brought along his son, the biggest little kid in town. A kid named Prince.
"I just remember meeting the other All-Stars, getting autographs, hanging out," Prince said Sunday. "Coming here, it reminded me of that. But this is better -- because I get to play. I get to go on the field. My dad always used to say before the All-Star games, 'Hey, man, you're gonna pinch-hit for me.' But I never did."
In a game dominated by those Radar Gun All-Stars on the mound, the United States team survived a three-run seventh inning to beat the World 4-3 in seven innings.
Wright was the only guy to get a hit off the most dazzling pitcher of the day -- rocket-launching Braves prospect Jose Capellan.
Fielder stroked an impressive opposite-field bullet off a 96-mph flameball by Seattle prospect Felix Hernandez.
Fielder also managed to avoid heading for the Intensive Care Unit after the game, when the celebratory Minute Maid Park victory cannon went off about two seconds after the final out -- and nearly brought a terrified Fielder to his knees.
"I almost fell down right there," he said afterward. "I thought it was over" -- and he didn't mean the game. He meant his life.
The rest of our Infield of the Future went hitless, by the way. But that was actually kind of considerate of them, because it left the stage open for the best story of the day ...
Of the 51 players named to the Futures League teams, the hero of the day was the 51st -- Aaron Hill.
"My manager called me in four days ago," Hill said afterward. "He said, 'Congratulations. You're going to the Futures Game.' I said, 'Isn't that in like three days?' He said, 'Yep.' And today I was playing in Minute Maid Park. It's a dream come true."
Hill was the only guy on either team who wasn't one of the original selections. In fact, he was also the only U.S. infielder -- despite that Southeastern Conference Player of the Year award he won in 2003 at LSU -- who is not considered a future superduperstar. ("Solid," was the one-word review one scout gave him.)
But another Blue Jays infielder, Russ Adams, got hurt. So off went Aaron Hill to join the Futures Game celebrities. And naturally, it was he who busted open a 2-0 game with a two-run double off a guy (the White Sox's Arnie Munoz) who has already pitched in the big leagues.
Next thing he knew, he was holding the MVP trophy.
"Pretty cool," said Hill, who was drafted last year and is now in Double-A. "One hit, and I get the MVP. Hopefully, I'll make MVP in the major-league All-Star Game some day and win a Lexus. Actually, they've got one [Lexus] out in the lobby. I asked if that was mine. But they said, 'Nope. Trophy.' "
Then again, a trophy isn't a bad reward for any emergency trip to the future. Now, for Aaron Hill and his fellow Americans, it's back to the present, where real life is scheduled to resume Monday. But at least they -- and we -- have seen the future.
And it has never looked better.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.