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Stars of the future
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
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?
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
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
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
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:
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
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."
A few things worth mentioning
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