A Mild Draft
Gary Nickels, the always optimistic scouting director of the Orioles, calls the talent pool for this year's amateur draft, which runs from June 3 to June 5, "not poor, about in the middle." But another scouting director reflects the consensus of baseball people when he says that the crop is "very weak. There are two players, then a drop-off to the next seven, then a big drop-off."
The top two prospects are Brien Taylor, 19, a lefthanded pitcher from East Carteret High in Beaufort, N.C., and Mike Kelly, 21, who plays centerfield for Arizona State. The Yankees, with the first pick in the draft, are expected to select Taylor, who has been compared with Vida Blue. "He has restored my faith that there are superstars out there," says Nickels. The Braves, picking second, are considering taking Kelly, an Ellis Burks- or Cesar Cedeno-type who excels in every phase of the game except throwing. But Atlanta is hesitating because Kelly may be difficult to sign.
Kelly was the favorite to be the No. 1 pick until rumblings began to be heard about his contract demands. There is speculation that he wants a multiyear deal worth between $750,000 and $1 million. In 1989 Baltimore pitcher Ben McDonald set the current standard for No. 1 picks when he was chosen first out of LSU and signed a three-year, $900,000 deal after a long, acrimonious negotiation.
The Braves and others could pass on Kelly because of his asking price. "He could really slide, perhaps as far as the 10th player taken," says one assistant general manager. There's also talk that Kelly may have Scott Boras as his contract adviser. Boras is known as a tough negotiator who can put a team through a summer of hell trying to get a player signed. Ask the Orioles. Boras is McDonald's agent. Like McDonald in '89, Kelly is a polished prospect who is only a college junior and thus has additional bargaining power because he can return to school for another year.
Signing Taylor, however, shouldn't be hard. He will probably get around $300,000, and all agree he is worth it. He has remarkable control for a 19-year-old. Plus, he's 6'4" and 205 pounds, with a fastball that has been clocked at 94 mph. Facing high school hitters is not an accurate gauge of big league ability, but he has dominated so completely—68 strikeouts in his first 26 innings this year—that he went from being a bright prospect to most likely the top choice in the draft. George Steinbrenner's Yankees might have opted for Kelly as a quick fix for their offense, but today's Yankees are heavy in outfielders and short on pitching. The selection of Taylor may bode well for a more patient approach in the Yankee organization.
Taylor is trying to remain calm about the prospect of his being the top pick. "The draft has been a distraction," he says. "People are always talking to me about it. Some days I just wish it would get here." He adds, however, "It is pretty important to be the Number One pick. You have to be real good to be that."
After Taylor and Kelly, the solid No. 3 pick is Dmitri Young, a high school shortstop from Oxnard, Calif. Another who could go high is John Burke, a sophomore at Florida who raised his stock last Thursday when he became the sixth pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter in the NCAA playoffs. He struck out 14 and walked only two in leading the Gators to a 2-0 victory over Furman. Others who could be among the first 10 picks are high school pitcher Kenny Henderson of Ringgold, Ga., Florida State first baseman Eduardo Perez, USC outfielder Mark Smith, Stanford first baseman David McCarty, Penn outfielder Doug Glanville and pitchers Joey Hamilton of Georgia Southern and Tyler Green of Wichita State.
The main reason the draft is so soft this year is the shortage of good college players. "Look back to the 1988 draft," says Joe Klein, the Royals' vice-president for player personnel. "[Major league baseball] signed most of the good players right out of high school, so there's not an abundance of college juniors." This year's draft, Klein says, is especially short of catchers, shortstops, lefthanded pitchers and big-time hitters.
"People are worried about expansion and not having enough pitching," says Klein. "I'm not. But I wonder where the hitters are going to come from. Hitters have a bigger adjustment than pitchers from college or high school ball to pro ball. Going from aluminum to wood bats is one adjustment. Kids are facing better velocity for the first time, and they're finding pitchers who throw breaking balls for strikes. The day will come when we'll have every-day big leaguers hitting only .190 at the skill positions."
It's a shame that some people don't always credit Angels leftfielder Luis Polonia for his on-field performance. They know him only as the player who was convicted in 1989 for having sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl in Milwaukee. (He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 60 days in jail. He was also ordered to pay $1,500 in fines and to contribute $10,000 to a sexual assault treatment center in Milwaukee.) Yet most people are unaware that Polonia has a higher lifetime average than Will Clark.
Of all active players with 1,500 at bats, only Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Kirby Puckett, Don Mattingly, Mike Greenwell and George Brett have higher averages than Polonia's .306 through Sunday. The 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst notes that last year Polonia's .334 average was the highest among major league outfielders and that his .363 average when leading off innings was the highest in baseball. He and Willie McGee are the only two players in this century to hit at least .280 and steal at least 20 bases in each of their first four big league seasons.
This year Polonia, who mostly platooned in his three years with the A's and Yankees, is off to another good start, hitting .323 at week's end, and he was second in the league in stolen bases with 14. He has always struggled in the outfield, but manager Doug Rader says, "Looie has come a million miles defensively." Polonia's legal embroilment in Milwaukee was probably the reason the Yankees gave up on him, but you can bet that they now regret trading him last year for outfielder Claudell Washington and pitcher Rich Monteleone.
"People don't give me the respect I deserve," says Polonia. "I don't know why. They talk about guys on TV, but never about me. Hopefully this year, playing every day, I'll open some eyes."
Indians rookie infielder Mark Lewis made his big league debut on April 26 and in his first three weeks in the majors hit .420. He cooled off to a .361 average through Sunday, but the Indians, who need hitters, know they have found one in Lewis. "I knew if I got comfortable, I could handle myself," says Lewis. "But I'm surprised how well I've hit."
Lewis, 21, was the second player chosen in the June 1988 draft. After two solid seasons in the minors, he was called up on April 25, when shortstop Felix Fermin went on the disabled list with a strained calf. Lewis's big league debut the next day against the Rangers included hits off Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage, and he hasn't stopped hitting since. He had 13 multihit performances in his first 20 games. By the time Fermin returned from the DL on May 12, Lewis had been moved from ninth in the order to the second or third spot. When Fermin returned to short, Lewis also had to make another big move. He's playing second base. "I've been a shortstop all my life, so obviously I'm not as comfortable at second," says Lewis, who admits he's not always sure where he is supposed to be on relay plays. "But as soon as I get comfortable there, I think I'll be all right."
A Bad Move
Rookies aren't the only players who struggle trying to learn a new position. The Yankees' Steve Sax was asked to move to third base when New York called up rookie second baseman Pat Kelly on May 19. In five games at third, Sax committed three errors and made almost every ground ball an adventure. On Sunday, the experiment was abandoned and manager Stump Merrill moved Sax back to second and switched Kelly over to third.
Sax is a classic example of a player whose trade value has been hurt by his contract. The Yanks want to deal Sax, but what team would want to inherit the four-year, $12.4 million contract extension through 1995 he signed in December? Offensively, Sax is better than any of the other four third basemen New York used in its first 34 games this year—Mike Blowers, Jim Leyritz, Torey Lovullo and Randy Velarde—but he's obviously not the answer, either. The Yankees have been in touch with the Orioles about acquiring Craig Worthington (perhaps for pitcher Chuck Cary) to fill the gap, but Worthington put a snag in that plan last week when he pulled a hamstring and went on the 15-day DL.
The Angels, who signed Fernando Valenzuela last week and sent him to the minors for a couple of tuneups, hope he'll draw fans to passionless Anaheim Stadium, but for California to contend all year in the American League West, it also needs Valenzuela to pitch well. The Angels' number 5 starter, Scott Lewis (1-5 through Sunday), just isn't ready for the majors. Valenzuela, 30, doesn't have much left in his left arm, but California hopes he can survive with his guile. His first start could come this Saturday....
Hooray for Mark Frederickson, who was the official scorer at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium on May 23. In the ninth inning, Braves catcher Greg Olson hit a very catchable fly ball to left center. San Diego leftfielder Thomas Howard and centerfielder Darrin Jackson couldn't decide which of them would catch it, so the ball dropped to the ground between them. Instead of giving Olson a hit he didn't deserve—as most officials scorers would—Frederickson ruled the play an error, which he gave to Howard for calling for the ball and then not catching it....
For the second time this season, a pitcher threw a wild pitch on an intentional walk. Philly's Pat Combs did it first, and last Thursday San Diego's Adam Peterson joined the club, lobbing one over the head of catcher Benito Santiago, allowing a run to score....
It's unwise to count out any team in May, but the Giants are so bad (14-29 through Sunday) and so demoralized, it would take a miracle to get them back in the National League West race. The start is the worst in the team's history. With leftfielder Kevin Mitchell's left knee ailing, and with that bad pitching staff, San Francisco is the runaway leader for bust of the year.
By the Numbers
•At week's end, there had already been 11 no-hitters in the 1990s. That's one more than were thrown in the 1920s or the '30s.
•By getting 10 runs on May 21, the vaunted Boston offense ended a streak of 59 games without scoring in double figures. That was the longest active fewer-than-10-runs streak in the majors.
•Only three times in the 26-year history of the Astrodome has a team hit four homers in one game. The Pirates accomplished the feat in 1966, the Cubs did it in 1987 and the Dodgers hit four on May 21—the 21st home date of 1991 for the Astros, who to that point in the season had hit only four under the Dome.
CHALLENGING THE CATCHER
Perhaps the best measure of a catcher's effectiveness against would-be base stealers is the number of times he's tested. We checked the frequency of theft attempts when there was a runner at first with second base open and came up with the catchers who get the most—and least—respect.
ATTEMPTS TO STEAL SECOND
Ron Karkovice, White Sox
Dave Valle, Mariners
Mike Macfarlane, Royals
Benito Santiago, Padres
Lance Parrish, Angels
Gary Carter, Dodgers
Mackey Sasser, Mets
Mike Fitzgerald, Expos
Craig Biggio, Astros
Mike LaValliere, Pirates
Minimum 125 complete games caught since start of 1989 season, through May 25
SOURCE: STATS, INC.