Baseball

July 21, 1991

Who Needs Triple A?

When it comes to developing prospects, baseball seems to be going backward—or at least downward. In the last two years, an unusually large number of high quality players have jumped straight to the majors from Double A ball. In 1990 the leap was made by, among others, Twins pitcher Scott Erickson, White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez and first baseman Frank Thomas, and Royals outfielder Brian McRae. This year the top three Rookie of the Year candidates bypassed Triple A: Astro first baseman Jeff Bagwell, Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch and Blue Jay pitcher Mike Timlin.

"Double A is for the every-day major leaguers of the future," says Dave Huppert, manager of the El Paso Diablos, the Brewers' Double A affiliate in the Texas League. "Triple A is more for insurance players, guys you call up for 15 days. Triple A is full of guys hanging around waiting for expansion. Teams now push younger prospects past Triple A."

There was no shortage of future major leaguers on July 10 in Huntsville, Ala., at the first Double A all-star game. (The players were divided into American League and National League squads, based on the major league affiliation of their teams.) Look for some of those players to be in the big leagues either later this year or at the start of next season. Some pitchers to note: Arthur Rhodes of the Orioles' farm team in Hagerstown, Md., who was 4-1 with a 2.07 ERA through Saturday; Pat Mahomes, a Twins' farmhand in Orlando, Fla., who was 8-5 with a 1.90 ERA; and Roger Salkeld, who was 7-5 with a 2.56 ERA for the Mariners' team in Jacksonville. Other players to keep an eye on include third baseman Jim Thome, who was hitting .337 for the Indians' affiliate in Canton, Ohio; shortstop Royce Clayton, who was batting .315 for the Giants' team in Shreveport, La.; and Chattanooga (Reds) outfielder Reggie Sanders, an Eric Davis clone who didn't play in the all-star game because of an elbow injury.

Some farm directors worry that players are moving too quickly from Double A to the big leagues. "There's a lack of discipline in the front offices of some major league teams," says Baltimore farm director Doug Melvin. Indeed, the Orioles themselves probably rushed pitcher Ben McDonald, who pitched only two games in the minors before making his big league debut in 1989. He has twice spent time on the disabled list since then.

And not every player who bypasses Triple A succeeds. San Francisco catcher Steve Decker hopped from Double A to the majors in September, started this season with the Giants, hit five homers in the first five weeks and then struggled before being sent to Triple A. Now Decker is back in San Francisco, but he was hitting only .222 through Sunday.

"Physically, there isn't much of a concern with players being rushed," says Pirate general manager Larry Doughty. "But sometimes there is a concern mentally. You must make sure that players you bring up are well grounded in the rudiments of the game."

Martinez y Martinez

The Dodgers could wind up with the best fraternal pitching combination since Dizzy and Paul Dean played for the Cardinals in the 1930s. L.A.'s Ramon Martinez, 23, already may be the best pitcher in the National League, and his brother, Pedro, 19, is one of the game's finest prospects. Pedro started the year with the Dodgers' Class A team in Bakersfield, Calif., but after going 8-0, he was promoted in June to Double A San Antonio. Through Saturday he was 5-4 with a 1.84 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 53⅖ innings.

At 5'11", Pedro is five inches shorter than Ramon, and he doesn't throw as hard (90 mph to Ramon's 95 mph), but their deliveries and their stuff are similar. "I'd love to play with him, give him advice," says Ramon. "I can teach him little things. He'll show me his changeup, and I'll say, 'Here's how I throw mine.' "

Ramon and Pedro have never played on the same team, so accomplishing that goal with the Dodgers, says Pedro, "is my dream." The brothers call each other twice a week during the season. In the off-season they live in the Dominican Republic with their parents, two sisters and two brothers. (One of the brothers, Jesus, is 17 and pitches for the Dodgers' rookie team in Santo Domingo.) "When one of the family isn't around, it's like something is missing," says Pedro. "In the winter, when we, say, go to the beach, the brothers and sisters go together. We do everything together. That's why pitching with Ramon would be so great for our family."

That could happen as soon as next year.

The Show Must Go On

The career home run leader among active minor leaguers is outfielder Rick Lancellotti of the Triple A Pawtucket Red Sox, with 265. "Maybe 20 to 30 years down the road, it may mean something," says Lancellotti, 34, "but now it just means I've played forever."

Lancellotti is the closest the minor leagues have to a real-life Crash Davis, the protagonist in the movie Bull Durham. Lancellotti has played professionally for 15 years in 16 cities, from Amarillo, Texas, to Hiroshima, Japan. As a major leaguer, he has only 65 at bats, 11 hits and two home runs. The homers came in consecutive appearances as a pinch hitter for the Giants in September 1986. After the season, he was sold to a team in Japan.

The crudest blow of Lancellotti's career came last season, when the Red Sox called him up from Pawtucket, his first promotion to the big leagues since '86. Upon arriving at Fenway Park, Boston general manager Lou Gorman told Lancellotti that, because of a mistake made in the waivers process, he had to go back to Pawtucket for another week. "I thought, If I get hurt or he changes his mind, I'm going after him with a bazooka," says Lancellotti, who was not recalled after all.

Lancellotti is writing a book (with a Boston writer named Dan Macmillan) entitled The Journeyman. It's due out in the spring. Lancellotti has no idea where he'll be then—Pawtucket almost released him this year, and he's hitting under .200—but he hopes he'll be playing. He has no plans to quit, but says, "I've thought about retiring a thousand times. But I love the game. I made up my mind a long time ago not to give in to anyone, anything. I'm not going to kill myself over this game, but there were times I thought about it."

Lancellotti has big hopes for the book, which he is dedicating to all the "scrubs" who have hung around the bushes. "It's going slowly; I'm still in A ball," he says of his progress on the book. "I hope it goes well. Maybe it will show me that those 15 years weren't so bad after all."

Up from Down Under

From April through June, the best player in Double A might have been catcher Dave Nilsson, a 21-year-old Brewers farmhand who batted .418 with five homers and 57 RBIs in 65 games for El Paso to earn a promotion to Triple A Denver in early July. Hitting higher than .400 for three months is quite a feat, but it's all the more noteworthy considering that Nilsson is from Brisbane, Australia. With little formal baseball training, he has come on so fast that Milwaukee has considered dealing third baseman Gary Sheffield in the off-season and moving catcher B.J. Surhoff to third so that Nilsson can be the Brewers' catcher in 1992.

Nilsson downplays his swift rise, saying, "Baseball has always been my number one sport. My father played it. He was a good player. My brothers played too."

They, however, played only at the club level. Dave, who is 6'3", 190 pounds, says his success in Australia "just kind of happened. It's not like I planned on it."

Barring a collapse, Nilsson will become the first Australian to play every day in the majors. Craig Shipley of Sydney played a utility role for the Dodgers in 1986 and '87. Dave Huppert, Nilsson's manager at El Paso, has no doubt that Nilsson will soon be the Brewers' No. 1 catcher. "He's come fast," says Huppert, "But I had him in rookie ball when he was 17 years old, and he hit .394 for me that year."

Short Hops...

The minor leagues have a number of two-sport athletes, but one of the most successful has been D.J. Dozier, the Minnesota Vikings' running back and a Double A all-star outfielder with Williamsport (Pa.) in the Mets' system. Dozier, who was hitting .277 with eight homers and 30 RBIs through Saturday, finds baseball harder to play than football. "Baseball is tough," he says. "Not everyone realizes how difficult it is. There's no comparison between hitting a slider and catching a football, or anything in football. Football takes natural ability. Baseball takes natural ability blended with skill."

...Tino Martinez, first baseman for the Calgary Cannons, has no business in Triple A, but with veteran first baseman Pete O'Brien and Alvin Davis ahead of him in Seattle, Martinez is stuck in Calgary for the second straight year. He's having a big season, making the Triple A all-star team with a .343 average. "It's hard watching guys I've played with go up and play, and I don't get a chance," says Martinez. "But what good would complaining do? When I was sent down this spring, I knew I had to put up good numbers again. I didn't want to hit .200 and have people think last year [.320 with 17 homers and 93 RBIs] was a fluke. The toughest part is no one [with the Mariners] has told me anything about their plans. I've been left in the dark."

...Shortstop Chipper Jones, the No. 1 pick in the June 1990 draft, made 39 errors in his first 85 games for Class A Macon (Ga.). But he was hitting .331 through Saturday....

Communication is often difficult on teams in which some players don't speak English, but never was it worse than when Class A Kinston (N.C.) outfielder William Canate, a native of Venezuela, lost a tooth in a collision with an opposing player. His teammates spent 45 minutes looking for the tooth in the grass. It turns out that Canate had swallowed the tooth but couldn't communicate that to anyone.

as a pitcher," he says. "I hit guys. And I had no sympathy for them."

•By the Numbers
>On July 2, the Mariners' rookie league team in Tempe, Ariz., pulled a rare triple steal in the eighth inning of a game against the Scottsdale Giants. Renaldo Bullock, who had six steals in the game, scored the winning run by swiping home on the front end of the triple steal.

BURNING UP THE BUSHES
Scouts always keep their eyes peeled for fireballers who average more than a strikeout an inning. We dug around the farms and found the five best strikeout men in the minors. The players are listed with their current teams, but their season stats are from all minor league levels.

W-L

ERA

STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS

Mo Santord, Chattanooga(Reads-AA)

7-4

2.74

11.71

Donnie Elliott, Clearwater (Phillies-A)

6-6

3.53

10.88

Pedro Martinez, San Antonio (Dodgers-AA)

12-4

2.06

10.55

Rick Huisman, San Jose (Giants-A)

10-3

1.82

10.36

Hector Fajardo, Carolina (Pirates-AA)

6-7

3.47

10.16

Minimum 90 innings pitched through midseason break

SOURCE: HOWE SPORTSDATA INTERNATIONAL

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)