Baseball

June 12, 1994

If the Price Is Right

Last week the Orioles asked the Expos about the possibility of obtaining Montreal rightfielder Larry Walker in a trade. The week before, it had been the Reds who asked, and earlier in the season the Red Sox and the Yankees had made inquiries. The interest is understandable: Walker, 27, is a talent "second to none," says Expo manager Felipe Alou.

Walker has power (eight homers and a National League-leading 26 doubles through Sunday), he hits for average (.288), he has speed (eight steals in 10 tries), and he's a Gold Glove fielder with one of the best arms around. What's more, his instincts for the game are amazing, especially considering that he played more hockey than baseball while growing up in Maple Ridge, B.C. One National League advance scout says he has a harder time filling out reports on Walker than on any other player because Walker hits to all fields and there's no safe way to pitch him.

Still, there are several reasons Montreal would consider dealing Walker: 1) The Expos are operating under a tight budget, his 1994 salary is $4 million, and he can be a free agent after this season; 2) Montreal must make room for outfielder Rondell White, perhaps the best player in the minors; 3) there's a concern about Walker's willingness to play hard in every game: and 4) his preference for being one of the guys rather than a team leader suggests that he may be too easygoing. Although he has been the Expos' top run producer so far this year (and was in '92, as well), Walker doesn't seem to embrace that role, which may help explain why he has yet to hit 25 homers in a season or drive in 100 runs or steal 30 bases—all marks believed to be well within his reach.

"He's a young player, and Canadian players and Latin players are even younger emotionally because they didn't come through the American baseball program," says Alou. "I've seen him around other players, and he's still a kid. Sometimes he looks like he's just glad to be here. To be great, you have to kick yourself in the pants almost every day and stay focused. You can't change the inside of a player—there's no time for that. He's a happy-go-lucky person, but he might turn into a lion next year."

Walker has heard the talk that he's not always playing hard. "I don't know where that comes from," he says. He also disputes those who say he's an underachiever: "People say I should be a 30-30 guy, but I just got to 20-20 last year, and now people want 30-30, even 40-40. I don't know what my potential is."

The Reds didn't see the lion in Walker, so instead they focused their trade efforts—successfully, as it turned out—on centerfielder Deion Sanders of the Braves. In fact, none of the teams that approached the Expos about Walker had made a proposal that came close to completing a deal. "I really don't want to trade him unless I'm told to by ownership," says Montreal general manager Kevin Malone. "If I am told to, I have to be in a position to know what I'll get in return."

Malone concedes that Walker's perceived value isn't as high as it should be for someone so gifted, but he says that the shortfall is mostly the result of the stagnant trade market brought on by the threat of a players' strike that might occur as early as next month. "I feel bad for Larry," says Malone of the persistent trade rumors that go all the way back to spring training. "I'd like to end all the talk, or do something."

Last winter the Expos started negotiations with Walker on a contract extension, but the talks didn't go far. "I have no idea what's going on," Walker says. "I'm waiting for someone from the front office to pull me aside and tell me that the trade rumors aren't true. I wish they would fill me in. But the longer it goes, the more I think they're about to trade me."

He's No. 1

Florida State junior righthander Paul Wilson is 21 but looks older. He's 6'5", 217 pounds, but looks bigger. His fastball has been clocked at 95 mph but looks faster. That's why the Mets made him the first player chosen in the amateur draft last Thursday. Wilson reminds major league scouts of Padre pitcher Andy Benes, the No. 1 pick in the 1988 draft. "I liked Andy then, and I do now," says one scout, "but I guarantee this kid will be much better."

Wilson was 11-5 with a 2.16 ERA, 29 walks and 144 strikeouts in 125 innings for the Seminoles during the regular season. Then, in a first-round game of the College World Series last Friday, he threw a complete-game 6-3 win over LSU.

What makes Wilson even more appealing is his approach to signing. Unlike other recent top draft picks, he says he's not interested in commanding the largest signing bonus ever; he figures that the big money will come later in his career. He also says he won't set down demands as to where he should begin playing as a pro, because he assumes he will move up to the majors fast enough.

And he's not one of those rah-rah college pitchers who jump around after they win a game—or even after merely striking out a batter. "I don't show anyone up," he says, "but I want to beat your butt."

Attitude Adjustments

The good news in Texas is that Ranger DH Jose Canseco appears interested in being a great player again. After failing to play up to his capabilities in recent years, Canseco has shown signs of being the player he was in 1988, when he became the first 40-40 man in baseball history. Through Sunday he was hitting .307 with 15 homers and 52 RBIs, and he had 12 steals. More to his credit, Canseco has avoided controversy and led a quiet life off the field.

The bad news in Texas is that Ranger leftfielder Juan Gonzalez was hitting .258 at week's end, with fewer home runs (six) than Indian leadoff man Kenny Lofton (seven) had, including no home runs in his last 91 at bats. Gonzalez, the two-time defending American League home run champ, also was being ripped by local fans and media for not playing through a number of injuries that didn't appear serious.

Texas had hoped that some of new first baseman Will Clark's intensity might rub off on Gonzalez, who needs to realize that there's more to the game than hitting homers. Obviously, that hasn't happened yet. Says one former Ranger, "Anyone who thinks Will Clark can get through to Juan is crazy. Juan doesn't listen to anyone. If Will, or anyone, confronts him, they'd better be ready to fight."

Short Hops

The talk throughout baseball is about the possible players' strike after the All-Star break. It seems no one is optimistic enough to think it won't happen. "I used to be that way," says Expo general manager Kevin Malone. "Now I'm trying to find someone who thinks it's going to be a short strike."...

Update on the sorry state of relief pitching: On June 1, in a game against the Padres, Ravelo Manzanillo came in to pitch for the Pirates, hit the first two batters he faced, Tony Gwynn and Phil Plantier, and was taken out....

Consider the story of rookie shortstop Chris Gomez: A backup player for the Tigers entering the season, Gomez, 22, was given a shot as Detroit's every-day shortstop, even though 36-year-old Alan Trammell was hitting over .300 at the time. Gomez then drove in 26 runs during May, the fourth-highest total in the majors last month. In fact, his 26 RBIs were more than Trammell, a future Hall of Famer, ever had in one month in his career. At week's end Gomez and Trammell had combined to hit .297 with eight homers and 42 RBIs at shortstop. The league averages for players at that position were .277, two homers and 23 RBIs....

How Quickly They Forget Dept.: The Red Sox gave uniform number 26—Wade Boggs's old number—to newly acquired outfielder Wes Chamberlain....

Cardinal outfielder Mark Whiten calls the Padres "a bunch of Triple A players." Maybe so, considering that San Diego has, at best, 12 true big leaguers on its roster and had the worst record in the National League (19-37) at week's end. Still, from May 27 to June 1, the Padres won six straight games—including three over the Cardinals—for the first time since August 1992. San Diego's young pitching is finally starting to come through, led by rookie Joey Hamilton, who had had a 2.89 ERA in three starts since being recalled from Triple A Las Vegas on May 24....

Juiced Ball Note of the Week: The Tigers' Travis Fryman and the Royals' Brian McRae each had a five-hit game last week, running the season total for such games in the majors this year to 12. In 1993, another monster year for offense, there were 21 five-hit games.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOThe versatile Walker would like to get out from under trade rumors. PHOTODAVID CREAMER/APDrafted No. 1 by the Mets, Wilson has the look of a big leaguer—without the bonus-baby mentality. PHOTODAVID LIAM KYLEThe Rangers haven't hit on how to get the homer-happy Gonzalez headed in the right direction.

Between the Lines

Prime Rate. When the Twins beat the Tigers 21-7 last Saturday, Minnesota became the first team since the 1950 Red Sox to score more than 20 runs in two games in the same season. (The Twins had also beaten Boston 21-2 on May 20.) And despite having given Kirby Puckett and Dave Winfield the day off, Minnesota tied an American League record against Detroit when nine Twins got at least two hits each. "[Federal Reserve chairman] Alan Greenspan raises the interest rate to deal with inflation. We have to raise the mound to deal with the hitters," Minnesota starter Jim Deshaies says, laughing about this latest example of how the '94 season has been a nightmare for pitchers. "We shouldn't wait until after the season. It should be done at the All-Star break."

Lucky Number 13. The 13 runs the Padres scored in the second inning against the Pirates on May 31 were the most given up by Pittsburgh in one inning in 104 years—since a 13-run inning by the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 16, 1890. Having also scored 13 runs in the first inning against the Cardinals on Aug. 24, 1993, San Diego now has accounted for the two biggest innings in the National League since the Reds scored 14 in the first inning against the Astros on Aug. 3, 1989. These Padre outbursts were made even more stunning by the fact that San Diego ranked next to last in the league in runs before it blew out the Bucs and before it clobbered the Cards.

A Handful. Mariner ace Randy Johnson struck out 15 last Saturday in pitching his third straight shutout, a six-hit 2-0 win over the Blue Jays. From the beginning of the 1992 season through last weekend, a pitcher had struck out 15 in a major league game only six times: Johnson had done it five times and the Braves' John Smoltz once.

Bulletin. Rookie pitcher Mark Acre of the Athletics struck out the side on 10 pitches against the Blue Jays on June 1. Whenever there's an Oakland pitching highlight—and there have been few this season—it must be acknowledged.

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)