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PITCHING STOPPED PHILADELPHIA'S RUN AT A HISTORICALLY BAD YEAR A FORECAST FOR EXPANSION LINEUPS A HURLER IS BORN

Sept. 01, 1997
Sept. 01, 1997

Table of Contents
Sept. 1, 1997

NFL 97

PITCHING STOPPED PHILADELPHIA'S RUN AT A HISTORICALLY BAD YEAR A FORECAST FOR EXPANSION LINEUPS A HURLER IS BORN

BREAK UP THE PHILLIES

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 1997 issue

The day after the All-Star break the Philadelphia Daily News
began printing a regular feature that tracked whether the
Phillies might break the major league record for losses in a
season: 120, by the '62 Mets. The Phils had gone 4-22 in June
and finished the first half of the season with a 24-61 record.
"People kept telling me we had hit bottom, but then we'd find
somewhere below the bottom," manager Terry Francona says. "But I
never lost faith that this team was much better than our record
indicated."

Sure enough, between July 28 and Aug. 18 pesky Philadelphia won
15 of 19--the best record in the majors over that span. And as a
result the Daily News has dropped its feature. At week's end the
same team that went 82 straight series without a sweep had
already swept three series in the last month. The same club that
endured 7 1/2 weeks in which no starting pitcher other than Curt
Schilling won a game was savoring quality starts and wins from
Tyler Green, Garrett Stephenson and Matt Beech. "Pitching has
been the key to our turnaround," Schilling says. "Our young guys
have begun to have some good starts, and luckily that's become
contagious."

In 20 August games through Sunday, Phils starters were 10-5 with
a 2.91 ERA and averaging nearly seven innings per start.
Meanwhile, since the All-Star break the offense had scored 1.5
more runs per game than before. The surge was sparked primarily
by third baseman Scott Rolen (page 28). "Our aim was to finish
the season with hope," Francona says. "I think we've learned we
can do more than just keep spinning our wheels."

THE SKINNY ON EXPANSION

Remember when expansion teams were hapless? When they faced a
sentence of seven to 10 years in baseball's cellar and annual
losses in triple digits? When the expansion Mets acquired the
prefix Miracle just by reaching the playoffs in their eighth
season?

Now it's different. The Rockies made the playoffs in only their
third year, and the Marlins, now in their fifth season, are on
course to do the same, though both have been aided by the wild
card. And don't be surprised if the Arizona Diamondbacks and the
Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who begin play next season, contend just
as quickly. "There's no question those new teams will be good in
a hurry," Giants general manager Brian Sabean says. "Expansion
teams come in like gangbusters now. It's a concern, especially
if they're in your division."

With both franchises having been awarded in 1995, Arizona and
Tampa Bay are already the most seasoned teams in
baseball-expansion history. They have enjoyed the unprecedented
benefit of three full seasons to scout talent. The Devil Rays
have five farm clubs operating this year, and the Diamondbacks
have four. "We had 1 1/2 farm clubs at that stage," says Rockies
general manager Bob Gebhard, of his club's minor league
affiliates one year before the major league start-up. The new
teams also have had the luxury of studying the Rockies' and the
Marlins' blueprints. Arizona is expected to pattern itself more
after Colorado, drafting polished players, while Tampa may
acquire more prospects, as Florida did.

The big equalizer is cash. Five years ago the Rockies entered
the expansion draft with orders from ownership that their
payroll not exceed $8 million. They lost 95 games their first
season but soon started spending money in the free-agent market,
picking up Larry Walker and Ellis Burks, running up their
payroll to well over $30 million and winning the National League
wild card in 1995. The Diamondbacks' payroll is expected to be
around $40 million, and the Devils Rays' will be only slightly
lower.

"As in most professional sports, there is a disparity between
the haves and have-nots," says Jerry Colangelo, Arizona's
managing partner. "We hope to be one of the former. We have more
debt than any expansion team in history, but we will spend if
the opportunity is right, because we also expect to be a large
revenue producer." Indeed, the Diamondbacks have already sold
33,500 season tickets. (The Devil Rays have sold 22,000.)

Both expansion teams incurred the wrath of existing clubs when
they paid unheard-of bonus money to four prospects who became
free agents after the 1996 amateur draft because of a
technicality. U.S. Olympic first baseman Travis Lee got $10
million and high school righthander John Patterson $6 million
from Arizona, and two other schoolboys, righthander Matt White
and lefthander Bobby Seay, got $10.2 million and $3 million,
respectively, from Tampa Bay. The huge bankrolls of the
expansion teams will also allow them to select veterans in the
November expansion draft whom other teams are trying to shed
from their payrolls and to court some of the marquee names in
the free-agent market.

Among the potential free agents this off-season are Mark
McGwire, Kenny Lofton, Rod Beck, Andres Galarraga, Wilson
Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, Andy Benes, Darryl Kile and Joe
Carter. With these options the expansion teams could field
Opening Day lineups that are competitive with those of some
existing teams (chart).

Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker believes Arizona and
Tampa Bay are receiving unnecessary benefits--35 picks each in
the expansion draft--given the money they have. "Their payrolls
the first year will be among the top six or eight in baseball,"
Hunsicker says. "We don't have near the money that they have,
and yet we're giving them players. It's Robin Hood in reverse."

CAREER CHOICE

Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs made news last week when he
pitched a scoreless inning in relief during a blowout loss, but
that kind of thing happens a few times each season. More
extraordinary is the case of Red Sox reliever Ron Mahay, who has
resurrected his major league career by making a permanent switch
from hitter to pitcher.

Just two years ago Mahay played five games in centerfield for
the Red Sox. This season he has pitched out of the Boston
bullpen, and at week's end he had a 2-0 record with a 2.40 ERA.
"Ron had very little experience pitching, and yet he got back to
the big leagues in just a year and a half," says Sox general
manager Dan Duquette. "Now he looks like a natural."

A centerfielder and closer at South Suburban Junior College in
South Holland, Ill., Mahay was drafted as an outfielder by the
Red Sox in the 18th round in '91. He hit for a combined .250
average in five minor league seasons, and during his only stint
with the Red Sox, in May '95, he had four hits in 20 at bats,
including a home run in his next-to-last plate appearance.
Following that season, while he was playing outfield for the
Gold Coast Cougars, the Red Sox's sister team in Australia, he
became frustrated with his hitting. During one practice he took
the mound and asked his manager to watch him throw. "I never
thought I was going to pitch again," Mahay says. "But my hitting
got to the point where I couldn't correct what was wrong. So why
not?"

Mahay began the '96 season as a pitcher at Class A Sarasota,
throwing a 92-mph fastball, a slider, and a changeup that he
learned from former Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper. After Mahay
opened this season by getting five saves and striking out 47
batters in 40 2/3 innings at Double A Trenton, he got called up
to Boston, where he sat in the bullpen for a week before going
back to Triple A Pawtucket. He was recalled on July 15. In his
big league debut on the mound, against the Orioles, Mahay struck
out the first batter he faced, Roberto Alomar, and earned a win.

Mahay is believed to be the first player to make the transition
from major league fielder to big league pitcher since Skip
Lockwood, who began his career as a third baseman with Kansas
City in '65 and pitched with the Seattle Pilots in '69. "I've
asked myself, What if I started pitching back in '91?" Mahay
says. "But I don't regret hitting all that time, because now I
understand just how hard it is to get a hit off me."

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Mickey Morandini, unlike most of the Phils, has been a solid glove and bat.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [Kenny Lofton]

CAN'T WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR

The expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays
might be better than some existing major league clubs, based on
two things: 1) their deep pockets for free agents like Kenny
Lofton (below) and Fred McGriff, and 2) the projected pool of
players they will draw from in the expansion draft. With that in
mind SI assigned one team to each league and conducted a mock
draft and free-agent signing period to get an idea of what the
1998 Opening Day lineups might look like for the two new clubs.

TAMPA BAY

Player, Pos. '97 Team

Lou Collier, 2B** Pirates
Orlando Palmeiro, CF Angels
Luis Gonzalez, LF* Astros
Fred McGriff, 1B* Braves
Mel Nieves, RF Tigers
Chris Snopek, 3B White Sox
Tom Pagnozzi, C Cardinals
Hanley Frias, SS** Rangers
Rolando Arrojo, P** Devil Rays
Billy Ashley, DH Dodgers

ARIZONA

Player, Pos. '97 Team

Kenny Lofton, CF* Braves
Craig Counsell, 2B Marlins
Travis Lee, 1B** Diamondbacks
Brooks Kieschnick, LF Cubs
George Arias, 3B Padres
Alex Ochoa, RF Mets
Kevin Stocker, SS Phillies
Jorge Posada, C Yanks
Aaron Sele, P Red Sox

*Free agent **Minor league prospect