High-riding Minnesota made local schoolboy hero Joe Mauer the No.
1 pick in the draft
Joe Mauer still can't say which sport is his first love.
"Whatever I'm playing at the time," he said last Saturday, four
days after the Twins had made the 18-year-old catcher from
Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul the first pick in the draft.
On Saturday evening Mauer, who also has a football scholarship
at Florida State next fall, was honored at the National
Quarterback Club banquet in Minneapolis as the nation's top high
school passer. "In the fall it's football," he said. "In the
winter it's basketball. I guess right now I would say baseball
is my favorite."
The Twins hope he'll still feel that way when the leaves begin to
turn, but for now even that uncertainty doesn't dampen their
astonishing revival this season. After losing 93 games in 2000,
the club was 17 games over .500 at week's end and trailed the
first-place Indians by only a half game in the American League
Central. Attendance at the Metrodome, which was the lowest in the
American League in four of the past six seasons, was nearly 60%
above last year's draw, averaging 22,506 after 34 home dates.
Then the Twins generated additional buzz by drafting an
enormously talented teenager who grew up a long fly ball from the
stadium. "This is all a surprise, a pleasant surprise, for
everyone who follows this club," says general manager Terry Ryan.
Minnesota's selection of Mauer, the first catcher taken with the
No. 1 pick since the Brewers selected North Carolina's B.J.
Surhoff in 1985, was also a surprise. Most talent evaluators
considered Southern Cal righthander Mark Prior, who was chosen
second by the Cubs, the best prospect in the draft. Prior,
however, won't come cheap (he couldn't begin contract
negotiations until the Trojans were eliminated from or won this
week's College World Series), and his reported desire for a deal
worth about $18 million was one factor in Minnesota's taking
Some observers believe the Twins can sign the catcher with a
multiyear package worth around $6 million. At week's end they'd
had preliminary contract talks with Mauer's parents and adviser.
Mauer was preparing for the state championship, which was
scheduled to begin on Thursday, and said if he does sign, it
won't be until the tournament is over. (Minnesota made a
not-so-subtle attempt to win over the family by drafting Mauer's
older brother Jake, a second-team All-America second baseman at
Division III St. Thomas in St. Paul, in the 23rd round.)
"Signability comes into the equation on any player," says Ryan,
who was burned when Travis Lee, the second pick in the 1996
draft, refused to sign with the Twins.
Still, Minnesota says its choice of Mauer, a consensus top 5 pick
before the draft, was based on talent, not finances or p.r. They
have closely followed the 6'4", 205-pound catcher for three
years; Twins scouts even showed up at Mauer's football and
basketball games during his senior year. In three seasons at
Cretin he hit .567 and struck out only once in 208 at bats, and
this year he homered in seven straight games, tying a national
high school record. He has a cannon arm, firing the ball from
home plate to second base in 1.9 seconds (on a par with most big
league catchers), and though raw, he moves well behind the plate
for someone his size.
"Lefthanded bats are a plus in our ballpark, and
lefthanded-hitting catchers are hard to come by," says Ryan.
"Plus, we knew more about him than any other player in the
country." Ryan was also encouraged by Mauer's familiarity with
the Twins. A St. Paul native whose family still lives in the
house that his father, Jake, was raised in, Mauer grew up
following the Minnesota teams of Kent Hrbek and Kirby Puckett.
"I knew the Twins were thinking of taking me or Mark Prior," he
says. "I was thinking it would be really cool to go with the
Whoever thought the Twins would be cool again? Though the new
stadium they have been pushing for five years remains a dream,
their financial health is improving. Because the payroll has been
kept low (it rose almost $10 million, to $25 million, this
season), Minnesota has broken even or turned a small profit in
recent years. Plus, Ryan says he has the freedom to pursue
midseason reinforcements--another bat is at the top of his wish
list--if the Twins are still in contention at the trade deadline.
In a season full of good news, that's what Minnesota fans most
want to hear.
Orioles Pitching Guru
A Staff from Scratch
Taking the job as Orioles pitching coach wasn't exactly a move up
the career ladder for Mark Wiley last October. He gave up his
post atop the Rockies' player personnel department--as they were
about to sign free-agent starters Mike Hampton and Denny
Neagle--to become the eighth pitching coach in eight years for a
staff that had the third-worst ERA (5.37) in the American League
in 2000 and was about to lose ace Mike Mussina. Baltimore's new
No. 1 starter, righthander Pat Hentgen, who was signed as a free
agent last December, had a 38-35 record with a 4.89 ERA over his
previous three seasons. Behind Hentgen in the rotation was a
mishmash of arms that were either unproven or, worse, proven bad.
"It was a tough decision, but I think it was a good move," says
Wiley, who had 10 years' experience as a pitching coach for three
teams, including the 1987 season with Baltimore plus two stints
with the Indians under manager Mike Hargrove, now the Orioles'
skipper. "I've always liked being the underdog."
Hargrove and a number of major league scouts credit Wiley for
working wonders with a patchwork rotation. The starters' 4.30
ERA through Sunday was a big reason the Orioles were in third
place in the AL East, only seven games out of first. From May 12
through June 2 every Orioles starter--Hentgen and righthanders
Jason Johnson, Jose Mercedes, Sidney Ponson, Willis Roberts and
Josh Towers--lasted at least five innings. The staff ERA since
that span began was 3.72, including a 1.33 ERA against the Expos
last weekend when the Orioles won two out of three games.
Wiley has tweaked the mechanics of his starters. He has gotten
Johnson to pitch with a more relaxed motion. Roberts, a rookie
who won his first three starts but has struggled of late, is
trying to curb a tendency to rush his delivery. Ponson is
attempting to develop more balance on the mound.
More important, perhaps, Wiley has his starters believing in
themselves. "I'm trusting my stuff a lot more and getting ahead
of hitters," says Johnson, who, with Hentgen sidelined (right
elbow tendinitis), has emerged as the staff leader at 6-3 with a
3.09 ERA. "[Wiley] has helped me realize I don't need to give
hitters so much credit."
Last year Johnson struggled as a starter (0-8, 7.20 ERA) and was
moved to the bullpen. The difference this year is his command:
Throwing his fastball more, he has cut his walks per nine
innings from 5.10 last season to 2.64 in 2001. At the start of
spring training Wiley stressed that every pitcher on the staff
must first gain command of his fastball, then develop his change
before working on breaking stuff. "Command is what makes a
pitcher successful, not assortment," Wiley says. "A lot of good
pitchers didn't become good until they got rid of some pitches."
New Team, Same Strengths
Grace Notes in Arizona
Late in the Diamondbacks' 11-4 win over the Royals last Friday,
Arizona second baseman Jay Bell sidled up to manager Bob Brenly
in the dugout, and the two began comparing notes on Mark Grace.
"I was talking about him being one of my alltime favorite
players," Bell says. "The more I play with this guy, the higher
my regard for him goes."
Adds Brenly, "He's a manager's dream player."
On a night when Luis Gonzalez hit three home runs and Randy
Johnson struck out 11, Grace would seem an unlikely subject of
dugout buzz. Still, there was the Diamondbacks' first baseman,
going 2 for 5, driving in an early run and gaining the attention
of his teammates. At week's end Grace, in his first season in
Arizona after having spent the first 13 years of his career with
the Cubs, was hitting .324 with nine home runs, 38 RBIs and a
.418 on-base percentage. He was on pace to surpass his career
high of 17 homers, and in nine starts in the cleanup spot in
place of injured third baseman Matt Williams, he had batted .375
with 12 RBIs. Thanks in part to Grace, Arizona had gone 16-7 in
Williams's absence and built a four-game lead over the
second-place Dodgers in the National League West.
Grace signed a two-year, $6 million deal with the Diamondbacks
last winter after the Cubs decided, despite his popularity with
Chicago fans, that he wasn't worth re-signing. Even in a
clubhouse stocked with businesslike veterans, he has impressed
his new teammates with his quality at bats and well-played games.
Says Bell, "You never see him force anything."
If there's a difference in Grace's game in his new home, it's his
power surge, which he attributes to playing early-season games in
balmy Bank One Ballpark instead of blustery Wrigley Field. "If
you hit the ball well in Arizona in April and May, it's a home
run," he says. "In Wrigley it's an out. Sammy Sosa can hit
through that wind, but not the rest of us."
Not that the Diamondbacks count on Grace for power. Brenly is
most enamored of his bat-handling ability. The manager has played
hit-and-run more often with Grace at the plate than with any
other Arizona hitter. "I have that much confidence that he will
put the bat on the ball and find a hole," Brenly says.
In other words Grace has become as steadying an influence in
Arizona as he was in Chicago. "This is a veteran team, and I knew
a lot of these guys before I got here," he says. "They made the
transfer a lot easier than I anticipated it would be. I'm the
same guy I've always been."
June 18-21, Mariners at A's
It's do-or-die for Oakland, which at week's end was 18 games
behind first-place Seattle in the American League West. The A's
might have to throw four shutouts, because runs are hard to come
by against the Mariners. They had the second-lowest ERA (3.69) in
the league, had held opponents to the second-lowest on-base
percentage (.307) and had allowed the second-fewest hits. When
Oakland does have runners in scoring position, its .240 average
is the league's third lowest.
For scores, stats and the latest news, plus more from Tom
Verducci and Stephen Cannella, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
A Boone to Seattle
When the Mariners signed Bret Boone (right) in the off-season,
they didn't expect him to replace the RBIs lost when Alex
Rodriguez went to the Rangers, but Boone has done just that.
Through Sunday he led the American League with 66 RBIs, nine
more than Rodriguez had at this point last year, and Boone
already had the second-most RBIs in a season by a Mariners
primary second baseman. Here are the best RBI seasons by Seattle
PLAYER, YEAR GAMES AB RBIS
David Bell, 1999 157 597 78
Bret Boone, 2001 60 235 66
Harold Reynolds, 1991 161 631 57
Harold Reynolds, 1990 160 642 55
Joey Cora, 1997 149 574 54
Two advance scouts, one from each league, reflect on what they
saw and heard last week.
One thing interleague play has shown me is that the National
League has about two thirds the number of [quality] hitters that
the American League has. There are so few outs in most AL
lineups. You can see the difference in philosophy: The NL is
still geared toward pitching and manufacturing runs. Any
free-agent pitcher who signs with an AL team is crazy....
The Devil Rays found their first bright spot of the season in
lefthander Joe Kennedy. He reminds me a little bit of Twins
lefty Eric Milton--good curve and changeup, and a fastball up
around 94 mph that he moves in and out. He fell behind Carlos
Delgado 2 and 1 and threw a fastball by him. You don't see that
You can't get Barry Bonds out right now, so there is no reason
to pitch to him with the game on the line. The Giants really
miss having Ellis Burks [now with the Indians] in the middle of
their rallies, as he was last year. That guy brought a
reliability factor that San Francisco doesn't have now....
I thought the Phillies would miss catcher Mike Lieberthal when
he went down for the season, but so far Johnny Estrada has done
a good job. He looks as if he has a chance to be a solid
every-day catcher. As for Philadelphia lefthander Omar Daal
(7-1), I don't know how he does it. His fastball is
[unimpressive]. If he were pitching a game in college, all the
scouts would pack up their stuff and go home.
in the Box
CUBS 4, WHITE SOX 3
As close games often do, last week's Second City Series hinged
more on how players used their heads than their hands or feet.
First, the Cubs made a strategic error while holding a 3-1 lead
in the eighth inning. With two outs, closer Tom Gordon ignored
the White Sox runners on first and second and, on his 1-and-2
delivery to Magglio Ordonez, the runners got a great jump on a
double steal. Catcher Todd Hundley didn't even attempt a throw.
Three pitches later Ordonez singled, and both runners scampered
home to tie the score.
In the 10th the White Sox committed a mental boner. With Eric
Young on second and none out, the Cubs' Gary Matthews Jr. laid
down a sacrifice bunt. Reliever Keith Foulke fielded the ball and
fired to third baseman Tony Graffanino, who caught the ball in
plenty of time to nail Matthews but, thinking a force play was in
effect, failed to tag him. Two batters later Matt Stairs skied
what should have been an inning-ending pop to left that instead
became a game-winning sacrifice fly.