This year the team with the best crop of rookies is—would you believe?—the Seattle Mariners, and the player on the top of the list is center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., the No. 1 draft pick two years ago. At 19, Griffey is trying to make the jump to the majors after only 75 games of minor league ball. Says Toronto scout Gordon Lakey, "He looks like a young Harold Baines as a hitter, but he can do more things than Baines. His power probably won't blossom until he's 22 or 23."
Other promising rookies are shortstop Omar Vizquel. who one scout says "is as flashy as Ozzie Guillen but with more range and speed"; second baseman Greg (Pee Wee) Briley, who is being compared with former Reds star Joe Morgan; and 6'6" righthander Erik Hanson, who has already earned a spot in the rotation.
That's the good news. The bad is that, as usual, Seattle owner George Argyros is being tight with his cash. In January. Seattle could have signed his ace, Mark Langston, for $5.4 million over three years, but Argyros backed down. Now Langston, who will become a free agent at the end of the season, is asking for $7 million. In February, the Mets offered to trade third baseman Howard Johnson and pitchers Sid Fernandez and David West to the Mariners for Langston and outfielder Jay Buhner, but that deal died, too. The Mariners' most recent attempt to solve the problem was to offer Langston and Buhner to the Braves for outfielder Dale Murphy, lefthander Tom Glavine and another pitcher. "We have to find out whether Langston is going to stay or not, because it can't drag on," says new manager Jim Lefebvre. "We'll end up where we get nothing for him, the way we did for Mike Moore."
The best comeback story of the spring has been 33-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith. After being released by the Kansas City Royals in 1987, he signed with the Atlanta Braves' Triple A farm club in Richmond last year and hit .300. This winter Smith went to Puerto Rico and led the league in steals, and now he has won the job as Atlanta's leadoff hitter. "He's like the Lonnie of old, only he's better in the outfield now." says Braves general manager Bobby Cox. "I guess we can't call him Skates any more."
Another player who is making a successful rebound is Red Sox DH Jim Rice. He arrived in camp 15 pounds lighter and well aware that he might lose his job, even though he has a year and $2.4 million left on his contract. By week's end he was hitting .429 with four homers and 14 RBIs. "I spent two or three years trying to hit the ball to rightfield and save my .300 average," says Rice. "This year. I want to go back to hitting the ball for power. The team needs me to do that."
SIGNS OF SPRING
There have been lots of rookie surprises this spring. Centerfielder Junior Felix, originally signed out of a track meet, has made a big impact on the Toronto Blue Jays, and Oakland's switch-hitting outfielder Felix Jose nearly stole Luis Polonia's job. San Diego Padres righthander Greg Harris, who won nine games with 147 strikeouts for Las Vegas last year, has developed a repertoire of four pitches he can throw for strikes. And St. Louis Cardinals righthander Cris Carpenter has won the spot in the rotation that opened up when Danny Cox aggravated the ligament damage in his right elbow on March 12....
This year the Major League Scouting Bureau has two pitchers above 70 (on a 20-to-80 ranking system) for the first time since 1975, when the bureau began rating players. LSU's Ben McDonald has been given a 73, and Keith (Kiki) Jones of Hillsborough High in Tampa, got a 72, which is good news for the Orioles and Braves, who have the first two picks in the June draft. "When Dwight Gooden was at Hillsborough. I said he was the best high school pitcher I'd ever seen," says Boston scout George Digby. "But Jones is better. He's smaller (5'11", 175), but he has the same velocity and a better curveball."...
Much of last season, A's manager Tony La Russa used trainer Barry Weinberg to give the signs to base runners rather than then-third base coach Lefebvre. The Dodgers' advance scouts figured that out before the World Series, but La Russa outfoxed them by using hitting coach Bob Watson and someone sitting beside the Oakland dugout to flash signs during the Series....
The Pirates need more offense at shortstop, but manager Jim Leyland says Rafael Belliard, who hit .213 in '88, "is the best in the business defensively." Of his nine fielding errors last year, only two were missed ground balls in the hole. Adds Pirate coach Rich Donnelly, "Rafael really is better than Ozzie Smith, but no one realizes it outside of Pittsburgh."
As a kid, Griffey learned from Dave Concepcion and other ex-Cincy stars.
RONALD C. MODRA
Smith is back in form, so the Braves will have to find a new moniker for him.
A lighter, fitter Rice plans to swing for the Wall more often this season.
BETWEEN THE LINES
A LITTLE TOO COLORFUL
Boston general manager Lou Gorman has been making frequent visits to the radio booth to help fill in for announcer Ken Coleman, who is recovering from a heart attack. During one game, third baseman Wade Boggs ripped a ball and Gorman blurted, "He could fall out of bed and hit."
CAN THEY PICK 'EM?
The Dodgers sent a memo to all instructors in late February ordering them not to let pitcher Bill Bene, L.A.'s first draft pick last June, throw batting practice, because of his poor control. The Dodgers' first pick in 1987, pitcher Dan Opperman, blew out his arm warming up for his first professional start two years ago and has since undergone elbow surgery twice.
THE TAMPA ALL-STARS
Tampa has spawned so much talent it could easily field an All-Star team composed entirely of those who have called the city home. Here's our selection: catcher, Mike Heath (Tigers); first base, Fred McGriff (Blue Jays); second base, Ty Griffin (Cubs); third base, Boggs (Red Sox); shortstop, Gary Sheffield (Brewers); outfield, Dave Magadan (Mets), Derek Bell (Blue Jays) and Tino Martinez (Mariners); pitchers, Dwight Gooden (Mets), Floyd Youmans (Phillies), Lance McCullers (Yankees), Gene Nelson (Athletics), Vance Lovelace (Angels), Tim Crews (Dodgers), Bill Brennan (Dodgers), Jose Alvarez (Braves) and Richard Monteleone (Angels); manager, Tony La Russa (Athletics); broadcaster, Lou Piniella (Yankees); owner, George Steinbrenner (Yankees).
INJURY OF THE SPRING
Cardinals rookie Geronimo Pena broke his right wrist while swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle.
A FLUSH ROYAL
Kansas City outfielder-designated hitter Pat Tabler has batted .579 with 88 RBIs in 64 career at bats with the bases loaded. The first time he was in that situation this spring, on March 7. he singled and knocked in two runs against the White Sox. "He's the only guy I know who works on that in the spring." said Royals manager John Wathan.
GLEANINGS FROM 'THE 1989 ELIAS BASEBALL ANALYST'
•Only two pitchers have had winning records every year in the 1980s: Detroit's Jack Morris and L.A.'s John Tudor.
•Last year, Boston's Dwight Evans was the all-American boy. He was 2 for 2 on Memorial Day, 3 for 4 on the Fourth of July, and 3 for 5 on Labor Day, with a homer and three RBIs, including the game-winner, in each game.
•Don Mattingly's career slugging percentage is .52875; Darryl Strawberry's is .52860.
•Among all players with at least 100 homers, Yankee DH Ken Phelps's career rate of one homer for every 13.4 at bats is second only to Babe Ruth's rate of one per 11.8 at bats.
•Red Sox DH Jim Rice's batting average in late-inning situations declined for 10 straight seasons, the longest streak in the 14 years that Elias has kept such records.
•Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt has 263 homers at Veterans Stadium, four more than Ruth hit at Yankee Stadium.