Caught in the Draft
Astro general manager Bill Wood says that it's never a good year to have the No. 1 pick in the June draft, "because it means you were bad the year before." Houston will have the first selection when this year's draft begins on Monday, and this looks like a particularly bad year to have that pick.
First, it is not a strong draft, and no one player towers above the field the way Bob Horner (1978), Ben McDonald ('89) and Brien Taylor ('91) did. Second, a dispute over a rule put in this year that allows a team selecting a high school player to retain the rights to that player for five years has complicated matters for personnel directors. (Previously, a drafted high school player was a team's property for a maximum of one year.) The Major League Players Association has filed a grievance over the rule with independent arbitrator George Nicolau, who is expected to hear the case in June. Third, this is an Olympic year, which means that drafted players who make the Olympic team probably won't play much for their pro teams this summer. "It all makes for a difficult selection process," says Wood.
With only nine days to go before the draft, Wood said that the Astros had narrowed their choice to five players, an unusually large number so late in the game. More than one source within baseball thinks Houston will make Phil Nevin, Cal State-Fullerton's power-hitting junior third baseman, the No. 1 pick. Through Sunday, Nevin had hit 20 homers in 55 games this season. If Nevin isn't the choice, Houston is thought to be considering shortstop Derek Jeter from Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High. Other top prospects include catcher Charles Johnson from the University of Miami, shortstop Michael Tucker from Longwood (Va.) College, junior outfielder Chad Mottola from the University of Central Florida and outfielder Shea Morenz from San Angelo (Texas) Central High.
The best player in the draft, Stanford junior outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, probably won't be picked first. Hammonds hit .380 with 33 steals and only six strikeouts for the Cardinal this year, but the financially strapped Astros will probably pass on him because he'll cost too much to sign. The Orioles could get him with the fourth pick if the Indians and the Expos, who have the second and third selections, respectively, also decide Hammonds is too expensive.
Scott Boras, an agent who has made his reputation by advising baseball draft picks, compares Hammonds with outfielder Mike Kelly, who was the second player taken in the 1991 draft and who signed with Atlanta for $625,000. "He doesn't have Kelly's power, but Kelly doesn't have Hammonds's instincts," says Boras. "Hammonds is a leadoff hitter. Every team is looking for a leadoff hitter. When they say there's no premium player around, I scoff."
Surprisingly, Boras is not advising Hammonds, though he has represented the players who got the highest signing bonus in each of the past four drafts: Andy Benes ('88), McDonald, Todd Van Poppel ('90) and Taylor. Boras, in fact, has changed the face of the June draft with his tough negotiating. The $1.1 million contract (including a $350,000 signing bonus) he landed for McDonald was for more than twice as much as any other No. 1 selection had received. Van Poppel topped that by getting $1.2 million from Oakland (including a $500,000 bonus). Taylor then received a $1.55 million bonus from the Yankees.
The new draft rule, says one American League general manager, was designed to stop Boras and the escalation of signing bonuses. For his part, Boras points out that Rick Monday got a $104,000 signing bonus from the A's in 1965 and that teams were still signing the top players in the draft for little more than that until the mid-'80s. "The travesty of the industry is that young men are being misled," says Boras. He thinks that the new draft rule will hurt baseball in the long run.
The commissioner's office has said that the rule was changed to encourage high school players to go to college. "But [commissioner] Fay Vincent didn't finish the sentence," says Boras. "They are going to college, but to play football and basketball. I've talked to a lot of parents of players, and they're irate. They ask me, 'Where's the freedom for my son? They can't lock him up for five years. He's going to play football or basketball in college.' I think baseball is sending a negative message."
A Quick Change
Expo general manager Dan Duquette fired manager Tom Runnells last Friday and replaced him with Felipe Alou even though the Expos were only five games out of first place. One former Expo says Runnells didn't communicate well with the older players, who didn't go for his rah-rah attitude. And Duquette acknowledged that "Tom could have connected better with some of our players."
Runnells, who's extremely intense and competitive, may have been a little too tightly wound to be a successful manager. He is, after all, the man who said, "We have to win today," before Montreal's fourth game of the exhibition season.
The 57-year-old Alou, who's the first person from the Dominican Republic to manage in the major leagues, will try to create a more relaxed clubhouse. His first move as manager was to heal one veteran's bruised feelings: He switched Gold Glover Tim Wallach from first base back to third, where Wallach is happier.
Alou now will get to manage his son, outfielder Moises Alou, and his nephew, pitcher Mel Rojas. But a word of caution: Family affairs haven't worked out too well recently. Baltimore's Cal Ripken Sr. had a 67-101 record while managing sons Cal Jr. and Billy in 1987 and '88, and as of Sunday, Kansas City's Hal McRae had an 80-86 mark managing his son Brian since taking over the Royals in May 1991.
Good things are finally happening to highly touted Astro outfielder Eric Anthony, who has been a disappointment the past three years. At week's end Anthony had 12 RBIs in Houston's last 13 games and won the regular job in rightfield. "He's been a bright spot among the dark clouds," says general manager Bill Wood.... The Phillies aren't sure that outfielder Dale Murphy will ever play again after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on May 21. He's 36, and it has been painful to watch him struggle this year.... Brewers catcher Dave Nilsson is trying to become the first Australian to become an every-day player in the majors. Teammates call him the Thunder from Down Under, and sure enough, Nilsson made some noise with his bat in his first week. He knocked in six runs in his first five games.
Stanford's Hammonds, who should make some team very happy as a leadoff hitter, probably won't be first up in the draft, despite being the best player available.
Dibble: from the sanguine to the ridiculous.
Between The Lines
So Much for the Voice of Reason
Montreal reliever John Wetteland was upset after giving up a game-winning grand slam in the ninth against the Reds on May 19. But in the visitors' clubhouse, Cincinnati closer Rob Dibble had words of encouragement for Wetteland. "He can't be down on himself," Dibble said to a reporter. "He has nothing to be ashamed about. He had good stuff, and he's going to be a fine relief pitcher. But there will be setbacks." The next night, with the Reds leading the Expos 5-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Dibble walked in two runs and then allowed a game-winning two-run single. Later he flew into a rage when approached by another reporter."——you," said Dibble. "We won last night, and you didn't want to talk to me. Now we lose, and you want to talk to me?"
He's Right, That Is a Different Perspective
Seattle's 6'10" pitcher, Randy Johnson, no longer has the exclusive distinction of being the tallest player ever to play in the majors. Pitcher Eric Hillman, who is also 6'10", made his debut for the Mets against the Padres last week before returning to the minors on Sunday. "I love being tall," says Hillman. "It gives you a different perspective on the world." Asked if he ever played basketball, Hillman said, "No. The ball is too big, and there's no chance of a rainout."
A Memorable Major League Debut
Indians rookie third baseman Jim Thome, who grew up in Peoria, Ill., says his boyhood idol was onetime Cub player Dave Kingman. The 21-year-old Thome recalls the time his father took him to his first game at Wrigley Field, in 1980. Before the game, Jim sneaked into the Chicago dugout, looking for Kingman. "My father tells me [Cub catcher] Barry Foote came out of the dugout with me under one arm," says Thome. "They had to announce over the public-address system for my father to come get me."
An IQ Test Might Also Be in Order
The worst error of the year so far belongs to Yankee reliever Steve Howe, who made a whopper last Friday. During an appeal play at third base in the eighth inning, Howe threw the ball over the head of third baseman Charlie Hayes and into the leftfield stands, allowing a runner at third to score and a runner at first to advance two bases. "They get two bases, and I get a urine test," said Howe.
By the Numbers
•Toronto drew more than one million fans in its first 21 home games, the fastest any team has ever gotten to the million mark. By contrast, the Cleveland Indians drew 239,023 in their first 21 home dates.