One of the more entertaining aspects of the final month of any baseball season—the only fun part for some noncontenders—is watching newly promoted minor leaguers make their major league debuts. But because of expansion in the National League next year, fans won't get to see some of the game's best young prospects this season.
On Nov. 17 the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies will each draft three players from every National League team or its affiliates, and two to three from each American League team. Minor leaguers with fewer than three years of pro experience at season's end will be protected from the draft—unless they have been called up during the season by a major league club. "If you think a prospect is going to make the difference between winning and losing, bring him up," says Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine. "But if he's just going to be another player for you, it doesn't make sense."
There almost certainly will be no pennant for the Phillies this year, so they almost certainly won't call up righthander Tyler Green, their No. 1 selection in the 1991 draft. Green, 22, was recently promoted to Triple A Scranton after having excelled at Double A Reading, where he was 6-3 with a 1.88 ERA. Through Sunday the Phillies had used 13 starting pitchers, and the rookies on their staff were a combined 4-22. Surely Green might have pitched better than a few of those 13. Says Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas: "We think the world of Tyler Green. If it reached the point where I thought he was completely ready to go and there were a few months left in the season, then I'd bring him up." But don't bet on it.
Other players who will probably deserve September call-ups but will be left down on the farm because of the expansion draft include outfielder David McCarty, the Twins' No. 1 draft choice in '91, who was hitting .273 with 13 homers and 47 RBIs for Double A Orlando at week's end; Rene Arocha, a righthander from Cuba who was 7-5 for the Cardinals' Triple A affiliate in Louisville; righty Salomon Torres of Double A Shreveport (Giants), who was 6-5; and righthander Paul Byrd, who was 9-5 for Double A Canton-Akron (Indians). "It's obvious that most clubs are going to be very careful," says Chuck LaMar, the Braves' director of scouting and player development. "Why give a player a month in the majors and take a chance on losing him when you don't have to?"
That month, however, often gives a young player a chance to get acclimated to the majors. Then, if he opens the following season with the big league team, he isn't so awestruck and has a better idea of what it takes to play in the majors.
Last winter catcher Glenn Sutko, 24, who is in the Reds' farm system, paid Royals scout Steve Smith $5,000 to be his personal off-season hitting instructor. But after batting .180 with 44 strikeouts in his first 100 at bats this year for Double A Chattanooga, Sutko saw his career take an unusual turn. At the end of May, Jim Bowden, Cincinnati's director of player personnel, asked Sutko to throw in the bullpen. "I'd never pitched in my life," says Sutko. "I had no form, but I threw 91 miles per hour."
Sutko is now a catcher-pitcher. On June 26 he caught the first nine innings of a game and went 4 for 5 with two homers, including a three-run shot in the top of the 10th inning. Then he pitched the bottom of the 10th and got the save. "I've never had four hits in a game, not even when I was five years old," says Sutko. "When I finished rounding the bases, I did some high fives, ran to the bullpen, threw 10 pitches and then went to the mound. I was tired and out of breath, but I threw well. The fans went crazy, saying, 'That's the catcher!' "
Not everything about the change has been easy, though. "The first batter I faced hit a grounder back at me," says Sutko. "I froze. I didn't know what to do. It went right by me into center."
At week's end Sutko had a .207 batting average and a 0.00 ERA in two appearances. As for his probably being the first player to get four hits, two homers and a save in the same game, he says, "It's a part of history that I'll never forget. People were calling me Babe Ruth."
Back from the Dead
One of the minor leagues' best relievers this year has been Jay Bailer, 31, of Scranton. Drafted in the fourth round by the Phillies in 1979, Baller was once one of the game's top prospects, but he struggled and has been dumped by five teams since then. Through Sunday, though, he had a 1.20 ERA, 14 saves and 55 strikeouts in 52⅖ innings.
What makes Baller's comeback especially heartwarming is that he almost died five years ago. On Dec. 4, 1987, he had a seizure in a Reading, Pa., store, collapsed and was in a coma for four days, during which he lost 34 pounds. His temperature reached 107°. "Doctors told my family that I wasn't expected to make it and that if I did, there would be an 80 percent chance that something would be wrong with me," says Baller. "There was no way I'd pitch again."
Baller says toxic poisoning from tainted seafood caused the seizure—not drugs or alcohol, as some people suggested. He tried out with the Cubs during spring training in 1988 but didn't make the team. He had a brief and unsuccessful stint with the Royals in '90 but says he's now ready to pitch full time for a major league team. "When I almost died, I promised myself if I got another chance in the big leagues, I'd do what I was capable of doing," says Baller. "I didn't take my career seriously enough when I was younger. I was a little wild, crazy and outspoken. But I'm focused now. If I wasn't, I'd never be able to put up these numbers. Now I'm going after it with a vengeance that I've never had."
When the White Sox acquired second baseman Steve Sax from the Yankees on Jan. 10 for righthanded pitchers Melido Perez, Bob Wickman and Domingo Jean, a White Sox source said, "We did well, but I hate losing Wickman. He's got a chance to be real good."
So far, so good. Through Sunday, Wickman, 23, was 9-3 with a 2.76 ERA for Columbus, New York's Triple A team. The nine victories came in succession after Wickman lost his first outing. During that stretch he had a 1.34 ERA and allowed 35 hits in 67‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings.
When he was two, Wickman lost the top third of his right index finger in a farm-machine accident. "I vividly remember the blood, but there was no pain," says Wickman, who still has a scab on top of the finger. "It still hurts when it gets extra cold, or when the scab rips off."
Wickman played at Wisconsin-Whitewater, a Division III university, because "not very many Division I schools were interested," he says. But he did so well there that the White Sox drafted him in the second round in 1990. The secret of his success is the exceptional movement on his 90-mph sinker, which he gets, according to one theory, because the ball slides off his middle finger, not his shortened index finger.
Larger than Life
The Giants have an intriguing 6'5" first baseman-DH at Class A Clinton (Iowa) named Andre Keene. He claims he weighs a mere 265 pounds, but Clinton officials say that he's closer to 285 and that he used to be more than 300 pounds. At week's end Keene led the Midwest League in home runs (nine) and RBIs (44). In a home run hitting contest at the league's All-Star Game in Peoria on June 22, he hit a homer with an aluminum bat that put a hole in a billboard. "People call me Cecil Fielder, Frank Thomas, Andre the Giant," says Keene. "But there's one difference between me and Cecil—he doesn't steal bases. I take pride in my speed."
As of Sunday, Keene, 21, had 17 stolen bases. "I want to steal 30," he says. "People don't say much to me when I steal a base, but I do get a lot of questions from opposing players when I drop down a bunt. And I have dropped some bunts."
The minors are dotted with major league veterans hoping to fill the openings created by expansion. Here's an all-waiting-for-expansion team: C-Alex Trevino, Louisville; 1B-Steve Balboni, Oklahoma City; 2B-Luis Aguayo, Pawtucket; 3B-Rick Schu, Scranton; SS-Alvaro Espinoza, Colorado Springs; OF-Phil Bradley, Edmonton; John Shelby, Pawtucket; Jeff Stone, Toledo; DH-Ken Oberkfell, Vancouver; P-Jim Deshaies, Las Vegas; Don Carman, Oklahoma City. Those 11 players average 32.5 years old....
The minor league RBI leader in RBIs (chart at left) as of Sunday was third baseman Fabio Gomez, 24, of Class A Reno, an Oakland affiliate. The Indians released him last year after five mediocre seasons in their system. After that, Gomez had unsuccessful tryouts with the Marlins, the Phillies and the Giants. But the A's signed him in the spring, and now he's opening some eyes....
Several Reds players, including shortstop Barry Larkin, screamed when a bookkeeping error forced Cincinnati to trade Reggie Jefferson to the Indians last season for first baseman Tim Costo. But Costo hit 18 homers in his first 242 at bats this year for Double A Chattanooga, and Jefferson has been hurt most of the time since the trade....
Brien Taylor update: The No. 1 pick in the '91 draft is throwing very well (97 strikeouts in 87⅖ innings as of Sunday) and throwing very hard (94 mph average, with a high of 99 mph) for the Class A Fort Lauderdale Yankees. As of Sunday, however, he was only 4-6.
Expansion will create more big league jobs—but not this year for top prospects like Green.
The one pitcher for Chattanooga to whom Sutko does not send signals is Sutko.
The 285-pound Keene has been a smashing success for Clinton.
Between The Lines
Sneak Attack from Down Under
Cameron Cairncross is a 20-year-old lefthander from Australia who's pitching for Waterloo (Iowa), a Padres Class A team. He has been playing baseball for only five years, but he might have the best pickoff move in pro ball. Last year Cairncross picked off 48 runners, with only nine balks. As of Sunday he had 18 pickoffs this year (five balks). He has a deceptive leg kick that comes close to being a balk. "I picked off one runner who had taken only three steps off first," he says. "He was looking at home when he was tagged. He never moved."
There are some great names in the minor leagues—Boise's Elgin Bobo, San Bernardino's Arquimedez Pozo and, for the more traditional, Ted Williams of Calgary—but the best moniker belongs to Motorboat Jones, an outfielder for the Class A Charleston (W.Va.) Wheelers, a Reds affiliate. He says he got the sobriquet as a child from his grandmother "because I made sounds like a motorboat." His real name is Eugene, but "my mom calls me Motor," says Jones, "and my teammates call me Boat."
From Russia with Gloves
Manager Bill Lachemann of the Angels' rookie league team, in Mesa, Ariz., became impressed with two 23-year-old Russian players on his team after watching them for only three days. "Their skill level is about that of a 19-year-old, but they want to learn," says Lachemann. The two, third baseman Yevgeny Puchkof and shortstop Ilya Bogatyrev, already have nicknames, says Lachemann: "Bogatyrev is Bogey. Puchkof is Poochey."
Porky and Buss
Waterloo and Cedar Rapids, the Iowa-based Class A Midwest League affiliates of the Padres and Reds, respectively, are only 60 miles apart, and they have a little side bet going on their 14-game season series. The front-office staff of the team that loses the series must kiss a pig. "I can't even look at a package of bacon without shuddering," says Waterloo assistant general manager Jeff Nelson, whose team has lost five of the first eight games in the series.
By the Numbers
•Through Sunday, manager Bob Boone of Triple A Tacoma, an A's affiliate, was 4-9 against the Mariners' Calgary farm team, partly because his son, Bret, who bats cleanup for Calgary, was hitting .380 (19 for 50) with two doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBIs against Tacoma.