THE ONES TO WATCH
After last week's Double A All-Star Game in San Antonio, which
the players from the American League affiliates won 4-0 over
their National League counterparts, players from both teams
hustled back to the TVs in their clubhouses. Like all minor
leaguers, the Double A All-Stars were keeping an avid eye on the
big boys, in this case the participants in the home run derby
that was held in Cleveland the day before the major league
Before long, some of the All-Stars who were in San Antonio and
others from last week's Triple A All-Star Game in Des
Moines--won 5-3 by the American Leaguers--won't have to watch
the majors from afar. Indeed, Mark Kotsay, a 21-year-old
centerfielder who won the best-arm competition in San Antonio,
was called up by the Marlins four days later and was thrown
right into the number 3 spot in the lineup. Not bad for a player
drafted only a year ago.
Here's the short list of the top minor leaguers who could soon
be making an impact in the majors.
--Daryle Ward, first baseman, Double A Jackson Generals (Astros).
During a game earlier this summer at Smith-Wills Stadium in
Jackson, Miss., the lefthanded-batting Ward hit a screamer so
hard down the rightfield line that it punched a hole right
through a wooden billboard. Daryle, the son of former major
leaguer Gary Ward, showed even more power at the Double A
All-Star Game when he won the home run hitting contest with a
shot that smacked the top of the 50-foot scoreboard in
rightfield at Nelson Wolff Municipal Stadium.
Ward, 22, was hitting .333 through Sunday with 16 homers and 69
RBIs in 88 games. In April he tied a Texas League record by
hitting homers in six straight games. "He has the potential to
be a regular 40-home-run guy in the big leagues," says Generals
manager Gary Allenson. "He's behind Jeff Bagwell right now, but
teams seem to always find room for guys who can hit like Daryle."
--Todd Helton, first baseman, Triple A Colorado Springs Sky Sox
When Helton, the Rockies' first-round draft choice in 1995, gets
called up to the majors, he won't have far to go. He's playing
only 67 miles from Denver. "You hear a lot more gossip about
things that are supposed to happen to you when you're this
close," says the lefthanded-hitting Helton.
Lately the rumors have all been good. Helton, 23, was a Double A
All-Star in 1996 and a Triple A All-Star this summer. At week's
end he was hitting .360 with 16 homers and 84 RBIs. The 16
homers represented a power surge for Helton, who hit only nine
all of last year. Expect that number to rise even more if he
gets to play at Coors Field. One hang-up: He plays the same
position as Andres Galarraga, who will be a free agent after
this season. Helton could step in at first if Galarraga leaves
Colorado or move to leftfield if he stays. Either way, Helton
just wants to get the call to drive up Interstate 25.
--Paul Konerko, third baseman, Triple A Albuquerque Dukes
Los Angeles wants Konerko in its lineup so badly it has
persuaded him to try three positions in his four seasons in the
minors and even deployed former manager Tommy Lasorda to the
Triple A All-Star Game to encourage the prodigy.
Konerko, who had 26 homers and 89 RBIs at week's end, was
drafted out of Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz., as a catcher
but switched to first because the Dodgers already had Mike
Piazza. L.A. then signed first baseman Eric Karros through the
year 2000, so Konerko was moved to third, where the Dodgers
already had free-agent third baseman Todd Zeile, who had signed
a three-year deal.
What's important to note, however, is that Zeile and Karros
signed deals that allow Los Angeles to trade them. The way
Konerko has been hitting might force the Dodgers to do something
drastic. "I'd play outfield, anything, if it would get me to the
big leagues," he says.
--Kris Benson, righthanded pitcher, Double A Carolina Mudcats
Benson, Pittsburgh's No. 1 pick in the 1996 draft, has been
climbing rapidly through the minor league system. He was
promoted from Class A Lynchburg in late May after putting
together a 5-2 record with a 2.58 ERA and an eye-popping 72
strikeouts against 13 walks in 59 1/3 innings.
An All-America at Clemson in 1996 and an Olympian later that
year, Benson has been hampered by a strained hamstring since
moving up to Double A and was 2-4 with a 7.18 ERA for Carolina
through Sunday. The Pirates, always on the lookout for young
talent, aren't worried, however. The 6'4", 190-pound Benson
already has a major league curve and a fastball that's been
clocked in the high 90s. He has also developed an effective
changeup that he throws 15 to 20 times a game. Pittsburgh will
move Benson to its Triple A affiliate in Calgary later this
summer, and if he fully masters the changeup he could make his
third jump this season--to the majors.
Of all the prospects toiling away in the minors, perhaps none is
more deserving of a shot at the big leagues this summer than
first baseman Travis Lee. The only problem is, Lee doesn't have
a major league team to jump to.
The 1996 winner of the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's top
amateur player while at San Diego State, the lefthanded-hitting
Lee was the second player chosen in last year's draft, by the
Twins. But Minnesota failed to tender him a formal, written
contract within 15 days of the draft; as a result, under Major
League Rule 4 (E), Lee was declared a free agent. He accepted a
contract with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks (who do not
begin play until next year) for a then record $10 million
signing bonus--five times the amount any other drafted player
had ever been given.
Playing in the minors with that kind of cash has been a little
strange for Lee. For starters he now drives a silver BMW--a
four-door because, Lee says, "I figured in the minors I'd be
hauling guys around." Lee also decided to donate his hat
money--a tradition in some minor league cities in which fans
collect cash for any player who hits a homer--to local charities.
Lee hasn't been so kind to the opposition. While playing for the
Class A High Desert Mavericks in Adelanto, Calif., Lee hit .404
in May, with seven homers and 31 RBIs in 28 games, and he was
named the California League Player of the Month. One day in
June, as the Arizona brass looked on, Lee blasted a 450-foot
grand slam to dead center and finished with three hits on the
day. Said Diamondbacks director of player development Mel
Didier, "In my 45 years, Travis is the best hitter I've ever
Lee, 22, was tearing up Class A pitching so easily that the
Diamondbacks would have moved him up to Double A but
couldn't--they don't have a team at the Double A or Triple A
level. So the Arizona front office decided to loan Lee to the
Brewers' Triple A team in Tucson, where they could still keep
close tabs on him. Through Sunday he had hit .283 with nine
homers and 25 RBIs in only 30 games. So far, in addition to his
big bat he has shown that he could be a top defensive first
baseman too, with his vacuumlike mitt and spectacular mobility
for a player his size.
Now all he needs is a major league team.
The contract negotiations between the Phillies and their 1997
first-round draft pick, outfielder J.D. Drew, have sunk to a new
low--even for baseball. Drew, the second player taken, wants a
signing bonus in the same neighborhood as Lee's $10 million. The
Phillies don't want to go any higher than $3 million, so at
week's end the two sides were at an impasse. "We were very clear
with the Phillies," says the 21-year-old Drew, who hit .455 with
31 homers and 32 stolen bases as a junior at Florida State last
season. "We let them know, if you don't have what it takes, then
don't draft me."
The Phillies weren't listening. And they're beginning to regret
it. After realizing that Drew wasn't going to get anything close
to $10 million from Philadelphia, Drew's agent, Scott Boras, who
has engineered some of the biggest signing bonuses in baseball
history, has tried to get his client declared a free agent. That
way, rich teams like the Yankees and the expansion clubs in
Tampa Bay and Arizona could engage in a bidding war for Drew's
services. That strategy has worked well for other Boras clients;
righthanded starting pitcher Matt White got a record $10.2
million from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays last November. Perhaps the
Phillies have White's record in mind. He was 0-4 at week's end
with a 9.43 ERA in the New York-Penn League (chart, below, lists
other high-priced picks who haven't paid off).
If Drew continues to refuse Philadelphia's offers, the Phillies
will retain his rights until seven days before next year's
draft, and then he'll have to go back through the draft. So
Boras tried to use--or abuse--a rule that says teams must send
drafted players a written contract within 15 days or the player
becomes a free agent. Drew has said that none of the contracts
sent by the Phils to locations in Georgia and Florida ever
reached him. The Phillies say that Federal Express receipts with
Drew's mother's signature prove otherwise. The major league
executive committee is expected to rule on an appeal by Boras in
the next week or so.
Now Drew has taken a different tack: Last week he signed a
contract with the St. Paul Saints of the independent Northern
League and hit a two-run homer in his first game last Friday.
Why would he sign for $700 a month when he could be making $3
million with the Phillies? By becoming a professional with the
Saints, Boras calculates, Drew is no longer eligible for the
draft. But baseball thinks it has closed that loophole already,
by renaming the amateur draft the "first-year player draft," and
insists that Drew will remain the Phillies' property for a year
and then reenter the draft.
Some of Boras's peers are criticizing him for what one agent
calls "disgraceful" tactics of promising draft picks that
they'll get "free-agent money." "He's raised the bar again for
dark tactics and blatant lies," says the agent.
Boras insists that he is only looking out for his client's best
interests, and doing so legally. "I'm a former player," he says.
"I know there are no guarantees in this game."
If the executive committee turns down Drew's appeal, and that is
likely, the matter may end up in court. And yet another ugly
mess in baseball will continue to unfold.
THE MAKING OF A PITCHER
Guillermo Mota is a 23-year-old former shortstop who during four
years in the Mets organization had not broken out of Class A.
But when the Expos claimed the athletic 6'6", 200-pound Mota in
last year's Rule V draft, they saw "a kid with a pitcher's body
and a real strong arm who wasn't working out as a shortstop as
far as the bat was concerned," says Montreal director of player
development Dave Littlefield. So the Expos shipped Mota to one
of their Class A clubs, the Cape Fear Crocs, in Fayetteville,
N.C., this spring and asked him to try out as a pitcher. "I
said, 'O.K., fine,'" says Mota, a native of the Dominican
Republic. "Right now, I forgot shortstop."
Mota has made the transition to the mound rather easily so far.
"He's picked up the little things that many people coming in
don't get," says Fayetteville pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal.
"He's like a sponge." Mota has thrown in the mid-90s from Day
One, and his control (something some pitchers struggle with for
years) has been "uncanny," according to Littlefield.
Through Sunday, Mota was 5-6 with a 3.65 ERA for the Crocs and
had 85 strikeouts in 86 1/3 innings, with only 21 walks.
"Guillermo is jumping ahead of a lot of guys who have been in
this organization for two or three years," says Rosenthal. "It's
almost like he's been pitching for 10 years."
Says Mota on his newfound life on the mound, "Now, if they say,
'You want to be a shortstop?' I say, 'No, I want to be a
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Konerko could help the Dodgers--but where? [Paul Konerko]
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Helton is literally close to playing for the Rockies, but Galarraga stands in his way at first base. [Todd Helton]
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Former top pick Taylor and his bum shoulder now labor for Class A Greensboro. [Brien Taylor]
BONUS BABY BLUES
A million-dollar signing bonus is still rare in baseball, a
sport in which high draft picks often don't pan out. A look at
this list of big-ticket busts in the 1990s provides four good
reasons why the Phillies might be reluctant to give J.D. Drew,
their first pick this year, the $10 million signing bonus he's
PLAYER, YEAR DRAFTED, TEAM SKINNY
TODD VAN POPPEL 1990, A's Signed to a $1.2 million major
league contract ($500,000 of it in bonus money), he has been
waived or released by three teams and was just promoted to
Double A Tulsa (Rangers) despite an 0-4 record with a 4.08 ERA
for Class A Charlotte.
BRIEN TAYLOR, 1991, Yankees Signed for $1.55 million after
being the first player chosen in the draft, he injured his
shoulder in a bar fight in 1993 and hasn't been the same pitcher
JOSH BOOTY, 1994, Marlins Chosen fifth and signed for a then
record $1.6 million, he has shown power--16 homers at week's
end--but was batting .212 for Double A Portland with 117
strikeouts in 321 at bats.
MATT SMITH, 1994, Royals Got $1 million as the 16th player taken
but was recently demoted from Double A Wichita to low Class A