They were hailed at the start of the season as baseball's Fab
Five, a quintet of talented young first basemen who were
expected to steal some of the limelight from veterans like Tino
Martinez, Mo Vaughn and Andres Galarraga. Call it a rookie
mistake. After six weeks the Fab Five had already lost one
member to the minor leagues; none of the others have achieved
fabulousness. Here's an update:
Brad Fullmer, Expos. Viewed as the latest gem from the Montreal
system, he hit a home run off Bret Saberhagen in his first major
league at bat last September. Fullmer began this season batting
cleanup in a punchless lineup and has sputtered, hitting .250
and driving in nine runs through Sunday. He has also quibbled
with manager Felipe Alou, who believes Fullmer stands too close
to the plate and gets jammed by inside fastballs.
With his barrel chest and strong arms, Fullmer bears a physical
resemblance to Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, but he has
displayed only gap power this season with 11 doubles and just
one home run. Still, there are good signs, such as a mere 12
strikeouts in 120 at bats. "He reminds me a lot of Larry
Walker," Alou says. "He's a businessman at the plate, and, like
Larry, I think his home runs will increase as he advances in his
The highlight of Fullmer's season has been a 4-for-4 day in the
major league debut of Cubs phenom righthander Kerry Wood. "I
think I've proven I can hit," Fullmer says. "If I struggle, I'm
not going to say it is because I'm a rookie. I know what I can
do. I just have to do it." Grade: B-
Todd Helton, Rockies. He has discovered that Galarraga is a
tough act to follow, but this is familiar territory for him:
Helton succeeded Heath Shuler as quarterback at Tennessee.
Galarraga hit 88 homers and drove in 290 runs in the last two
seasons, but Colorado chose not to re-sign the 36-year-old free
agent because the club believed Helton was ready to move up. The
Rockies' first-round draft pick in '95, Helton hit .352 in 120
Triple A games in '96 and '97 combined, and hit five homers in
93 major league at bats last season. At week's end he was
hitting .278 with four home runs and 20 RBIs, and he has looked
overmatched at times. "Pitching is the biggest difference up
here," Helton says. "Nothing's straight. Everything cuts, runs,
sinks, rises or something. It's a matter of learning to trust
the plan you take up to the plate and not changing it after you
get a strike."
Helton is a patient contact hitter who has more walks (13) than
strikeouts (10), but the Rockies feel he has been too passive.
"We have to be patient with Todd," Colorado general manager Bob
Gebhard says. "Is he going to hit 40 homers right out of the
chute? No. Is he as good defensively as Andres? Not now. But
he's going to strike out less and put the ball in play more. I
think he'll be fine." Grade: C+
Paul Konerko, Dodgers. He was anointed the latest in a series of
Los Angeles prospects who have earned five of the last six
National League Rookie of the Year awards. After taking '97
Minor League Player of the Year honors by hitting .323 with 37
homers and 127 RBIs for Triple A Albuquerque, Konerko was handed
the Dodgers' first base job in spring training after Eric Karros
underwent knee surgery. He cruised through the spring, hitting
.337 with five homers and 23 RBIs, but then began the season 5
for 30 and started pressing.
When Karros returned on April 24, Konerko, hitting .197 with no
extra-base hits and two RBIs, was optioned to Triple A. L.A.
hitting coach Reggie Smith said Konerko was being too selective
at the plate. "I knew that I was going to be facing tougher
competition, but I didn't swing the bat like I'm capable of
swinging it," Konerko says. "It was just ridiculous."
The Dodgers' rookie sensation of 1996, outfielder Todd
Hollandsworth, batted .234 with no homers and six RBIs in April
of that year but was able to hang in and battle back to win the
National League's top rookie award. "It's just so different in
L.A.," Hollandsworth says. "The pressure is enormous. Believe
me, it can get to you."
Konerko will play leftfield with Albuquerque, and when he finds
his stroke, he could return as an outfielder. Grade: D
Derrek Lee, Marlins. Lee was acquired by Florida from the Padres
in an off-season trade for Kevin Brown. His rookie year has
seemed like a bungee jump. He had a poor spring, which allowed
another rookie, Ryan Jackson, to get most of the early-season
playing time at first base. When Lee got his shot, he hit .321
with six homers, including two grand slams, and 17 RBIs in just
eight games from April 7 to 17. Since then he has taken another
plunge, hitting .200 with one homer and six RBIs in 19 games
At 6'5", Lee, who once hit 34 homers in a minor league season,
possesses a long fluid swing with the kind of torque that
reminds scouts of a young Darryl Strawberry. Not surprisingly,
that swing has also led to 26 strikeouts in 83 at bats this
season. Marlins manager Jim Leyland has played him selectively.
"I like Lee a lot, but he's a rookie," Leyland says. "Everybody
talks about young guys like they're the second coming of Babe
Ruth, and it's not fair to these kids." Grade: C
Travis Lee, Diamondbacks. He was the most hyped of the Fab Five,
mostly because he had received a $10 million deal from expansion
Arizona before he had played a professional game. Last season he
hit .363 at Class A High Desert and then .300 at Triple A Tucson
with a combined 32 homers and 109 RBIs.
This year Lee has displayed a smooth, compact stroke to go with
excellent patience at the plate. He went 3 for 4 on Opening Day,
including the Diamondbacks' first home run. The most consistent
of the five rookies, with eight homers, 19 RBIs and 19 runs
scored, he has yet to make an error, while showing excellent
range on defense. "We took a lot of grief for that $10 million,"
Arizona manager Buck Showalter says, "and it may turn out to be
a bargain." Grade: B+
THROWING A CAREER AWAY
Pitching for Triple A Pawtucket on May 5, Steve Avery faced 19
Ottawa hitters in three innings and got ahead in the count on
one of them. He allowed four runs (three were earned) on four
hits, including a homer. He struck out two, walked six and threw
balls on 10 of his last 13 pitches, including one over the head
of the hitter on his final pitch. Afterward Avery said, "I was
just glad to get out of there before I hurt someone."
What has happened to the lefthander who won 50 games for the
Braves before he turned 24, was the '91 NLCS MVP and was so
headstrong that his temper flared whenever a pitching coach even
dared to visit the mound? "I think I have lost some of that
toughness," Avery says.
There are varying explanations for Avery's demise. Many scouts
trace his troubles to the day he pulled a muscle in his side in
July '96, a nagging injury that caused him to fool with his
mechanics. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz wonders if
Avery hurt his arm and tried to pitch through it. Last week
Avery, who once threw in the low 90s, was being clocked at no
better than 79 to 81 mph. Also, his curveball has lost its bite.
Avery, who hasn't had a winning season since '94, struggled
through '97 in Boston (6-7, 6.42 ERA) and admits now, "I didn't
know where the ball was going."
So it was a shock when Red Sox manager Jimy Williams defied the
wishes of the front office and gave Avery an 18th start with
four days left in the season--a start that allowed Avery to
exercise a $3.9 million contract option for '98. Now the
southpaw privately says that he made a mistake in returning to
Boston, where, until his demotion to Pawtucket on April 30, he
was little more than baseball's highest-paid pinch runner.
Williams was afraid to use Avery in tight games, so he pitched
only 4 2/3 innings and had a 9.64 ERA. "He knows he needs to
pitch," says Williams. "We know he needs to pitch. He was
Says Red Sox G.M. Dan Duquette, "It's like he's on a rehab
assignment, but he's not injured. We'd like him to rehab his
Avery went to the minors hoping to iron out his faulty
mechanics. Boston hoped he would throw well enough to become
tradable. He will make two more starts at Pawtucket, and then
Duquette will have to bring Avery back to the Red Sox bullpen or
release him and eat his mammoth contract. "I'd be lying if I
said this isn't bothering me," Avery says. "But I just turned
28. I'm going to try to figure it all out. I did have some good
years. You are not going to see me give up."
CYS DO MATTER
Last week Pedro Martinez spent a Red Sox off day flying to
Montreal to visit his former Expos teammates, joining 6,616 fans
at Olympic Stadium in watching them lose to the Reds 4-1.
Martinez made it to his front-row seat beside the Montreal
dugout without being noticed, but when he was shown on the
centerfield scoreboard, he received the only standing ovation of
the night. It was Martinez's first trip back since winning the
'97 National League Cy Young Award. "I'm sad that Montreal fans
never got to enjoy their first Cy Young," Martinez says.
For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT JORDAN LEVY EMPTY-HANDED The Expos' Fullmer and other rookie first basemen are swinging and missing. [Brad Fullmer]
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
On May 6 at Veterans Stadium, the Rockies trailed the Phillies
5-1 in the sixth but had the bases loaded against lefthander
Matt Beech, who had allowed five straight batters to reach base.
Switch-hitter Nelson Liriano was announced as pinch hitter for
pitcher Bobby Jones, but manager Don Baylor had the lefthanded
Larry Walker in the tunnel swinging a bat. Phillies manager
Terry Francona could have left Beech in to face Liriano, who was
hitless this season, but instead brought in struggling righty
Jerry Spradlin. Naturally, Baylor pulled Liriano and pinch-hit
Walker, who promptly launched a game-tying grand slam. Why did
Francona give Walker a chance to bat? "Their bench is thin, and
Walker didn't have any hits against Spradlin," Francona says.
"Believe me, we went over it and over it, and I thought that was
our best situation. I knew when I took Beech out that Walker
would hit, and I didn't have a problem with that--until Walker
hit the home run."
When the Blue Jays acquired rookie sensation Jose Cruz Jr. from
the Mariners for middling relievers Paul Spoljaric and Mike
Timlin last July 31, it was considered the steal of the year.
Cruz finished with 26 home runs in 104 big league games in 1997,
but at week's end he had no extra-base hits and just two RBIs
after Opening Day. The word is out: Cruz can't hit breaking
balls. The odd man out in the battle with Shannon Stewart for
the centerfield job, between rightfielder Shawn Green and
leftfielder Jose Canseco, the 24-year-old Cruz has been shopped
to Cincinnati and Montreal.