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March 9, 1999

AL Central Notebook

Rookies to Know in 1999

by Rany Jazayerli

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

The rebuilding process of a team that should have been more competitive than it was continues, as the departures of Belle and Ventura open up even more jobs. The departure of Mike Cameron leaves the centerfield job open for Brian Simmons, a tools-laden late-blooming hitter with a diverse range of skills, but who is already 25 and is unlikely to ever progress beyond the point of a switch-hitting Chad Curtis: a valuable role player, but overmatched as a starter. The White Sox are giving Carlos Lee serious consideration for the job at third, but he has to prove he can field the position first. He's a good hitter, but not as good as the hype. Last year's power numbers were inflated because of his high number of at-bats, which are in turn so high because he doesn't walk much. He also found a way to hit into 32 double plays last year, a remarkable total in Double-A. With top prospect Joe Crede on his way up, Lee's window of opportunity is a tight one.

The White Sox have too many options at catcher to reasonably sort out in six weeks, but after last season, their best answer was Mark Johnson, who has a terrific defensive reputation and has drawn 211 walks in 237 minor league games the last two years. That's the definition of a patient hitter. However, he's recuperating from a winter bout of mono, and the organization seems ridiculously enthusiastic about Josh Paul. Paul isn't as good behind the plate, and has limited offensive skills, but he's from the Chicago area, and Jerry Manuel loves his attitude. On the merits of talent, Johnson would be the obvious choice. The pitching staff already saw a several rookies debut last year, but one guy to watch out for is Chad Bradford, a submariner right-hander who has been effective wherever he's pitched, including a 31-inning trial in the majors last year.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

The signing of Roberto Alomar, and Omar Vizquel's decision to finally shut up and show up, eliminates any chance of a starting job for Enrique Wilson, who is already the third-best shortstop in the division. On a veteran team that is expected to win the division handily, that's as good as it gets for rookies, but watch third baseman Russ Branyan closely. He's had persistent problems with wrist tendinitis that cost him over half of 1998. He's unlikely to make the team as anything more than a pinch-hitter, but if they open up a starting job for him, or if the Royals can get him for Kevin Appier (I can dream, can't I?), he has the ability to challenge McGwire's record. I mean his rookie record, of 49 homers. I'm not joking; Branyan has that kind of power.

DETROIT TIGERS

Well, they have rookies, but they're showing no signs that they're willing to give them jobs. Juan Encarnacion has been handed a starting job in the outfield, but the Tigers' suicidal insistence on playing Brian Hunter means that Gabe Kapler, who is certainly ready for prime-time, is probably stuck in the minors for at least half the year. The trade for Brad Ausmus is the Tigers' way of ignoring the opportunity to use Rob Fick, who could still be a left-handed Brian Harper in the right situation. The Tigers' best hope for help from young players comes from sophomores Matt Anderson, who is this close to establishing himself as a dominant reliever in the Troy Percival class. Seth Greisinger doesn't have to worry about being promoted to yet another level, and could win 11-14 games with good run support.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The Royals have received a lot of attention for the rookie triumvirate that's likely to be in the lineup, and for good reason. Jeremy Giambi is hardly young - he turns 25 late in the season - but the Royals are already pencilling him in as their #3 hitter, and he could very easily win the Rookie of the Year award if Eric Chavez falters (much like 1994, when Bob Hamelin won the award even though it was obvious that Manny Ramirez was the better long-term player). Carlos Febles is multi-talented second baseman with walks, steals, emerging power, and excellent defense; he is quite capable of challenging for the Rookie award if no one has a standout season. Carlos Beltran is the dark horse in centerfield; he is the least polished of the three, but also the youngest, and any outcome, from returning in shame to the minors by May to a .300 average and 25 homers, is a legitimate possibility.

The prospects for rookies in the rotation hinges on whether or not Kevin Appier will be traded. If he is, look for Jose Rosado, Glen Rusch, and Jeff Suppan to be at the front of the rotation, but almost anyone could drop into the fourth and fifth slots. The Royals are talking up Dan Reichert, who battled back from diabetes to pitch well at Triple-A last year. I'm a huge fan of his, but he simply isn't ready, and it might be damaging to his career to get rushed this much. Brian Barber, who was erratic but interesting in a September call-up, is a likely candidate, but the risk of a 5-17, 6.40 ERA season is not to be trifled with. In the bullpen, fireballer Orber Moreno could be finished with the minor leagues by mid-season and closing games out by September, and is well worth a reserve pick in a rotisserie draft.

MINNESOTA TWINS

Even more than the Royals, the Twins are going all-out with a youth movement, but unlike the Royals, their prospects may not be ready for the task at hand. At shortstop, there's a good chance you're going to see a lot of Cristian Guzman, who's exceptionally young and plays good defense, but has terrible plate discipline which is unlikely to develop if he's force-fed at the major league level this year. In centerfield, Torii Hunter and Jacque Jones will be battling for playing time. Jones is the guy to watch. His physical talents are rapidly being refined into useful baseball skills, and he could hit .280 with 15 homers and cover half the Metrodome outfield by himself. The frequently-overlooked Chris Latham is also in the mix. He's a better hitter than either Hunter or Jones at this point, but he also turns 26 in May. He would make an outstanding fourth outfielder on a team that really isn't looking for one. Doug Mientkiewicz has gotten some press as a possible starter at first base, and he does have some useful baseball skills (good glove, doubles power). He also walks a bunch, which separates him from the Rico Brognas of the world, putting him into the Wally Joyner class. He has little or no superstar potential, but the Twins could do worse.

The Twins really need help with their pitching staff, but they have fewer options from the minors. Benj Sampson could be a good fourth starter, and the Twins still hold out hope that former first-round draft pick Mark Redman can get over the mental anguish of pitching in the old PCL. But unless a lot of "ifs" become reality, Twins fans better hold on to their back issues of Baseball America, and hope they read a lot of good press about Matt LeCroy, who could be the division's best catcher by 2000, and Michael Cuddyer, who could easily develop into Scott Rolen Lite.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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