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March 9, 1999

NL Central Notebook

Rookies to Know in 1999

by Christina Kahrl


On a team that might be the oldest team in National League, it shouldn't surprise people to hear that there won't be much space for rookies. However, at least one has been initially guaranteed first crack at a roster spot: OF Robin Jennings. Jennings will be the fifth outfielder, but doubts about his glovework might make him a less-than-ideal bench player on a team with Henry Rodriguez and Glenallen Hill requiring a defensive sub, and with noticeably slower Lance Johnson in center and Sammy Sosa in right. Roosevelt Brown may get a chance to claim that fifth spot, if he continues his hot hitting. Infielder Jason Maxwell is a better option to handle the utility infield job than Manny Alexander, but the Cubs won't give him the opportunity unless Alexander's visa problems really do keep him away from the team.

Because the Cubs' rotation is set for 1999 (Wood, Trachsel, Tapani, Lieber, Mulholland), but Tapani and Trachsel are free agents after the season, the Cubs could take advantage of a good crop of minor league starting pitchers by taking a page out of Earl Weaver's book and letting one of them pitch in middle relief this year. That would let a young pitcher like Kyle Farnsworth or Brian McNichol or Phil Norton cut their teeth in relatively low-pressure situations, while preparing them for a shot at the rotation for 2000, when Tapani and/or Trachsel are expected to depart as free agents. It worked for Jimmy Key and Mike Hampton, and the Cubs are saying they need a second lefty in the pen, so giving McNichol or Norton a chance here would be in the team's long-term interest. Alternatively, the Cubs could take a look at lefty Ray King, coming off of his first real success in a half-season at Double-A. Given the organization's conservative nature, don't be surprised if they just hand the last bullpen role to a journeyman like Andrew Lorraine, and waste the opportunity.


If the Cubs aren't going to use many rookies, the Reds may end up giving even less playing time to rookies. Right-handed relievers Manny Barrios or Keith Glaubermight make the Opening Day roster, but it isn't likely. Catcher Jason LaRue is basically ready for a shot at the majors, but he's blocked by Eddie Taubensee and Brian Johnson. Centerfielder Mike Frank may get another crack at some playing time if Mike Cameron doesn't bounce back, because almost none of the other trees in the Reds' forest of outfielders look good planted in center. Oft-injured shortstop Brandon Larson could come up in a hurry if he's healthy for consecutive months, but as long as Barry Larkin's around, the Reds will have to consider moving him to second or third.


While other, less competitive organizations in the division will be trotting out old lineups and few talented young players, the Astros have the good fortune to defend their division title with their Bagwell-Biggio core while working in several other good young players into the lineup. In the wake of the Ausmus trade, catcher Mitch Meluskey will be given every opportunity to win the starting job. After putting up the best EqA in the minors in 1998, if there's any player ready to hit major league pitching, it's Meluskey. Although losing Moises Alou hurts, the Astros can compensate by taking long looks at either LF/1B Daryle Ward or LF Lance Berkman. Although they're currently saying they'll play Carl Everett in center and Richard Hidalgo in left, Ward has nothing left to prove in Triple-A, and Berkman is the organization's left fielder of the future. Berkman is a switch-hitter with outstanding power, while Ward would be getting considerably more hype if he was in any other organization. Meluskey, Berkman, and Ward all offer the Astros the opportunity to shake their past problems with having a right-handed heavy lineup.

As for pitching, the Astros won't have too many spots for rookie pitchers. Lefty Derek Root may get brought in to get some spot duty as a lefty specialist. Although the Astros' rotation is already set, right-hander Wade Miller could open some eyes if he's fully recovered for being overused in 1997, and Brian Sikorski could see some time in September if nobody gets hurt. The front office has been intrigued by righty reliever Jose Cabrera, but if he makes it, it'll only go to show that you can always find relievers if you want to.


Because the Brewers are goofing off with Jim Abbott and Bill Pulsipher, they have less roster space for their one organizational strength, left-handed pitching. In the bullpen, hard-throwing Valerio de los Santos and curve-ball fiend Greg Mullins are both ready to go, although only one of them (likely de los Santos) will get brought north from camp. In the rotation, lefties Rafael Roque, Horacio Estrada, and Brian Passini may all get opportunities in the majors during the season. Roque may win the fifth spot in camp, but with Phil Garner counting on a steadily declining Scott Karl, the oft-injured Cal Eldred, and Abbott and Pulsipher, the Brewers may have to replace all four by June, which will create opportunities for these lefties and Stanford right-hander Kyle Peterson.

As for position players, three rookies may see significant playing time during the season. Second baseman Ronnie Belliard is ready to go, and should be a force afield and at the plate. He's still waiting for any of the trade rumors surrounding Fernando Vina to come true. Scott Krause is ready to pound major league pitching, but his chances are dependent on the Brewers waking up from their honeymoon with Geoff Jenkins, let alone worrying about whether they'll waste a roster spot on Alex Ochoa. First baseman Kevin Barker will get a long look in camp, and may work his way into a platoon with Sean Berry during the season. Since the Brewers are starving for power, adding Barker and Krause could help considerably.


The Pirates are in the strange position of having a great group of sophomores who will have to cool their heels one of the worst collections of free agents ever purchased in a single winter make a mediocre team worse. In that situation, there won't be many opportunities for rookies. In the wake of trading Tony Womack, second baseman Warren Morris will have a solid opportunity to win the starting second base job from utility geezer Mike Benjamin. Given a shot at everyday playing time, Morris might even have a tiny chance at the Rookie of the Year. Outfielder Chad Hermansen is going to be a better player than any of their current threesome of Brant Brown, Brian Giles, or Jose Guillen, but he may not get the opportunity to prove it this season. On the pitching side of the ledger, you'll hear about and keep hearing about Kris Benson and lefty Jimmy Anderson. There's an element of organizational stubbornness here. Benson will probably get first crack at a rotation spot once either of the perpetually fragile Pete Schourek or Jose Silva break down, but he'll struggle. Jimmy Anderson has been converted to relief, but he's still struggled. Lefty Scott Sauerbeck was snagged from the Mets, and will be given every opportunity to hold down a job in middle relief.


You've probably heard about some guy named J.D. Drew. He's the hands-down favorite to win the Rookie of the Year, and he should be a excellent player from here on out. Smacking thirty homeruns, posting an EqA well over .300, and providing top-shelf defense all seem within reach. Middle infielders Adam Kennedy and Brent Butler may each got shots at the second base job, should the Cardinals recognize that Carlos Baerga won't give them an adequate level of play on offense or defense. If Fernando Tatis struggles as badly with the Cardinals as he did during the first four months of 1998, there might be an opportunity for lefty slugger Chris Haas to work his way into a platoon at third during the season. Sinker specialist Jose Jimenez will get every opportunity to win a spot in the rotation, and could run off a dozen good starts before running into what should be a very interesting adjustment period. Although there's no such thing as a pitching prospect, only survivors, Rick Ankiel is on the fast track, and may make the majors sometime between the All-Star break and the end of August. The dilemma that creates is whether or not Tony LaRussa has learned anything from his abuses of Alan Benes and Matt Morris. If he hasn't learned how to balance long-term priorities in keeping his young starters healthy against trying to win an individual game, Ankiel will end up getting injured and seeing his potential wasted, just as Benes has and Morris might.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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