March 30, 1998
Prospect Report: AL Central
Possible breakouts and names to watch in 1998
Bolstered by last season's trade with the Giants, the Sox can expect contributions from a number of young players. Several rookies will be with the team on Opening Day, and how much the team sticks to those commitments will help determine how well the team does, both now and into the future.
On the offensive end, the gem of the Giant swag, SS Mike Caruso, has been handed the starting job for Opening Day. He'll struggle mightily both in the field and at the plate, which means that the organization will have to show a sense of purpose while riding those struggles out. On the home-grown side, the Sox will count on Magglio Ordonez to start in right field. He's ready to give the team some power and good glove work, and is a genuinely fun player to watch: as a hitter, he's not particularly disciplined, but has Jorge Bell's ability to pound a pitch out of the strike zone. OF Jeff Abbott would be a good regular, but with the team's additions of Ruben Sierra and Wil Cordero, he's probably only trade bait. Infielder Greg Norton is being converted to a utility role, but if the long-rumored Ventura deal ever comes to pass, he could wind up platooning with Chris Snopek at third base. Should either catcher (Chad Kreuter or Charlie O'Brien) go down, curiously popular Roberto Machado will get to flash his no-hit, strong-arm credentials. CF Brian Simmons won't be pushing past Mike Cameron in this lifetime, but we'll probably see him get a cup of coffee at some point this season.
On the mound, the Sox will also be getting help from young players. Neither lefty Scott Eyre or lefty Mike Sirotka are still rookies, but they will both be rotation regulars to start the season. When (not if) one of the Sox starters falter, either Jim Parque or Tom Fordham (both are, yes, left-handed) should get short auditions. Of this whole group, Parque is the one to watch for the long-term. In the bullpen, Todd Rizzo should open the season as the club's second southpaw behind Tony Castillo. There's a small chance that palmballer Nelson Cruz will get work as a long reliever and spot starter, but he also isn't likely to enjoy much success.
If the Indians weren't busy stocking their major league roster with talent to win World Series opportunities already gone, they could turn to an outstanding core of young hitting talent that is ready to contribute. First baseman Sean Casey can play right now, as could 1B Richie Sexson; 3B Russ Branyan is probably a few months off, and his eventual position is still an open question. Given the organization's unfortunate decision to make multiple long-term commitments to some veterans of dubious long-term value, the team is faced with a logjam at the infield corners and DH. One rookie who could be playing regularly by season's end is Enrique Wilson, who may inherit most of the playing time at second once Shawon Dunston's usual injuries (or his problems playing second) lead the team to do the right thing. OF Bruce Aven could help, but he seems to get overlooked. Catcher Einar Diaz may stick around as the third catcher, if only because he's out of options. Don't expect the Indians to get any serious help from minor league pitching this season, unless they get desperate and rush Willie Martinez well ahead of schedule.
The Tigers had the opportunity to build on last season's growth by turning to several talented rookies within the organization, particularly 2B Frank Catalanotto and OF Juan Encarnacion. Both have battled injuries this spring, which haven't helped their cases any more than the decisions to bring in Bip Roberts, Billy Ripken, or Luis Gonzalez. Encarnacion may finally be playing regularly after the All-Star break, while Catalanotto may have to wait for the organization to tire of Joe Randa and Damion Easley. For both, the key will be the anticipated disappointment that this winter's veteran additions won't be able to build on last season's success. Of course, from what we know of Randy Smith's priorities, there's a chance that if things go badly at the major league level, they could look at speedy Ricky Almanzar at second or lead-glover Gabe Alvarez. If the Tigers do end up trading Papo Casanova, Paul Bako could end caddying for Joe Oliver behind the plate.
On the mound, its unlikely that any rookie starters will get more than a cup of coffee: Mike Drumright, Seth Greisinger, Matt Drews could all come up for a couple of starts due to injuries or for September. In the bullpen, three rookie lefties may all see time: Rule V pick Sean Runyan and wild man Roberto Duran will stick, and should both be useful if given regular work, and John Rosengren may get called up at some point. Minor league closers Dean Crow and Eddie Gaillard may be called up at some point, but like the starters, they're injury contingencies for the time being.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
On a team that Herk Robinson could hardly make any worse if he wanted to drive the sale price of the franchise any lower, there are surprisingly few rookies that will play much. Second baseman Jed Hansen has played himself into a part-time role with Jose Offerman. For the time being, Felix Martinez is the shortstop, but he offers little offensively other than a reckless running game for those few times he is on base, and his defensive skills are politely referred to as "rough." There's a good chance they'll get frustrated and look at Mendy Lopez for a couple of weeks. Of greater interest is the experiment of pushing first baseman Larry Sutton to right field, where he'll definitely help the moribund lineup. Keep in mind that this is probably a one-year experiment for him as an outfielder, because there's talk that Jeremy Giambi (and possibly Mark Quinn) will get shots at the majors during this season. First baseman Carlos Mendez impressed some people in camp, but he offers less power than you'd like from the position, and brings nothing else to the table. On the mound, don't expect much from rookie pitchers; it's possible Brian Barber could get some garbage time at some point, but there isn't enough left of his arm to get beyond that.
In an offseason characterized by the team's pursuit of the over-35 set, it will be tough for many rookies to get much playing time. Second baseman Todd Walker isn't a rookie any more, but he should finally get a chance to play regularly at a position he's familiar with. Third baseman Corey Koskie earned a long look this spring, and may be up to platoon with Ron Coomer at some point this season. Catcher Javy Valentin will get to caddy for Terry Steinbach, which may mean as much as 50 starts behind the plate. First baseman David Ortiz should eventually grab most of the playing time at first base, while secondary average machine Doug Mientkiewicz may get use as a pinch-hitter, 1B, and DH at some point during the season. Outfielders Torii Hunter and Chris Latham may get time on the roster if Marty Cordova's plantar fasciitis chews up a significant portion of this season; Hunter is merely a good defensive sub, while Latham isn't a good enough offensive player to be a regular. Minor league veteran utility man Jon Shave mounted a surprising push to make the team, and may stick around as last man on the bench. Brian Buchanan may come up because he was part of the Knoblauch deal, and as much as he's a nice human interest story for his recovery from an ugly ankle injury, he isn't a good enough hitter to man an outfield corner as a regular.
On the mound, lefty Eric Milton has cracked the rotation, giving the Twins an early dividend for the Knoblauch trade. Although there are accusations he's being rushed, he's clearly out-pitched the competition (Frankie Rodriguez, Dan Serafini). Expect him to get cuffed around the second time through the league, but I suspect that he won't get yanked in and out of the majors like LaTroy Hawkins. Right-handed reliever Fred Rath may be called up at some point to pitch as one of Aguilera's setup men.