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April 8, 1998

Prospect Report: NL Central

Possible breakouts and names to watch in 1998

by Keith Law

CHICAGO CUBS

If any Cub prospect has an impact in the majors this year, it'll be Kerry Wood, the wunderkind pitching prospect with the blazing fastball and nonexistent control. Cub fans are already clamoring for his immediate promotion, but that's a bad idea for two reasons: he won't pitch well in the majors, and he needs a big reduction in workload before he pulsiphers.

The Cubs have another pitching prospect, Courtney Duncan, who gets less press but is closer to the majors in readiness than Wood is. Duncan isn't a potential ace, but he throws four plus pitches, controls the strike zone, and could be ready for the majors by the All-Star Break. A Jeremi Gonzalez-type debut isn't out of the question.

Catcher Pat Cline took a big step backwards last year, giving up much of the ground he gained in '96 in power and plate discipline. He didn't even play particularly well behind the plate. Still, the Cubs desperately want him to save them from the scourge of Scott Servais, Tyler Houston, and... (shudder) Sandy Martinez. If Cline regains his stroke at AAA Iowa, he may get a quick call this summer.

The Cubs believe they have a complete outfield this year with Sammy Sosa, Lance Johnson, and Oh! Henry Rodriguez, which leaves little opportunity for their three remaining outfield prospects: Robin Jennings, Terry Joseph, and Pedro Valdes. All three could help a major-league ballclub - including the Cubs - right now, but will not get the chance. The Cubs would apparently prefer to screw around with Terrell Lowery.

CINCINNATI REDS

The Reds don't have any Brett Tomko-type impact prospects in their upper levels, but do have a few intriguing players in Aaron Boone, Curt Lyons, and Damian Jackson, all of whom face roadblocks to major-league playing time. Boone needs a change of organization or the departure of Willie Greene, not to mention the poster child for the Reds' nepotistic habits, Pete Rose Jr. Lyons is coming off of major injuries that derailed a very promising career as a starter; this is his year to prove that he still has something left in the arm. Jackson, who arrived in the Smiley dump last July, has to swat away gadfly Pokey Reese to get playing time, but is the organization's best hope for offense at second base in the next two seasons.

Among prospects who might see time later this year, Jim Crowell and Scott Winchester, also from the Smiley swindle, are both solid pitching prospects who need time at AAA before they'll be ready to help the big club.

Finally, new acquisition Sean Casey should really be the team's starting first baseman right now, and has the capability to help this offense a lot more than Eduardo Perez ever will. Once he recovers from his freak eye injury, and once Jack McKeon wises up - or Jim Bowden issues an order from the executive suite - Casey should see significant time in a Reds' uniform.

HOUSTON ASTROS

The Astros will likely give several starts this year to one or both of their two upper-level pitching prospects, John Halama and Scott Elarton. Elarton is one of the top three or four pitching prospects in baseball, and the only reason he won't step right into the rotation this year is because he hasn't reached AAA yet. The Astros would prefer to take it slowly with their prized prospect and move the less-heralded but more-ready Halama into the rotation. Halama has excellent control, but lacks velocity.

Darryl Ward and Lance Berkman are the top two hitting prospects in the system, and both are first basemen trying to convert to the outfield to avoid the 800-pound gorilla named Jeff Bagwell. Ward is a year closer, and is a monster power-hitter who looks like he'll hit for a decent average and draw a few walks as well. Berkman excelled in his first half-year as a pro, splattering doubles around the league while he learned to hit with the wooden bat. Both should see time in September, if not sooner, and should hasten the long-overdue departure of Derek Bell.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Steve Woodard is pretty much the only part of the farm system you need to know about. The rookie will start the year in the Brewers' pen, and is the first alternate to start when the inevitable injury strikes the Brewers' rotation. Southpaw Valerio Delos Santos should get to show his blazing heater at some point this season, but nagging injuries kept him from mounting a serious push to make the Opening Day roster.

Ron Belliard really got the shaft when the Brewers inexplicably chose to re-sign Fernando Vina to a multi-year contract. Belliard is ready to help the Brewers right now - much more ready than waiver-wire talent Vina ever was - but is pinned behind Vina, Loretta, and perhaps Eric Owens. He won't get his chance here without some major roster-shuffling.

Catcher Bobby Hughes deserves a mention, if only because of Mike Matheny. Unfortunately, a mention is about all he deserves.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

The Pirates boast one of the majors' best farm systems, and much of the talent is less than 18 months away. Abraham Nunez is probably the most likely prospect to see time this year, as the slick-fielding, light-hitting shortstop will start the year at AAA and advance at the first failure in the Collier 'n' Womack tandem. He doesn't walk enough to help this offense, but his defensive abilities are sorely needed.

Ron Wright is one of the minors' top power-hitting prospects, but clearly needed additional time at AAA after a slightly disappointing debut at that level last year. He still looks like he'll hit with 25-30 homer power right away, although his ability to ever contribute an OBA above .350 is in serious question. He'll get the call if Freddy Garcia fails or Kevin Young gets hurt again.

Chad Hermansen, a second baseman at this writing, will give Nashville an interesting double-play duo: a shortstop who can field but not hit and a second baseman who can hit but probably not field. Hermansen's the whole package at the plate, and his power is still developing.

Aramis Ramirez is the top prospect in the system and will join the three previous future stars in the talented Nashville infield. The third baseman turned 20 last season while drawing 87 walks and slugging .517 in the Carolina League. He probably won't see major league action until late this season, but could be the starting third baseman in Pittsburgh next April.

Those four hitters won't lack for pitching support. Former #1 draft pick Kris Benson will start the year in Nashville, despite struggling a bit in his limited time in AA last year. He'll be joined in the rotation by left-hander Jimmy Anderson, who struggled mightily in his first AAA exposure last year, but nearly snagged the 5th starter spot in Pittsburgh this year with a strong spring. The club is clearly looking at these two as members of their 1999 rotation, which could mean that Jon Lieber and Esteban Loaiza will be in different uniforms by next February.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cards' top two remaining pitching prospects, Cliff Politte and Braden Looper, both made the big club this spring due to the wide assortment of injuries that has beset the team this spring. Looper is widely seen as the closer of the future, and started strong by striking out the side in his first appearance on Tuesday. While his stuff is worthy of all the praise and expectations, there are plenty of signs in his record that he's still learning how to pitch.

Cliff Politte is more of a surprise story. Although he was a 54th-round draft pick, he's been a much better prospect than anyone expected, and last season was the organization's Pitcher of the Year. With a four-pitch assortment, he has a great opportunity to hold onto a rotation spot all year, especially with the injuries the Cardinals' rotation has to live with after last year's heavy use.

Eli Marrero looked like he'd get a lot of time this season, but his primary concern right now is his health. We wish him a full and speedy recovery.

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