April 17, 2013
When Good Things Come in Three Years
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Chad Finn is a sports columnist for Boston.com and the sports media columnist for The Boston Globe. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife, two children, and a cat named after Otis Nixon who is older than Mike Trout. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
I’m not sure why I’ve started obsessing over which franchises in relatively recent history have debuted the most high-quality major leaguers in a three-year window. But I’m not short on theories.
Hell, maybe it’s just because I spent the spring trying with exasperating futility to convince prospect-mad Red Sox fans that Jackie Bradley Jr. and Jose Iglesias are not assured of becoming the next Fred Lynn and Rick Burleson, with Xander Bogaerts apparently assuming the Jim Rice role by default.
No matter the reason—or combination of reasons—it was a blast to have a reason to poke around in search of teams that had a three-year prospect jackpot. With the acknowledgment that this is hardly a definitive exercise, here are three that stand out to me…
Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell, baseball’s longest-running double-play combination and two of Hall of Fame voters’ most egregious oversights, made their major-league debut in the same game, the nightcap of a September 9, 1977 doubleheader against the Red Sox. Such a quirk of fate is so appropriate—and certainly more meaningful than when they made their acting debut together…
…that you wish that such symmetry had also been there at the end.
As it was, Whitaker retired at age 38 after a 1995 season in which he put up an .890 OPS. Trammell made the unfortunate decision to stay on a year beyond, his superb career concluding amid the catastrophe of the 53-109 Tigers of ’96.
But forget the end. This is about the beginning, and a fascinating, varied group of young Tigers. The class of ’78 gets the lion’s share of admiration in retrospect, and that’s understandable. Trammell and Whitaker won over ancient manager Ralph Houk early. “Maybe we’ll send them out,’’ Houk told the Boston Globe’s Peter Gammons that June, ‘’but it won’t be for long. They’re can’t miss.’’
They didn’t. Neither did rugged catcher Lance Parrish, who made his big-league debut five days before Whitaker and Trammell and went on to bash 324 homers in 19 seasons, or 254-game winner Jack Morris, whose mythical reputation for pitching to the score shouldn’t shrivel his not-quite-Cooperstown-worthy feats.
There were others who arrived sooner. There was the singular phenomenon of Mark “The Bird’’ Fidrych, who arrived from nowhere—well, technically, Northborough, Massachusetts—to win 19 games and the adulation of millions with his guileless charm in the summer of ’76. He would win just 10 more in the majors, a shoulder injury derailing a feel-good story that simply would not be possible today. It’s hard to believe he has fewer victories as a Tiger than the likes of Jeff Robinson (34) and John Doherty (29), but his legend is eternal...
Fidrych did have lower-profile company in the phenom category. Chosen first overall out of USC in the 1976 January draft, Steve Kemp was the Tigers’ starting left fielder the following April. Injuries, particularly to his shoulders, damaged his talents too soon, but he did hit 26 homers with a .941 OPS in ’79.
He was joined in the lineup by first baseman Jason Thompson, dubbed “Roof Top’’ after hitting two balls completely out of Tiger Stadium. Thompson, who hit 31 homers in ’77, may have been a big-time slugger, but he didn’t dress the part. When Houk’s successor, Sparky Anderson, announced a ban on jeans, Thompson was heard to say, “There goes my wardrobe.’’
Thompson and Kemp moved to the journeyman life, their promise reduced to a flicker because of injuries. Fidrych was a glorious, tragic flash. But Whitaker, Trammell, Parrish and Morris found varying degrees of long-term greatness, something their old manager Houk foresaw in them when they were fledgling big leaguers under his watch.
"The fans and media didn't know what we had coming up," he said in 1978, "but I did. Before these kids proved themselves, I got a lot of guff, more than I expected. To give the young players a chance, I had to put some old favorites on the bench.”
Houk lived until 2010. Long enough to watch so many of the young players he believed in become old favorites themselves.
I wonder how many Reds fans looked at their lineup in September 1987 and thought to themselves, “Of all of our great young players, you know who will be the one sure-thing Hall of Famer? Barry Larkin.’’
Now, it’s not as if Larkin lacked bona fides, though Reds management did vacillate for a time on whether he or strong-armed Kurt Stillwell should be the shortstop of the future. He was a star of the stacked 1984 US Olympic baseball team, and the University of Michigan product was the fourth pick overall (two spots ahead of Barry Bonds) in the talent-rich 1985 draft.
It’s just that other young Reds looked like better bets for superstardom. Twenty-five-year-old Eric Davis was already there, having put up an 8.4 WARP season by hitting 37 home runs, stealing 50 bases (down from 80 in ’86), walking 84 times, and posting a .991 OPS. Sports Illustrated compared him to Willie Mays, and Davis was so electric that such a notion wasn’t immediately dismissed out of hand.
"What we have here in Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Kurt Stillwell, Kal Daniels, Tracy Jones [a platoon outfielder who played for five teams in six seasons] and guys like that is close to awesome," manager Pete Rose told Sports Illustrated for its 1987 preview.
The Reds were apparently so deep in young hitting talent that Rose could overlook 24-year-old Paul O’Neill , who would put up an .819 OPS in 84 games and 178 plate appearances that season as a pre-True Yankee.
But Rose did notice perhaps the most interesting player of all of them, not only because of his immense talent, but because he was… well, he was quirky on his best days and insufferable on his worst. Rose knew a gifted hitter when he saw one, and Kal Daniels most certainly was that. In 118 Triple-A games over parts of two seasons, he slugged .600 with a 1.025 OPS, and major-league pitching never fazed him—in his first month in the big leagues in April 1986, he hit .353 with a 1.052 OPS.
He finished the ‘86 season with a .917 OPS in 207 plate appearances. The next year, his age-23 season, he hit 26 homers and slashed it at a .334/.429/.617 clip. He followed that with a 6.0 WARP in ’88. Daniels was beginning to have issues with his knees that foreshadowed his baseball demise, but it sure seemed then that he was on the verge of being the McCovey to Davis’s hyperbolic Mays.
"If I stay healthy," he told Sports Illustrated’s Steve Wulf before the 1989 season, "I expect big things, which I won't reveal. I'm mysterious."
Three-plus months into the season, the only mystery was why such a productive hitter, just 25, had been traded to the Dodgers for a package including Tim Leary and Mariano Duncan. But maybe it was no mystery to Rose, a manager whom (it was later said) Daniels didn’t respect.
"Kal's kind of a strange player in one respect," said Rose in July 1989. "He always told me that he wanted to be the guy who produced runs, but every time I'd put him third or fourth in the order for an extended period, he'd say he didn't like it.’’
The deal did not haunt the Reds, who won the World Series in 1990 with Davis and Larkin playing significant roles. And Daniels never did fulfill all of that early promise, his damaged knees leading to the end of his major-league career in 1992 at age 28. His career is an afterthought now, relegated to a dusty bin labeled what-if. But man, you don’t have to stare at the statistics long to jog memories of how well Kal Daniels could hit.
In the days of his big-league youth, back when he wore an Eckersley Starter Kit mustache and looked like he belonged riding shotgun alongside Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, Greg Maddux was no sure thing, certainly no more than any other pitching prospect of good pedigree. A second-round pick out of high school in ’84, he breezed through the minors to reach the big leagues at the end of the ’86 season, but his 4.6 K/9 rate in Triple A did not suggest there were four Cy Young awards in his future.
This, from the 1987 Bill James Baseball Abstract:
He was right, of course, about Palmeiro, who put up an .879 OPS in 224 plate appearances in ’87 en route to a tally of 569 homers, 3,020 hits, and a memorable finger-point that doubled as an unfortunate exclamation point on his career. Maddux’s only impact in ’87 came when opposing hitters’ bats connected with his pitches—he went 6-14 with a 5.61 ERA and a 0.5 VORP.
It was ’88 when the promise started to become realized. Maddux struck out just 5.1 batters per 9 – fewer than teammate Moyer (5.4) – but won 18 games with a 3.18 ERA. Grace arrived and hit .296 with a .371 on-base percentage, bumping Palmeiro (.785 OPS) to left field. In the early days of summer, the young Cubs looked like contenders. From the July 11, 1988 Sports Illustrated:
It turned out the collapse was imminent—the Cubs went 34-49 the rest of the way to finish fourth in the National League East. But the fun of their temporary contention in ’88 foreshadowed a summer of good times at Wrigley in ’89 that for once carried into the fall. Oh, and that Maddux fella? Word is he ditched the mustache and turned out rather okay.