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By James Bailey

If you have a question, send it to askba@baseballamerica.com. Please include your name and hometown if you'd like your letter to be considered for use in an upcoming column.

November 30, 2000

I have to start out today with a correction on something in Tuesday's column. I was a little confused on Papy Ndungidi's status for the Rule 5 draft. It turns out that he's off limits because the Orioles placed him on the disqualified list. I thought that seemed a little too convenient for them, to be able to protect him from the draft while at the same time gaining an extra roster spot. But that's the case. Any player on the disqualified list doesn’t count against the roster limit and can’t be obtained by any other team.

Another Tuesday topic was the Phillies and their desire to give away their 2001 draft picks. They've done it again, this time signing lefthanded reliever Rheal Cormier. Because the Phillies draft fourth overall, they’ll hold their first-round pick. But they have now kissed off their second (to the Red Sox for Cormier) and their third (to the Mariners for Jose Mesa). Those are subject to change if they sign more compensation free agents. For example, if they signed a Type A free agent that required compensation, their second-rounder would then go to that team, with the Red Sox getting their third-rounder, etc.

That's all for old business, now on to new stuff. And just a reminder, if you want your question to run here, please include your full name and hometown. Thanks.

    After the publication of BA's Top 10 Prospects for each team, do you ever get calls from GM's or team personnel wondering how you omitted someone? Case in point, Kenny Kelly of the Devil Rays. One would think with the big investment the Rays made in him that he would have at least been in the top 15! What is the line on him? Also, what is your feeling on Cedrick Bowers, the 23-year-old lefty who has struck out more than one batter per inning for his career and had a sub-3.00 ERA in Double-A this year? I was surprised the Rays dropped him and even more amazed he cleared waivers. I thought young lefties with stats like his were hard to find.

    Terry Graham
    Brandon, Fla.

When we compile the lists we first talk to people within the organization, like the farm and scouting directors, to get input on how they themselves value their prospects. There still could be differences between how they see it and how we rank the players, but in most cases they won't be so substantial.

For example, on the Devil Rays list, there are four outfielders in the top 15, but no Kelly. I'd guess the Rays would certainly rank Josh Hamilton (No. 1), Carl Crawford (No. 3) and Rocco Baldelli (No. 9) ahead of Kelly at this point, and perhaps Jason Tyner (No. 14) as well. Tyner's not a high-ceiling guy, but he already has played in the big leagues and could see regular time for Tampa Bay next year.

The biggest step Kelly took this season was deciding to focus on baseball only. But he still has a lot of progress to make. He hasn’t hit for much average and has shown even less power. The Rays pulled him out of the Arizona Fall League early on when he got off to a rough start, striking out 11 times in his 33 at-bats there. He still has a lot of athletic talent, but with his speed he really needs to learn how to get on base more consistently if he's going to take advantage of it.

Bowers had a nice season in Orlando, and I'm a little surprised to see him removed from the 40-man roster. But the Devil Rays are a deep organization and they had several young players who needed to be added this year, such as Jason Standridge, Jesus Colome, Matt White and Bobby Seay. It's obvious the team values them more than Bowers and that's reflected in their inclusion on the list and his exclusion.

Bowers seems like a likely candidate to find a new home before next season. I don't guess he'll go in the Rule 5 draft, because every team just had a shot at him when he was removed from Tampa Bay's 40-man roster. But there are other organizations that aren't quite as deep in young pitching as the Devil Rays are and he could move in a minor deal.

    A Chicago paper (the Tribune, I think) put out a news item that Hee Seop Choi was rated among the top three prospects in this year's Arizona Fall League. Is there something like a Top 10 Prospects list from the Fall League, and if so who's on it this year?

    Mark L. Peel
    Arlington Heights, Ill.

Though we have compiled Top 10 lists for the AFL in the past, we didn’t do so this year. The league, however, issued an all-prospect team, where managers and coaches were asked to name their top two players at each position. Choi, Yankees outfielder Donzell McDonald and Cardinals third baseman Albert Pujols were the only three players named by every manager and coach. Six managers and 11 coaches participated in the poll.

It's not really fair to say that those three would be regarded as the top three prospects in the league, because there may have been other positions where there was more competition for the votes. But it's obvious the coaches were impressed by those three.

Here is the AFL all-prospect team that was released by the league (please do not e-mail us and ask us why some players were included or left off, because it's not our team):

C—Brandon Inge, Scottsdale (Tigers); Toby Hall, Mesa (Devil Rays). 1B—Hee Seop Choi, Mesa (Cubs); Jason Hart, Phoenix (Athletics). 2B—Marcus Giles, Mesa (Braves); Erick Almonte, Maryvale (Yankees). 3B—Albert Pujols, Scottsdale (Cardinals); Ivanon Coffie, Mesa (Orioles). SS—Jimmy Rollins, Maryvale (Phillies); Zach Sorensen, Phoenix (Indians). LF—Kevin Mench, Grand Canyon (Rangers); Larry Barnes, Phoenix (Angels). CF—Donzell McDonald, Maryvale (Yankees); Tike Redman, Peoria (Pirates). RF—Brady Clark, Grand Canyon (Reds); Dee Brown, Grand Canyon (Royals). UT—Rico Washington, Peoria (Pirates); Chris Woodward, Scottsdale (Blue Jays). RHSP—Joaquin Benoit, Grand Canyon (Rangers); Troy Mattes, Maryvale (Expos). LHSP—Jeff Andra, Grand Canyon (Giants); Mike Maroth, Scottsdale (Tigers). RHRP—Elvin Nina, Phoenix (Angels); Bob File, Scottsdale (Blue Jays). LHRP—Matt Miller, Scottsdale (Tigers); Ken Vining, Phoenix (White Sox).

Speaking of Matt Miller, he's raised the interest of at least one fan out there . . .

    Tigers prospect Matt Miller had a great Arizona Fall League showing. I'm not very familiar with him. What can you tell me about this prospect whom until now has flown below my radar?

    John M. Barten
    Indianapolis

Miller has been a starter throughout his career, until this fall in Arizona. This past season at Double-A Jacksonville, he went 8-5 with a 3.18 ERA in 20 starts. In 122 innings, he allowed 126 hits and 32 walks and struck out 99.

The 26-year-old lefthander was taken by the Tigers in the second round of the 1996 draft out of Texas Tech, and soon after he signed he ran into injury trouble. He lost the entire 1997 season to an elbow problem, but has worked his way back since then.

Miller doesn't throw hard, but he made a lot of progress this year with his breaking ball, a late-breaking slurve. He needs to improve his changeup if he's to be an effective starter in the big leagues. The Tigers are planning on keeping him in the rotation at Triple-A Toledo next season, but it's likely he'll break into the big leagues as a reliever.

    I was just wondering what you guys thought about Orioles outfielder Mamon Tucker? He was not on the Orioles Top 10 list. Before I thought he was a big prospect. Can you tell me what has happened to him?

    Jered Jaacks
    Correctionville, Iowa

Tucker hasn't been regarded as a top prospect since signing, though the Orioles spent a supplemental first-round pick and $650,000 on him in 1998. He was limited to 42 at-bats in his first summer in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League by nagging injuries, but never has gotten on track even when healthy.

The scouting report in our 1998 Draft Preview said that Tucker was regarded as a potential offensive force and the ball jumped off his bat. Well, he finally nailed his first professional home run this season, but he sports a .238 career average with 32 extra-base hits in 686 at-bats.

He's only 21 and I don't like to write off anyone who's still wearing a uniform, as they say, but Tucker needs to start producing soon if he has any hope of reaching the big leagues.

November 28, 2000

I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving break last week. I was able to get away for a bit and had a good time with my family. While I was gone there were plenty of questions sent in, and we've got some good ones today. We'll start off with some free-agency questions and then follow up with some 40-man roster questions.

    Did the Cubs lose a draft pick in signing Julian Tavarez? Also, will the Cubs receive any picks if they lose Mark Grace and Rick Aguilera (i.e., did they offer arbitration)? This draft could be the biggest for the developing Cubs farm system and I hope they have as many draft picks as possible, including two more first-rounders for Grace and Aguilera.

    Bill Springer
    Oxford, England

The signing of Tavarez won’tt cost the Cubs a pick, though it will net the Rockies a supplemental pick after the second round. Tavarez is a Type C free agent. Teams only forfeit picks for the signing of a Type A or B free agent. You can review the explanation on our Free Agent Classification page.

Next Thursday, Dec. 7, is a big day for free agents. That's the deadline by which teams must offer their free agents arbitration. You won't see many signings of Type A or B players until then, because if a team does sign one early the player's old team will receive compensation just as if they had offered the arbitration. We saw this happen last year when the Athletics jumped on lefthander Mike Magnante, a Type B free agent, signing him on Nov. 18. That move cost the A's their first-round pick this past June. It was later acknowledged as a front-office blunder. You can bet Oakland won't repeat it any time soon.

There could be free agents signed prior to Dec. 7, though. In a case where the player's former team would obviously offer arbitration it doesn't really matter if the deadline has actually arrived or not. You know the Mariners will offer Alex Rodriguez arbitration. Whoever signs him will lose a draft pick. That's not going to depend on when he's signed.

But Grace and Aguilera, who are both Type A free agents, are different stories. The Cubs would be gambling to offer arbitration, because those two would stand to walk away with a sizable salary after an arbitration hearing. Therefore, they just might accept the arbitration and the Cubs would be stuck with them, when it appears that the team is really ready to let them move on. I would be quite surprised to see either of them sign before next Thursday.

    The Phillies signed Jose Mesa as a free agent after Seattle bought out its 2001 option. This would seem to make him no longer the property of Seattle, yet I read that the Phillies will owe a second-round draft choice as compensation, because Seattle is still within the time period when they can offer arbitration. How does this rule work?

    Ron Skinner
    Allentown, Pa.

This move screams out BLUNDER to me for the reasons I explained in response to the first question. Mesa, a Type B free agent, cost the Phillies their second-rounder as well as $6.8 million over the next two years. But the worst part of the deal for the Phillies is that they have to let Mesa pitch for them. The guy just isn’t a good major league pitcher. In fact, he's quite a bad major league pitcher. And Larry Bowa should know that first-hand, having had to watch from the Mariners dugout this past season as Mesa posted a lofty 5.36 ERA. This move will come back to haunt the Phillies in several different ways, not least of which will be the gopher balls and blown saves.

    First, let me say that your FAQ section is very good. I was looking up waiver rules because I was confused why the Marlins would put Josh Beckett on their 40-man roster. After reading the FAQ I am still confused. If the Marlins can’t lose Beckett in the Rule 5 draft, why would they waste a spot on him?

    This is not to say that only the Marlins are doing it. So are the Braves with Wilson Betemit, Reds with David Espinosa, Rockies with Juan Uribe, Yankees with Wily Mo Pena, and the list goes on.

    Keith Howard
    Melbourne Beach, Fla.

Beckett, Espinosa and Pena were all signed to major league deals when they first came to terms, requiring their club to put them on the 40-man roster from the get-go. I touched on this about a year ago and still am baffled by why a team would start the options clock ticking on a player without any experience. It's a short-sighted move that is almost guaranteed to backfire in the long run.

Betemit and Uribe were added to the 40-man rosters because it has been four years now since they originally signed. Players who sign before turning 19 (as of the June 5 immediately preceding the player's signing) are subject to being selected in the Rule 5 draft after four years, while players who sign after turning 19 are subject after three years. Betemit actually signed when he was 14 (illegally) and Uribe was 17, so they both needed to be added to their clubs' 40-man rosters this year or they could have been drafted.

    Is there any word on why the Orioles did not include Papy Ndungidi on their 40-man roster?

    David Ward
    Mansfield, Mass.

We are trying to sort that out. As you may have heard, Ndungidi left the Arizona Fall League early after behaving in a bizarre manner, allegedly taking infield in his street clothes, talking to his locker and yelling at his teammates. The Orioles placed him on the disqualified list at a time when many thought they'd be placing him on the 40-man roster. Perhaps the odd behavior is the reason for it. If so, I think that's a mistake on their part.

I met Ndungidi in the spring of '99 at Orioles minor league camp and he was a very likable kid. I've never heard anything prior to this recent outburst that would lead one to believe he was a troublemaker. Perhaps there were other incidents that never were made public, but if this is a totally new thing I'd suspect there were some type of medical condition involved or something. I'm sure more details will come to light on it soon, and it's unwise to speculate on it all until then.

Some team looking to add a talented player on the cheap probably will take a shot at Ndungidi. If the Blue Jays can stash Dewayne Wise for a season, surely someone can find room for Papy.

This does all take us back to the philosophical question of whether the Rule 5 draft is a good or bad thing, though. I'm increasingly of the opinion that it could be about the worst thing to happen to a guy in Ndungidi's position, or Wise's for that matter. These guys need to play and they're not going to get many swings in the big leagues when they haven't mastered Double-A or even Class A yet.

I wonder sometimes when I look through the annals of Rule 5 history if one of the reasons the rate of return is so low is that the disruption caused by a year of bench time is so strong that it completely throws a player's career off track. When you consider that most of the attractive Rule 5 targets are tools players who are coming from Class A, it's apparent that they all need at-bats or innings more than anything. The success rate for tools players who have limited baseball skills when they sign is low to begin with. The Charles Petersons and Al Shirleys of the world are tantalizing, but frequently even after years in the minor leagues they just can't be molded into baseball players. Now throw in a season where a player gets about 100 at-bats in blowout games and the odds get a little longer.

If Major League Baseball were to revise the rules for the Rule 5 draft, allowing the players to be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers, I think the supposed goal of cheaply redistributing talent would be better met. As the draft stands now, I think it's lived beyond its useful life, and the potential reward of plucking a George Bell or Kelly Gruber is outweighed by the reality that most players selected either don't stick with their new team or never become major league regulars. The possibility that some young players might otherwise develop into major league regulars if not for the disruption should be enough to make someone at MLB think about either changing or discontinuing the Rule 5 draft.

    I had a question about the decisions some teams made with their 40-man rosters. I was looking at the big batch of free-agent draftees from 1996 (Matt White, Bobby Seay, Travis Lee, and John Patterson). I noticed that the Devil Rays didn’t protect White and Seay, but the Diamondbacks protected Patterson and the Phillies obviously protected Lee. Can you provide any insight into this thinking?

    Matt Rhodes
    Alexandria, Va.

Seay and White actually were protected. Unfortunately, the roster changes that were made by the Devil Rays last Monday, the deadline for submitting the 40-mans, were not reflected on the rosters posted on our site last week. The Tampa Bay roster has since been corrected.

November 16, 2000

We talked about the Pirates last week and their habit of throwing money at players who didn't necessarily warrant it. They've done this so frequently that it looked like they might not have anything left to give to Jason Kendall, their best player. But today the reports are that Kendall and the Pirates are close on a six-year, $60 million deal. That's a lot of dough, but well within the boundaries of today's economic insanity that we call baseball. It's nice to see a team like the Pirates be able to hold onto its top players, so I hope this one really does work out.

Now let's turn our attention to another small-market club from the National League Central, the Brewers.

    I noticed that the Brewers won the Organization of the Year award for three straight years (1985-87). I don't recall that they were especially good at the major league level in that period and it doesn't look like their farm system was all that stocked since they didn't get very good in the early '90s either. Would you revisit the thinking that led to those decisions and where it all went wrong?

    Mike Koblish
    Yardley, Pa.

It's hard to remember, but once upon a time the Brewers had quite a bit of talent flowing through the system. In 1986 their organizational Top 10 Prospects list, which reflected what players accomplished in 1985, included lefthander Juan Nieves (1), catcher B.J. Surhoff (2), outfielder Glenn Braggs (3), righthander Bill Wegman (5), lefthander Dan Plesac (6), third baseman Dale Sveum (8) and righthander Chris Bosio (9). In 1987 their list featured shortstop Gary Sheffield (1), Surhoff (2), Bosio (3) and outfielder Darryl Hamilton (9). And in 1988, they looked even deeper, with Sheffield (1), righthander Jaime Navarro (3), Hamilton (4), outfielder Greg Vaughn (5), righthander Randy Veres (6), shortstop Bill Spiers (7) and catcher Dave Nilsson (10).

Most of those guys are still playing in the big leagues, though they're all long gone from Milwaukee. One guy who didn't really hit it big was righthander Ramser Correa, who some thought would be the best of all. In 1987 when the Brewers won their third straight Organization of the Year award, he was 16 and regarded as a plum.

All of that talent added up to a lot of winning in the minor leagues. In 1987, the Brewers' five farm clubs combined for a .591 winning percentage, which was far and away the best in the game. All five of their farm teams made it to the playoffs, with Triple-A Denver and Rookie-level Helena falling in their respective championship series.

Obviously it didn't all work out for the Brewers, so it's funny to look back at things now and wonder what the heck people were thinking back then. But it gets funnier. Here's how the first two paragraphs of the story read when the Brewers were honored in '87:

"Last year, when the Milwaukee Brewers won their second consecutive Organization of the Year award, Baseball America advised Brewers fans to avoid a premature case of 1988 World Series fever.

Now, as the Brewers take home an unprecedented third Organization of the Year trophy, let's put it this way: People in that part of Wisconsin should plan no October fishing trips. And cancel those Packer season tickets!"

The Brewers did make a nice run at it in 1988, finishing 87-75 and two games behind the first-place Red Sox in the Eastern Division. That was the year five teams finished within 3 1/2 games in the East, so Milwaukee didn't really stand out of the crowd at all. Brewers fans never got their World Series.

The Brewers organization during their run was built up by Ray Poitevint and a young Dan Duquette in the scouting department and Bruce Manno was the farm director. Duquette moved on to the Expos at the end of the '87 season, and has, of course, moved on to Boston since then. Poitevint is now his director of international scouting. The magic seems to have worn off a little for them. Manno stuck around in Milwaukee until the strike in 1994, when teams began cutting jobs to save money. He moved back into a front-office position in 1999 when the Orioles hired him as assistant general manager.

It was an odd time for repeats for BA award winners, at least as viewed from the current day. In 1987, Gregg Jefferies repeated as Minor League Player of the Year. If you want to compare one player to an entire organization, he's a good one. Both appeared to have such bright futures and both seemed to live up to the hype for a little bit. But it didn't really work out for either of them.

By the way, if you are interested in the Top 10 lists for any team, you can now find them in our Top 10 Archive. This was a project that was started over the summer by our interns Matt Potter and Will Kimmey, and I finally had time to finish it last week. All of the Top 10 lists from 1983-2000 are there, so take a look through at some of the names from days gone by.

    Why does Xavier Nady only have four at-bats in the Arizona Fall League?

    Andrew Bodammer
    Washington, D.C.

Nady was sent home from the AFL when he began experiencing soreness in his right elbow. It was a precautionary measure and isn't expected to be a long-term problem.

    I could have sworn I read on here that the Twins had signed Indian farmhand Willie Martinez, but now that I'm looking for it, I can't find it. Did I make this up or is he still with the Indians?

    Andrew Grant
    New Jersey

Martinez was claimed on waivers by the Twins on October 24. The righthander seemed to fall out of favor with the Indians recently, but it's much too early to write him off. He's been on the radar so long it's hard to remember that he's only 22 years old.

Martinez showed a live arm from the start, finding his way onto the Appalachian League Top 10 Prospects list in 1995 despite his 0-7 record and 9.45 ERA. He rose through the Indians system steadily until 1999, when he repeated Double-A. This year he went 8-5, 4.45 at Triple-A Buffalo and was conspicuous by his absence from Cleveland. The Indians were absolutely desperate for pitching when their rotation was ravaged by injuries, but Martinez got in only one game in the big leagues all season.

Still, at his age there's no reason to feel like he should have already been there. His shine isn't as bright as it was a couple of years ago, but if the Twins are patient with him, they may be rewarded.

November 14, 2000

I got to thinking yesterday when Pedro Martinez cruised to his second straight unanimous Cy Young Award about how awesome a feat that is. I wondered how many players had done that before. Turns out, he's the third. Sandy Koufax did it in 1965-66, back when there was only one award for both leagues. Greg Maddux did it in 1994-95. And now Pedro.

I'm curious to see how much support he gets in the MVP race this year. After all, last year when he was the unanimous choice as top pitcher, he nearly won the MVP as well. This year there are some other worthy candidates for the AL MVP, like Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Delgado. That could hurt Pedro's chances, but it also might split the "position players only" vote and boost him up. All of those guys had excellent years, but their numbers are all basically in line with what the top hitters in the game are doing these days.

Pedro, on the other hand, posted numbers so much better than what any other pitcher did that he doesn't really have a peer right now. In 217 innings he allowed just 128 hits and 32 walks and struck out 284 batters. In this era of overinflated offense, he posted the lowest ERA in the American League since 1978, when Ron Guidry won the title with an identical 1.74 ERA. The league ERA that year was 3.76. This year it was 4.91. That's almost, but not quite, three times as high as his.

If I were voting, he'd be at the top of my MVP ballot, because he's simply the best player in the game right now. Don't send me your e-mails about how pitchers can't be as valuable as everyday players, because that's a completely bogus argument. A pitcher faces every hitter in the lineup in the games in which he plays. A hitter takes just one-ninth of his team's trips to the plate. Martinez faced 817 batters this year. There isn't a player in either league who had that many plate appearances.

I guess we'll find out tomorrow where he falls in the MVP race, but if the writers are really thinking, he should win it. Of course, that's a gigantic "if" in some cases (remember last year's controversy/travesty), so he probably won't.

    Among the 19 players invited down for the IBAF tournament was an outfielder named Alex Cole who played for Bridgeport in the Atlantic League. Is this the same Alex Cole who set Cleveland on fire a few years ago with a half season of great play, including some of the most incredible baserunning I've ever seen (think Esix Snead with excellent on-base skills). I remember the Indians talking about building the team around him, pushing the fences back, and fighting back to respectability by playing "Cole-ball."

    Of course, Cole crashed and burned the next season, while Albert Belle and Carlos Baerga and Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez gradually started showing up. The Indians went on to be quite successful, although playing "Cole-ball" certainly wasn't a reason why.

    Whatever happened to Alex Cole? How did his career turn out? Is this indeed the same guy?

    Silas Byrne
    New York

That's the same Alex Cole, who looked like a great leadoff option in Cleveland in 1990-91. He has certainly made the rounds since the Indians traded him to the Pirates in 1992.

Cole spent four months as a Pirate, then was drafted by the Rockies in the expansion draft. After the '93 season he signed as a free agent with the Twins. He spent two seasons in Minnesota, then moved on to the Red Sox organization for the '96 season.

He next signed with Oakland, but was released at the end of spring training in 1997. He latched on with the Marlins for two months, hitting .210 at Triple-A Charlotte in his last stop in affiliated baseball. He finished the '97 season at Madison in the Northern League.

In 1998, it was on to Mexico, where he played for both Chetumal and Monterrey. He joined Bridgeport in 1999 and has spent the past two seasons in the Atlantic League.

    Last week you talked about Alex Ramirez getting traded to Japan. That's quite a bit different than getting traded to Minnesota or Tampa. Do players have any say in getting traded to a Japanese (or Mexican) team? Can a player refuse to go without messing up his career here, a la Curt Flood? Or are these trades usually made with prior approval of the player?

    Rick Diamant
    Columbia, Mo.

These trades aren't like sending someone to Siberia. They have a choice in whether they go. It's a good move for many players because they can make good money in Japan, often substantially more than they'd make in the United States.

It's a big cultural adjustment to play in Japan, and some players leave after just a short time because they can't adapt. But some enjoy it quite a bit and do very well there.

    Do you think the Cromer twins, Nathan and Jason, will be playing on the same team in Charleston, S.C., next year? I know Nathan played in Hudson Valley this year and Jason played in Princeton. Nathan wasn't having the best of seasons but Jason was fairly successful. Do you think that will make a difference on where they will go?

    Also is Josh Hamilton going to be back to 100 percent after his knee problem? He is a really good guy. If you ever get the chance to meet him, you will never forget it. He will always talk to his fans. Where will he be playing next year? Do you think he will be in the majors in the next few years? And if so will it be for Tampa Bay?

    Susan Maninga
    Princeton, W.Va.

I have a feeling the Cromers will be reunited at Class A Charleston next season. This was the first year they'd ever played apart, but they both should be ready for a full-season league next April and that would logically put them at Charleston.

I talked to Jason Cromer about their situation this summer and he said after all that time together it was actually kind of nice to get a break from each other. I guess that happens a lot with identical twins, that they do everything together from the moment their born. These guys are both 6-foot-4 lefthanders, both were recruited by Wichita State and both signed $140,000 deals when they were drafted by the Devil Rays in 1999 (Nathan in the 10th round, Jason in the 11th).

Nathan moved to short-season Hudson Valley this year, where he went 2-7 with a 5.97 ERA in 60 innings. Jason repeated at Princeton, going 3-4 with a 3.95 ERA in 71 innings and showed improved control, walking just 15 hitters and striking out 50.

As for Hamilton, there's no reason to think there will be long-term damage from his knee injury. He should be back to full strength by the time spring training starts. The Devil Rays have moved him cautiously so far, but I'll be shocked if he doesn't jump to Double-A to start the season. His family is in the Southeast, and that's got to weigh on the minds of the Devil Rays now that their high Class A team is in the California League. I think he'll spend most of the season at Orlando in the Southern League. I'd expect him to reach Tampa Bay sometime in 2002.

Hamilton really is as nice as everyone says. He's amazingly humble despite his immense talent. If karma factors into the equation, he'll have a long and productive major league career for sure.

    What is the professional projection on two-way player, Chris Smith, who transferred from Florida State to NAIA powerhouse Cumberland University in Tennessee? Is he seen as a hitter or pitcher after college? Will you be listing NAIA and Division II players in your upcoming list of 2001 top college players if they project as well as the Division I players?

    Dick Robinson
    Lexington, Ky.

This falls in the domain of college-expert John Manuel, so I threw it his way. Here's what he said:

Chris Smith will probably be a first-team preseason All-American, perhaps slotted into the two-way spot or as an outfielder. We had Lance Niekro on the team last year. All college players are eligible for the team, but it just happens that most of the best college prospects come from Division I.

Smith will be on there. I think his speed and bat makes him a nice outfield prospect, but he is lefthanded and throws in the low 90s, which is why he transferred--so he can pitch somewhere. I think he made a mistake in forcing his transfer, because he probably would have pitched at Florida State this spring, but now he will pitch every weekend against much weaker competition. If he throws well, he could be drafted as a pitcher again, as he was out of high school (Pirates, 11th round, 1998).

November 9, 2000

One of the big stories to emerge from the general managers' meetings in Florida this week has been the bidding process for Ichiro Suzuki. We talked about that here on Tuesday, but Alan Schwarz actually had a clarification of how the process works in his report from Amelia Island yesterday. So check that out if you're interested in the bidding for Ichiro.

The bids are all in now, and the high bid came in from the Mariners at $13.125 million. That's a staggering sum for the right only to negotiate with a player. On top of that the Mariners still have to sign Ichiro. That bid money goes to the Orix BlueWave, not Ichiro.

I think Ichiro could be an interesting and valuable player, but if the reports are correct and the Mariners really threw $13.125 million on the table just to bid, they probably are not going to be getting good value, unless they can convince him to sign for $1 million a year for a number of years. And, of course, he'll cost significantly more than that.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, and then how he plays when he arrives next spring.

    Could you explain what "super-two" arbitration eligible players are and how they are different from other arbitration players?

    Matthew Bailey
    Newark, Ohio

Normally, any player with three or more years of service time is eligible for arbitration. However, some players with slightly less than three years of service time also qualify. These players are known as the "super-two" players.

These players must have accumulated at least 86 days of service time in the 2000 season, and be among the top 17 percent in total service of all players between two and three years of service time. The super-two distinction doesn’t take ability or production into account.

There’s no similar class of "super-five" players for free agency, however. For a player to qualify as a free agent, he must have at least six years of service time.

    This is the first time I have ever followed players through the fall leagues. I understand that the Arizona Fall League seems to be held with the highest regard as far as which players are sent there. But where do the other fall leagues such as the Mexican Pacific League, the Venezuelan League, etc., stand in the eyes of scouts and other baseball people?

    Particularly, I have noticed the amazing statistics that Ruben Quevedo is putting up in Venezuela (2-0, 18.1 IP, 0 ER, 3 BB, 26 SO). What stock should a fan put in such numbers? Does this show that Quevedo should be in the major leagues come next season, or that he should be in a tougher league this fall?

    Brian Pint
    Ames, Iowa

The Arizona Fall League has become a premium training ground for top prospects, but that doesn't mean it's the home of the toughest competition in the fall and winter. In fact, I'd read it as the opposite. Teams aren’t really concerned with winning in the AFL, but instead development takes priority. So you won't find many pitchers going beyond 5-6 innings a game, because they have to be wary about overuse.

Not that other leagues shouldn't be wary about overuse, but often they aren't. In the Caribbean Leagues you'll find a lot of veteran players, and that means the level of competition is going to be higher than in the AFL. But in most cases, the rosters change significantly as the season wears on. In the early part of the season, many of the veterans still are relaxing after a long major league season. Most of them don't show up until December, meaning that the level of talent in the leagues early in the year is not quite as high.

That doesn't mean you should ignore what Ruben Quevedo is doing in Venezuela, but you might want to keep an eye on if he maintains that level throughout the Venezuelan season. (I have a hunch he'll give up a run sooner or later.)

The Caribbean leagues generally stack up in terms of talent with the Dominican League on top, followed by the Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Mexican Pacific leagues. If you see someone dominating the Dominican League, that's a little more impressive than someone dominating the Mexican Pacific League. But as I've argued occasionally here before, don't put too much stock into a small sample of at-bats or innings. Most players get fewer than 200 at-bats in winter ball and most pitchers throw fewer than 50 innings. It's hard to look at statistics for a sampling that size and get really excited about them.

The numbers I generally look at most closely are innings for pitchers. Winter ball is a place for the seed of injury to be planted. When I see a young pitcher who has thrown 160 innings during the summer follow that up with 75 innings in Venezuela, I start thinking about arm trouble. It doesn't always strike, but it's just an additional risk factor. I don't think it's just the sheer number of innings, though. I think it's the fact that if a pitcher is throwing a lot over the winter, he never gives his arm a break. That's the great thing about the AFL. It's over at the beginning of December, giving everyone 2 1/2 months off before it's time to get going again.

    As I read your draft reports, I became blurry-eyed reading all the pitching prospects who threw 92-94 mph, 91-93, low 90s etc. After a while they all seem the same! Nevertheless, it did provoke some questions regarding speed guns and their use.

    1) In your draft reports, were the pitchers timed using the "fast" gun or the "slow" one? That's probably an unfair question but it causes my second question.

    2) Why don't the scouts resort to using only the "fast" gun or only the "slow" gun? That would provide a more accurate way to compare pitchers. As it stands now, without knowing which type gun was used, the pitching speeds in reports are largely useless in making distinctions from one pitcher to another.

    3) Why would the speed of a pitch soon after it leaves the pitcher's hand (fast gun) be even relevant? I would think the more valuable reading would be from the slow gun which measure's the speed closer to the batter.

    Terry Graham
    Brandon, Fla.

Almost every radar reading you see these days is from a "fast" gun. That's why there is no distinction denoted. The guns that are most commonly used these days, like the Stalker models, can generally be set to give either time. But the fast readings, which are taken when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, have become the standard.

Why is this? I'm not an expert on the subject, but I spent some time surfing the Web to learn about radar guns this week. The only thing that I came up with was that the gun will most consistently read the time as the ball is released. And if you think about it, the real value of the gun readings are to compare one pitcher's speed against another or even against himself. So finding the most consistent reading is important.

It's true that the speed of the ball crossing the plate is really of more concern for a batter than the speed as the ball leaves the pitcher's hand, but they are related. If Pitcher A is timed at 96 mph when the ball leaves his hand and Pitcher B is timed at 89 mph, you know whose ball is going fast when it crosses the plate, right? The farther the ball goes, the more it decelerates, but that rate should be relative at 60 feet, 6 inches.

November 7, 2000

In honor of Election Day, we have a couple of foreign policy questions to kick things off today. One is about players going to Japan, another about players coming from Japan. We have to keep the trade balanced or we could have economic troubles down the road, you know.

By the way, if you haven't yet voted, stop reading this and go do so now. It'll be here when you get back.

    I noticed that Alex Ramirez was traded to a team in Japan. This spawned a few questions. Since he was traded, do the Pirates lose all rights to him if he were to come back to the United States? What is the success ratio of players of his potential (hype) coming back and making it in the major leagues? What is the average stay in Japan for a player to make it back to the major leagues?

    Keith Howard
    Melbourne Beach, Fla.

Ramirez was sent to the Yakult Swallows last Wednesday, barely more than three months after he landed in Pittsburgh. The Pirates don't retain his rights, because he was traded.

There have been occasions before where players were assigned to Japanese teams as part of an agreement between a major league team and a team in Japan. The Padres did this in 1997 when they negotiated with the Chiba Lotte Marines for the rights to Hideki Irabu. They sent first baseman Jason Thompson and lefthander Shane Dennis to Japan for two years. That didn't work out terribly well for any of the parties involved, but Thompson and Dennis at least made some money out of the deal.

Should Ramirez go over to Japan and find success, his best bet is probably to stay there. If he does well, he'll make good money there, much more than he'd be likely to see here should he return. Every year several players who have struggled to break through in the big leagues go to Japan and find success. But rarely are they able to transfer that success back with them when they look to return to the States. Other than Cecil Fielder and Pat Mahomes, I can't think of too many players who have done as well here after returning from Japan.

It seems like the average stay in Japan is a couple of years for players who start off in the United States. Some players, like Bobby Rose or Tom O'Malley, do very well and stay for many years. Others come home after just a few months, unable to adapt to a very different culture.

I've never been a big Ramirez fan myself, and I think it was probably a wise decision for the Pirates to not donate many at-bats to his cause next season. He has displayed horrendous plate discipline throughout his career, posting a 148-613 walk-strikeout ratio in the minor leagues. Perhaps he'll find Japanese pitching more to his liking.

    Peter Gammons reported that teams submit sealed bids indicating what they are willing to pay Ichiro Suzuki's Japanese team merely for the right to negotiate with him. Then the winning team has to work out a deal with him. But Gammons further says that if you are the winning bid but can't work out a deal with the player, you get the bid money back.

    If he's defining it correctly, this seems like a system ripe for abuse. Suppose Team X thinks that Suzuki is going to be a big star, but can't afford to pay him. It bids some absurd amount for the rights to negotiate exclusively with him and then just doesn't make him a reasonable offer. This completely blocks him from going to a possible competitor and Team X doesn't have to lose any money.

    Is Gammons missing something or is the entire system predicated on the presumed good faith of the parties involved?

    Andy Schader
    Cambridge, Mass.

Andy, if we've learned anything from baseball, it's that you can't possibly base an entire system of anything on the good faith of the parties involved. As it is now, you've got just about everyone looking for loopholes and ways to take maximum advantage of whatever rules are on the books. So of course there has to be a rule in place to prevent teams from blocking other teams from signing players from Japan.

In 1999 the Reds became the first team to negotiate with a player from Japan under a new agreement implemented by commissioner Bud Selig and the commissioner of the Japan League, signing outfielder Alejandro Diaz, who hasn't exactly been worth all the yen they paid for him.

The agreement says that if a Japanese team is willing to post a player, it will inform Major League Baseball, which then will notify all 30 teams. The teams then bid for the right to negotiate with the player, and if the Japanese team accepts the winning bid, the major league team has 30 days to sign the player.

So if a team tries to block other teams from signing a player, they could only do so for a month. Because the Japanese team isn't obligated to accept a bid, once a team shows it wasn't negotiating in good faith, its bid certainly wouldn't be accepted a second time.

    I am a Pittsburgh Pirates fan who like most Bucco fans is disgruntled about general manager Cam Bonifay. I have heard that some baseball experts have ranked him as one of the worst GMs in all of baseball. He seems to give up on young players too early, trades solid major leaguers for next to nothing and seems to have nothing to show for homegrown talent since he took over. The only solid major leaguers to come up through the system to my knowledge are Jason Kendall, Kris Benson and Tony Womack (traded for Paul Weichard). The only thing he has done right is trading for Brian Giles--which almost certainly was luck on his part. Bonifay was quoted as saying that Giles would only turn out to hit at best 15-20 home runs a season after trading for him. So my question is this: Is it true that Cam Bonifay is not respected among his peers in baseball and how would you rate him as a general manager?

    Marc Simmons
    Elkins, W.Va.

It would be unfair to pin the lack of success in Pittsburgh on one man. But Bonifay and the Pirates have made several moves over the past few years that seemed bad at the time and look even worse in hindsight.

I've covered this ground here before, but when a team paints itself as a small-market club, which the Pirates have done, it should be incumbent upon it to spend what money it does have wisely. It does no good to spend money just to prove you're willing to do so. In fact, it could be argued that a team would be better off not spending money than just throwing it away.

When the Pirates signed Pat Meares to a four-year, $15 million extension last year, they were throwing money away and committing themselves to throwing it away for four years. Likewise when they signed first baseman Kevin Young to a four-year, $24 million deal. Meares and Young might be nice guys, but they are replacement-level major league regulars at best. And the Pirates are paying them nearly $10 million a year between them.

I'd rather put Enrique Wilson at short and grab a Doug Mientkiewicz for first base and hand the $10 million to someone like Jason Kendall, locking him up long-term. They were fortunate to get out of the idiotic Wil Cordero deal (three year, $9 million) by trading him to Cleveland in July.

In addition to the wasted money, the Pirates have contributed to the waste of the careers of several promising young players by rushing them to the big leagues. There's no guarantee that Jose Guillen or Aramis Ramirez would have turned out to be superstars if the Pirates had been more patient, and I still hold out a little hope for Ramirez to make something of his career, but there was no justification for jumping them as the Pirates did. Guillen jumped from Class A to the big leagues in 1997. Ramirez had just 47 games above Class A before being called to Pittsburgh in 1998. I'm a little foggy as to what the hurry was.

The Pirates now have several intriguing prospects at the lower levels of the system. It will be interesting to see how they handle Bobby Bradley and J.R. House as they get closer to the big leagues. If the Pirates are patient enough to let them have development time at all levels of the minor leagues, it could be a sign that they're learning and that better days could be around the corner in Pittsburgh.

To be honest, though, I see more reason for optimism at this point for Brewers fans than I do for Pirates fans. Milwaukee seems to be on something of an upswing, while the Pirates are just treading water.

November 2, 2000

We've got a wide range of questions for you today, and amazingly enough, not a single one about Larry Bowa and the Phillies. It's a matchup that brings some questions to my mind, however. Like, are the Phillies crazy?

I know there has been a lot of water to pass under the baseball bridge since Bowa was fired by the Padres in 1988, but he wasn’t regarded at the time as a managerial success. I thought then that he never again would be handed the reins to a major league team. I was wrong.

It will be interesting to see how the Phillies fare under their former shortstop next season. While you're pondering his future, here are four questions that aren’t related to Bowa in any way.

    Back in the 1940s it would have been inconceivable that so many Negro League players are now in the Hall of Fame. Today we have another group of stars that aren’t eligible to play in the big leagues through reasons other than talent. Do you think there are many Cuban players from past or present that will one day see the walls of Cooperstown?

    M. Dominguez
    Oshawa, Ontario

That's an interesting comparison. In order for Cuban players to gain enshrinement, the Hall of Fame would need to establish a committee similar to the one in the 1970s that first looked at the case of the Negro League players. By Hall rules, a player must play 10 years in the major leagues to be eligible for induction. The Cubans obviously have been unable to do that, much like the Negro Leaguers.

The difference between the Negro Leaguers and the players in Cuba since the door to the major leagues was closed to them is the exposure here. It took a long time for the Negro Leaguers to get their recognition (some still haven't really received it), but it came eventually because people had seen them play. The old white players had stories to tell about the black players from barnstorming tours. And the black players who made it to the major leagues when the color barrier fell had stories to tell about the older Negro Leaguers, who never got their shot.

For Cuba, other than the Olympics and a few other international tournaments, American fans don't get a chance to see them play. It's also hard to put into context what the stats for Cuban players mean and how they translate, if indeed they do.

I think the bottom line is there will be a generation or maybe even two of Cuban greats who won't really have a shot at Cooperstown. We know about the great players who came before the flow stopped and we've seen enough good ones come since that we know there are some top-notch players there. But it's still tough to fill in the missing pieces for the decades where we sparingly, if ever, saw Cuba's best ballplayers.

There’s a chance the momentum could build to include Cubans in the Hall down the road. I could envision a time after Castro falls where the gates open up, bringing not just fresh faces to the big leagues, but stories of the invisible players of the past four decades. The push for recognition often comes in the twilight of the life of the honorees, as happened with the Negro League players (again, too late for many of them to be there to enjoy it). Perhaps a decade from now we could see a movement to honor some of the stars of Cuban baseball. But I wouldn't count on it happening.

    As a long-time Baseball America subscriber, I would appreciate an update on Jossephang Bernhardt. A onetime Blue Jays "super-prospect" who was originally signed illegally by Tampa Bay at 15 years of age, Bernhardt was placed on the restricted list after a poor start with Queens of the New-York Penn League. When I contacted the Jays via their Website, I was told that Bernhardt "retired," although no reason was given why. Was there an injury, or was there emotional or maturity problems that lead to the restricted-list decision?

    This week while I was reading the minor league transactions, I noticed that Bernhardt was reinstated and assigned to Tennessee. Was there a reconsideration by some party about his retirement? Was this decision made by Bernhardt or the Blue Jays organization?

    Watching Bernhardt play in St. Catharines in the New York-Penn League for two years, there were moments that he struggled and other moments that he showed that he could play effectively with players much older than him. He seemed to have made some progress during the 1999 season and was given brief opportunities in Dunedin and in Hagerstown this past season.

    What has happened to this onetime phenom? Hopefully, his career can be resurrected.

    Christopher Oliver
    Lockport, N.Y.

I contacted our Blue Jays correspondent Larry Millson, who tracked down the real story on Bernhardt. The young infielder did indeed go home to the Dominican Republic in the middle of the 2000 season. But he did not retire.

Bernhardt told the team that he was feeling tired and homesick when he left in mid-July. The Blue Jays placed him on the restricted list at the time.

Bernhardt turned 20 in September and it's time for him to start producing somewhere. In four professional seasons he has 12 at-bats above short-season ball. He's looks like he was all hype and no substance. I don't normally advocate writing off young players, but I'll be shocked if Bernhardt, who received a $750,000 signing bonus from Toronto in January 1997, ever reaches the big leagues. I'll be at least mildly surprised if he plays in Double-A

    I have heard a lot of questions about draft compensation lately, but I have seen something that confuses me. I was looking at the Cardinals 2000 draft, and noticed that they received a first-round draft pick (from the Rangers) but not a supplemental pick when they lost Type A lefthander Darren Oliver. Why did they not get a supplemental pick? As I understand it, if a team loses a Type A player, they should get that team's first-round pick and a supplemental round draft pick. Can you clear this confusion up?

    Matthew Rhodes
    Alexandria, Va.

I can clear the confusion up and confess at the same time that we may have contributed to it. Darren Oliver was not a Type A free agent. He was inaccurately listed as such in the draft list that appeared in Baseball America. He was a Type B free agent.

Considering that Darren Oliver is Darren Oliver, this probably should have jumped out at us somewhere along the line and caused us to wonder just how in the world Darren Oliver could be a Type A free agent.

    How does Conference-USA stack up for the 2001 season? I know that Houston lost a lot of talent, so who should be the frontrunner for that conference? It looks like Tulane to me. They return almost all of their hitters from last year, but they lost a lot in the pitching staff.

    Dave Butler
    Houma, La.

We've been keeping John Manuel busy with the handoffs lately, and he always proves up to the task. Here's his quick analysis of C-USA:

    Tulane probably is the favorite in what should be an improved league. Aside from Jake Gautreau and 1999 Freshman of the Year James Jurries, the Green Wave also returns shortstop Andy Cannizaro at shortstop, one of the nation's best defenders. The key will be on the mound, where Tulane has a mix of returnees such as Nick Bourgeois and redshirt freshman Chris Klein, freshman Michael Aubrey and JC transfers Andrew Corona and Bo Richardson.

    I'd say it's the favorite. But Southern Mississippi returns its top two starters from 2000 and center fielder Michael Artman, who led the Jayhawk League in hitting after sitting out 2000 recovering from testicular cancer. South Florida returns about 90 percent of its 2000 club and gets three pitchers back whose injuries kept them off the mound most of last season. And Cincinnati, led by senior third baseman Kevin Youkilis and Arizona State transfer Chad Pennington, is poised to have its best season in years under third-year coach Brian Cleary.


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