Monday, Jan. 25 5:09am ET|
Stars for the next millennium
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
As the end of the century draws near and another approaches, it's fashionable to cast back and compile yet another list of the best this or the best that from the 20th century.
Baseball has plenty from which to choose, not the least of which would be a list of the century's 10 best players, a decision-making process that, though fun, could take weeks, even months, to settle.
While few would take issue with the game's claim to a glorious past, baseball has been roundly criticized for its infatuation with history. Baseball, it's been said, is too busy romanticizing yesterday to enjoy today.
We've taken heed of this lament and zoomed right past today, ahead to tomorrow. Other than the historic home run chase of last season (oops -- there we go again!), the single most heartening aspect of baseball's renaissance has been the emergence of a new generation of stars.
These players are extraordinarily athletic, uncommonly gifted, refreshingly humble and, collectively, good enough to dismiss the popular notion that baseball is losing the best athletes to basketball and football.
Consider the influx of young players who have burst upon the game, supernova-style, in the last three years alone: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, Nomar Garciaparra and Scott Rolen.
Not since the 1950s, when baseball fully broke the color line and introduced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and others, has the game welcomed such a promising crop of newcomers.
As if Rodriguez, Garciaparra and company weren't enough, here's the really good news: there's more where they came from. The game's talent evaluators have identified a number of equally promising prospects who could make their mark in the next few seasons.
With this embarrassment of player riches in mind, we've compiled a list for the future: 12 Players Who Will Dominate Baseball in the next millennium -- all younger than 25 or with less than three years in the big leagues.
For variety's sake, we've included some of the aforementioned players, mixed in some rookies who are expected to make an impact this season and, for good measure, thrown in some who are two or three years away, but promising nonetheless.
Will the next group be as dominant as the already established young superstars? That may be asking too much.
In the meantime, to paraphrase Satchel Paige: Don't look back -- you might miss what's coming up.
1. Alex Rodriguez
How good is he? In 1997, he hit .300 with 23 homers, 40 doubles and 84 RBI -- in what was considered an off-year. Rodriguez has Triple Crown ability and is a good bet to become the first American Leaguer since Jim Rice to top 400 total bases in a season.
Keep in mind, Rodriguez offers all this run production from shortstop, a position heretofore thought of as primarily a defensive spot on the diamond. How good can Rodriguez be? It's frightening to contemplate. He won't turn 24 until after the All-Star break and at the end of the next decade, will have just turned 34.
2. Nomar Garciaparra
Like Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, Garciaparra is an American League shortstop of seemingly limitless potential. Following a phenomenal rookie season, Garciaparra continued to lay waste to opposition pitching, to say nothing of the notion of a sophomore slump.
As a rookie, he established a major-league record for RBI for a leadoff hitter. In his second season, he drove in 122 runs from the cleanup spot, boosted his home runs and batting average and finished second in the AL MVP vote.
Only four other players in baseball history have done what Garciaparra has done: hit 30 or more homers in each of his first two seasons. His 25 errors may seem like a lot until you consider Fenway Park's notoriously bad infield surface and take into account the number of balls he reaches.
3. Vladimir Guerrero
Never mind projections. There are more than a few who consider this soon-to-be 23-year-old Expos outfielder the game's best all-around player.
In his first full season, Guerrero hit .324 with 38 homers and 109 RBI while playing a superb right field. He has a body he's yet to fully grow into and just the right manager (Felipe Alou) to nurture his considerable skills. Although he stole just 11 bases, he has the speed to become more of a threat. His arm may be the most powerful of any National League outfielder, although he needs to cut down on his 17 errors.
In short, there's little that Guererro can't -- or won't soon -- do. The Expos wisely locked him into a long-term deal last summer, perhaps signaling an end to the exodus of great young players from Montreal. If baseball is to thrive in Montreal, Guerrero will very likely be the chief reason.
4. Kerry Wood
Every generation needs a fireballer from Texas. The 1970s introduced us to Nolan Ryan; the 1980s brought along Roger Clemens; last season, it was the Cubs' Wood.
When he was selected in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft, the Cubs knew they had a special pitcher but worried about the condition of his powerful right arm, particularly after he threw an alarmingly high number of pitches in a high school playoff game. A tender elbow forced him to miss more than a month of 1998, but he rebounded well in late September to allay the Cubs' fears.
What he did in the first five months of the season, meanwhile, scared the rest of the National League. In 26 starts, Wood went 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA, impressive but not necessarily astounding numbers for a rookie. But it was what Wood did on the afternoon of May 6 that captured everybody's attention. He struck out 20 Houston Astros, walked none and yielded a measly infield hit. The game was a harbinger. "If he stays healthy,'' concluded teammate Mark Grace, "he's going to be a Hall of Famer.''
5. Scott Rolen
Like Garciaparra, Rolen avoided the sophomore slump with an exclamation point. He pounded 79 extra-base hits to go along with a .290 batting average and 93 walks. But he's more than an imposing hitter -- he won his first of what will likely be many Gold Gloves and was aggressive on the bases, taking the second highest percentage of extra bases as a runner in the National League.
Beyond Rolen's all-out style is a player who respects the game and has earned the appreciation of veterans for his work ethic. The Phillies may not be the most successful of franchises, but Rolen is worth watching.
6. J.D. Drew
Sure, he enraged the Phillies with his signing demands and true, he didn't endear himself to a lot of established major leaguers with his comments and attitude during his holdout. But after getting re-drafted by the Cardinals and making brief pit stops at Double-A and Triple-A, Drew arrived in St. Louis for the final month of the regular season.
To say he was the second-most compelling player in a Cardinals uniform is neither an overstatement nor a slight. While Mark McGwire was busy captivating the world with his home run prowess, Drew was quietly winning over anyone who had questioned his talent or desire. In just 14 games, Drew smoked five homers and hit a blistering .417 while slugging .972. Not yet a human highlight reel, Drew was, at the very least, an unforgettable coming attraction.
7. Ben Grieve
Quietly, the A's have been stockpiling young talent this decade, making fine use of their draft picks and carefully plotting their resurgence. As a small-market club, theirs is an uphill climb, but players like shortstop Miguel Tejada and catcher A.J. Hinch give them reason to hope.
Oakland's rebuilding, however, will be built around Grieve, the 1998 American League Rookie of the Year. Grieve, the son of former big leaguer and Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, has already shown that he has more than good bloodlines. His swing seems to be taken out of a textbook, while his instincts are unmatched. Moreover, Grieve possesses the perfect temperament for the game -- he's both patient and demanding.
8. Andruw Jones
Jones burst onto the scene in the 1996 World Series when he hit two home runs in one game at age 19. Other than a game where Bobby Cox removed him in mid-inning after he loafed after a fly ball, Jones has done nothing to erase his future superstar label.
He doesn't turn 22 until April, but Jones belted 31 long balls last season and became perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the game. Cox compared him to Willie Mays for his ability to track down fly balls. Jones raised his average from .231 to .271 in his second season, and if he raises it another 40 points he'll be hitting like Mays as well.
9. Ruben Mateo
The Rangers have mined Latin America better than most over the past decade, signing and developing perennial All-Stars such as Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa and Pudge Rodriguez. Following in those same footsteps, is Mateo, an outfielder with more tools than Bob Vila. Just 20, Mateo has already shown the ability to play more than one outfield position and has showcased a strong, accurate throwing arm.
Scouts believe he has the speed to lead off in the big leagues, but he's also developing the power to be a middle-of-the-lineup threat -- despite being one of the youngest players in the Texas League, he hit 18 home runs and 32 doubles. Should the Rangers successfully re-sign Gonzalez, they could start the millennium with baseball's best outfield, featuring the two-time MVP, Rusty Greer and Mateo in center.
10. Alex Escobar
You don't have to tell the New York Mets about the dangers of projecting superstardom onto unproven young players. It wasn't long ago that the Mets believed that the trio of Paul Wilson, Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen would form the nucleus of their pitching staff well into the next decade.
Instead, all three suffered injuries and disappointment. So the Mets have their fingers crossed when it comes to Escobar, a terrific talent who's been cursed by injuries in his development. Escobar finally stayed healthy last season and demonstrated that his body is still growing and getting stronger when he hit 27 homers at Class A -- 26 more than he had managed in the previous two injury-shortened seasons combined. His speed and defensive abilities were never a question. Now, all he needs is time and good health.
11. Ryan Anderson
His fastball (95 mph-plus) and height (6-foot-10) have already earned Anderson the nickname of the Little Unit, an obvious comparison to Randy Johnson. But there's nothing little about Anderson's upside. Like the pitcher himself, it's enormous.
For a player nearly seven feet tall, Anderson has some growing up to do. He antagonized some clubs with his arrogance prior to being drafted, then didn't make any friends with his future teammates when he casually remarked that he had dominated them in a spring-training batting practice session last February.
The Mariners will be quick to forget such immaturity as long as long as Anderson continues to harness his often unhittable stuff. He fanned 152 in 111 innings in first pro season, and unlike Johnson, who didn't really find himself until he was almost 30, Anderson will arrive far sooner.
12. Alfonso Soriano
Just what the best team in baseball needs: another can't-miss kid. Soriano comes from the fertile playing fields of the Dominican, via Hiroshima of the Japanese League. The Yankees outbid a number of teams to sign the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder, and so far, are delighted with their investment.
Any questions about his long-range talent were answered last fall when Soriano enjoyed a great stint in the Arizona Fall League. Everyone already knew about his magic in the field, but as he develops, Soriano is adding power to his portfolio.
The only question seems to be: where will he play? The Yankees figure to have Derek Jeter as their shortstop well into the next decade, but Soriano will force himself into the lineup -- either in the Bronx or somewhere else.
Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal-Bulletin is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's baseball coverage.