Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Prospect Preview: 1985

Reading through all of the preview guides from the late '80, there's one thing that's pretty clear about the time: the rookie classes of 1986 and 1987, with the likes of Jose Canseco, Will Clark, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, and Mark McGwire, were considered at the time to be some of the best of all time. And while history hasn't quite borne out the greatness predicted for everyone in that group of players (BJ Surhoff and Benito Santiago and Wally Joyner, while having decent careers, aren't exactly busting down Cooperstown's doors), they were definitely a pair of excellent rookie classes that re-wrote some record books.

The 1985 rookie class, however, wasn't quite as impressive as those two and therefore was never quite as celebrated. But it wasn't without it's highlights, and it did produce some quality major leaguers. It seems like a good time, then, to take a look back and see what was being said about those players before they made it to the big leagues.

From the 1985 Street & Smith's baseball preview guide:
Ozzie Guillen: "As a 20-year-old in AAA, shortstop Ozzie Guillen was being compared to Ozzie Smith defensively. Guillen, who comes over from the Padres organization, batted .296 and had 53 RBIs in the leadoff spot for Las Vegas. The Pacific Coast League all-star didn't walk much (13 times) or strike out often (40 times in 463 at-bats)."
Today, when I see an article with Ozzie's name in the headline, my first thought is to wonder what he said or did this time as manager of the White Sox. It's sometimes hard to remember that he was a young defensive star for the club in the late-80s and early-90s, or that he actually won the 1985 Rookie of the Year award. It's amazing how much can happen in 23 years.
Dale Sveum: "Third baseman Dale Sveum improved greatly with the bat from '83 to '84. A .261 hitter in A-ball, Sveum was second among Texas League batters last season with a .329 average. The switch-hitter's 256 total bases and 41 doubles led the AA league."

Teddy Higuera: "Lefty Ted Higuera was just 1-4 in AAA. But at El Paso he led the AA league in ERA (2.60), was 8-7, and for the year had 128 strikeouts in 161 innings pitched."
For Brewers fans, the 2008 season gave everyone a much better chance to get to know Dale Sveum than would have been expected, as he took over as interim manager for the fired Ned Yost with only 14 games left to play in the season. But Sveum had been around the organization for much longer than that, and was one of the Brewers top prospects in the mid-'80s. After a couple of full seasons with the club, he quickly became a part-time player, though he did stick around the majors for 12 years.

Teddy Higuera, on the other hand, was a top prospect for the Brewers early on, and achieved quick success, finishing second in Rookie of the Year balloting in 1985 and then finishing second in Cy Young balloting the following year (in what was to become the last 20-win season for a Milwaukee pitcher). But his career was short-lived, and he was out of baseball after only 9 years, the last three of which saw him pitch in only 32 games combined due to injury. It's sad because people really forget how good of a pitcher he was when he was healthy.
Harold Reynolds and Danny Tartabull: "In AAA, the DP combo of second baseman Harold Reynolds and shortstop Danny Tartabull could move up together this spring. Reynolds, a switch hitter, batted .294 at Salt Lake City, stole 37 bases and displayed excellent range that earned him Pacific Coast League all-star honors. Tartabull had PCL stats of .304, 13, 73. He has a rifle arm but must get past Spike Owen for the top job."
This pair of prospects both went on to solid, productive careers, but not as a double-play combo. Tartabull only played 50 or so games in his career in the infield, instead covering right field and batting DH for the majority of his career for the likes of the Royals and the Yankees. He also had a memorable appearance on Seinfeld. Reynolds did have a long career as Seattle's second baseman, earning his playing time with his glove. His stint on ESPN's Baseball Tonight was also memorable, though not always for the best reasons. I hope he does well on the new MLB Network...
Eric Davis: "Perhaps the top prospect of all is outfielder Eric Davis, who has shuttled between AAA and the bigs in '84. Despite two call-ups and injuries, he was rated one of the premier prospects in the league. In 52 games at Wichita, Davis had 14 homers, drove in 34 runs, had 27 stolen bases, and batted .314."
Probably the biggest star of this group of players during the first five years of his career, Davis was a key part of those Cincinnati teams and a big offensive player. You can still find people reminiscing about his swing and "what could have been."
Andres Galarraga: "Although he's big and played exclusively at first base, Andres Galarraga is capable of filling in at third, left field, or back of the plate. More important, he carries a big stick (.289, with a club-record 27 homers and 87 RBIs at Jacksonville)."
And though Davis may have been the biggest star early on, the Big Cat is easily the player with the longest productive career of this group, earning All-Star appearances and MVP votes all the way until the year 2000. His final career numbers - 2,333 hits, 399 home runs, .288/.347/.499 - tell the story of a ballplayer who knew how to swing the bat. Playing in the thin air of Coors Field obviously helped him, but his bat was still plenty potent in other parks. I imagine there are a few people out there who would even support a Big Cat Hall of Fame nomination (maybe as the "face and leader of the Rockies"), though I wouldn't be one of them.
Vince Coleman: "Imagine having your base-stealing total fall off by 44 and still having more than 100 thefts? That's the story of Vince Coleman, the Louisville outfielder who has afterburners. He jumped from A to AAA and stole 101 bases, breaking Tim Raines's American Association record. Coleman also scored a league-high 97 runs but struck out over 100 times."
Finally, the run-away (rimshot!) NL Rookie of the Year in 1985, Coleman was the talk of the town his first few years in the league, stealing 100 bases in each of his first three seasons and netting 407 bags in only four years of service. But his career changed quickly in the '90s, as injuries and the changing game left him behind. But it's hard to forget the flash of those first few years, and it's clear from this report of him as a prospect that he was always that same player. He knew what he wanted when he got on-base, and he went for it, no matter how many times he'd get caught stealing.

Clearly, the 1985 rookie class was not the equal of the '86 or '87 classes, but it did have some notable names itself. I'll take a look at those '86 and '87 rookie classes at some point, but there truly are a lot of big names in them, and I want to make sure to do it right. But the likes of Vince Coleman, Andres Galarraga and Eric Davis still deserve remembering, as they were all very interesting players in their own right.

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