Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Prospect Preview: 1989

It's hard to say for sure, but I'm pretty sure that 1989 is the first season that I remember following from start to finish. My brothers and I had really gotten into collecting baseball cards in 1988, going to card shows and whatnot, but I was still too young to fully appreciate everything. I must have grown a lot over that offseason, though, because by the time the summer got under way in 1989, I felt pretty on top of everything. We also collected a lot of baseball cards that year, and the ones that I remember focusing on the most were the top prospect cards: the Topps Future Stars, the Donruss Rated Rookies, the Upper Deck Star Rookies... they were all highly sought after cards, and we were always excited to pull one from a pack.

That was 20 years ago now, but I still remember some of those cards quite vividly. Which makes this "Prospect Preview" post something different, since these prospects are the same ones that I remember pulling from pack after pack. Not all of them reached the potential that was promised *cough*Gregg Jefferies*cough*, but that doesn't mean there weren't some phenomenal players coming up that year.

This is what the 1989 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook had to say about these "rising stars":
Jerome Walton: "In each of the last two years, an exciting offensive player in the Cubs' organization has jumped from Double-A to the majors in less than half a season. It was Rafael Palmiero in 1987 and Mark Grace last summer, and Walton could make it three in a row.
Walton, who batted .331 at Pittsfield last season, is a gap hitter, although he'll hit a couple of homers when the wind blows out at Wrigley Field. He also has the speed (42 steals in '88) to dig out extra-base hits. Defensively, he covers lots of ground in center field and has a strong arm that keeps baserunners honest."
We start with the NL Rookie of the Year for 1989. Walton was a very highly touted player that year, and seemed to be the next "sure thing." I don't know if all the publicity he got was due to his talent or was just because everyone was dying for a star out in Chicago, but it proved justified when he took home the ROY award that November. His career didn't last all too long, though, as injuries (presumably) only allowed him to play in 100 games in a season once after 1991.
Sandy Alomar, Jr.: "All that stands between Alomar and a big-league job is Benito Santiago, the NL Rookie of the Year in 1987. Even the Padres admit that Alomar should be a better player in the long run, but Santiago has two years of experience and no major weaknesses, and the Padres are talking division title this season.

Alomar, whose brother Roberto debuted at second base for the Padres in 1988, has improved steadily in his five-year pro career, establishing himself as an offensive threat the last two seasons. After hitting .307 at Double-A Wichita (Texas) in 1987, Alomar compiled a .297 average with 16 homers and 71 RBIs at Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) last year despite being limited to 93 games because of a minor knee injury. He shared The Sporting News' Minor League Player of the Year with [Gary] Sheffield."
It may be hard to remember now, twenty years after the fact, but there was a good five-or-so year stretch where Sandy Alomar, Jr., was considered the best catcher in baseball. In those early years, the brothers Alomar looked like they could be one of the best family pairings in baseball history. A serious history of injuries prevented that from coming to be. Sandy Jr. did go on to win the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year award, though, and provided some very memorable moments in the 1997 All-Star game at Jacobs Field.
Gary Sheffield: " 'When I signed, I knew it would be that way, that I would be Dwight [Gooden]'s nephew, not just Gary Sheffield,' he said. 'That doesn't bother me because I'm proud to be related with Dwight. But one of my goals is to have a big name on my own.'

Sheffield has begun to establish just that. Before becoming the Brewers' starting shortsop when Dale Sveum broke his leg last September, Sheffield tore up the Texas League at El Paso and the American Association at Denver. He totaled 28 homers and 119 RBIs between the two clubs while batting .327 and was named The Sporting News' Minor League co-Player of the Year.

'I'm not shocked by the year that I had,' Sheffield said. 'If I had a mediocre year, I would have been shocked... I don't think it's expecting too much for me to stay in the big leagues for good.' Despite Sheffield's own bravado, the Brewers have tried to downplay the 20-year-old's potential."
For those baseball fans who weren't around in '89, I think it'd be a surprise to them that Gary Sheffield was both a shortstop and a Milwaukee Brewer. But he was, though the excerpt above gives a glimpse as to why he wasn't one for long: his attitude just didn't fly in Milwaukee, especially when he decided that he didn't want to be there. In the end, his talent eventually won out. Twenty years later, he has 499 career home runs, 1,603 RBIs and a career OPS+ of 141(!). No one talks anymore about him being Dwight Gooden's nephew.
Kevin Brown: "Fastball in mid-90s will have him ready as soon as rotation spot opens."
The format of the this TSN minor league preview section includes a short write-up of the top ten or so prospects, and then a single short sentence about the other top prospects for each team around the league. This is the single sentence write-up of Keving Brown, who is elsewhere referred to as the Rangers "top prospect." Brown would make it into the rotation in '89, and perform well enough to garner a couple of third place votes in the ROY balloting. Eventually, he would sign the first $100 million contract in baseball history after putting up some of the best numbers of any pitcher in the '90s. It was an inauspicious start for the original $100 million man.
Ken Griffey, Jr.: "Needs at least another year in minors, but anxious owner could push."
Speaking of inauspicious starts... Griffey was the top prospect of 1989, as anyone who collected Upper Deck baseball cards that year and looked for the fourth pack down in the lower left corner of the box, hoping to find that Griffey rookie card, can attest. Obviously, though, the staff at TSN were being conservative, probably thinking that no one that young could live up to that type of hype. He did end up playing most of the 1989 season, finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Of course, his career only got better from there.
Randy Johnson: "When the 6-10, 225-pound Johnson made his major league debut last September, he became the tallest player in major league history. And it is that size that had kept him from reaching the majors sooner.

Johnson, a pure power pitcher, whose fastball is consistently in the mid-90s, is so big that his mechanics sometimes get messed up and he has trouble finding the strike zone. In 400 1/3 minor league innings, Johnson has walked 318 batters. But he also has struck out 428.

The lefthander seemed to have found a rhythm in his four-start stint with the Expos last September. He struck out 25 batters and walked only seven while going 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA.

'We've known he has the fastball for several years,' Expos Manager Buck Rodgers said. 'But he had a control problem. That's the only reason we've brought him along slowly.' "
Griffey's teammate during the Mariners' mid-90s heyday, the Big Unit was still an Expos prospect at this time. His velocity and physical intimidation were never in doubt, but obviously his control was a long time coming. Johnson came over to the M's early in the '89 season as a key prospect in the trade for Mark Langston. As we all know, his control did eventually come around, and the Mariners, the Diamondbacks, and Major League Baseball are all much better for it. The dominance that he has shown throughout his career, including his four consecutive NL Cy Young awards, his perfect game, his 20-strikeout performance, and one of the best World Series performances I've ever seen, has been matched by no one in baseball history. I've always counted myself as lucky for having been able to see him during his peak.

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