When 25-year-old rookie Joe McEwing walked into the Cardinals' clubhouse for the first time in September 1998, he not only fulfilled a childhood dream, but also stepped right into the middle of baseball history in progress. "My big league debut happened to be when [Mark] McGwire hit home run No. 57, which was a National League record at the time, and I pinch-hit right after that," said McEwing, now 36 and managing the White Sox' advanced Class A affiliate, the Winston-Salem Dash. McGwire, of course, went on to shatter Roger Maris' single-season home run mark, hitting his record-breaking 62nd homer on Sept. 9 and finishing the year with a whopping 70 longballs.
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Kyle Skipworth was often compared to Joe Mauer during his high school days, so it's only fitting that he went on to become the first prep catcher taken in the top 10 picks of the amateur draft since the Twins took Mauer first overall in 2001. The Marlins selected the 6-foot-3, 195-pound backstop with the No. 6 pick in last year's draft after he earned Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year honors by hitting .543 with 13 homers for Patriot High School in Riverside, Calif. Skipworth's outstanding senior season included a stretch in which he reached base in 25 consecutive plate appearances.
The Kansas City Royals boast a pair of front-line right-handed starters in Zack Greinke and Gil Meche, and if Danny Duffy keeps mowing down minor league hitters, it might not be long before they have a top-flight southpaw in their rotation as well. Duffy is still a few rungs down the ladder - he's currently pitching for the advanced Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks - but his 13-8 record, 2.36 ERA and 189-to-51 K-to-walk ratio in 144 2/3 pro innings to date suggest he's a good bet to climb quickly.
Matt LaPorta became a household name last summer when the Milwaukee Brewers shipped him to the Cleveland Indians along with two lesser prospects in exchange for reigning American League Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia. Sabathia bolted for the New York Yankees this past offseason, but not before leading the Brewers to their first playoff appearance since 1982 with some clutch pitching down the stretch. Now that LaPorta has been summoned from Triple-A, it appears it's the Tribe's turn to reap the benefits of the blockbuster deal.
If not for his one plate appearance for the Cleveland Indians in 2005, Juan Gonzalez would have appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot this year. It is probably just as well for the longtime Texas Rangers slugger and two-time American League MVP, as it will allow him more time to distance himself from performance-enhancing drug-related allegations that came up in the Mitchell Report. "Juan Gone" was one of the most lethal and intimidating sluggers in baseball during the '90s and finished his career with 434 home runs, but is he Cooperstown material? By NICK LECO
The Kansas City Royals have finished below .500 in 14 of the past 15 seasons, with the one positive side effect being that they've consistently had high selections in the annual draft. Missing on a couple of those high first-round picks - Colt Griffin (2001) and Chris Lubanski (2003) - hasn't helped matters, and the jury is still out on guys like Billy Butler (2004), Alex Gordon (2005) and Luke Hochevar (2006). However, it looks like Kansas City has found a future cornerstone in 2007 No. 2 overall pick Mike Moustakas.
John Danks of the Chicago White Sox emerged as one of the better left-handers in baseball last season and is off to a great start this year, with a 2-0 record and 0.95 ERA in his first three starts. And while the White Sox are surely glad they acquired him from the Texas Rangers back in December 2006, Danks wasn't even the first member of his family that the team coveted. That distinction would go to his younger brother, outfielder Jordan Danks, whom they selected in the 19th round of the 2005 draft out of Round Rock (Texas) High School.
Bobby Thigpen played nine big league seasons and finished his career with 201 career saves, but he's best remembered for the 57 he notched for the White Sox in 1990. Dominant closers came and went over the next 17 years, but none managed to surpass Thigpen's single-season record. Until last season, that is, when Francisco Rodriguez racked up a whopping 62 saves for the Angels. "I knew it was a matter of time before somebody did it," said Thigpen, who now serves as pitching coach for the White Sox' advanced Class A affiliate, the Winston-Salem Dash. "I felt fortunate and happy that I kept it for 18 years."
Chris Marrero, a 2006 first-round pick, entered the 2008 season ranked by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Nationals organization but got off to a slow start and then broke his leg sliding into home just as he was starting to heat up. Now that his injury is healed, Marrero is ready continue his climb up the minor league ladder. He's off to a fast start for the advanced Class A Potomac Nationals this season, hitting .320 with a pair of homers and 11 RBI in his first 13 games. On Tuesday, I had a chance to watch him play not once but twice as he and his teammates played a doubleheader consisting of two seven-inning games against the Winston-Salem Dash.
Brad Bergesen isn't usually the first guy mentioned when people talk about the Baltimore Orioles' top pitching prospects - that would be either Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta or Brian Matusz - but he'll be the first to get a chance to stick in the big league rotation. Bergesen, a 23-year-old right-hander who opened the season with the Triple-A Norfolk Tides despite an impressive showing in spring training, is set to make his Major League debut Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox at Camden Yards.
Less than two years after the Washington Nationals made him a second-round pick out of Division III Wisconsin-Stevens Point, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann is set to make his big league debut tonight - weather permitting - against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. The 22-year-old earned a rotation spot by going 15-5 with a 2.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 205 K's in 187 minor league innings at three levels over the past two seasons and posting a 3.14 ERA in spring training. He started the year with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs because the Nats' schedule dictated that they didn't need a fifth starter for the first two weeks of the season.
There is no doubt Gary Sheffield deserves congratulations for slugging his 500th career home run in the Mets' 5-4 win over the Brewers on Friday night. Sheffield's name surfaced in the Mitchell Report and he reportedly admitted to the BALCO grand jury that he used what he thought were undetectable steroids, but even if you're providing yourself with an unfair advantage, it is still a remarkable accomplishment to hit a ball thrown at a high rate of speed by a big league pitcher over a fence 300-plus feet away on 500 separate occasions. That said, Sheffield's milestone blast served to further water down the membership of what was once baseball's most elilte group.
Major League teams are scouring the globe for talent like never before, but every now and then they still find what they're looking for right in their own backyard. That's certainly the case with the Baltimore Orioles and L.J. Hoes, a lifelong O's fan who was born in Bowie, Md., and starred at St. John's High School in Washington, D.C. When what was perceived as a strong commitment to North Carolina scared off some teams and caused Hoes to fall to the third round of the 2008 draft, Baltimore scooped him up and persuaded him to sign for a $490,000 bonus.
A lot of clubs had scratched Jack McGeary's name off their lists before the 2007 MLB draft even began. The high school lefty from Massachusetts was widely considered a first-round talent, but most thought his strong commitment to Stanford would result in a wasted draft choice for whatever organization ended up calling his name. The Nationals had other ideas. They selected McGeary with the 190th overall pick and bucked MLB's slot system by giving him a sixth-round record $1.8 million bonus. They also agreed to allow McGeary to attend classes at Stanford from September through early June for the first three years of his pro career - and to pay for them.
Being away from home is always tough during the holidays. I miss my family, the Food Network-quality meals and the evening cocktails with the boys. This Easter Sunday, however, I felt right at home despite being 2,500 miles from the great state of Massachusetts. I have Red Sox Nation to thank for that, as four friends and I trekked 91 miles north from San Diego to The Big A to see what turned out to be a whippersnapper with the Angels. What follows is an account of the joyous journey. By SEAN RAPOSA