Hammonds in big field filled with top rookies

May 08, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles gleefully note in their media guide that Jeffrey Hammonds is still considered a rookie despite collecting 32 hits in 33 games last season.

The Oakland A's were so excited about Steve Karsay's Rookie of the Year chances, they shut him down early last September to ensure he remained eligible for the award.

Little did either club know how intense the American League competition would be. Toronto's Carlos Delgado hit eight home runs in his first 14 games, but he's already yesterday's news.

Hammonds is on a pace to bat .326 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs, but Cleveland's Manny Ramirez and Kansas City's Bob Hamelin have been even more productive.

Karsay was second in the AL with a 1.17 ERA on April 25, but now he's on the disabled list, and Texas' Rick Helling has replaced another injured rookie, California's Brian Anderson, as the hot pitcher of the moment.

This is a league of young stars, from Ken Griffey, Frank Thomas and Juan Gonzalez to Mike Mussina, Alex Fernandez and Aaron Sele. Its dynamic rookie class gives it another edge over the NL.

Oh, the NL has strong rookies -- Los Angeles' Raul Mondesi, Atlanta's Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez, Montreal's Cliff Floyd and Rondell White. But Hammonds was a clear favorite for the AL award, and now he might not finish in the top three.

Orioles coach Davey Lopes says the strength of the class can't be evaluated until after 60 games, with the season more than one-third complete. But it's already obvious that this is an unusual crop.

Heck, only four AL players even received Rookie of the Year votes when Pat Listach won the award two years ago. Kevin Maas, the runner-up to Sandy Alomar in 1990, was released this spring by the New York Yankees.

Some years are special -- Cal Ripken, Kent Hrbek and Wade Boggs finished 1-2-3 in 1982 -- but it's rare when the rookie talent is that deep.

Two years before the AL hit the Ripken-Hrbek-Boggs trifecta, its top three rookie vote-getters were Joe Charboneau, Dave Stapleton and Doug Corbett.

What do Mark Eichhorn, Ernest Riles and Milt Cuyler have in common? Each finished third in the AL rookie balloting within the past 10 years.

This season, Hammonds, Karsay and Ramirez might wind up as the top three. Or maybe it will be Delgado, Hamelin and Helling.

The race is on.

The first Hammonds-Ramirez showdown probably won't take place in this series -- Hammonds could return to the Orioles' lineup today, but Ramirez is in an 0-for-15 slump and probably won't play against Ben McDonald.

Delgado arrives with Toronto tomorrow. His average might be below .200 by then. He hasn't hit a home run since April 19. But can anyone dismiss a player who earned the nickname "Hard Rock" in his first week in the major leagues?

Indeed, the rookie wars figure to remain a fascinating sub-plot the entire season. The Orioles had the chance to draft Ramirez. The Indians had the chance to draft Hammonds. Of course, it worked out just the opposite.

Ramirez was the 13th pick in the 1991 draft, out of George Washington High School in New York City. The Orioles preferred a collegian, and chose USC's Mark Smith with the ninth selection.

High school hitters are generally considered gambles. Ken Griffey, the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, became a superstar. Shawn Abner, the No. 1 overall pick in 1984, was a bust.

Ever hear of Jeff Jackson? Philadelphia took him over Auburn's Frank Thomas with the No. 4 pick in 1989. The Orioles picked Keith Schmidt in the second round that year. He, too, was a flop.

Ramirez also qualified as a risk, especially for a team that three years before chose high school shortstop Mark Lewis over Steve Avery and Gregg Olson. His speed was below-average, and so was his arm. But the Indians loved his bat, and their confidence was rewarded.

Last season, Baseball America named Ramirez its minor-league player of the year. This season, he forced the Indians to keep him with a monster spring, and despite his recent slump, he's batting .282 with six homers and 21 RBIs.

Hammonds, meanwhile, is an Oriole only because he warned Houston, Cleveland and Montreal not to draft him in 1992. "That ticked me off," Indians general manager John Hart recalled yesterday. "His father called the day before the draft and said if the Indians drafted us, we're not signing."

The Indians took right-hander Paul Shuey instead, and on Friday they promoted him from Single A to be their closer. One day, Shuey might fill the void created by the death of Steve Olin. But at this point, he's no Jeffrey Hammonds.

So, who'll be Rookie of the Year? At this point, it's impossible to tell. Suffice it to to say that Hammonds, Ramirez and Co. will make things interesting this summer -- and keep them interesting for years to come.

ORIOLES TODAY

Opponent: Cleveland Indians

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Time: 1:35 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Indians' Mark Clark (2-0, 4.22) vs. Orioles' Ben McDonald (6-0, 2.33)

Tickets: Scattered singles remain, not including 183 bleacher and 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.

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