Saunders No. 1 gift in expansion draft Tampa pick stuns lefty shopping for Christmas

November 19, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX -- Tony Saunders was wandering through the Columbia Mall yesterday, oblivious to his new place in baseball history, when the beeping sound from his cellular phone changed his life.

It wasn't a drastic change. A former Glen Burnie High School star, he was going from one Florida expansion team to another, but the news that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays had made him the first choice in baseball's expansion draft came as a complete surprise.

"Actually, I thought I was protected," Saunders said by conference call late yesterday afternoon. "Some of the newspapers in Florida were saying I was protected, so I didn't even see any reason to watch the draft. So we went to the mall."

He went there to get a family portrait taken for Christmas, but a Florida Marlins official reached him by phone and told him the news. He will join former Marlins pitching coach Larry Rothschild -- the Devil Rays' new manager -- for the debut of regular-season baseball in the Tampa Bay area.

"I'm very excited," Saunders said. "At first, there was that little bit of disappointment because I wasn't one of the 15 who were protected by the Marlins, but I'm excited to be part of the Devil Rays. It's tough to leave [the Marlins]. I've been with them since I started in professional baseball, but I think it will be an easy adjustment, because Tampa Bay also is a new team."

Rothschild, who was hired to manage the Devil Rays two weeks ago, indicated that the Marlins originally intended to protect Saunders, but decided later to put veteran left-hander Al Leiter on the protected list instead -- perhaps to hold on to him for a rumored deal with the Orioles. "I think the talk early on was to protect him," Rothschild said, "but as we all know, things change rapidly in Florida. They protected Al Leiter and I think Tony was the person that fell off at that point."

The Devil Rays opened the 70-player draft by choosing a left-handed pitcher who played in the 1997 World Series, and the Arizona Diamondbacks followed suit, using their first choice to select left-hander Brian Anderson from the Cleveland Indians.

Anderson was watching the draft on television from his home in Olmstead, Ohio, and had mixed feelings when he heard his name called. He's a native Ohioan who felt like he had found a home on the Indians' roster.

"To be quite honest, it's difficult," he said. "To get a chance to come back to Cleveland on such a quick time line after I was drafted was the biggest thrill. And it was awesome to be part of the organization and get to the World Series. So it was a definite shock to be leaving, but all year there have been rumors about it and everything I've heard about Arizona is awesome.

"Everything that's being done is being done in a top-notch manner, so it's sad to leave home, but now I get a chance to be the foundation of a franchise that looks like it wants to put a winner on the field right away, so that's very exciting and something to look forward to."

Predictably, both expansion clubs focused heavily on minor-league talent in the first round, but the makeup of the two teams was very different after each had chosen 14 players.

The Diamondbacks concentrated on stocking their roster with young pitching, selecting Anderson and Boston Red Sox prospect Jeff Suppan with their first two picks and choosing seven pitchers in all in the first round. The Devil Rays went heavier with position players, taking Colorado Rockies outfield prospect Quinton McCracken with their second choice and taking only four more pitchers in the first round -- one of them Orioles prospect Esteban Yan.

By the end of the seven-hour draft marathon, however, both clubs had devoted most of their new rosters to pitching, the Diamondbacks taking 21 pitchers and the Devil Rays taking 18.

"I think we looked at the board and we saw there was some good pitching there," said Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., "but they certainly would be gone after the first round. Teams were going to try to get some of these guys through and then pull them back. And we knew or we pretty much felt, we would have one shot at these guys and it would be in the first round."

Suppan also is considered a top-flight prospect. He was 7-3 in 22 starts at the major-league level last year and was considered one of the cornerstones of the Red Sox youth movement. There had been speculation that the Red Sox would not protect him -- perhaps because of the rapid emergence of pitching prospect Carl Pavano -- but Suppan seemed disappointed nonetheless.

"I was shocked by it," he said, "but I came to realize that through the rules of the expansion draft, you can't protect everyone, and definitely it's a business decision."

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