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New wave of leadoff hitters take over MLB

Posted: Friday May 16, 2003 11:05 AM

D'Angelo Jimenez has sparked the White Sox with an on-base percentage near .400 and a slugging percentage above .500. Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Homers hit by the Rockies in their past 15 games, all by Preston Wilson.
Jayson Blair stories from The New York Times:
1 Torre fired; Billy Martin takes over.
2 Mo Vaughn wins Gold Glove.
3 Rangers coast to Stanley Cup title.
4 Piazza moves to shortstop.
5 Jeter rescues kids from burning building.
6 Whitey Ford prepares for comeback.
By Jacob Luft,

It is less than two weeks before Memorial Day, and Rickey Henderson has yet to get The Call.

Normally, it wouldn't take this long for the best leadoff hitter in history to be picked up, even at his advanced baseball age of 44. He's roamed like a gypsy the past few years -- Padres, Angels, A's, Mets, Mariners, Padres and Red Sox -- but there was always a place at the top of the lineup for a guy who can get on base.

The surprising bottom line -- and the bad news for Rickey -- is that there may not be much of a need for his services. Just a few years ago, it seemed every team's problem was finding a reliable leadoff hitter. Guys like Marvin Benard, Doug Glanville and Tom Goodwin were considered adequate, if not outright desirable.

In 2001, there were five teams that posted an OBP of at least .350 from the leadoff spot. The number was the same in 2002. But this season there are nine clubs getting more than a .350 OBP (and two others above .347) from the No. 1 spot in the batting order. As's John Donovan points out, that could have a lot to do with a general increase in walks.

But it also is because, for the first time in recent memory, most clubs in the majors have been able to find a capable, if not outstanding, leadoff hitter. Look at this list of prominent leadoff men who have emerged in the past three seasons, ranked in order of their current on-base percentages:

American League: Milton Bradley (.419), Indians; D'Angelo Jimenez (.399), White Sox; Alfonso Soriano (.389), Yankees; Jerry Hairston Jr. (.374), Orioles; David Eckstein (.352), Angels; Ichiro Suzuki (.352), Mariners; Jacque Jones (.349), Twins; Mark Ellis (.320), A's.

National League: Rafael Furcal, Braves (.391); Ramon Vazquez (.363), Padres; Dave Roberts (.361), Dodgers; Jimmy Rollins (.341), Phillies; Juan Pierre (.332), Marlins.

Now add these players to the more established group of Boston's Johnny Damon, Toronto's Shannon Stewart, San Francisco's Ray Durham and the still-serviceable Kenny Lofton of Pittsburgh, and it becomes apparent that we are in the middle of a boom year for leadoff men.

This week's topic: Now that Erubiel Durazo has been liberated from life on the bench, here are three players who deserve the same chance.

1. Johan Santana, LHP, Twins: He's been relegated to the bullpen despite going 7-4 with a 3.13 ERA (89 K's in 74.2 IP) as a starter last year. Instead of penciling him into the rotation, the Twins signed veteran lefty Kenny Rogers. So far, only one Twins starter has an ERA below 4.00 while Santana's talents are being underused in the bullpen.

2. Mark DeRosa, INF, Braves By now, the Braves should know better to expect anything better than an OPS around .600 from third baseman Vinny Castilla. DeRosa has all of 444 career at-bats to his credit, but it wouldn't take much to outproduce a guy who has done all his career damage in ultra-hitters' ballparks.

3. Miguel Olivo, C, White Sox He's getting significant time in a platoon with Sandy Alomar Jr., but it soon may be time to hand him the full-time gig. The 24-year-old has all the tools behind the plate, including a cannon arm, and even sports some nice wheels, stealing 29 bases in Class AA last year.

Welcome to the world of alternate photo captions:
Anybody here know the infield fly rule? AP
We're not saying Jack McKeon is old, but he did fall asleep at his introductory news conference with the Marlins. AP
Who says there is no reason to go to an Expos game?AP
Now batting ... Kevin Young. AP

It would be easy to pile on Jose Guillen here for insisting on keeping his starting job over Ken Griffey Jr.

But you know what? Guillen is probably right. The 26-year-old journeyman is having a breakout year, hitting .333 (slugging a fat .618) with seven home runs and 21 RBIs. He also brings a bazooka of an arm to the Reds' outfield.

Considering how fragile Griffey is, and how important he is to the club in a P.R. sense, would it be smart to subject him to the grind of playing every day? Reds manager Bob Boone probably would be better off with Guillen as the third outfielder and the fragile Griffey coming off the bench, or maybe going with a straight platoon of Guillen against lefties and Griffey against righties.

The Red Sox have closed to within one game of the Yankees, and it has a lot to do with the play of their respective bullpens. Led by Juan Acevedo's meltdown (11 earned runs in past eight appearances), the Yankees' bullpen ERA has ballooned to 5.14. Meanwhile, the Boston bullpen posted a 1.24 ERA (4 ER/29 IP) in its past nine games before Thursday. ... One reason for the Angels' slow start is a lack of production from the No. 9 spot. Last year, they got a .299 average, 9 HRs and 61 RBIs out of the No. 9 hole, mostly because of Adam Kennedy. This year they are getting .228 with zero home runs from a committee that includes Kennedy, Chone Figgins, Eric Owens, Benji Gil and Jeff DeVanon. ... Everybody is waiting for the White Sox's Esteban Loaiza to collapse, but in has past two starts he has beaten the A's and Orioles, allowing two earned runs in 13 innings. ... Outfielder Eric Byrnes may be the latest gem from the A's minor league system. Byrnes, who was impressive at every level of the Oakland farm system, is hitting .417 during a seven-game hitting streak and drove in four runs Thursday. ... It appears Ichiro Suzuki is heating up after the first extended slump of his career. The former batting champion is hitting .337 over his last 20 games to raise his average from .250 to .297. Could Jeff Cirillo be next? He is 8-for-19 with four RBIs in his past five games. ... The Brewers struck out 24 times in their 17-inning loss to the Cubs on Thursday, setting an NL record for K's in an extra-inning game -- and that's with whiffmaster Jose Hernandez gone to Colorado.

Jacob Luft covers baseball for