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INSIDE BASEBALL

Not-So-Fab Five

by Tim Crothers

Posted: Wed May 13, 1998

 
Sports Illustrated They were hailed at the start of the season as baseball's Fab Five, a quintet of talented young first basemen who were expected to steal some of the limelight from veterans like Tino Martinez, Mo Vaughn and Andres Galarraga. Call it a rookie mistake. After six weeks the Fab Five had already lost one member to the minor leagues; none of the others have achieved fabulousness. Here's an update:

Brad Fullmer, Expos. Viewed as the latest gem from the Montreal system, he hit a home run off Bret Saberhagen in his first major league at bat last September. Fullmer began this season batting cleanup in a punchless lineup and has sputtered, hitting .250 and driving in nine runs through Sunday. He has also quibbled with manager Felipe Alou, who believes Fullmer stands too close to the plate and gets jammed by inside fastballs.

Brad Fullmer
The Expos' Fullmer and other rookie first basemen are swinging and missing.    (Jonathan Kirn/Allsport)

With his barrel chest and strong arms, Fullmer bears a physical resemblance to Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, but he has displayed only gap power this season with 11 doubles and just one home run. Still, there are good signs, such as a mere 12 strikeouts in 120 at bats. "He reminds me a lot of Larry Walker," Alou says. "He's a businessman at the plate, and, like Larry, I think his home runs will increase as he advances in his career."

The highlight of Fullmer's season has been a 4-for-4 day in the major league debut of Cubs phenom righthander Kerry Wood. "I think I've proven I can hit," Fullmer says. "If I struggle, I'm not going to say it is because I'm a rookie. I know what I can do. I just have to do it." Grade: B-

Todd Helton, Rockies. He has discovered that Galarraga is a tough act to follow, but this is familiar territory for him: Helton succeeded Heath Shuler as quarterback at Tennessee. Galarraga hit 88 homers and drove in 290 runs in the last two seasons, but Colorado chose not to re-sign the 36-year-old free agent because the club believed Helton was ready to move up. The Rockies' first-round draft pick in '95, Helton hit .352 in 120 Triple A games in '96 and '97 combined, and hit five homers in 93 major league at bats last season. At week's end he was hitting .278 with four home runs and 20 RBIs, and he has looked overmatched at times. "Pitching is the biggest difference up here," Helton says. "Nothing's straight. Everything cuts, runs, sinks, rises or something. It's a matter of learning to trust the plan you take up to the plate and not changing it after you get a strike."

Helton is a patient contact hitter who has more walks (13) than strikeouts (10), but the Rockies feel he has been too passive. "We have to be patient with Todd," Colorado general manager Bob Gebhard says. "Is he going to hit 40 homers right out of the chute? No. Is he as good defensively as Andres? Not now. But he's going to strike out less and put the ball in play more. I think he'll be fine." Grade: C+

Paul Konerko, Dodgers. He was anointed the latest in a series of Los Angeles prospects who have earned five of the last six National League Rookie of the Year awards. After taking '97 Minor League Player of the Year honors by hitting .323 with 37 homers and 127 RBIs for Triple A Albuquerque, Konerko was handed the Dodgers' first base job in spring training after Eric Karros underwent knee surgery. He cruised through the spring, hitting .337 with five homers and 23 RBIs, but then began the season 5 for 30 and started pressing.

When Karros returned on April 24, Konerko, hitting .197 with no extra-base hits and two RBIs, was optioned to Triple A. L.A. hitting coach Reggie Smith said Konerko was being too selective at the plate. "I knew that I was going to be facing tougher competition, but I didn't swing the bat like I'm capable of swinging it," Konerko says. "It was just ridiculous."

The Dodgers' rookie sensation of 1996, outfielder Todd Hollandsworth, batted .234 with no homers and six RBIs in April of that year but was able to hang in and battle back to win the National League's top rookie award. "It's just so different in L.A.," Hollandsworth says. "The pressure is enormous. Believe me, it can get to you."

Konerko will play leftfield with Albuquerque, and when he finds his stroke, he could return as an outfielder. Grade: D

Derrek Lee, Marlins. Lee was acquired by Florida from the Padres in an offseason trade for Kevin Brown. His rookie year has seemed like a bungee jump. He had a poor spring, which allowed another rookie, Ryan Jackson, to get most of the early-season playing time at first base. When Lee got his shot, he hit .321 with six homers, including two grand slams, and 17 RBIs in just eight games from April 7 to 17. Since then he has taken another plunge, hitting .200 with one homer and six RBIs in 19 games through Sunday.

At 6'5", Lee, who once hit 34 homers in a minor league season, possesses a long fluid swing with the kind of torque that reminds scouts of a young Darryl Strawberry. Not surprisingly, that swing has also led to 26 strikeouts in 83 at bats this season. Marlins manager Jim Leyland has played him selectively. "I like Lee a lot, but he's a rookie," Leyland says. "Everybody talks about young guys like they're the second coming of Babe Ruth, and it's not fair to these kids." Grade: C

Travis Lee, Diamondbacks. He was the most hyped of the Fab Five, mostly because he had received a $10 million deal from expansion Arizona before he had played a professional game. Last season he hit .363 at Class A High Desert and then .300 at Triple A Tucson with a combined 32 homers and 109 RBIs.

This year Lee has displayed a smooth, compact stroke to go with excellent patience at the plate. He went 3 for 4 on Opening Day, including the Diamondbacks' first home run. The most consistent of the five rookies, with eight homers, 19 RBIs and 19 runs scored, he has yet to make an error, while showing excellent range on defense. "We took a lot of grief for that $10 million," Arizona manager Buck Showalter says, "and it may turn out to be a bargain." Grade: B+

Issue date: May 18, 1998

 
  OTHER NOTES
 
Not-So-Fab Five

Throwing a Career Away

Cys Do Matter

What Were They Thinking?

The Buzz

The Little Show

Spotlight: Melvin Nieves

 
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