T'S TEMPTING to pigeonhole Eric Duncan, the New York Yankees' top prospect, as a promising slugger. After all, Duncan, a 20-year-old third baseman with a sweet lefthanded swing, is built like a prototypical power hitter at 6'3", 212 pounds. And when New York made him a first-round amateur draft pick two years ago, scouts and the media gushed over his 30-home-run potential, comparing him with a young Jim Thome. But Duncan, who hit 16 homers in 461 at bats at Class A Battle Creek, Mich., and Tampa last year and had four dingers in 160 at bats for Double A Trenton through Sunday, has resisted the typecasting.
"As a corner [infielder] I'd be lying if I didn't say that I feel pressure to try to hit more home runs than I do," he says, "especially when you see guys like Scott Rolen and Chipper Jones put up 30 home runs every year. But each player needs to figure out what he can bring to the table. I'm not necessarily a big power guy, and I shouldn't try to be. I'd much rather hit .320 than hit 30 home runs, or even 20 home runs, with a low average."
In the Steroid Era the knee-jerk method for judging a young prospect, particularly an outfielder or corner infielder, was projecting his power-hitting capability. Now up-and-comers such as Duncan--the 36th-best minor league prospect in the country according to Baseball America--are feeling less inclined to swing for the fences.
"I already see that guys here are more relaxed and are starting to think they don't have to hit 30, 40 home runs," says Bill Masse, Duncan's manager in Trenton. "My job's easier. Players are listening more to [coaches] telling them how to be more consistent and improve on fundamentals. Now the emphasis is going to be on what it should have been all these years--fundamentally sound baseball."
Duncan doesn't have a problem with that. Growing up in northern New Jersey, he spent hours each day honing his swing in the batting cage that his father, Hal, built in their basement. A devoted Yankees fan, Duncan idolized outfielder Paul O'Neill, who hit better than .300 for the first six of his nine years with New York (1993--2001), but clubbed more than 25 homers only once in his 17 major league seasons.
As Duncan sees the standards changing on the big league level, he also sees the players around him changing. "Triple A players who were taking steroids to push themselves into the majors are going to get weeded out," he says. "Now those who maybe in the past wouldn't get a second look are going to get more of a chance. And I think that's great for the game." -- Albert Chen