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This year the team with the best crop of rookies is—would you believe?—the Seattle Mariners, and the player on the top of the list is center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., the No. 1 draft pick two years ago. At 19, Griffey is trying to make the jump to the majors after only 75 games of minor league ball. Says Toronto scout Gordon Lakey, "He looks like a young Harold Baines as a hitter, but he can do more things than Baines. His power probably won't blossom until he's 22 or 23."
Other promising rookies are shortstop Omar Vizquel. who one scout says "is as flashy as Ozzie Guillen but with more range and speed"; second baseman Greg (Pee Wee) Briley, who is being compared with former Reds star Joe Morgan; and 6'6" righthander Erik Hanson, who has already earned a spot in the rotation.
That's the good news. The bad is that, as usual, Seattle owner George Argyros is being tight with his cash. In January. Seattle could have signed his ace, Mark Langston, for $5.4 million over three years, but Argyros backed down. Now Langston, who will become a free agent at the end of the season, is asking for $7 million. In February, the Mets offered to trade third baseman Howard Johnson and pitchers Sid Fernandez and David West to the Mariners for Langston and outfielder Jay Buhner, but that deal died, too. The Mariners' most recent attempt to solve the problem was to offer Langston and Buhner to the Braves for outfielder Dale Murphy, lefthander Tom Glavine and another pitcher. "We have to find out whether Langston is going to stay or not, because it can't drag on," says new manager Jim Lefebvre. "We'll end up where we get nothing for him, the way we did for Mike Moore."
The best comeback story of the spring has been 33-year-old outfielder Lonnie Smith. After being released by the Kansas City Royals in 1987, he signed with the Atlanta Braves' Triple A farm club in Richmond last year and hit .300. This winter Smith went to Puerto Rico and led the league in steals, and now he has won the job as Atlanta's leadoff hitter. "He's like the Lonnie of old, only he's better in the outfield now." says Braves general manager Bobby Cox. "I guess we can't call him Skates any more."
Another player who is making a successful rebound is Red Sox DH Jim Rice. He arrived in camp 15 pounds lighter and well aware that he might lose his job, even though he has a year and $2.4 million left on his contract. By week's end he was hitting .429 with four homers and 14 RBIs. "I spent two or three years trying to hit the ball to rightfield and save my .300 average," says Rice. "This year. I want to go back to hitting the ball for power. The team needs me to do that."
SIGNS OF SPRING
There have been lots of rookie surprises this spring. Centerfielder Junior Felix, originally signed out of a track meet, has made a big impact on the Toronto Blue Jays, and Oakland's switch-hitting outfielder Felix Jose nearly stole Luis Polonia's job. San Diego Padres righthander Greg Harris, who won nine games with 147 strikeouts for Las Vegas last year, has developed a repertoire of four pitches he can throw for strikes. And St. Louis Cardinals righthander Cris Carpenter has won the spot in the rotation that opened up when Danny Cox aggravated the ligament damage in his right elbow on March 12....
This year the Major League Scouting Bureau has two pitchers above 70 (on a 20-to-80 ranking system) for the first time since 1975, when the bureau began rating players. LSU's Ben McDonald has been given a 73, and Keith (Kiki) Jones of Hillsborough High in Tampa, got a 72, which is good news for the Orioles and Braves, who have the first two picks in the June draft. "When Dwight Gooden was at Hillsborough. I said he was the best high school pitcher I'd ever seen," says Boston scout George Digby. "But Jones is better. He's smaller (5'11", 175), but he has the same velocity and a better curveball."...