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UP AND COMING
The Triple A All-Star Game on July 11 in Las Vegas had what its major league counterpart in Chicago the previous night didn't: excitement, runs, hits, home runs, steals and top-notch defense. Future big leaguers played that night in Las Vegas, and others are playing every night somewhere in the minor leagues. The tricky part is predicting which players will become stars in the majors. The best bets were the two top performers in the All-Star Game: Oklahoma City outfielder Juan Gonzalez and Albuquerque shortstop Jose Offerman.
Gonzalez, 20, the most promising prospect in the Rangers' system, was leading the American Association in homers (18) at the All-Star break. At 6'3", 210 pounds, he reminds people of Texas right-fielder Ruben Sierra, and he impressed the crowd in Las Vegas by crushing a double and a home run. "People forget that he's only 20," says Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson. "I hate to use this word, but he's a potential superstar. He hasn't scratched the surface yet."
Texas doesn't want to rush Gonzalez and may keep him down on the farm until major league rosters expand in September. Says Gonzalez, "I guarantee, if I spend the whole year here, I will be in the Rangers' lineup on Opening Day next year."
Offerman, 21, is expected to be in the Dodgers' Opening Day lineup in 1991, but a Los Angeles scout says, "He's ready now." The Dodgers aren't in a pennant race, so they want Offerman to spend the whole season in Triple A. "If I was ready to play in the big leagues now, I'd be there," says Offerman, who was hitting .339 with 51 steals, 44 RBIs and 23 errors at the break. "I need to work on my consistency."
A six-foot, 160-pounder, Offerman has the same build and many of the same moves as one of his idols, Blue Jay shortstop Tony Fernandez, a fellow native of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. "He's no doubt the best prospect in our league," says Vancouver manager Marv Foley. "He's going to be a major league All-Star. He can swing the bat. He could hit 10 to 15 home runs someday."
After Gonzalez and Offer-man, the talent levels off in Triple A, but there are some prospects. First baseman Tino Martinez of Calgary, a Mariners farm team, was batting .323 with 10 homers at the break. "He's the best hitter in our league," says Foley. In addition, Louisville (Cardinals) centerfielder Ray Lankford and third baseman Leo Gomez and first baseman David Segui of Rochester (N.Y.) in the Oriole system could be big league starters next season.
Perhaps the four best arms in Triple A this season were called up to the majors in the last six weeks: Ben McDonald (Orioles), Steve Avery and Kent Mercker (Braves) and Scott Scudder (Reds). A few to keep an eye on include Scott Chiamparino of Tacoma (A's), Rafael Valdez of Las Vegas (Padres) and Jason Grimsley of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the Phillie organization. Chiamparino resembles Oakland's Bob Welch; the Athletics hope he will pitch like Welch too.
Further down on the farm, in Double A, Canton-Akron shortstop Mark Lewis should be starting for the Indians sometime next year. With 16 homers, Frank Thomas of Birmingham in the White Sox system may be the best power-hitting prospect in the minors. Jeff Conine, the Royals' 58th-round pick in the 1987 draft, has torn up the Southern League for Memphis. Willie Banks of Orlando (Twins) may be the finest pitcher in Double A.
Overall, however, the minor league crop is not particularly strong. "The studs today are as good as any other year," says Johnson. "There just aren't as many of them." He and most other scouting directors agree that there's a shortage of pitching as well as of power hitters and speed.