Los Angeles — Baseball rookies are often as unpredictable as mice turned loose in a wooden maze. They may start out great, but who can safely estimate in March or April how some kid pitcher or hitter will be performing in September? Yet until about three years ago, baseball teams almost never traded any of their best rookies. And when they did, it was because they felt confident of getting top value in return and knew they already had a young player with all-star potential on the roster.
If these qualifications were not met, a rookie had to fail two or three times at the big league level before he was considered expendable. Not wanting to trade away a young player who might be instrumental in a rival team's success, general managers used both caution and patience before cutting anyone loose.
But the growing trend among baseball teams today is to give up even super rookies to get the proven veterans needed to win a division title.
For example, the New York Mets, who finished only 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs last year in the National League West, didn't hesitate to trade two of their top farm hands to the Montreal Expos at the end of last season. In return the Mets got all-star catcher Gary Carter, who hit 27 homers and drove in 106 runs in 1984.
Ordinarily New York would have held onto pitcher Floyd Youmans and outfielder Herman Winningham until they were ready to become permanent members of the parent club. Only on rare occasions would they ever deal them to a team in their own division. But the chance to get Carter, whose presence in the lineup might mean an instant pennant for the Mets, was too great to pass up.
Meanwhile, Montreal's front office had no trouble justifying this trade on the basis that: (1) the Expos had never won a division title with Carter; and (2) they were getting rid of a contract in excess of $1 million a year. In fact, the combined salaries of Youmans and Winningham won't add up to a fraction of what the Expos were paying Carter.
Economics was also behind the trade of veteran outfielder Rickey Henderson from the Oakland A's to the New York Yankees. Even though Henderson stole 130 bases for the A's as recently as 1982, Oakland wasn't about to give a multi-year, million-dollar contract to a player who probably wasn't going to affect its final position in the standings.
So Henderson got a huge chunk of New York owner George Steinbrenner's money instead, and the A's got four outstanding young players from the Yankees in pitchers Jose Rijo, Eric Plunk, and Tim Birtsas, plus outfielder Stan Javier. Stan is the son of former Cardinal second baseman Julian Javier.
Even though the San Diego Padres got all the way to the World Series in 1984 before losing to the Detroit Tigers in five games, the Padres' pitching was always considered somewhat suspect. To give San Diego a possible stopper this year, the Padres traded rookie shortstop Ozzie Guillen, once the pride of the farm system, to the Chicago White Sox for 1983 American League Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt.
Once again it was a case of San Diego putting today (meaning Hoyt) ahead of a lot of tomorrows (meaning Guillen). If Ozzie is as good as everybody says he can be, then the White Sox are set at shortstop for the next 10 years. And when they got rid of Hoyt, of course, they also eliminated a hefty salary.
More and more it looks as though only the teams in major television markets or with tremendously rich owners are going to be able to afford to keep players like Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, and Rick Sutcliffe.
The rest are going to have to get as much production as possible out of their young stars, then rely on their farm systems to replenish whatever talent may be lost to free agency.
While this is considered a tough way to go, the Seattle Mariners took a big step in that direction last season when they produced the American League's Rookie of the Year in first baseman Alvin Davis and the runner-up in pitcher Mark Langston. The power-hitting Davis had 27 home runs, while Langston (17-10) led the league in strikeouts with 204.
While nobody can be sure if this will be their year or not, other 1985 rookies worth watching include Yankee infielder Rex Hudler; White Sox catcher Joel Skinner and outfielder Darryl Boston; Indians' pitcher Jeff Barkley; and Astros' first baseman Glenn Davis.
Although Cubs' shortstop Shawon Dunston probably needs at least two more years in the minors, Manager Jim Frey says he is going to play him in spring exhibitions and see what happens. However, when Chicago promoted Dunston from Double-A to Triple-A ball partway through last season, his batting average skidded 100 points.
Still, if Dunston plays well defensively on some of those wavy spring training infields, Frey may be tempted to go with him at the big league level, at least for a while.