04/01/2004 8:00 AM ET
Five superstars in the wings
Gerut, Huff, Kearns, Lee, Reyes ascending quickly
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
|Carlos Lee led the White Sox with 113 RBIs last season. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
They are five position players with dramatically different personalities and yet so much in common. They are superstars in the wings, five rookie cards to keep in mint condition, five bolts out of the blue on teams hoping to climb divisional ladders.
There is also a direct correlation between how quickly these projected superstars reach their potential and how quickly their teams contend. So far, you have to like the ride. Here is a look at MLB.com's Fab Five for the future:
Jody Gerut, Indians outfielder
It's pronounced "Gerut," similar to "Garret," as in Garret Anderson. That pronunciation -- a frequent bobble made by people who quickly noticed the Cleveland outfielder in 2003 -- might not be the only reason to use Anderson as a comparison one day soon.
Gerut hit .279 with 22 home runs, 66 runs and 75 RBIs, and although it was Kansas City's Angel Berroa who won the American League Rookie of the Year award over Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui, it might have belonged to Gerut had he not spent the first month of the season with Triple-A Buffalo.
Just as impressive as Gerut's ability on the field is his ability to articulate his views on life as a Major Leaguer. This is not your average second-year player -- or any average player for that matter. He was studying and driving balls to the gap at Stanford during the heady tech-boom days of the late '90s in Palo Alto, and today he is a tech-savvy pro who speaks his mind to fans through a personal weblog. His discourses range from steroids to sophomore slumps, and in the latter entry he refers to a falloff in his numbers during his second year at Stanford -- a lesson he says he learned.
"I felt like I learned a lot that year," Gerut said recently at Spring Training. "I also think there's a reason the term 'sophomore slump' exists. The word 'sophomore' means 'wise fool' -- someone who thinks he knows more than he does. And in the end, who knows, that could happen again. All I've tried to do is keep the same preparation and the same motive. Goals now change -- into becoming a consistent player."
As for his blogging, Gerut says, "It's great for me, because it gives me an opportunity to lay out things that may be misconstrued or slanted in the general media. Also, it's kind of therapeutic. If I need to get something off my chest, something that happened on the field, I post an entry as often as I like. People have taken an interest in it."
Aubrey Huff, Rays DH
"Huff Daddy" was sitting in front of his locker in St. Petersburg, Fla., one recent morning after batting practice, looking ahead. Not to the Japan series against the Yankees to open the season. Way ahead. He was asked what mark he ultimately hopes to leave on a sport he only really came to know as a Texas high schooler.
"That's a question I don't think I've ever been asked or really thought about," he said. "You know, I just want to be thought of as having been a good teammate, a guy who can look back and say I was fun to play with -- that all of the days at the ballpark were enjoyable when I was part of the team."
Now you just have to fill in the blanks, and Aubrey Huff is well on his way. He had a bigger 2003 than Pat Burrell, his close friend and teammate from their University of Miami days. Even bigger than teammate Rocco Baldelli, who seemed to get all the pub as a rookie. Huff hit .311 with 34 homers, 107 RBIs and a .922 OPS (on-base plus slugging), and was rewarded with a multiyear contract and the hope of a franchise.
"What he did last year was just a big, big offensive season for a Major League player," said his manager, Lou Piniella. "He had, what, 47 doubles? (Two shy of the AL lead.) If he duplicated those numbers, we'd be very pleased. Maybe drive in a few more runs if that's possible, but the batting average and homers are very impressive."
All the Rays want him to do now is focus on that offense. He starts this season as their regular designated hitter, now that Jose Cruz Jr. is in right and Tino Martinez is at first. "You never want to be pigeon-holed as a 27-year-old DH," Huff said, "but that's my role. I'll do whatever it takes. We have a good core here and we want to win now."
Huff is pretty versatile for a DH, and those who listen to his country singing know it. He is the Majors' karaoke king, and it was ironic that one of his favorite singers, Garth Brooks, was in camp with the Royals while Huff was wondering what it would be like to sing professionally.
"I wouldn't trade with him, because there are too many of those guys," Huff says of singing. "But it's funny you should mention Garth. I do his charities, tournaments for kids, and I saw him this past offseason in Vegas. We talked about baseball and him trying out again. You could see it in his eyes how much he wants it. He loves the game."
Austin Kearns, Reds right fielder
It was a rainy night in 1998, and one of the best nights of Austin Kearns' life. He was a senior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Ky., and a busload of Cincinnati Reds scouts had come to watch him put on a show.
"I remember we were in the district tournament, and 20 or 25 scouts stuck around after the game," Kearns said. "I was going to swing with a wooden bat, and it was raining a little bit. It was one of the best times of your life. It's high school, not a care in the world."
Kearns hit about seven balls in a row onto the roof of the high school gym beyond the left-field fence.
The rest is history in the making. Scouts still say his potential is as limitless as that night in Lexington, but the whole key for Kearns is staying healthy for a full season. He injured his right shoulder in a home-plate collision with Atlanta pitcher Ray King last May 21, and at the time of his injury he was leading the National League with 58 RBIs to go along with 13 homers. In 37 games after the injury, he hit .208 with little pop. Arthroscopic surgery ended his season prematurely, and Kearns spent the bulk of Spring Training slowly building strength in his throwing shoulder.
"I should be close to 100 percent when we leave Spring Training," Kearns said in mid-March. "I'll know when it's there. When I go throw, sometimes it takes a while to loosen up. Once I'm pain-free, I don't have to do all the things to get loose, apply the heat, any of that. I'll know."
And when Austin Kearns feels like Austin Kearns again, any day now, swinging that black Carolina Clubs wand effortlessly again, he wants to play with the same drive and approach he loved in the favorite Major Leaguer of his youth.
"Andre Dawson is the guy I always admired," Kearns said. "It just seemed like whenever I came home from school, the Cubs were always on TV, and he was my favorite player. He was real intense, and I loved his approach to the game."
Carlos Lee, White Sox left fielder
On the subject of "superstars in the wings," Carlos Lee is just fine with the wings.
"I don't feel any extra pressure. I just go out and prepare myself for the game and give it everything I have. If I do that, I'll be OK," Lee said. "I don't let the talk get to me. I'm the one who ultimately has to do it and take care of business. If I go about the game in the right way, the game will go my way."
It went his way for the most part in 2003. Lee hit .291 with career-highs in homers (31), hits (181), doubles (35), stolen bases (18), total bases (311), extra-base hits (67) and RBIs (113). He led the White Sox in RBIs (113) and stolen bases (18) and ranked second in homers. In 727 games since his debut in 1999, Lee has a .284 average with 121 homers and 453 RBIs. The Panama native is 27 and just hitting his prime, starting this season after tearing up the Cactus League. And with Magglio Ordonez in right field it can be argued that no team is stronger at the outfield corners.
Lee figures to play a big RBI-role on the 2004 Sox, protecting Frank Thomas in the new batting order with Thomas hitting fourth and Ordonez third and Lee fifth. With improved plate discipline, Lee improved his average and run-production last season by chasing fewer pitches.
"Carlos has the ability to do that for many years," said Ordonez, a perennial 100-RBI guy who was referring to Lee's run-production strength in 2003. "It's one of those goals, as a run producer, you want to reach every year."
Goals? Lee says he has none.
"I don't set any goals because goals are limitations to me," he said. "You come up short, at times, and then you try to press and overdo things. I just go out there and try to do my best and work hard and prepare to be good."
Jose Reyes, Mets second baseman
It was the first inning of the first 2004 exhibition between two Major League clubs, and Jose Reyes immediately reminded everyone of his potential. He hit a low line drive off Dodgers starter Hideo Nomo and somehow stretched it from your basic single into a double. That is the tempo the Mets hope their converted shortstop will set for them this season, and the tempo most people expect to set a career.
Reyes is off and running at age 20, and now the only question is whether those lithe legs will let him go from a canter to a gallop. He had a 17-game hitting streak in his first year with the Mets last season, he became the first rookie since 1988 to homer from both sides of the plate in a game, and he finished second among NL rookies in batting and steals.
Reyes has been sidelined the last half of the Grapefruit League schedule with a strained hamstring, his fifth leg injury in the last 15 months, and the club acquired Ricky Gutierrez as insurance. Once Reyes is back in the lineup, they are counting on him to partner with new shortstop Kaz Matsui and give them that Juan Pierre-Luis Castillo kind of electricity at the top of the order.
"His makeup is outstanding. He just loves to play the game," Mets manager Art Howe said of the 6-foot, 160-pound Dominican switch-hitter. "The key ingredient is that he loves to be out there. The way he acts on the field, he's always enthusiastic. And obviously his tools beat you. Defensively and offensively, he's what I would call a complete player. And he'll develop some power as he gets older. The key is staying healthy. He'll get better and better but you have to be on the field to do that."
This is not just a superstar in the wings. This is a superstar with wings. Vance Wilson is just one of his teammates who can't wait to see them spread again.
"His thirst for knowledge of the game is incredible," Wilson said. "You can see he wants to learn all the basic instincts by the way he listens when the coaches speak. You don't see that in young guys. Talent aside, he just wants to learn. It's impressive."
Mark Newman is a writer for MLB.com. Reporters Kevin Czerwinski and Scott Merkin contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.