07/12/08 8:57 PM ET
Futures Game to highlight young talent
Rising stars get final chance for spot on Olympic rosters
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
Naturally, with the "big game" and its related festivities in New York City being held for the last time at Yankee Stadium, the excitement and anticipation surrounding all of the events is palpable.
And since its inception in 1999, the Futures Game has certainly become one of the highlights of those festivities, showcasing top prospects from all 30 organizations.
But this year brings even more intrigue to the formula because the 24 players who will be wearing the uniforms of the U.S. team are also on the short list for the upcoming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.
So the game, which has been expanded from its usual seven innings to nine this year (with an accompanying earlier start time of 12:30 p.m. ET), will serve as an opportunity for the participants to make a final good impression on the "decision makers," all of whom will be in attendance.
In fact, within hours, maybe even minutes, of the last out of the game, the folks from USA Baseball will convene to select the final team that will head to Beijing in August.
It doesn't mean that players not on this team will not be considered for the Olympic squad, which will be officially announced on July 16, the day after the Major League All-Star Game.
After all, the Olympic squad will be a mix of rising prospects and veteran Minor Leaguers, while the Futures Game is, as the name implies, all about the future stars of the game.
But the game certainly gives the players on hand an additional reason to want to shine in their time at the plate, on the mound and in the field.
Among the prospects who will be vying for invitations to what could be the last hurrah for baseball at the Olympic games are an assortment of multi-talented recent first-round picks.
The most familiar name to baseball fans right now would have to be newly minted Cleveland Indians outfield prospect Matt LaPorta, the marquee player acquired from Milwaukee in the deal for ace pitcher CC Sabathia.
LaPorta, who was drafted seventh overall in 2007 by the Brewers out of Florida, had been hitting .288 at Double-A Huntsville with 20 homers and 66 RBIs at the time of the deal. In his first four games at Double-A Akron post-trade he was hitting .375 with a home run and four RBIs. He will be starting at first base and batting sixth.
Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, a 21-year-old five-tool talent, will be the starting left fielder in the Futures Game and the afternoon's leadoff hitter. One of the highly touted crew of 2005 first-round high school outfielders (with Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, Jay Bruce and Colby Rasmus), McCutchen is the lone member of that quintet playing in this game.
He's been hitting .282 with eight homers, 34 RBIs and 24 steals at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he strives for the consistency he knows he needs to exhibit in order to make that last step to the big leagues.
2004 first-rounder Greg Golson is one of three Phillies prospects on the Futures team (with catcher Lou Marson and shortstop Jason Donald) and four in the game itself (with World Team starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco). Recently returned from a month spent on the DL with a sore wrist, Golson was hitting .300 with eight home runs, 39 RBIs and 17 steals. He will come off the bench for the U.S. squad.
Vying for a spot in the Team USA bullpen is another 2007 first-round pick, Vanderbilt product Casey Weathers of the Colorado Rockies. Working in short relief as a setup man, though he profiles as a closer down the road, Weathers sported a 2.29 ERA in 35 games for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers and had fanned 40 in 35 1/3 innings while limiting Texas League batters to a .184 average.
That quartet is just a small sampling of the talent level that will be taking the field on Sunday to what is expected to be a sold-out crowd of fans at the House That Ruth Built.
Not surprisingly, the gentlemen who will be managing the U.S. and World squads are looking forward to the opportunity as well, namely U.S. team manager Davey Johnson and World manager Tino Martinez.
The Futures Game has traditionally featured former superstars at the helms of the teams, usually with some sort of ties to the location of the event, and this year is no different in that respect.
In the case of Johnson, though, his New York ties were simply a convenient coincidence since, as manager of the U.S. Olympic team, he would have been given this honor regardless.
However, Johnson has spent his share of time in New York. A four-time All-Star second baseman, Johnson spent 13 years in the Majors as a player with Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs from 1965-1978. During that time he won three Gold Glove awards and a pair of World Series rings with the Orioles in 1966 and 1970.
Many current fans, however, remember him better for his time as a big league manager, including a stint with the New York Mets from 1984-1990 which included a World Series title in 1986, as well as with the Reds, Orioles and Dodgers. He was American League Manager of the Year in 1997 with Baltimore and has been associated with USA Baseball as coach and manager since 2005.
As such, he will have a strong say in the final makeup of the Olympic team and is looking forward to watching his Futures squad.
"Off the top of my head, I will say that probably half of them [the Futures team] will make the [Olympic] squad," Johnson said Saturday. "But a lot of the decisions have already been made so they're not really auditioning here."
Johnson's World Team counterpart, Martinez, spent a few years in the House That Ruth Built as well with four World Series rings in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 to show for it. A two-time All-Star himself, he retired as a Yankee after the 2005 season and since then has been coaching at South Florida as well as doing some roving and Spring Training work with the Yankees system.
In fact, he has surprised himself with how much he has enjoyed that experience so far.
"I really enjoy teaching the players and working with the hitters," Martinez said. "I always thought I would be bored by it, but I love it."
And though it's just for a day, he's really looking forward to his Futures Game experience, but he doesn't plan on doing a lot of "hands-on managing," at least not for the first six or seven innings.
"This game is all about the players," he said. "It's their time to shine. I'm not going to take the bat out of anyone's hands."
And while the extended format allows the U.S. team members to get a few extra at-bats and innings, so too will a few Olympic hopefuls on the World Team.
Among the other seven countries which will be competing at the Olympics are Canada, the Netherlands and Taiwan. And while none of the members of Team Canada, announced this past week, will be participating in the Futures Game, spectators could see two other 2008 Olympians in the contest.
Washington Nationals pitcher Shairon Martis, a 21-year-old right-hander from Curacao, is on the short list to head to Beijing with the Dutch squad. Martis started the year at Double-A Harrisburg where he posted a 3.98 ERA in 14 starts before moving up to Triple-A Columbus where he had a 3.80 ERA in four starts, each successively better than the last.
Boston Red Sox outfield prospect Che-Hsuan Lin is expected to represent Taiwan. The 19-year-old center/right fielder was hitting .251 with five homers, 34 RBIs and 26 steals for Class A Greenville.
Fans can tune into the game action live on MLB.com and XM Satellite radio on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. ET, but will also have the opportunity to watch it taped on Monday evening following the big league Home Run Derby broadcast on ESPN2.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.