Prospect Preview: 1991

It was eighteen years ago that baseball officially entered the decade of the ’90s. The A’s were fresh off their third consecutive trip to the World Series (and a Series sweep by the hands of the Reds), and the Yankees had just lost 95 games to finish at the bottom of the cellar. In the 1990 MVP voting, Pittsburgh’s Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla finished 1 and 2, and fellow-Pirate Doug Drabek won the Cy Young. Yes, it truly was a long time ago.

Being that far removed from the time then, it becomes an interesting exercise to see who the prospects were at the time and what people were saying about them. After all, we are now far enough removed that the shorter-lived all-stars (think Chuck Knoblauch) are coming up on Hall of Fame eligibility, while the longer-lived all-stars, and potential HOFers (think Ivan Rodriguez), are beginning to retire. And some of those prospects are actually still playing (Mike Timlin).

Here’s what the 1991 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook and the March 1991 Baseball Digest have to say about the season’s prospects:

Chuck Knoblauch: “Switched from short to second in 1990 and made a positive adjustment. Showed consistency with the bat and good range in the field, strong arm. Steady improvement in making doubleplay. Has ability to steal 20-plus bases.”

We’ll begin with the run-away AL Rookie of the Year and end with the run-away NL Rookie of the Year. It was actually a bad year for predicting the top prospects, as Knoblauch wasn’t mentioned at all in the TSN yearbook, and only recieved this basic scouting report in BD. The report, though, was fairly spot on, as all of those strengths were hallmarks of Knoblauch’s career. That is, until his mental issues surfaced for the Yankees.

Mo Vaughn: “Vaughn is an ideal middle-of-the-lineup hitter, combining average (.295 at Class AAA Pawtucket in his first full season) and power (22 homers, 26 doubles). He also strikes out a lot (134 in 631 pro at-bats). Vaughn, a first-round pick out of Seton Hall in June 1989, carries the label of a defensive liability but has worked hard to improve.”

This is another write-up that was pretty spot-on in predicting his career. However, it is surprising that there was no mention about Vaughn’s weight, as I remember him being a pretty big guy even in his rookie year. And, of course, it ended up playing a big role in how his career played out. This write-up appeared in TSN, labeling Vaughn as one of the top 5 American League Rookie of the Year candidates. He didn’t actually get called up until June of that year, though, so he didn’t have much chance at the award.

Juan Gonzalez: “Gonzalez’s exceptional strength and consistent ability to hit line drives makes him the most desirable type of rookie position player – good hitter with power, the strongest arm in the minor leagues and decent running ability. He could well be the rookie sensation of the AL in 1991.”

Though Gonzalez had tasted the big leagues as a September call-up in both 1989 and 1990, it wasn’t until 1991 that he became a full-time major leaguer. Throughout the ’90s, Juan-Gone was a legitimate star, winning five Silver Slugger awards and 2 MVPs (though he only made two All-Star teams). Of course, his career turned into something else, as his injury history and steroid accusations have made us give him a second and even third look.

Ray Lankford: “Willie McGee’s replacement in center field at Busch Stadium will be Lankford, who appears to be a McGee clone. The 23-year-old sparkles on defense; he was the run-away leader in total chances in the Texas League in 1989 and in the American Association last season. He also has a lefthanded bat with explosive potential and can steal a base. Lankford, a third-round draft pick in June 1987, has a career minor league .290 average with 96 doubles, 40 triples, 35 homers and 115 stolen bases in 1756 minor league at-bats.”

Lankford was included in TSN as one of the top five candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year, and he performed up to it, finishing third in the balloting that year. He ended up with a solid career, batting .272/.364/.477 over 14 injury-marred seasons. Despite that, he was a member of the 20/20 club in five different seasons, and had career highs of 31 homers and 44 stolen bases throughout his career. I’m not sure I ever saw him as a Willie McGee clone, though – he was always a pretty strong guy.

Ivan Rodriguez: “Was the Florida State League’s All-Star catcher at the age of 18 in 1990. Is an outstanding catching prospect with good arm and defensive skill. Has also made surprising offensive progress, hitting .287 with 55 RBI last year. Defensive ability wil probably mean rapid rise in the minor leagues.”

Though Rodriguez wasn’t called up to the big club until late-June, he still performed well enough to finish 4th in the ROY voting. Of course, having had the chance to watch Pudge play for the last 18 years, I don’t think it comes as any surprise that he moved so quickly to the head of the class. After all, Hall of Fame-caliber backstops come along so rarely. This was definitely a strong time for the Rangers ballclub, with Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown, Ivan Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, and Juan Gonzalez all playing good ball for them.

Jeff Bagwell: “A legitimate hitter for average who is learning to turn on the ball.”

This is the only mention I can find of the future-Hall of Famer in either magazine. With Glenn Davis having recently been traded to the Orioles for, among others, Curt Schilling, it was probably a surprise that a player who had never played above AA (and who, only a season before, had been traded straight-up for Larry Andersen) would be able to step in to fill the void. But Bagwell certainly did that, hitting 294./.387/.437 in his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 139 OPS+. The Astros didn’t have to worry about first base again until 2005. Not a bad deal for the Astros, I’d say.

Larry Granillo

About Larry Granillo

Larry Granillo has been writing Wezen Ball since 2008 and has dealt with such touchy topics as Charlie Brown's baseball stats and Ferris Bueller's day off. In 2010, he got the bright idea to time every home run trot in baseball; he has been missing ever since.