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September 24, 2001

2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team

Part Three - Pitching Staff

by Jeff Bower

Part One
Part Two

(Introduced by Bill James in 1987, the Ken Phelps All-Star Team is a way of acknowledging players who, based on their performance in the minor leagues, deserve a chance to play in the majors, but who have not received the opportunity. In Part Two of his three-part series, Jeff Bower looks at the outfielders for his Phelps All-Stars, and picks a DH as well.)

Starting Pitcher: Brian Rose

Label: Mediocre stuff, lacks confidence

Like ex-teammate Tomokazu Ohka, Brian Rose was a victim of heightened expectations following a deceiving impressive won-loss record at Triple-A. His 17-5 season with Pawtucket in 1997 prompted Boston to part with Carl Pavano the following off-season as part of the package to bring Pedro Martinez down from the Great White North. So despite his subsequent struggles with the Bosox, Rose should always be fondly remembered in Beantown.

When promoted, Rose has a tendency to not trust his stuff, which, while not overwhelming, is major-league caliber. He nibbles around the edges of the strike zone, ends up falling behind batters and then grooves his straight fastball. Though Rose has yielded only two walks per game in the minors, that rate nearly doubles whenever he pulls on a big-league uniform.

The ability is there, however. Practicing his craft with Durham this summer, the 25-year-old Rose improved all his peripheral numbers while toiling in what can be a tough park for pitchers. Were he to happen upon a pitching coach who can convince him to attack hitters more aggressively, Rose could still surprise some people.

Starting Pitcher: Rigo Beltran

Label: Too old

Rigo Beltran was on the short list for the rotation on the 2001 Ken Phelps All-Star team, and David Rawnsley's recent referral (via Rob Neyer's ESPN column) pushed him over the top.

Beltran didn't make it to The Show until he was 27, having taken three years to emerge from the Cardinals' Louisville finishing school. Upon graduation, Tony LaRussa wedged the short (5'11") portsider into the role of a situational lefty, even though his out pitch, the screwball, is more effective against right-handed batters.

For the next couple years, Beltran followed the typical lefty-getter career path, moving from town to town and posting decent enough numbers (3.48 ERA in 93 big-league innings) before being traded from the Mets to the Rockies at the 1999 trading deadline. As was the case with Brian Rose, Beltran's future job prospects went south after moving to Colorado. Coors Field has cast doubt on the reputations of better-established hurlers, and it's a virtual career-ender if you're a Rigo Beltran and you cough up 15 runs in 12 innings.

Looking for staff filler for their Triple-A team, the Phillies signed Beltran to a minor-league contract last winter. With Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, Beltran was used as a swingman, finishing with a 2.96 ERA in 116 innings. Though his ERA ranked second in the International League, he didn't get any run support and finished with a 2-5 record. Beltran has better-than-average control, registers almost a third of his outs via strikeout, and deserves an opportunity to again pitch in a stadium with a second deck.

Starting Pitcher: Cliff Politte

Label: Too short

There are undersized pitchers, and then there is Cliff Politte, who is generously listed at 5'11", but actually is closer to 5'8". It's not too difficult for the vertically challenged to overcome their handicap if they register three digits on the speed gun like Billy Wagner does, but it's a bitch when your fastball runs 10 mph slower.

Taken by the Cardinals in the 54th round of the 1995 draft, Politte was expected to do little more than fill out an A-ball roster. Two years later he was the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year. When Tony LaRussa's arm slagging ways came home to roost, Politte found himself in the Cardinals rotation as they broke camp in 1998. After eight disappointing starts he was returned to the minors. Six months later he was wearing the red of a different organization.

Politte spent 1999 in Double-A Reading, rebuilding his confidence and learning a change-up to complement his fastball and hard slider. A stress fracture in his throwing arm prevented him from starting this season in the Phillies rotation, but since returning in late July, he has helped paper over Ed Wade's Dennis Cook/Turk Wendell trade deadline disaster, posting a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings out of the bullpen.

Over the past four seasons, Politte has yo-yoed between the majors and minors and starting and relieving. We're simply going to put him in our rotation and revive memories of Bobby Shantz.

Starting Pitcher: Jared Fernandez

Label: Gimmick pitcher

Was there any doubt that we would somehow find room for a knuckleballer on the team? Although injuries aren't a big concern for our veteran rotation, we want somebody who can pull a Wilbur Wood and start both ends of a doubleheader, if need be.

One of the main qualifications for members of the 2001 Ken Phelps All-Stars is that they be "freely available." There is no better example of this than Jared Fernandez, a minor-league free agent last winter after seven seasons in the Red Sox system, who apparently didn't want to be the first team since the 1987 Cleveland Indians (Tom Candiotti and Phil Niekro) to have two practitioners of the flutterball on the same staff.

Fernandez has spent at least a portion of each of the last five years working at the Triple-A level, and tossed 310 innings of 3.72 ERA ball over the past two campaigns. While those aren't eye-popping numbers, I've often wondered if knuckleballers' minor-league stats translate the same as other hurlers. Given that the species is teetering on the brink of extinction, I may go to my grave without knowing the answer.

Right now, Fernandez is befuddling National League hitters while working out of the Cincinnati bullpen. At age 29, he is a relative pup for a knuckleballer and should have a dozen good years ahead of him.

Starting Pitcher: Willie Banks

Label: Failed first-rounder, hanger-on

There are pitchers whose numbers make them more qualified for the 2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team than Willie Banks, but perseverance counts for something, and Banks has that in spades.

Banks has been pitching professionally since 1987, when he was the third pick in the June draft after Ken Griffey Jr. and Mark Merchant. He is probably best remembered in the Twin Cities for his part in a dismal run of first-round choices in the late 1980s, but while Jeff Bumgarner, Derek Parks, and Johnny Ard are playing recreational softball, Banks is humming fastballs past hitters ten years his junior.

Even at age 32, Banks can still run it up to the plate in a hurry, striking out 133 hitters in 159 International League innings this summer. There has never been any question about his stuff, but his control has always been one walk per game shy of allowing him to be a successful major-league pitcher. That may still be true--he issued 56 free passes this year--but Banks could be a handy swingman for nearly any team in baseball.

Granted his release from Syracuse in August, he signed on with the Red Sox, his tenth organization, not including a two-year stint in Japan. Banks is an entertaining player to watch, having adopted a Satchel Paige bent-over, arm-pumping windup a few years back, and like Paige, he may have to pitch into his forties before being allowed back in the majors. Don't bet against it.

Left-handed Set-up: Onan Masaoka

Label: Failed in opportunities, wild

The youngest Phelpser at age 23, Masaoka immediately qualified for the team when the Dodgers promoted journeyman Dennis Springer ahead of him after placing Darren Dreifort on the 60-day disabled list in mid-July. Two weeks later, he was traded to the White Sox, who have since claimed retread southpaw Bill Pulsipher on waivers instead of recalling Masaoka from Charlotte.

Though the Los Angeles brass claims that Masaoka failed in Dodger Blue, the numbers don't bear that out. After sticking with the team as a 21-year-old in 1999, Masaoka managed a league-average ERA and whiffed 88 batters in 94 innings of work over two seasons.

The "Hawaiian Hurricane" has a deceptive delivery and live arm, his fastball cruising in the low-to-mid-90's. His main bugaboo has been inconsistent mechanics, leading to around five walks per game over the course of his career. This is the kind of problem that a young pitcher often overcomes as he matures, and Masaoka's ability to strike out a batter an inning helps cover his wildness.

Though Masaoka would prefer to work as a starter, his lack of a consistent off-speed pitch isn't as troublesome coming out of the bullpen. Instead of one-batter matchups, we'll give him extended stints in relief, as his 100-point OPS platoon split is nothing out of the ordinary.

Right-handed Set-up: Robbie Crabtree

Label: Fastball can't dent wet bread

Robbie Crabtree is the only member of the 2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team who hasn't logged any major-league service time, but it isn't as if the Giants organization has him cloistered away in an ivory tower. He was available in the Rule 5 draft last winter to any club willing to plunk down the price tag of a decent sport-utility vehicle.

Crabtree's "heat" can be measured with the speedometer from a 1976 Chevy Chevette, but his offerings come from a dizzying array of arm angles and he throws nearly every pitch in the book, and at least one that isn't (I'd be much obliged if somebody could tell me what the "Crabapple" is). Back for a fourth engagement with Triple-A Fresno this summer, the 28-year-old Crabtree made 63 relief appearances, tossing 115 innings of 3.69 ERA ball in a very good hitter's park, this after working an amazing 127 frames out of the bullpen last year. He has managed nearly a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio the past four years with his ability to disrupt a hitter's timing and paint the black with all his pitches.

Baseball needs another Mark Eichhorn, and Crabtree can provide some smart team a few Eichhornesque seasons, gobbling innings by the fistful and frustrating batters with his tempting selection of junk.

Closer: Johnny Ruffin

Label: Too laid back, doesn't find the strike zone often enough

There have been only two players with the surname "Ruffin" in the long history of major-league baseball. Interestingly, both are pitchers who contracted Steve Blass Disease at some point in their career. While Bruce Ruffin is held up as a rare example of somebody who came close to regaining his command after suffering the symptoms, Johnny Ruffin actually has come completely back, cutting his walk rate from seven per game--when he lost the strike zone in 1995--to less than three per game in 41 Triple-A innings this year.

Johnny Ruffin is a lanky right-hander whose smooth delivery defines the phrase "loose arm action." Two years after being one of the Reds' best young pitchers, he wasn't even offered a contract, and, by my count, has since been with nine different organizations, including time in the Japanese and Mexican Leagues. However, even at age 30, the ball explodes out of his hand, his fastball effortlessly reaching the mid-90s. He mixes it with a power slider, the end result being more than 12 strikeouts every nine innings this year. If saves are your currency of choice, Ruffin has accumulated 47 in the past two campaigns.

Simply put, there is no player in the game more deserving of a break than Johnny Ruffin. The 2001 Ken Phelps All-Star Team will be proud to have him amble in from the bullpen to slam the door in the late innings.

Jeff Bower is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

Related Content:  Starting Rotation,  The Who,  Triple-A

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