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Thursday, March 22
Rushing a top talent to the bigs has its value

Dwight Gooden wasn't ready for the big leagues. It was spring training 1984, and the Mets were considering putting him in the rotation. What were they thinking? He hadn't pitched above A-ball. He'd gone 19-4 with 300 strikeouts at Lynchburg, but that was the Carolina League, a pitcher's league. He couldn't do that in New York. Rushing him would retard his growth.

Well, it didn't. Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA and 276 strikeouts for the Mets in '84, and won the National League Rookie of the Year. The following season, he had one of the 20 greatest seasons in the history of the game; he was so impossibly good, he said he used to hope for his team to make outs quickly so he could get out to the mound again. Gooden was ready for the jump from A-ball. It turned out to be one of the best moves the Mets ever made.

What do (the Devil Rays) have to lose (by promoting Josh Hamilton to the majors)? They're not a good team, nothing truly good has happened to the organization in its three years of existence and fan interest is down. Would it be so bad to take a chance, to start the No. 1 pick in the '99 draft in center field on (Opening Day)?

Rushing a great talent isn't necessarily a bad idea. Remember spring training in 1997 when the Red Sox were set on playing Nomar Garciaparra every day at shortstop even though he'd only played 43 games at Triple-A, and another 24 in the big leagues, in '96. Mike Stanley, then with the Red Sox, remembered all the holes Garciaparra had as a hitter. "We (he and some teammates) talked about it, we didn't think he would be able to hit right away," Stanley said.

Well, Garciaparra did. That first year, he batted .306 with 209 hits, 85 extra-base hits, 30 home runs and 98 RBI. He also won the American League Rookie of the Year that season.

Midway through spring training last year, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones was asked to name someone in camp who no one was talking about, but might have an impact. Without hesitation, he said "Rafael Furcal." What? Furcal was 19 and was born the same day as Cal Ripken ... only 20 years earlier. How could he be ready? He'd never played above A-ball.

Well, he went on to make the team. One week into the season, he had shown so much speed, range and strength of arm, he was already being called a candidate for Rookie of the Year, which he, in fact, won. By the end of the season, Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund said that Furcal "might be the MVP of our team" because of what he brought to the top of the lineup.

There are stories like this throughout baseball history. There are also just as many kids who have been damaged by being rushed. The Rangers brought left-hander David Clyde to the big leagues straight from high school in 1973 because they had a terrible team, they weren't drawing fans to the ballpark and they thought it would spark some interest by bringing in a local high school pitcher.

What a mistake. Clyde wasn't close to being ready, and it showed. It also didn't help that he was not a good athlete -- "worst athlete I've ever seen in a major league uniform," said one of his coaches. When his mechanics needed to be altered, or a new pitch added, Clyde had difficulty adjusting. He finished his career in 1979, at the age of 24. He had an 18-33 record and a 4.63 ERA. Rangers owner Bob Short killed that kid's career by rushing him.

Mike Morgan's career, meanwhile, nearly ended before it started. He was brought to the major leagues straight from high school in 1978 for Charlie Finley's Oakland A's, who were also bad, boring and down in attendance. In Morgan's first start, his catcher, Jim Essian, told him "whatever sign I give you, throw it." Morgan said "I only throw one pitch: a fastball." A major league pitcher with one pitch. How could they bring that guy up? Morgan went 0-3 that first year, 2-10 the next. A 2-13 hole is pretty hard to climb out of, but Morgan has as he's still pitching at age 41. He deserves all the credit in the world for not becoming David Clyde.

There is another way to look at rushing a player: if it impairs his development, he loses confidence and never recovers, he probably wasn't going to be a very good player anyway. The great players learn from their early mistakes, being pushed helps them rather than hurts them.

For example, take Alex Rodriguez. He was brought to the big leagues in July 1994 for a short stint at the age of 18. He batted .204 in 54 at-bats. The next year he hit .232 with six walks and 42 strikeouts in 142 at-bats. Clearly, he wasn't ready. "But I learned a lot that year," Rodriguez said. The next season, he had perhaps the greatest season ever by a shortstop: .358 batting average, 215 hits, 54 doubles, 36 home runs and 123 RBI. He should have won the AL MVP, finishing second in the voting to Juan Gonzalez.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays are facing a similar situation with a young player this spring in 19-year-old outfielder Josh Hamilton. They are giving him every opportunity to win a job, and be in the starting lineup on Opening Day. Is he ready? Probably not as he hasn't played above A-ball.

But what do they have to lose? They're not a good team, nothing truly good has happened to the organization in its three years of existence and fan interest is down. Would it be so bad to take a chance, to start the No. 1 pick in the '99 draft in center field on April 2 when the Devil Rays host Toronto?

Maybe Hamilton can make the jump. Maybe he won't hit right away, but he's still the best defensive outfielder in Tampa Bay's camp. The D-Rays are still raving about the throw he made in spring training when he caught a ball on his way back to the warning track in center field, then -- flat-footed -- threw a runner out at third who was trying to move up a base on the play. The third-base umpire, who wasn't even anticipating a play at third, and therefore wasn't watching closely enough, called the runner safe.

Maybe Hamilton can't make the jump this quickly. But even if he doesn't hit for a month in the major leagues, and is sent down, maybe he'll learn the same things that A-Rod learned. With that, perhaps he'll be ready for his next call-up.

Hamilton has the skills and the makeup to be a great player. Rushing those types of players isn't always the wrong thing to do, sometimes it's actually the right thing.

ESPN The Magazine's Tim Kurkjian writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.

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