Tag Archives: Donruss The Rookies

I Was a Teenage Prospector: Brent Knackert

Knackert Donruss

1990 Donruss The Rookies

I’m covering Marquis Grissom’s 1990 Rookies issue on my other site this morning, and it seemed fitting to look at one of the more obscure prospects from that set on this site today. Knackert was not the best prospect, but what he represents is a branching out. He had an okay if not stellar minor league reputation with the White Sox before getting picked up by the Mets as a Rule V draftee. I guess he failed to make the squad and the Mariners picked him up off waivers, deciding to give him a shot at staying on the roster that year, and what an abysmal year it was. I mean, the guy was 21, but he had a 61 ERA+. My branching-out prospecting brain, however, seized on his age rather than his ability and thought he had staying power. Yeah, he didn’t. He made it to the majors again in 1996, then he was done. I still had a lot to learn.

But what really brings me back on this card is that Mariners cap. I loved that logo, for some reason. I guess it was the yellow on blue…it had such a classic 80s feel, yet I didn’t know what that even meant at the time. All I knew was that I had to have one, being a big uniform and cap sucker. I wore that thing with pride for a few years until it was too worn out to carry on, along with my two Blue Jays hats with that classic, awesome logo that made me a Jays fan for so many years.  You know the one.

I felt like I was an oddity for years, until I discovered entire sites dedicated to the subject. And yet no sites dedicated to Mr. Knackert. But hey, he does have a facebook page, with a picture from his Red Sox year.

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The 1989 Project Day 15: Bill Spiers

1989 Donruss The Rookies

Now we get into a player that I contemplated collecting back in 1989. Bill Spiers wasn’t exactly a giant hit in our neighborhood, but I liked him, and I thought he had a solid future in the majors. I briefly flirted with the idea of collecting his cards, but decided to pass after all, as I had no real connection the Brewers outside of liking Paul Molitor and Robin Yount.

Bill was the Brewers’ 1987 first-round pick from Clemson University. He had hit 17 home runs as a shortstop there, hitting .325 with a reputation for slick fielding, as well as serving as the team’s punter, averaging 39.2 yards a punt. He was expected to anchor the kicking team for Clemson in 1987, but when he accepted the Brewers’ offer, the football team had to scramble for a solution.

Here’s a shot of Bill from his time with the Clemson team, scoring against Wake Forest:

I also found a picture from his time with the Peninsula Oilers of the Alaskan League:

1989 Fleer Update

Bill started with rookie league Helena in 1987, hitting .409/.480/.455 in 6 games there before getting moved up to A-level Beloit, where he hit .298/.344/.380 in 64 games. It was a damned good start for a shortstop, especially one with a good defensive reputation. He was already getting a bit of a reputation as a fiery player, though.

In 1988, he got some time with the team in Spring Training before being sent down to high-A Stockton, where he hit .269/.353/.377 in 84 games. The Brewers advanced him again, this time to AA El Paso, where he spent the rest of the season hitting .280/.344/.387.

1989 Score Rookie and Traded

Spiers was invited back for Spring Training in 1989 and made the team in a surprising decision, splitting time with Gary Sheffield before Sheffield was moved over to third despite his protests. Spiers’ first game was April 7th, at home against the Tigers, where he had no hits; his first major league hit would have to wait until April 10th, when he started against the Rangers in Arlington. He wouldn’t get a hit again until April 17th. He came into the game hitting .063/.158/.063, but went 2 for 2 that day with his first homer, a grand slam off of Brad Arnsberg to put the game out of reach in the top of the 9th. Unfortunately, he would only get one more hit in April, going .154/.258/.269 for the month.

May would be a little kinder, though. He only played in one game between April 30th and May 6th, getting no hit, but he broke out again on the 6th, going 2-for-3 with a run, bringing his line up to .194/.297/.290. Between then and the end of the month, he would go .288/.373/.346 with 3 doubles and 4 stolen bases.

1989 Topps Traded

June was a disaster, though. He hit just .200/.259/.200 before he was sent down to AAA Denver, where he would hit .362/.423/.574 with 2 homers in 14 games before being called back up.  He made his return to the majors as a defensive replacement on July 16th, then a late-inning replacement again on the 17th, getting a hit there and earning a start on July 18th. He went 1-for-4 in that game, and began to steadily hit, his numbers increasing throughout the month. He hit .341/.333/.341 with two homers in July, boosting his numbers to .262/.317/.302. This was about the time I started to notice him, as I recall.

He got steady play throughout August, but failed to match his torrid pace from July, hitting .180/.232/.213, falling to .231/.286/.269.

1989 Upper Deck High Numbers

But the Brewers stuck with him, and he improved his game in September, hitting .308/.327/.477 for the month, ending at .255/.298/.333. Obviously, the OBP was a concern, but overall the Brewers were happy with his glove, especially. At this point I would have declared his career at a crossroads; plenty of players had arrived at this point and never gone anywhere in the past, but he was only 23 and had time to improve. He hit worse in 1990 and returned to AAA again for a bit, then rebounded in 1991, finally showing the offensive promise he had shown in the minors. Then he got injured in 92, missing almost all of the season and moving off of SS permanently, as his range was much reduced. He stuck around in the majors until 2001, though, spending time between AAA and the majors with the Mets and the Astros. His final career line was .271/.341/.370 with 37 home runs and 97 stolen bases. Certainly not what was predicted for him, but I can’t hate on him for a career like that.

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The 1989 Project Day 11 – Derek Lilliquist

1989 Donruss Baseball's Best

The Braves picked Derek Lilliquist in the first round of the 1987 draft after he led the University of Georgia to the College World series in Spring of 1987 (in fact, he made his first start of the College World Series that year on my 11th birthday). He was designated to the Gulf Coast Braves, where he pitched 2 games with 13 scoreless innings before being bumped up to Single-A Durham. In 3 games there, he had a 2.88 ERA, a 2-1 record, and 29 Ks in 25 IP.

1989 Donruss the Rookies

The Braves bumped him past AA in 1988, straight to AAA Richmond. He went 10-12 there that year, with a 3.38 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. Pretty good, but he probably could have stood to repeat AAA. Atlanta didn’t seem interested in that at all, however, and promoted Derek to the majors in 1989 at age 23.

By the way, as Derek is wearing a batting helmet here, he was pretty good with the bat; his career major league line would be .213/.220/.278 with two home runs, pretty good for a pitcher, especially given that he only had 108 at-bats.

1989 Fleer Update

Lilliquist did earn his spot on the team, though. He had a strong Spring while former #5 starter Charlie Puleo stank. And Derek wasn’t bad in 1989! He won his first outing on April 13th, going 7.1 innings while giving up 3 hits, allowing 1 run, and striking out 5. It was probably his best outing of the year. Derek’s biggest drawback that year was that right-handers hit him well. Incredibly well. To the tune of .308/.343/.439; bad news given the majority of hitters are right-handers. He also showed the kind of difficulties you’d expect of a 23-year-old who wasn’t used to pitching so many innings, losing strength and control as the year went on before getting a bump in September.

1989 Topps Traded

He ended 1989 with an 8-10 record, a 3.97 ERA, 79 K in 165.2 innings, and a 1.425 WHIP. Not great, but not bad. At age 23, it seemed he would improve and perhaps help with the amazing rotation that the Braves were already starting to gather.

Unfortunately, 1990 was no good for the young pitcher. He fell to 2-8 with a 6.28 ERA with the Braves before they demoted him to Richmond, then dealt him to the Padres for Mark Grant on 7/12/90. He picked up with the Padres when they moved him to the bullpen, going 3-3 with a 4.33 ERA, but he ended up spending most of 91 with the Padres’ AAA team in Las Vegas, going 4-6 with a 5.38 ERA down there. Was it overuse? Hard to say. He returned to the Padres for six games and completely sucked. The Padres waived him, and he landed with Cleveland, where he was a much better reliever for a few years.

1989 Upper Deck High Numbers

All in all, I just have to wonder what happened to Derek. He definitely had promise. Was he rushed too much? I mean, of course he was rushed too much, but did it completely derail him and he wasn’t able to recover? Career he ended up 25-34 with a 4.13 ERA, 17 saves, and a 97 ERA+. All of those seem a lot better than his uneven years would indicate. Seriously, look it up. He may have averaged out to a not-so-bad pitcher, but…yeah.

I don’t have any real connection to Derek, but I do remember at the time I had a feeling he wasn’t going to be much of anything, compared to Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Steve Avery. I can’t remember why – he was just as hyped, and there were lots of people who thought he was a future star. I do feel bad for the way his career went, though. I guess at least he made it and stuck around for eight seasons.

 

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The 1989 Project Day 9 – Junior Felix

1989 Donruss Baseball's Best

In 1989, I was beginning my love affair with the Toronto Blue Jays. To be honest, rather than being drawn to any one player, as John Olerud was not yet with the team, I was most drawn to the team’s uniforms and logo. Now come on, you have to admit that’s one badass logo, and it would be great if they’d go back to it. Anyway, I was excited to find out the Blue Jays had a cool new rookie that seemed to have five-tool stuff; that guy was Junior Felix.

1989 Donruss The Rookies

Side note: I immediately noticed that this photo and the previous photo are obviously from the same at-bat, same photographer and everything. I mean, not only same at-bat, but seconds apart. I did a double-take when I saw it, but noticed that the flex of the arms is slightly different, and the guy in the background has moved a bit. Still, wow. 1989 Baseball’s Best was a tremendous improvement over the 88 series when it came to photography, but this was one of those choices that showed that the series was still a “B” product at best.

1989 Fleer Update

Junior rose through the Blue Jays system pretty quickly, becoming known for his quick wrists, which produced a lot of power despite his scrawny size, and his speed on the basepaths. I get the impression he wasn’t expected to make the team in 1989, but had a scorching Spring Training, wrapping up with a .314 batting average. The team was forced to send him down at the end of Spring Training, but recalled him at the beginning of May when Manny Lee went on the DL. He debuted on May 5th and became the 53rd player to hit a home run in his major league at-bat, a solo homer off of Kirk McCaskill.

1989 Score Rookie and Traded

And hey, he did have a lot of speed…but unfortunately no clue on how to harness it. While he stole 18 bases in his rookie year, a rather good total, he was also caught an atrocious 12 times. At that point, his stolen bases are a net loss, and after that rookie year and his second year, his SB totals dropped like a rock. I’m guessing that once the Angels acquired him and saw what a lousy base stealer he was, they stopped running him.

1989 Topps Traded

Overall, though, he didn’t have a terrible rookie campaign, especially for a 21-year-old at the major league level.  He hit .258/.315/.395 (the OBP was particularly worrying), with 9 homers, 14 doubles, and a great 8 triples. That right there is where his speed really should have shone. And hey, a 105 OPS+ for a rookie outfielder isn’t bad. His defense wasn’t very great, though, which would be another problem. Oh, and he got to the postseason for the first and only time that year, as the Blue Jays played the A’s in the ALCS. He went 3-for-11 in the series, with a double, nary a walk, and two strikeouts. In retrospect, it’s clear that he had glaring flaws in his game, and they would become more and more exploitable as time went on.

1989 Upper Deck High Numbers

I didn’t care about all of that stuff at the time, though. Felix was another player revealed to me via the Upper Deck High Numbers, and I was excited the more I read about him. I had learned about why it was important to buy in on players who make the majors at a young age, as they have more of a chance of making the Hall of Fame, so I thought he had a shot for sure, and when he hit even better in 1990, I was ecstatic. Then came the trade to the Angels in the 1990 offseason, and I was confused. Were Devon White and Willie Fraser really worth a budding superstar in the making?

Whoops. Yeah, they were. Or at least Devon White was. He would help the team win back-to-back championships, while Felix fell off significantly in California between 1991 and 92 (to be fair, he was stricken with a calf injury for most of 91), then landed with the Marlins in their inaugural season. I’ll let this stuff go for a bit, though, because I’m sure we’ll see more of Junior in future iterations of these projects. Suffice it to say, his career would not live up to the expectations.

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The 1989 Project Day 8 – Omar Vizquel

1989 Donruss Baseball's Best

The first thing to note is that this is clearly not Vizquel. Hell, the uniform even says “Coles” on the back. Obviously, it’s Darnell Coles, and someone at Donruss dropped the ball. So it was that when I saw Vizquel’s 89 Upper Deck after seeing this card, I was confused, as I hadn’t noticed the Coles writing on the jersey. I wish there had been a corrected version, but…well, it wasn’t going to happen.

Anyway, Omar signed with the Mariners at age 17, in 1984, and actually took his time rising through the minor leagues, suffering some real off-years as he ascended. Early on, it looked like he might have some power, though, as he hit five home runs at low A Bellingham in 1985, when he also hit .225/.270/.353. By 1988, at age 21, he had risen to AAA Calgary, where he hit .224/.259/.327, but was highly regarded for his amazing glove. As such, he earned an invite to Spring Training in 89.

1989 Donruss The Rookies

Vizquel ended up making the team when shortstop Rey Quinones went AWOL for the first week or so of Spring Training while refusing to negotiate his contract. Vizquel ended up winning the shortstop position and Quinones would be dealt to the Pirates in April. It helped that the 22-year-old Vizquel had a nice, sharp Spring Training with both the stick and the glove.

1989 Fleer Update

Manager Jim Lefebvre thought that Vizquel would eventually become a great hitter. Vizquel provided a really interesting quote at the time, though: “I think shortstops in modern baseball need to hit at least .250 or .260. There are a lot of good hitters among shortstops in the big leagues. I got off to a slow start, but I think I can hit .250 or .260.” His career average so far? .273. Very nice, Omar! 1989 didn’t provide much of a hint of that, though.

Oh, and he didn’t hit his first homer until July. His only one of the year. But then again, Omar was never a big home run hitter.

1989 Score Rookie and Traded

So for someone whose forte was the glove, why is this the only card that depicts him with the glove? I don’t get it at all. Of course, this is not my favorite card of Omar from 1989; that honor would go to the Upper Deck High Numbers card, which to me just seems to encapsulate a Spring game. I do appreciate the puffy Mariners hat in this shot. Those things always seemed to make the wearer’s head expand, amusing the hell out of me. It inspired me to pick up my own version, which I wore pretty religiously in my games during the summer of 89.

1989 Topps Traded

Omar stayed with Seattle through 1993, when they traded him to Cleveland for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson, a trade that would live in infamy for Seattle fans, even though A-Rod was in the wings.  For his career with the Mariners, Omar hit .252/.309/.303, but he had one hell of a glove. Total Zone (TZ which is designed to emulate advanced fielding metrics with only PBP data) was 62 during that era.  If you’re not familiar with the scale, that’s REALLY good. Vizquel’s reputation with his glove was definitely earned. I’m sure I’ll talk more about Omar’s career sometime in the future, as I have a great deal of respect for him and what he’s accomplished on the field. For now, I’ll just say that I understand why the M’s moved him, but I understand fans missing him, too.

1989 Upper Deck High Numbers

This is the card I was talking about. It just perfectly captures, for me, what playing baseball on a nice Spring day is all about. I think that’s why I liked it so much; I could relate. The memory of standing like that for the national anthem is still very strong in my mind. It makes me long for my playing days. That’s what I think the best cards evoke: personal experience tied to what you’re seeing. 1989 Upper Deck had some crap photography, that’s for sure, but this one is an example of what I liked about it. My only complaint is that the angle is slightly unfortunate for numerous reasons. A shot from his side would have been better, but eh, it’s really nitpicking. Classic.

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The 1989 Project Day 6 – Greg W. Harris

1989 Donruss the Rookies

Greg Harris was a September 1988 call-up for the Padres after a solid but not spectacular year with AAA Las Vegas (9-5, 4.11 ERA, 1.409 WHIP). He debuted in relief on 9/19/88, pitching 2 innings and giving up 2 runs, then got his first start on 9/26. He pitched a complete game, giving up 4 hits and striking out 11. His debut was greeted with relatively little fanfare, however, and he wasn’t regarded as much of a prospect, having been drafted in the 10th round in 1985.

1989 Score Rookie and Traded

During Spring Training 1989, he was rumored as part of a package to be sent to Atlanta for Dale Murphy. The package would have included Harris, Sandy Alomar Jr., and John Kruk. Can you imagine what the NL East would have looked like with Kruk on the Braves? Anyway, Harris came into Spring Training with very little chance to make the rotation and was, in fact, regarded as an unknown, but impressed the hell out of the Padres brass, making the team out of camp. He would pitch mainly in relief in 1989, throwing a 2.60 ERA with a 1.170 WHIP.  Most of his starts were outstanding, with a few 7K outings under his belt by the end of the year.  This would have been about the time I became aware of him. I had very little idea that he had been so unheralded, and figured he had come to the Padres as a star. It was a surprise to learn all of this, in retrospect.

1989 Upper Deck High Numbers

1989 was a preview of what his career would look like for the early years. From 1990-1991, his ERA hovered between the aforementioned 2.60 and 2.23 for 1991, the year he was converted to a starter. He averaged somewhere around seven strikeouts an inning during that period, too. 1991 was also when it started to fall apart. He started suffering a sore elbow on April 22nd, and was out of the game until July 4th. When he returned, he pitched fairly well for the first few starts, but then he started giving up more and more runs. He did make it through the rest of the year, though.  Harris would again miss time in 1992, missing 15 days of early June with an injury that I can’t source, but he injured his finger in the first game back, June 22nd, and wouldn’t return until August, at which point his ERAs ballooned up and stayed in the 4.00+ range.

He did not get injured in 1993, but it was clear he was no longer the same pitcher. On July 26th, the Padres shipped him and Bruce Hurst to the Rockies for Andy Ashby, Brad Ausmus, and Doug Bochtler. The Padres had officially thrown in the towel, and they did it at the right time. He only hung around for another two seasons, and would be 14-34 with a 5.64 ERA and 82 ERA+. He was cooked.

I wasn’t able to find a picture of him in a Twins uniform, but here he is in a Rockies uniform, arguing…something.

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The 1989 Project Day 2 – Jim Abbott

Excuse me for skipping Gregg Olson and rearranging my schedule a tad; you see, my scans of Olson cards didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, so I have to rework them; the best-laid plans and all that. In the meantime, I’m moving on to Jim Abbott.

1989 Donruss Baseball's Best

I was aware of Abbott well before he became a traded/update star. He was already a media darling: a big hit with Team USA and a man with an inspirational story that I won’t rehash here. It all gave him something of a built-in mystique. An aura, if you will.

This made my 13-year-old self very amped for any Abbott cards, and I was hardly the only one. He was a hobby darling in 1989.

1989 Donruss The Rookies

Jim followed the Winfield career plan, jumping straight from college to the AL West, making his major league debut April 8th, 1989 against the blue-puffy-hatted Mariners. He suffered the indignity of a 7-0 loss, and even though he got knocked around, he didn’t surrender a home run. Not a very auspicious debut, but then again his 1989 wasn’t amazing, either. Almost exactly league average, in fact.

1989 Fleer Update

His rookie performance didn’t matter that much in 1989, and I don’t think it does now, either. He would go on to bigger years (1991 and 1992 come to mind, not to mention his no-hitter with the Yankees), but his impact on the game outside of stats cannot be underestimated. I’m definitely not a big “intangibles” guy; I think team chemistry is overrated and don’t believe people win because they want it bad enough, but Abbott hits the sweet spot of an emotional contribution outside of the numbers. He was and is an inspirational figure, and I think any of his rookie cards and/or autographed cards are worth the trouble to acquire. He’s been on my shortlist of wanted autos for quite some time, in fact.

1989 Score Rookie and Traded

1989 was not a complete disaster, however. Jim had a couple of nine-strikeout games, one on April 29th against the Jays and one on August 6th against his future employers, the Brewers. The August 6th game was a complete game shutout, with Greg Brock bearing the dubious distinction of whiffing three times. Jim struggled with his control, though; he had one five-walk game and a handful of four-walk games, though oddly he was 3-3 across these en route to a 12-12 record. He also had a 3.7 BB rate to a 5.7 K rate, a lot higher than I would have thought. He would have a few years better than that, but he seemed to hover right around that ratio for most of his career.

1989 Topps Traded

What an oddity this card was; I thought I was the only one who found it odd, but upon further reflection, it was a new concept. Abbott already had an 88 Topps Traded and a regular Topps card in the 1989 set, but draft pick cards were a relatively new concept at the time, and so I think they included him as this was the first shot of him in his Angels uniform. Something like the difference between a “first card” and a “rookie card” these days. Either way, I considered this an “inferior” card. Odd how we categorize things.

1989 Upper Deck

This card, on the other hand, was an impact card. It was a gimmick, and it wasn’t UD’s first triple exposure card (see Nolan Ryan’s 89 UD), but it sure made a splash. I saw this for the first time at the basement club that I’ve mentioned previously. Some lucky kids had found high numbers packs and were ready to distribute the wealth in exchange for Gregg Jefferies rookie cards. It was a magical night, and I soon had this in hand. I treasured it, and still have it to this day, even if it’s now bent (this is a different copy).

So yes, Jim Abbott: important to my formative years in the hobby. In fact, many of the players of the 1989 Project are, and it will be a great trip down memory lane.

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