Some top rookies make jump from Class AA


Within 48 hours, Wilson Alvarez went from a bus in Birmingham, Ala., to the major leagues, to the "Today" show.

Last Saturday, as Alvarez was preparing for a road trip with the Birmingham Barons of the Class AA Southern League, he got the call from the Chicago White Sox. They wanted him to pitch the next day at Baltimore.

Sunday, Alvarez, a left-hander in his second major-league start, pitched a no-hitter and instantly became front-page news across the nation.

"We had been expecting it [Alvarez' promotion], we just did not know it would take place so soon," Barons general manager Joe Scrivner said. "You would think it my take a while for him to adjust to moving up like that on such short notice, but obviously it did not have much of an effect."

Alvarez, 21, is the latest of a number of minor-leaguers who have made a successful jump from Class AA to the majors, skipping the traditional AAA level. Several candidates for major-league postseason awards this season are just one year removed from AA. They are:

* AL Cy Young -- Scott Erickson, Minnesota.

* AL Rookie of the Year -- Chuck Knoblauch, Minnesota.

* AL Most Valuable Player -- Frank Thomas, Chicago White Sox.

* NL Rookie of the Year -- Jeff Bagwell, Houston.

Another player, Robin Ventura, made the jump from Birmingham at the end of 1989 and is rapidly becoming one of the AL's top third basemen.

"In Birmingham, I believe we have one of the finest facilities in the minor leagues. And we always attract pretty big crowds," Scrivner said. "The White Sox like for the young players to play here. I feel the Southern League is the top Double-A league in the minors, and the players the league has promoted to the majors proves that.

"A couple of weeks ago, [catcher] Matt Merullo was sent down and had the option of going to Vancouver or coming here. He told me he chose to come here because of the quality of the facility."

The Twins also have had success promoting players from Class AA to the majors. Erickson was 8-3 for the Orlando SunRays last June when he was called up.

"Some guys just get a few more breaks than others," Erickson said last summer. "I just hope I can stick and pitch the way I am capable of."

Has he ever.

Since his promotion, Erickson has won more games than any pitcher in the AL (23). Last year with the Twins, he was 8-4 with a 2.87 earned-run average. This season (15-4, 2.65 ERA) he is among the league leaders.

Does the increase in players going from AA to the majors indicate a trend? With the National League expanding by two teams in 1993, many clubs are trying to determine the younger players they will protect.

"A lot of organizations have the players they want to shape their futures with at the Double-A level," Twins minor-league director Jim Rantz said.

The Twins also have the front runner for the AL's Rookie of the Year Award in Knoblauch. Knoblauch was the Southern League's All-Star second baseman last season, hitting .289.

He was tentatively scheduled to start the season at Class AAA Portland, but an impressive spring -- he hit .388 with only one error -- won him the starting second-base job with Minnesota.

Last season, Knoblauch, drafted as a shortstop out of Texas A&M;, was groomed to play second by then Orlando manager Ron Gardenhire. Gardenhire is now the Twins' third base coach.

"Those guys [Knoblauch, Erickson and Gardenhire] are our Orlando connection," Rantz said. "I do not think we could be having the success we are without their contributions."

John Wehner, Mo Sanford and Keith Mitchell all began 1991 playing in the Southern League. After short stints at Class AAA, all three are in the middle of a pennant race.

Two months into the season, Wehner moved up to Class AAA Buffalo, where he hit .303. With Jeff King down with a back injury, Wehner was called up to the Pittsburgh Pirates in early July and has been a fixture at third.

Sanford, 24, a right-hander, was 7-4 at Chattanooga before moving to Class AAA Nashville in July. He made his major-league debut last week against the San Diego Padres, and won, 5-1.

At the midway point of the season, Mitchell was the leading hitter in the Southern League (.336), and shortly afterward was promoted to Richmond of the International League. When Deion Sanders left to play football, and with Dave Justice out with back problems, Mitchell got the call to Atlanta.

"John Schuerholz [Atlanta general manager] wanted Keith up here to see if he could fit the role as our fourth outfielder," said Rod Gilbreath, Braves assistant director of player development.

"Keith was having an excellent year at Greenville, and when we moved him up to Richmond he picked his level of play up another notch."

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