Stargazing at Grayson

If you haven’t made it out to a Savannah Sand Gnats game this season, you may be missing some future Major Leaguers in action. Hundreds of players have made the progression from Historic Grayson Stadium to Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, including dozens who played for the many different Savannah teams.

For the untrained eye, picking out future big league stars in Class A is extremely difficult. A pitcher who is dominant for the Rome Braves might be overmatched by the time he reaches Double-A Greenville and never come close to playing at Turner Field.

On the other hand, a struggling infielder who has never hit a home run can improve his swing during the offseason and quickly be on the fast track to the majors.

Just looking at former Savannah players currently in Major League Baseball, you can see many different paths to success. There are first-round draft picks, those who were selected after the 1,000-player mark and some who were never chosen at all, but they have all reached their goal of playing at the highest level.

First, there are the players that fulfill the high expectations everyone has for them. Hank Blalock of the Texas Rangers has exceeded even the high hopes that come with being a 3rd-round draft choice. Blalock was chosen by the Rangers in 1999 and made it to Savannah for seven games at the end of the season.

With a full season to work with in 2000, Blalock batted .299 and hit ten home runs as a Sand Gnat. Three seasons later, he hit the game-winning homer in the MLB All-Star Game and finished the season with a .300 batting average.

The Sand Gnat that is projected to reach the major leagues first is starting pitcher Clint Everts. The young righthander was drafted by the Montreal Expos with the fifth pick overall in 2002. This week Baseball America named Everts as the third hottest prospect in minor league baseball, based partially on the perfect fourth inning he pitched in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. He returns to Savannah with a 0.82 earned run average in his last six starts.

The Cleveland Indians’ Travis Hafner fits into a different mold than Blalock and Everts. Hafner was the Rangers’ selection in the 31st round of the 1996 draft. When a player is chosen so late in the draft, the team generally sees less potential in him, but in Hafner’s case that has not meant less performance.

In ’99, his second season with the Sand Gnats, Hafner exploded with 28 home runs and an average of .292. While it took him two years longer than Blalock to reach the major leagues, Hafner is batting .317 with ten homers in 2004.

Lefty reliever Jeremy Plexico is similar to Hafner in that he was not one of the first players taken by the Montreal Expos, but he has played well consistently for Savannah this year. Plexico was drafted by the Expos last year in the 19th round and pitched solidly for Vermont.

This season he has an ERA of 3.44 and a 6-4 record in 34 appearances, all in relief. Although Savannah is still a long way from the majors, Plexico definitely has a chance at the big time, as Hafner has proven.

Then there are the players who are not top prospects at draft time or the Class A level, but make it to the major leagues and stay there. Joe McEwing is in his seventh major league season with two different teams, but when he played for Savannah in 1993 no one would have expected it.

The 20-year old McEwing batted just .249 the season after the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the 28th round. He finally reached the big leagues in 1998, and while he hasn’t always played like an All-Star, he has been very useful as a utility man.

So next time you watch the Sand Gnats, try and decide for yourself which ones will someday be major league ballplayers. This year’s better players may seem like obvious choices, but don’t write off anyone. Sometimes it’s the person you least expect who turns into a star.

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