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Thursday, May 27, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mariners Zeroing In On 2 Prospects -- Pitcher, Shortstop Top List To Be No. 1

Last fall, when Mariner scouting director Roger Jongewaard looked ahead to this spring's amateur draft, his focus fell on one right-handed relief pitcher, Wichita State's Darren Dreifort.

The Mariners, who have the first pick when the three-day draft begins a week from today, would consider bypassing Dreifort if they found a truly gifted everyday player, Jongewaard said then. "But I don't see that guy as yet."

Now he does.

His name is Alex Rodriguez, a powerful shortstop from Westminster Christian High School in Miami, who, said one respected scout, is "the best player I've seen in 15 years."

Rodriguez is making Seattle's choice more difficult, with people in the Mariner organization divided.

"I wouldn't characterize it as a power struggle to take this guy or that guy," Jongewaard said recently. "I think there's a strong movement to take a college pitcher, closer to (providing) immediate help for the team. And there's the feeling of long-range help, taking the best talent available.

"We definitely haven't made a decision."

Manager Lou Piniella, whose team needs pitching help, is aware of both players but not publicly committed to either.

"That's a great-looking kid in Miami. He has superstar potential," Piniella said. "The youngster in Wichita has an outstanding arm. He could be in the major leagues within a short time."

The Mariners have taken pitchers in the first round in three of the past four years, and generally choose two pitchers for each position player they take in the draft.

But, Jongewaard said, "you can't always take pitchers (No. 1). Sometimes you need to take a player to keep the system alive, especially if you get that premium player."

That seems to define the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Rodriguez.

"He does not have to grow an inch or gain a pound," said the scout, who works for an American League team other than Seattle's and did not want to be identified. "He's so good, he can play in the major leagues right now, and he's only 17 years old. I've never said that about any (high school) player."

Jongewaard agrees Rodriguez is "one of those few special guys, like (Ken) Griffey, (Darryl) Strawberry or Shawon Dunston."

"He could be a (Cal) Ripken or (Barry) Larkin, a power-hitting shortstop. He could play any position he wanted," Jongewaard said.

The Mariners' situation is similar to the one they faced in 1987, the last time they had the No. 1 pick. That choice came down to pitcher Mike Harkey from Cal State-Fullerton, or Griffey.

George Argyros, owner of the Mariners at the time, did not want Griffey but finally went along with that choice, and Seattle wound up with one of the best players in the game. The Chicago Cubs took Harkey, who has had surgery on his shoulder and both knees, and has a 20-12 career record.

Rodriguez said he knows all about Griffey.

"It would be nice to play with him," said Rodriguez, who has been offered a baseball scholarship from the University of Miami but implied he would be excited about beginning a professional career. "I think I'd get along with Ken. He likes to have fun. I feel I can be up there soon with him. He's one of my favorites."

His favorite player is Ripken, the Baltimore shortstop who scouts believe has a clone in Rodriguez.

"I'm embarrassed because I have too much respect to put him in the same sentence with me," Rodriguez said. "He's a future Hall of Famer. All I can say is I'm going to play hard every day."

His coach at Westminster, Rich Hofman, says much more.

"I've had a lot of guys here or have coached players who have gone on to the big leagues, and there was always something you didn't like about a guy," Hofman said. "But I honestly have not heard that he has a weakness."

Of course, history is filled with "can't-miss" kids you can't remember, or would like to forget. Players such as Steve Chilcott, Danny Goodwin and Al Chambers all were overall No. 1 choices, Chambers by the Mariners. Whether a high-school or college player ever will be able to hit major-league pitching, particularly breaking balls, is the most difficult factor to predict.

With pitchers, on the other hand, it's never certain whether the arm will hold up. Witness Harkey, not to mention Roger Salkeld, a No. 1 choice by the Mariners who is trying to come back from reconstructive surgery.

Despite that, Wichita State Coach Gene Stephenson said of Dreifort, "Anyone would be foolish not to take Darren No. 1, unless they just don't need pitching."

Dreifort, 21, a junior, has allowed 53 hits and 30 walks in 86 innings this season while striking out 98. He throws a fastball in the mid-90-mph range, a change-up and slider.

"Dreifort is really coming on at the end," Jongewaard said. "He's getting strikeouts with his slider."

Dreifort is, said Stephenson, "a very, very unselfish athlete."

"His major concern is to do what it takes to help the team win, at the expense of personal gain or publicity. To my knowledge, no other player has made first-team All-America honors as a middle to long reliever."

But Dreifort was a game-closer on the U.S. Olympic team last summer.

If the Mariners pick Dreifort, Jongewaard would prefer that the prospect spend this summer in Class AA ball, move up to Class AAA next season, then serve a closer internship, setting up Norm Charlton. Rodriguez presumably would start in either Rookie League or Class A.

The Mariners have three other pitchers on their top-five list of draft prospects: left-hander Brian Anderson of Wright (Ohio) State, right-hander Wayne Gomes of Old Dominion (Va.), and lefty Jeff Granger, who also played quarterback for Texas A&M. But every indication is that they will choose Dreifort or Rodriguez.

Jongewaard has visited the homes of both, and has seen each play at least four times. General Manager Woody Woodward was in Wichita last week to watch Dreifort, and Woodward was there again this week.

"It's a two-horse race," Hofman said. "Do you want someone like Griffey or someone like Randy Johnson? Both are good choices."

------------------------------------------------------ Rodriguez, Dreifort at glance.

Alex Rodriguez.

[ Position: Shortstop. [ School: Westminster Christian High School, Miami. [ Ht./Wt: 6-3, 195. [ Season stats:

AB H Avg. HR 2B 3B RBI SB.

125 63 .505 10 13 6 36 36.

Darren Dreifort.

[ Position: Right-handed pitcher. [ School: Wichita State University (junior). [ Note: Fastball clocked in mid-90s. [ Season stats:

IP H ER ERA W-L SV SO BB.

86 53 23 2.41 9-1 3 98 30.

# Dreifort also is a designated hitter, hitting .333 with 16 home runs and 48 RBI.

----------------------------------------------------------- Mariner No. 1 picks at a glance

The Mariners have the first pick in the amateur draft June 3 by virtue of finishing last season with the worst record in the American League. They've had the No. 1 choice three times before, and come out of it with one star, one solid major-leaguer and one bust.

Al Chambers, outfielder. Drafted in 1979; made it to the major leagues for just 57 games over three seasons, 1983-85. Finished with a career batting average of .208, with two home runs and 11 RBI.

Mike Moore, right-handed pitcher. Drafted in 1981; played with the Mariners 1982-88, signed with Oakland and this season moved on to Detroit. Was 66-96 with the Mariners, but 66-46 in four years with the A's. Has won 17 or more games four times. Career earned run average, going into this season, was 4.07.

Ken Griffey Jr., centerfielder: Drafted 1987; played 1989 to present. The franchise. Made it to the big leagues at age 19. Has made the American League All-Star team the past three seasons. Fourth-youngest player in major-league history to hit 20 or more home runs three straight years, behind Tony Conigliaro, Mel Ott and Al Kaline.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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