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BASEBALL / GARY KLEIN : Skeels Makes Most of Status as Top Catcher for Marlins

Players drafted in the 18th round usually are not considered the top prospects at their positions.

That, however, is where Mark Skeels finds himself after 1 1/2 months in the Florida Marlins’ organization. Skeels, who played at Thousand Oaks High and was drafted in June out of Stanford, is the starting catcher for Erie, Pa., the Marlins’ affiliate in the Class-A New York-Penn League.

Skeels is aware that his lofty status probably is only temporary. The Marlins selected catcher Charles Johnson of Miami with their No. 1 pick but have not been able to sign him. Johnson is playing for the U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona. In addition, the organization has only two minor league teams this season, one at Erie and the other in the Gulf Coast Rookie League in Florida.

“I’ve been fortunate that Charles Johnson didn’t sign,” Skeels said. “It’s given me an opportunity to play almost every day.”

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Skeels (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) is batting .307 with three home runs and 20 runs batted in. Skeels homered against Niagara Falls in his third game as a pro and, two days later, hit home runs in each game of a doubleheader.

“I think there’s going to be some great chances to move up here because there isn’t anyone in the organization to really compare me to,” Skeels said. “The front office has been real supportive. Since there are only two teams this year, they’ve just told everyone to relax and play. I don’t think they’re looking to release anyone.”

Skeels, 22, said he anticipates a different atmosphere next year when the organization fills rosters for Class-A, double-A and triple-A teams.

“I think they’re going to fill those spots in triple A with guys who are 26 or 27 and have played a few years in the majors,” Skeels said. “Hopefully, by the time I’m that age, they’ll have moved on and I’ll get my chance to keep moving toward the big leagues.”

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Expanding horizons: Players with the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies aren’t the only ones with expansion opportunities on their minds.

Dave Milstien, a former infielder from Simi Valley High, is in his seventh professional season with the Boston Red Sox organization.

Milstien, 23, is in his second full season at Pawtucket, R.I., the Red Sox’s affiliate in the triple-A International League.

“I have a great deal of loyalty to the Red Sox,” Milstien said. “But I have a greater deal of loyalty to get to the big leagues.”

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Milstien, who played third base, first base and second base this season, said he is not limiting his hopes to catching on with the Red Sox or an expansion team.

“I think a lot of people fail to recognize that there are going to be a lot of clubs that are going to need players after the expansion draft,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of opportunities. I’m not counting anybody out.”

Milstien said seven years in the minors have taught him how professional baseball works. Despite his inability to reach the major leagues, he has never thought of quitting.

“To quit after putting in all this time would be a waste,” he said. “If the game gives you up due to injury or politics, that’s a different story.

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“Getting to the big leagues is not about how old you are or how many years you’ve been playing. It’s when they think you’re ready.”

Fearsome foursome: The Valley area was represented by four players in Baseball America magazine’s annual “Tools of the Trade” survey.

The magazine polled minor league managers at the Class-A, double-A and triple-A levels for the best prospects in 18 categories.

Damon Buford, a former standout at Birmingham High and USC, was selected best baserunner, fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the double-A Eastern League. Buford is playing for Hagerstown, Md., in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization.

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Mike Lieberthal, a catcher from Westlake High who is playing for the Philadelphia Phillies’ affiliate at Reading, Pa., was selected best defensive catcher in the Eastern League. Lieberthal also has been among league batting leaders throughout the season.

Joe Rosselli, a left-handed pitcher who played at Alemany High, was selected as best pitching prospect and tabbed as the pitcher with the best breaking pitch in the Class-A California League. Rosselli is playing for San Jose in the San Francisco Giants’ chain.

Dmitri Young, a third baseman from Rio Mesa High, was selected as the best batting prospect and the most exciting player in the Class-A Midwest League. Young, a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1991, is playing for Springfield, Ill.


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