The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, April 5, 1995               TAG: 9504050599
SECTION: SPORTS                   PAGE: C2   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   94 lines


In normal years, Triple-A baseball teams like the Norfolk Tides exist in a state of elasticity. Their rosters change on a word from the parent club, in this case the New York Mets, as prospects scoot up the ladder and washouts trickle down.

What usually is a gradual process, though, promises to be acute this season. So much so that the Tides who open the season Thursday at Charlotte can be called a First Edition.

In about three weeks, a Second Edition, consisting of players who were on strike, should arrive to transform the Tides' identity. The Tides might already be off to a good start, thanks to strong starting pitching and a veteran outfield. Those reinforcements will nudge aside some fill-ins and make what appears to be a decent team - although heavy with Triple-A rookies - better.

``I feel like we're making progress,'' Mets minor league director Steve Phillips said. ``We're catching up with the rest of baseball right now. I think probably more than other organizations, we (had) some of our top guys in camp, and those players are getting better and closer to the major leagues.''

The Mets' futility in the '90s paid off in choice draft positions that reaped talented kids. Those youngsters have not played long enough to require protection on the 40-man major league roster - and so went through spring training.

The June draft in 1991 produced second-round pick Bill Pulsipher, a lefthanded pitcher considered one of the best prospects in baseball. The next year, the Mets nabbed lefty Chris Roberts with the 18th overall pick.

Then in a fall 1993 lottery for Cuban defector Rey Ordonez, the Mets had the most chances, based on their 1993 finish. They got their star-quality shortstop.

Those three men headline the Tides' first wave.

Joining them in due time could be any combination of these or other 40-man-roster prospects - pitchers Juan Castillo, Blas Minor, Dave Mlicki, Robert Person and Pete Walker; infielders Butch Huskey, Aaron Ledesma, Edgardo Alfonzo and Omar Garcia; catchers Alberto Castillo, Brook Fordyce and Kelly Stinnett; and outfielders Ricky Otero and Tito Navarro.

That could cause any number of promotions, as well, as the big league season starts and the 25-man Triple-A roster shrinks to 23.

Bank on at least one of the Tides' older outfielders - Derek Lee, Jarvis Brown, Chris Jones or Shawn Abner - to be a Met soon.

Veteran pitchers Mike Birkbeck and Don Florence could have an early line on big league bullpen jobs. And nothing guarantees that Ordonez will be here long. He already is considered an above-average major league shortstop.

Regardless of their eventual makeup, the Tides could be able to contend for their first West Division title - in fact, their first playoff spot - since 1988.

They won't have great power hitting - they rarely do - or speed. Their catching at first will be very raw. Starter Charlie Green was projected as the Double-A starter, and backup Ben Boka has never even played in a full-season Class-A league.

Inexperience also dots the bullpen, where Jim McCready and Mark Fuller are Triple-A rookies, and Florence, Bryan Rogers and Jimmy Williams combined for eight Triple-A saves last season. Seven were by Florence, a former International League All-Star and a workhorse who appeared in 118 games for the Pawtucket Red Sox the last two seasons.

Late addition Bob Stoddard, 38, a former major leaguer who spent spring training as a Mets replacement player, also is in the bullpen.

The rookie parade continues in the infield with third baseman Chris Saunders, first baseman Frank Jacobs, Ordonez and second baseman Jason Hardtke. Second baseman Edwin Alicea is a veteran, but he played only briefly in Mexico last year. Utility man Greg Graham hit just .178 in 35 games with the Tides.

The obvious strength of this team lies on the mound and in the outfield.

The initial starting rotation of Birkbeck, Pulsipher, Roberts, Paul Byrd and Dave Telgheder combined for a 55-44 record and 3.30 earned-run average at their various levels last season. Pulsipher and Roberts helped hurl Double-A Binghamton to the Eastern League championship - Pulsipher threw a no-hitter in the finals, and Roberts, a 1992 Olympian, struck out 12 in the last game.

Birkbeck, signed as a free agent, had the second-best ERA, 2.73, in the International League last year for Richmond. Telgheder is back for his fourth season as a Tide. And Byrd, a righthander who split his time between Double-A and Triple-A for the Cleveland Indians the last two seasons, arrived in the trade for Jeromy Burnitz. He's the ``dark horse of the pitching staff,'' according to Tides manager Toby Harrah.

In the outfield, Lee will play left, Jones right and Brown center. All have major league experience - Jones' 213 games are the most. In reserve are Jay Davis and Jeff Barry, a pair of .300 hitters for Binghamton last season, and Abner.

Running it all is longtime major league infielder Harrah, in his return to Triple-A. A former interim manager of the Texas Rangers in 1992, Harrah managed Oklahoma City in 1987 and '88.

More than ever, what Harrah starts and ends with will not be the same. MEMO: Coming Thursday: A preview of the International League. by CNB