TACOMA, Wash. - We can try to tip-toe around the obvious, but it's futile. Until young Seattle Mariners pitcher Ryan Anderson converts himself into a right-hander, and shrinks about 10 inches, and develops a repertoire built around knuckleballs and the ''eephus'' blooper pitch, he will engender comparisons to a young Randy Johnson.
It's not fair - ''There's only one Randy Johnson,'' Sacramento Rivercats first baseman Paul Sorrento, formerly of the Mariners, insisted the other night after facing Anderson for the first time - but such is the price of growing almost 7-feet tall and throwing close to 100 miles an hour. Besides, being touted as a future Randy Johnson sure beats being called the next Roger Salkeld.
To appreciate why the 20-year old Anderson likely will spend most of this season at Class AAA Tacoma, it's worth noting that Salkeld spent most of last season in Calgary, where he won one, lost one, and saved one, giving up 37 hits and 18 earned runs in 35 innings with the Florida Marlins' Pacific Coast League affiliate.
Put generously, Roger Salkeld did not remind anybody precisely why the Mariners made him the third overall selection of the 1989 draft, or why they considered him the top pitching prospect spring training in 1992.
''He'd dominated in the California League, and we'd looked at him as somebody with the potential to be a No. 1 starter on a winning team,'' said Roger Jongewaard, the Mariners vice president of scouting and player development. ''When we invited him to our big-league camp, he threw the ball by everyone.''
The Mariners were all eyes. Over that winter, they had shipped three ready-for-prime-time pitchers (Mike Jackson, Dave Burba and Billy Swift) to San Francisco in an ill-conceived deal to acquire fading slugger Kevin Mitchell, and Salkeld was eager to accommodate them.
Too eager, it turned out.
''He was having so much fun impressing us, he blew out is arm,'' said Jongewaard. ''That was a mistake I regret to this day.''
Even though the Mariners shut down Salkeld that season, the soreness in his right shoulder persisted; in October, it was determined that his shoulder capsule would have to be rebuilt.
He finally made his big-league debut as the 1993 campaign was winding down, and in '94, he went on finish to 2-5, with a 7.17 ERA. But his confidence had vanished with his velocity, and in 1995, the Roger Salkeld Reconstruction Project officially was scrapped when he was traded to Cincinnati for veteran right-hander Tim Belcher.
Granted free agency in the fall of 1999, Salkeld this year has hooked up with the Akron Aeros of the Class AA Eastern League, his fifth minor-league team since 1996. In a decade of pro ball, he's won a grand total of 10 major-league games.
Regarded as among the most astute scouts in baseball, Jongewaard is not above making mistakes. But don't hold your breath waiting for him to make the same one twice.
''We're trying to do what's right,'' he said. ''Maybe we're being a little overprotective. But I'd hate to see Ryan Anderson get caught up in trying to strike everybody out and maybe hurting himself. Injuries, you know, are such a concern with pitchers. Over their careers, 50 percent of them have surgery at one time or another. With a youngster, I just think it's better to be safe than sorry.''
The pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia are crammed with the names of those whose fast-track acceleration to the big leagues left them sore and, in some cases, shot.
Wally Bunker won 19 games for the 1964 Orioles as a 19-year old rookie; he never won more than 12 thereafter. Von McDaniel, an 18-year old phenom with the Cardinals in 1957, scattered two infield hits in his debut, and a month later pitched a one-hitter. He finished the season at 7-5 - and retired at 7-5.
Twenty five years before Kerry Wood became the former Texas high-school legend who would strike out 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major league start (and end up on the disabled list with a serious elbow injury), there was David Clyde, appointed as a Rangers starter a few weeks out of high school.
In 1973, Clyde found himself splashed on the cover of ''Sports Illustrated.'' In 1980, he found himself out of baseball.
Aside from the physical risks of a rush job, there is the danger of wounding a pitcher's psyche. Remember Jim Derrington? Of course you don't. Derrington in 1956 had enough on the ball to convince the White Sox he was ready as a 16-year old. He was gone from the bigs before his 18th birthday.
''In the majors, everything is performance oriented,'' said Jongewaard. ''That's not to suggest a pitcher stops learning, but it's different. Minor-league schooling is done with a lot of care, in an atmosphere where there isn't so much pressure.''
And make no mistake, the pressure on Anderson to succeed in Seattle will be more intense than it was on Gil Meche, who worked himself into Lou Piniella's rotation last year as an uncommonly poised 20-year old. Some of this has to do with the physical traits Anderson shares with Johnson, and some of it has to do with his ability to wow a crowd.
In March, for instance, Anderson turned a routine relief appearance in an exhibition against the Phillies into a six-strikeout showcase. It was the most exciting pitching performance in Safeco Field's brief history, and it didn't even count.
Anderson was no less imposing this past Thursday night in Cheney Stadium, where he struck out four of the first five Sacramento batters he faced, and 10 overall.
For all the hearts that fluttered and jaws that dropped in the first inning, though, Anderson's ability to bear down and strand at least one runner in scoring position in the second, third and fourth was even more revealing.
The bad news: All that escape-artistry left him spent after the fifth.
''Our next hurdle is getting him to the seventh inning with 90 pitches,'' said Tacoma manager Dave Myers, who'd love to see Anderson spending less energy on spectacular strikeouts and than on plain old outs. ''All those pitches add up. Before you know it, you've run out.''
After finishing 9-13 a year ago in Class AA, Anderson's record is 3-1. His ERA is 2.67. He leads the PCL in strikeouts, with 59. But he hasn't gone as long as six innings since April 18.
''People might look at him one night and go, 'Boy, he threw 98 miles an hour and struck out 14!' But there's more to it than just being dominant,'' said Bill Krueger, who pitched in the big leagues for 13 seasons and is now employed as the national sales manager for Fastball, a batting-practice machine that replicates a pitcher's delivery through computerized animation.
''The Mariners need to see a real pattern of consistency: Look at how many times he goes at least seven innings, and how many times he holds the other team to fewer than two walks. Those, to me, are the key numbers.
''Does Ryan Anderson have the talent to get to the big leagues down the road? That's pretty evident. Could he succeed right now? Maybe. But there are questions Ryan still needs to answer. How will he react when an umpire squeezes the zone on him - can he still throw strikes and get ahead on the count? Can he pitch inside? Can he work both sides of the plate? Can he hold baserunners on so they're not always a threat to steal? Randy had some of those same problems when he was a youngster.''
Johnson was almost 23 when the Expos drafted him out of the University of Southern California, 25 when he threw his first pitch for them. After his 1989 trade to the Mariners, he still led the league in walks three straight times.
It wasn't until the season Johnson turned 30, in 1993, that he merged the forces of power and precision, striking out 308 while walking only 99.
Johnson, in retrospect, was well served by the patience of Montreal's low-key organization. Others haven't been so fortunate.
''When Dwight Gooden was having his big rookie year with the Mets, in 1984, the Yankees thought they had to counter with a young pitcher of their own,'' said Jongewaard. ''That's how those franchises are; there's always a feeling of 'if you guys can do it, we can, too.' So they pushed up Jose Rijo - who'd been a good pitcher in Class A - and he broke down.
''He went on to have some nice years, but his progress was really stalled by that.''
The Rangers had no crosstown rival to show up when they promoted Clyde from high school; they were merely struggling to survive.
''They had just moved from Washington, D.C., and they were in trouble,'' recalled Jongewaard. ''There was no interest in the team at all. Suddenly they had this kid who'd been a Texas high-school phenom, and you know how loyal fans in Texas are.
''So he started and, sure enough, he looked good the first couple of times. The fans came out. He put enough people in the park that he saved their franchise.''
Identify a phenom, a team often will find an excuse to put him in a big-league uniform. The 1944 Reds called on 15-year old Joe Nuxhall because the talent pool had evaporated during World War II. The 1965 Kansas City Athletics had James Augustus Hunter on their roster because baseball rules of those days mandated that ''bonus babies'' remain in the majors.
Not that owner Charles O. Finley wouldn't have thought of promoting Hunter anyway. No sooner did he assign the kid pitcher the nickname of ''Catfish'' than he had him pose for a promotional photo in the lap of icon Satchel Paige, seated in a rocking chair.
The Mariners, thankfully, do not need to make Ryan Anderson the centerpiece of a promotional stunt. They are not desperately seeking men to play games during a world war. There is no crosstown rivalry at stake. They have the luxury of waiting, and they'll use it.
''We not only want to make sure he's ready, we want him to feel like he's ready,'' said Jongewaard. ''Because when he gets here from the minors, we hope he'll never be back.''
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)