Mariano Rivera, the career saves leader who will make his 13th and final All-Star Game appearance Tuesday night at Citi Field, wasnt always the best the closer in baseball history.
He wasnt even a closer as a youthful minor leaguer in Greensboro.
In 1991, when Rivera was just beginning to sculpt a career that will culminate with a bronze bust in Cooperstown, he started 15 games for the Hornets still his most starts as a pro. He wasnt Greensboros staff ace, either not with a 4-9 record. Three other pitchers won 11 or more games.
Rivera started 10 more games for the Hornets in 1993, when their Class A infield included a shaky-fielding shortstop named Derek Jeter.
Based on what Rivera did in those two seasons as a Hornet (5-9 in 25 starts), few could have predicted all the parades that followed. The Yankees certainly didnt. Rivera remained a starter all the way through their system until Ken Griffey Jr. homered to help send him to the bullpen, for good, after the 10th and final start of his rookie season in New York.
Thats the beauty of the minor leagues: You never know.
For every cant-miss star like former Carolina Mudcat Miguel Cabrera, who helped the Florida Marlins win the 2003 World Series four months after leaving the Triangle, there is an unheralded overachiever like former Durham Bull Ben Zobrist, who grinded his way all the way to Citi Field.
There are 21 players who developed, struggled and starred in North Carolina gathered in New York. This is what they were like, before they were stars.
Everth Cabrera, SS,
San Diego Padres
2008 Asheville Tourists
Cabrera led the NL with 44 steals last season and is tops again this season with 32 as of Saturday morning. Add those two seasons together and youll understand how unstoppable he was in Asheville. Cabrera stole 73 bases that season. Little wonder Baseball America ranked him the best and fastest base runner in the South Atlantic League.
Andrew McCutchen, OF,
2006 Hickory Crawdads
McCutchen was 19 when he arrived in Hickory, a first-round pick already considered one of baseballs 50 best prospects. After hitting .291 with 22 steals, 14 homers and 62 RBIs, he was named the best prospect in the South Atlantic League, jumped into Baseball Americas elite prospect category, and the countdown to Pittsburgh was on.
Brandon Phillips, 2B,
2000 Cape Fear Crocs
Phillips was born in Raleigh, but moved and became an amateur star in suburban Atlanta. The Montreal Expos drafted him in the second round in 1999. He returned to the Tar Heel state the following season, hitting 11 home runs with 72 RBIs for the Class A Crocs in Fayetteville. That was the most RBIs Phillips had with any team during his seven seasons in the minors.
Marco Scutaro, 2B,
San Francisco Giants
1997 Kinston Indians
At 37 and in his 12th season, Scutaro is among the oldest first-time All-Stars in baseball history. He also was among the last of the Kinston Indians run that started in the late 1980s with Albert Belle and later produced All-Stars Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Bartolo Colon, Sean Casey and Richie Sexson. Scutaro wouldnt stand out in that reunion picture, however. He hit .272 with 10 homers and 59 RBIs on that Indians team.
Madison Bumgarner, SP,
San Francisco Giants
2007 South Caldwell HS
Two years after dominating North Carolina high school hitters at South Caldwell in Hudson, Bumgarner made his major league debut with the Giants in 2009. He since has become a dominant force in their rotation, helping them win two World Series titles in three years. Still just 23, Bumgarner is 2-0 in the World Series with a 0.00 ERA. Hes making the first of what many expect to be many All-Star appearances.
Aroldis Chapman, closer,
2011 Carolina Mudcats
The hardest thrower in baseball history, Chapman appeared in five games with the Mudcats during a rehab assignment. He struck out 11 batters in 7 1/3 innings. His first pitch as a Mudcat was clocked at 101 mph, and he later reportedly hit 105 mph with a fastball a few nights later at Five County Stadium in Zebulon.
Jose Fernandez, SP,
2012 Greensboro Grasshoppers
A first-round pick in 2011, Fernandez was just 19 last season when he arrived in Greensboro. He immediately overpowered South Atlantic League hitters, going 7-0 with a 1.59 ERA to earn a promotion to high Class A. He dominated there too and opened this season in Miamis starting rotation after just 27 career minor-league starts.
Jason Grilli, closer,
2004 Charlotte Knights
Arguably (and a short debate at that) the most unlikely player in New York, Grilli is a first-time All-Star at age 36 nine years after going 9-9 with a 4.83 ERA for the Charlotte Knights. He started 25 games for the Knights. He didnt earn his first save in the minors until 2011. Thrust into that role with the Pirates, he leads the NL with 28 saves.
Matt Harvey, SP,
New York Mets
Harvey didnt pitch for one of the states minor league teams, but he didnt pitch many places in the minor leagues. After twice helping UNC reach the College World Series, Harvey was the seventh pick of the 2010 draft and needed just two full seasons in the Mets farm system before becoming their staff ace.
Cliff Lee, SP,
2000 Cape Fear Crocs
With his $120 million contract, the four-time All-Star could spend his offseasons anywhere he pleases. Its doubtful hed pick North Carolina, where his pro career got off to a rocky start in 2000. Lee went 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA for the Crocs in Fayetteville, in the South Atlantic League. He and Phillips were teammates.
Travis Wood, SP,
2009 Carolina Mudcats
Wood won the Mudcats Triple Crown, leading the staff in wins (9), ERA (1.21) and strikeouts (103). Baseball America ranked him as Cincinnatis No. 7 prospect after that season. Hes just 5-6 this season but dont blame him, blame the sub-.500 Cubs. He leads MLB with 16 quality starts.
Jose Bautista, OF,
Toronto Blue Jays
2002 Hickory Crawdads
Bautista spent his first full season in the minors in Hickory, where he finished second on the team in hits and third in RBIs. Hes one of the majors top sluggers now, but he hit just 14 homers that season. His .301 average was his best until he hit .302 for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011.
Miguel Cabrera, 3B,
2003 Carolina Mudcats
Cabrera, who turned 20 in April of that season, dominated Class AA pitching. He hit .365 with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs in just 69 games and was promoted straight to the majors, where he helped the Marlins win the World Series. Despite being called up on June 20, Cabrera finished second in the Southern League in RBIs in 2003. During that season, Baseball America named the future MVP the No. 1 prospect in the Southern League.
Robinson Cano, 2B,
New York Yankees
2002 Greensboro Bats
Cano spent most of 2002 with the Class A Bats, where he started to develop his power, hitting 14 home runs in 113 games. That was the most home runs Cano hit in a season during his six-year minor league career.
Jason Kipnis, 2B,
2010 Kinston Indians
Kipnis played in 54 games for Kinston, hitting .300 before being promoted to Class AA Akron in June. Baseball America named Kipnis as a Minor League All-Star and after the season and ranked him the No. 54 prospect.
Jhonny Peralta, SS,
2001 Kinston Indians
Peralta was just 19 when he arrived in Kinston. He hit .240 and drove in 47 RBIs. The free-swinging Peralta struck out 148 times in 125 games, the most in his five-year minor league career.
Ben Zobrist, 2B,
Tampa Bay Rays
2006-08 Durham Bulls
Zobrist spent parts of three seasons in Class AAA before becoming an everyday player for the Rays. In 99 games as a Bull, Zobrist hit .301 and drove in 41 runs, but he already was showing signs of what the Rays value most: his high on-base percentage (.416) and versatility (he played second, shortstop and third base for the Bulls). After injuries ended his 2007 campaign, Zobrist began the 2008 season back in Class AAA but he hit .366 in his 20 games in Durham before being called up permanently.
Bartolo Colon, SP,
1995 Kinston Indians
Colon delivered one of the most dominant seasons in Carolina League history. He went 13-3 with a 1.96 ERA and struck out 152 batters in only 128 2/3 innings. Baseball America named Colon to its Minor League All-Star team and after the season ranked him as the No. 15 prospect in baseball. The Cy Young Award-winner later made two rehab starts in North Carolina with Kannapolis and Charlotte, going 1-1 in three starts.
Matt Moore, SP,
Tampa Bay Rays
2011 Durham Bulls
Entering 2011 in Durham, Moore was named the No. 15 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. The left-hander spent most of the second half of the 2011 season in Durham, starting nine games and posting a 4-0 record with a 1.37 ERA. The Rays called up Moore in September.
Mariano Rivera, closer,
New York Yankees
1991, 93 Greensboro Hornets
Mo came to Greensboro as a starting pitcher, posting a 4-9 record with a 2.75 ERA. His 15 starts that season were the most Rivera ever made for one team in a season during his professional career. After spending 1992 in high Class A ball, Rivera returned to Greensboro in 1993, again as a starter. That year, he went 1-0 and posted a 2.06 ERA in 10 starts. The Yankees didnt convert Rivera to a full-time relief pitcher until 1996.
Chris Sale, SP,
Chicago White Sox
2010 Winston-Salem Dash, Charlotte Knights
Sales trip through the minors was quick, playing for both the high Class A Winston-Salem Dash and Class AAA Charlotte Knights in 2010. During that season, Sale appeared in 11 games, and posted a strikeout per nine innings ratio of 16:5. Sale was called up to Chicago later that year, and is one of five players to play in the majors in the same season in which he was drafted.
Staff reporter Wade Rupard contributed to this report.