Resplendent Rookies

A great deal of attention this season has been paid to a couple of players in their forties. Barry Bonds, 41, has been the subject of a ton of attention as he chased and finally caught Babe Ruth for second on the all-time home run list. And Roger Clemens, 43, received nearly as much press while deciding whether to come back and who to play for.

While old stars nearing the ends of their careers are interesting, I’m much more intrigued by the young players who are just beginning to make a name for themselves. With that in mind, I’d like to take a look at the top players in this year’s rookie crop. I’m not going to include Seattle’s Kenji Johjima or Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Takashi Saito because while both are technically rookies, they’re not the kind of up-and-coming player I think of when talking about rookies.

We’ll start with a handful of guys who have been impressive, but don’t yet warrant in-depth discussion because they either haven’t been given important roles yet.

At 31, Ken Ray is quite old to be a rookie, but that’s what happens when you throw more than 1,000 innings in the minor leagues. Ray actually made his major league debut in 1999, pitching 11 1/3 innings for Kansas City. He was never a real prospect as he struggled mightily in both Double-A and Triple-A in the mid 90′s, but he has a 1.39 ERA in 26 innings for the Braves this season. He also only has 18 strikeouts (6.23 K/9IP) and already has 10 walks (1.80 K/BB), so he’s likely to take some lumps in the near future.

Ramon Ramirez is a 24-year-old reliever for the Rockies who was signed by the Yankees in 2003 and included in the Shawn Chacon trade last summer. He never really had good ERAs in the minors, but he did strike people out. This year, he has a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings, with 23 strikeouts and just four walks. He’s getting a bit hit-lucky with just 11 hits allowed, but he should be able to remain effective if he can maintain those strikeout and walk rates (or at least maintain the strikeout rate and come within shouting distance of that walk rate).

Mike O’Connor is a 25-year-old starting pitcher for the Nationals who was drafted by the organization in the seventh round in 2002. He pitched for four different Class A teams from 2002-05, mostly pitching well, and then started this season at Triple-A. After posting a 2.41 ERA in his first four starts, he got the call to the big leagues and he has a nice 3.00 ERA in his first seven starts for Washington. He’s averaged more than a strikeout an inning every year in the minors, but he only has 27 strikeouts in 39 innings for the Nationals, and he’s already issued 16 walks, so he may be in for some struggles down the road.

A better prospect than the previous three players, Adam Wainwright is a 24-year-old pitcher who was drafted in the first round by the Braves in 2000 and sent to St. Louis as part of the J.D. Drew trade in 2003. He pitched well in the minor leagues until reaching Triple-A in 2004, and he made his major league debut last year allowing three runs in two innings. This year, he started the season in the Cardinals bullpen and he has a 2.03 ERA in 26 2/3 innings with 24 strikeouts and just two walks. The Cardinals will try him in the rotation at some point (maybe next year), but he should make a fine reliever if that doesn’t work out.

Joel Zumaya has the best chance of any of these five players of becoming a star as he’s only 21 years old and already having success in the major leagues for the Tigers. An 11th-round pick in 2002, Zumaya pitched very well in 2002 and 2003 before struggling in 2004. He pitched well again in both Double-A and Triple-A last year, and the Tigers decided to start him in the majors this year. He has a 2.81 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 12 walks in 25 2/3 innings as a reliever. You’d think the Tigers would try to use him in the rotation at some point, but he’s said he feels comfortable relieving so they may try to groom him as a future closer instead.

Now, let’s take a look at the 10 players who have really been eye-openers so far this season, in no particular order.

Josh Johnson, P, Florida Marlins

A fourth-round pick by the Marlins in 2002, Johnson had a 3.61 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 29 walks in 82 1/3 innings at Class A Greensboro in 2003 and then a 3.38 ERA with 103 strikeouts and 47 walks in 114 1/3 innings at Class A Jupiter in 2004. Last year, he posted a 3.87 ERA with 113 strikeouts and 50 walks in 139 2/3 innings at Double-A Carolina before getting a cup of coffee with the Marlins.

He began this season in the bullpen, posting a 3.86 ERA in 12 2/3 innings before the Marlins moved him into the rotation. In his six starts, he’s 3-1 with a 1.96 ERA, 31 strikeouts and 11 walks in 37 2/3 innings. Overall this season, he has a 2.42 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 20 walks in 48 1/3 innings.

His performance in the majors has been better than you’d expect based on his minor league track record, but his peripherals are pretty much on line for him. He has a good but not great strikeout rate and he’s walking a lot of hitters but not so many that he can’t survive. It’s not real likely that he’ll become a star, but he looks like a good bet to be a mid-rotation starter who can toss a lot of innings (he should be fairly durable at 6-foot-7, 240 pounds).

The most impressive thing about Johnson so far this season is that he hasn’t had a bad start yet. He’s only allowed three runs once, and he went seven innings in that start. He’s allowed two runs three times and one run twice, and he’s had two starts in which he didn’t allow any earned runs at all. The only two starts he’s had that weren’t officially “quality starts” were five-inning outings in which he allowed two runs.

Dan Uggla, 2B, Florida Marlins

The Arizona Diamondbacks picked Uggla in the 11th round in 2001 and he spent three-plus seasons in Class A before finally moving up to Double-A in 2004. He struggled at the higher level, hitting .259/.302/.354 (656) in 294 at-bats. He went back to Double-A the next year (Arizona’s Double-A affiliate switched from El Paso to Tennessee) and he saw dramatic improvement, hitting .297/.378/.502 (.880) with 21 home runs in 498 at-bats.

Despite showing some promise in his age 25 season, the Diamondbacks left Uggla vulnerable to the Rule V draft and the Marlins selected him. When Pokey Reese went AWOL during spring training, Uggla took advantage of the opportunity to seize the starting job. So far, he’s making the most of his chance, hitting .313/.368/.468 (.836) with six home runs in 201 at-bats.

Uggla actually struggled a bit at the beginning of the season, hitting .205/.311/.333 (.644) in his first 12 games. Since then, he’s hitting .340 with five home runs in 39 games and he had a .910 OPS in May. Uggla seems to have decent command of the strike zone and a bit of pop, so while he doesn’t look like a future superstar, there’s no reason he can’t be an above average player and maybe even make an All-Star team or two.

Justin Verlander, SP, Detroit Tigers

A first-round pick by the Tigers in 2004, Verlander didn’t pitch in the pros until 2005. He started at Class A Lakeland with a 1.67 ERA, 104 strikeouts and 19 walks in 86 innings before moving up to Double-A Erie. He pitched 32 2/3 innings there with a 0.28 ERA, 32 strikeouts and seven walks before getting the call to the majors for 11 1/3 innings (7.15 ERA).

Rather than send him to Triple-A, Detroit decided to keep Verlander in the majors to start this season and it’s proven to be a good decision so far. He’s made 11 starts and is 7-3 with a 3.13 ERA, but not everything is rosy.

After striking hitters out in bunches in college and the minor leagues, Verlander only has 43 strikeouts in 72 innings this season. He’s had good command with only 20 walks, but the lack of strikeouts is a real concern. He’s also had two terrible starts already this season, allowing seven runs in 2 2/3 innings against the White Sox in his second start and six runs in five innings against a very depleted Yankees team on Thursday.

Verlander obviously has great potential, but if he’s going to be the star that his college and minor league numbers suggest he can be, he’s going to have to start striking people out. Some pitchers have been able to thrive with a strikeout rate below 6 K/9IP, but not many and usually not for a really long period of time.

Josh Willingham, C, Florida Marlins

Willingham’s a little old for a rookie at age 27, but that’s not entirely unusual for a catcher as they tend to take longer to develop than players at other positions. The Marlins drafted Willingham in the 17th round in 2000 and he’s pretty much hit at every stop along the way. He has an .857 career OPS at Class A, a 1.015 career OPS at Double-A and a 1.131 OPS at Triple-A. The thing that has kept him from moving up more quickly has been the occasional injury and his defense behind the plate.

Now that he’s finally getting a chance to play for an extended period of time in the majors, he’s showing that he can hold his own by hitting .263/.351/.453 (.804) with seven homers in 179 at-bats. He’s a bit of a free swinger with 40 strikeouts already, but he’s also shown that he can be a little patient as he has 21 walks so far.

Unfortunately, Willingham’s in quite a slump at the moment. After starting the season hitting .310/.403/.620 (1.023) in his first 27 games. In the 22 games since, he’s hitting just .203 with no homers and only three doubles. Willingham’s track record suggests that he should be able to hit in the major leagues, and moving to the outfield full time should help him avoid wearing down.

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Washington Nationals

Zimmerman may be the most impressive position player in this group as he’s only 21 years old and was drafted in the first round by Washington just a year ago. His only real stop in the minor leagues was at Double-A Harrisburg, where he hit .326/.371/.528 (.899). He then got 20 games in the major leagues at the end of the season and hit .397/.419/.569 (.988) in 58 at-bats.

The Nationals opted to keep him in the majors this season after they traded Vinny Castilla, and he hasn’t disappointed. Zimmerman is hitting .266/.326/.458 (784) with nine home runs in 203 at-bats, which is pretty darn good for somebody who was still playing college ball at this time last year. Zimmerman has also gotten better as the season’s gone along, as he had a .735 OPS in April and an .828 OPS in May.

The most encouraging thing about Zimmerman’s performance thus far in the minor and major leagues has been his power, as he didn’t show much at all in college. He only hit seven home runs in 704 at-bats in three years at Virginia, but he hit nine homers in Double-A and already had nine homers in the majors as well.

If he can keep the power while also getting his average up above .300 (and his track record suggests that he should be able to hit for average), then he’ll be a very good player in the major leagues.

Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins

Yes, that’s four players on this list for the Marlins, who may not be very good but who do have several young players with the potential to be very good. Ramirez was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Boston Red Sox in 2000 when he was just 16 and traded to the Marlins this offseason as part of the Josh Beckett deal.

Ramirez had an up-and-down career in the minor leagues, sometimes turning all of his tools into real offensive production and sometimes struggling mightily while only showing flashes of potential. Despite the lack of consistency and the fact that he’d never played in Triple-A, the Marlins gave Ramirez the starting shortstop job at age 22.

So far, Ramirez is hitting .314/.383/.468 (.851) with two homers, five triples and 16 steals (in 20 attempts). Ramirez has been pretty consistent throughout the season thus far, and definitely does not seem to be overmatched by the major leagues. Nobody ever questioned Ramirez’s tools, just whether he’d be able to transform those tools into results. Thus far he’s been able to, and if he can keep developing, he should not only be a very good player, but perhaps one of the most exciting players in the league.

Conor Jackson, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

A first-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2003, Jackson hit well throughout his minor league career. He had a .943 OPS at Class A Yakima in 2003, a 1.000 OPS at Class A Lancaster in 2004, an .823 OPS at Double-A El Paso in 2004 and a 1.010 OPS at Triple-A Tucson last year. That performance at Tucson earned him a trip to the majors, where he struggled for 85 at-bats.

He came back to the major leagues this year at age 24, and he’s currently hitting .287/.375/.473 (.848) with six homers in 150 at-bats. Jackson didn’t show as much home run power in the minors as he’s already shown this year in the majors, but he’s always had this control of the strike zone. With 21 walks and 19 strikeouts this year, he has 207 walks and just 175 strikeouts in his professional career.

Jackson’s certainly not a prototypical first baseman, but he has the skills to contend for batting titles while showing moderate power and that combination would make him a very useful player.

Prince Fielder, 1B, Milwaukee Brewers

While Jackson isn’t quite what you would normally look for in a first baseman, Fielder is. The 22-year-old was a first-round pick by the Brewers in 2002, and he did nothing but mash the ball in four seasons in the minor leagues. In 448 minor league games, Fielder belted 91 home runs. He had slugging percentages of .678 at rookie ball, .500 at Class A, .473 at Double-A and .569 at Triple-A. He wasn’t just a power hitter though, as he was able to hit for average at three of his four stops and he got on base at a very good clip at those stops as well.

Fielder’s development in the minor leagues is the reason the Brewers traded Lyle Overbay away to the Blue Jays this offseason. They didn’t have room for both players, and it’s a pretty easy call when you’re trying to figure out whether to give playing time to Fielder or Overbay. Fielder’s done nothing to disappoint so far, hitting .313/.364/.532 (.896) with nine home runs in 201 at-bats.

The overall numbers are just fine and his home run total puts him on pace for 25-30 homers, which would be fine for a young player in his rookie season. Even more encouraging than that, however, is his 17 doubles, which put him on a pace for about 50. Some of those doubles should start turning into home runs as he gets used to playing in the majors and continues to develop his power.

Francisco Liriano, SP, Minnesota Twins

Liriano is simply amazing, and Giants fans are probably disgusted that they don’t get to root for him on their team. The Giants signed Liriano in 2000 and then traded him along with Joe Nathan and Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski in a 2003 trade that was truly terrible. Liriano showed flashes of brilliance throughout his minor league career, but he really took a leap forward when he reached Triple-A Rochester last year.

In 91 innings at Rochester, Liriano posted a 1.78 ERA with 112 strikeouts and just 24 walks, allowing a measly 56 hits. He finished the year by throwing 23 2/3 innings in the majors and while he struck out 33 batters, he also got tagged for a 5.70 ERA. The Twins brought him back to the majors this year and decided to ease him into things as a reliever. After posting a 3.22 ERA with 32 strikeouts and just four walks in 22 1/3 innings out of the bullpen, Minnesota decided he was needed in the rotation.

Liriano’s control has suffered since he became a starter, but it hasn’t mattered. He’s won all three of his starts, allowing just one run on seven hits in 16 innings. He’s walked eight, but he’s also struck out 15. Liriano won’t finish the season with an ERA below 1.00 as a starter, but he has a chance to be very, very good. He’s already very difficult to hit, and he could become an intimidating second ace behind Johan Santana if he can improve his control as well.

Jonathan Papelbon, RP, Boston Red Sox

You can argue about who will be the most impressive rookie at the end of the season or which rookie will have the best career, but there is no argument about which rookie has been the most impressive thus far. Papelbon was thrust into the closer role for Boston right at the beginning of the season and not only has he converted each of his 19 save chances, he’s only allowed a single run in 27 innings.

The Red Sox drafted Papelbon in the fourth round in 2003 and he’s been excellent at every stop the last three years. He had a 2.64 ERA with 153 strikeouts and 43 walks in 129 2/3 innings at Class A Sarasota in 2004, a 2.48 ERA with 83 strikeouts and 23 walks in 87 innings at Double-A Portland in 2005 and a 2.93 ERA with 27 strikeouts and three walks in 27 2/3 innings at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2005. Those performances earned him a late-season stint in the majors last year, and he posted a 2.65 ERA with 34 strikeouts in 34 innings, but he did issue 17 walks.

This year, the strikeout rate is as good as ever (24 in 27 innings so far), but he’s slashed his walks to the bare minimum with just three free passes issued. He’s going to give up another run at some point, obviously, but he still has a chance to put together one of the best rookie seasons ever for a relief pitcher. His future should lie in the rotation, but he may end up being too good as a closer for the Red Sox to feel like they can move him.

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