Rookie Excitement Ahead


More Glamour Following 2005’s Huge Class


By Glenn Guzzo

Dec. 14, 2005


            Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, baseball-prospect lovers. After The Year of the Rookie in 2005, your gift will be a record supply of useful and promising future stars when Strat-O-Matic’s new cards and disks arrive. And Major League Baseball seems resolved to give you a flood of new rookies in 2006.


            Amazingly enough, an off-season that has seen 47-year-old Julio Franco sign a two-year contract and the Detroit Tigers sign a pair of 41-year-old free agent pitchers to be their No. 1 starter and closer, Major League Baseball rosters might actually get younger in 2006.


            With nearly more than three months until Opening Day, dozens of unsigned free agents and many teams still looking for trades to fill obvious holes, much described here could change. Still, with the free-agent pool shallower than ever, and trades to date made with the intention of giving the open jobs to youngsters, it’s clear that many rookies and second-year men are going to get more playing time next season.


            To appreciate how remarkable this is, consider that the 2005 season card set already will feature more guys who made significant debuts than ever. And that doesn’t count guys like Chase Utley, Joe Mauer, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore and Jason Lane, who made big impressions in their first years as regulars. In review:


C: Brian McCann, Atlanta; Ryan Doumit, Pittsburgh; Dioner Navarro, Los Angeles.


1B: Ryan Howard, Philadelphia; Dan Johnson, Oakland; Chris Shelton, Detroit; Lance Nierko, San Francisco; Brad Eldred, Pittsburgh; Prince Fielder, Milwaukee; Casey Kotchman, Angels; Conor Jackson, Arizona.


2B: Robinson Cano, Yankees; Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox; Richie Weeks, Milwaukee; Pete Orr, Atlanta.


3B: Garret Atkins, Colorado; Dallas McPherson, Angels, Wilson Betemit, Atlanta; Edwin Encarnacion, Cincinnati.


SS:  J.J. Hardy, Milwaukee; Clint Barmes, Colorado; Russ Adams, Toronto; Yuniesky Betancourt, Seattle.


OF: Jeff Francoeur, Kelly Johnson and Ryan Langerhans, Atlanta; Willy Taveras and Chris Burke, Houston; Nick Swisher, Oakland; Jonny Gomes and Joey Gathright, Tampa Bay; Curtis Granderson, Detroit; Matt Murton, Cubs; Cory Sullivan, Colorado; Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh; Jeremy Reed, Seattle.


Starting Pitchers: Felix Hernandez, Seattle; Gustavo Chacin, Toronto; Joe Blanton, Oakland; Ervin Santana, Angels; Scott Kazmir, Tampa Bay; Chris Young, Texas; Chien-Ming Wang, Yankees; Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh; Matt Cain, San Francisco; Jeff Francis, Colorado; Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio, Houston; Kyle Davies, Atlanta.


Relief Pitchers: Huston Street, Oakland; Bobby Jenks and Neal Cotts, White Sox; Jesse Crain, Minnesota; Chris Ray, Baltimore; Chad Qualls, Houston; Blaine Boyer and Macay McBride, Atlanta (among many others).


            Nowhere is this continuing trend more obvious than in Florida, where the Marlins have shed almost every veteran regular. With LF Miguel Cabrera planning to move to third base, the Marlins will be starting eight new men in the field on Opening Day.


            Just two years after winning a World Series, the Marlins may be starting seven players who spent most of 2005 in the minors. We’ve got to figure the Marlins will add some veterans, especially in the outfield. But as of now, it looks like this:


C: Josh Willingham (23 Florida AB, after starting 2005 in High-A and getting 219 AB in AAA). Willingham can hit but is even worse at throwing out runners than LoDuca. Backup would be Matt Treanor, a rookie last season (134 bad AB). Replacing: Paul LoDuca (traded to the Mets).


1B: Mike Jacobs. Promoted from AA last year, he hit 11 HR in 100 AB for the Mets. Backup/platoon could be big Jason Stokes, not yet a major-leaguer. Replacing: Carlos Delgado (traded to the Mets).


2B: Josh Wilson (10 Florida AB) is ahead of veteran bench-sitter Alfredo Amezaga (5 AB in 2005). The Marlins backup could be Daniel Uggla, who had a breakout minor-league season with Arizona’s AA team. He’s got power, but little defensive range. He’s also a veteran minor leaguer taken by Florida in the Rule 5 draft that requires him to stick with the Marlins all season or be offered back to Arizona. Replacing: Luis Castillo (traded to Minnesota).  


SS: Hanley Ramirez (2 Boston AB) and Robert Andino (44 bad Florida AB) after both were September callups directly from AA. Ramirez was considered Boston’s best prospect and is supposed to be the real goods. Andino has a rocket arm and good defensive instincts, but the bat is a big question. Replacing: Alex Gonzalez (free agent).


LF: Chris Aguila (78 Florida AB in 2005 after 138 in AAA) and Reggie Abercrombie. Aguila’s two-team totals show that he projects as a 4th OF. Abercrombie is a chronic underachiever in the minors who has shown no acquaintance with the strike zone and no ability to learn from his mistakes. Showed flashes in 2005 Arizona Fall League – typical of his career, his best performances are in short stretches. Replacing: Cabrera, who moves to 3B after trade of Mike Lowell to Boston.


CF: Eric Reed. Speedy, gifted glove man, long expected to be Juan Pierre’s successor. He regressed with the bat in his second AA season last year. With no power, he needs to stick to line drives and grounders, ala Pierre. With a better OBA than he has ever shown, he could be better than Pierre, because he’s better defensively. But nothing last season indicated he is ready for the majors. Replacing: Juan Pierre (traded to the Cubs).


RF: Jeremy Hermida (4 HR in 41 Florida AB after promotion directly from AA). Smooth left-handed stroke showed breakout power last season. Could be an elite hitter. Defense a work in progress, so far without the progress. Replacing: Juan Encarnacion (free agent).


            Totals: Cabrera (613 AB) and 13 others who averaged 31 big-league AB in 2005 (400 combined). And the Marlins figure to turn most of the bullpen duty over to newly acquired minor-leaguers, including flame-throwing closer Travis Bowyer (5.59 ERA in 10 IP with Minnesota in 2005).


            Of course, every season sees a new batch of never-heard-of-‘em relievers. Some end up with great new Strat-O-Matic cards. This article is not concerned with 40-70 innings-pitched guys. We’ve got plenty to talk about now just with the position players ready to get major playing time.


Philadelpia traded Jim Thome to give the first base job 2005 Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard. That means more than the 312 AB he had last season after Thome went down with injuries. Similarly, Milwaukee traded 1B Lyle Overbay in order to give that job to 2006 ROY candidate Prince Fielder, who had 59 AB last season.


The White Sox’ trade of Aaron Rowand for Thome gives young Brian Anderson (34 AB) the first shot at to fill the opening in the Sox’ outfield. And San Diego’s trade of Mark Loretta gives untested Josh Barfield first crack to start at 2B.


After CF Ryan Church’s decent 331 AB in 2005, Washington traded OFs Brad Wilkerson and Termel Sledge with the intent of playing Church every day in 2006. The Senators already have rookie Ryan Zimmerman (who hit .397 in 58 big-league AB after only 250 in the minors) as the regular at 3B.


Atlanta finished the season with rookies Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson getting most of the playing time in LF and RF and so far has done nothing to add age there. Instead, rather than welcome back C Johnny Estrada from injury, the Braves shipped him to Arizona for two relievers, giving the job to Brian McCann, who got 180 promising AB in Atlanta last year after just 166 in AA and no time at all in AAA.


The Braves exported youth by trading Andy Marte, an elite prospect despite 57 not-ready-for-prime-time AB in Atlanta last season, to Boston. How highly regarded is Marte? The Red Sox traded Edgar Renteria, their only shortstop, to get Marte. The Sox had already traded their best bet to replace Renteria, top prospect Hanley Ramirez, for Mike Lowell, a Gold Glove man at third base, Marte’s position. With all of Boston’s 2005 first basemen gone and with LF Manny Ramirez demanding a trade, Marte could get time at 1B, 3B and LF in 2006. For now, young Kevin Youkilis is set to be a regular for the first time, at 1B.


In Los Angeles, Dioner Navarro is the new No. 1 catcher after 176 AB there last year.


            Seattle SS Yuniesky Betancourt (211 AB in 2005) likely will start the season as the regular. And the catching job seems to be in the hands of 30-year-old Japanese import Kenji Johjima.


            Expect Edwin Encarnacion to get more than last year’s 211 AB at 3B in Cincinnati. In Pittsburgh, Chris Duffy (126 AB) looks like the new regular CF, with Nate McLouth (109 AB) in the OF mix.



Others in the wings: Unless Baltimore makes a deal, rookie Walter Young could be starting at 1B. C Jeff Mathis is far enough along that the Angels let Benji Molina become a free agent. San Diego’s Brian Johnson likely would begin as the 4th outfielder, but could get serious playing time. The Cubs have holes in the outfield. They want Felix Pie to fill one of them, but probably not on Opening Day. Milwaukee’s Nelson Cruz has impressive power, but no place to play.