Rookie Watch

There’s still plenty of time in-season to catch up on assignments and coverage of the minors/prospects so I thought I’d spend space pontificating on this tired subject, but it’s the first time I’ve done it this year, also the first time in my writer life it wasn’t a requirement. Personal freedom is glorious but doesn’t necessarily abolish the comfort of repetition.

My top picks for the Rookie awards with a few dark horses thrown in for fun. For the record – My published works projecting these awards have not gone smoothly. I consistently manage to identify the winner within the lists but usually fail on the pick to click. I chose Kaz Matsui as the favorite for the NL in 2004. Now there’s one I really do apologize for.

I used the BBWAA standard for rookies: no more than 50 IP or 130 at bats in the majors (total) in previous seasons, and no more than 45 days on an active ML roster. I’m not sure I accurately accounted for the fact the 45 days does not include September — roster expansion — so if anybody wants to point fingers for inclusion/exclusion omissions and errors, I’m open to ridicule.

NL
1 – Prince Fielder 1B, Brewers – Picked at #1 as the voting is usually little more than a stat-fest. Fielder is capable of 30-plus home runs and 100 RBI, albeit with poor defense and the potential for a weakish batting average in his first real trial. He will be a much better hitter than his father one day (.255 lifetime) but is likely to come in only 10-15 points above that mark this season. Note – I’m unsure why he fell in many of the prospect lists this winter. Yet another head scratcher…

2 – Jeremy Hermida OF, Marlins – No surprise here except he’s not numero uno. The 22-year-old is a better all-round player than Fielder and a star on the rise. But he’s slated to begin the year in the #2 hole, and is unlikely to warrant the aforementioned stat-fest vote given the Brewers are a superior club through the batting order. Hermida will probably hit for a higher average and steal more bases, but that’s likely to be it.

3 – Josh Willingham C, Marlins – Willingham is 27 years old and should probably be left off any long-term short list of rookies for the future. He’s a decent bat and should have success at the plate, but he’s a better hitting catcher than a corner outfielder. The Marlins will use him at both positions this year but his ultimate destination will likely be at first base and left field, neither of which he’ll excel at in comparison to the All- Star types that permeate the positions at present and always. The next Craig Wilson?

4 – Josh Barfield 2B, Padres – I’ve written on him often this spring, and don’t for a second believe he’ll win the award given the homefield dimensions against the stat-fest vote.  But I like him none-the-less and feel he’ll be an eventual All-Star in the middle of the infield. He’ll never be a Gold Glove candidate but should be decent enough that a switch to the outfield will not be required.

5 – Conor Jackson 1B, Diamondbacks – I liked Jackson prior to his first round selection in 2003, back when he was third baseman with USC. He probably first caught my attention because he’s the son of John Jackson, the actor who played Admiral A.J. Chegwidden on the series JAG, but he’s now capable of surpassing his father in fame and fortune. I think he’s a hitter in the making and would have him as high as No.3 on this list were it not for the aging but productive Tony Clark. There’s likely to be a platoon during the season, especially early, and Jackson will only get 300-350 at-bats if that scenario emerges.

Honorable Mention

Matt Cain SP, Giants – I think he’ll struggle with his
command in this, his first full season, and too few rookie starting pitchers
get the votes any way. He’s still a guy I envision as an ace, but like so
many others, it’s likely a 2-3 year process until the real deal emerges. 

Joey Devine RP, Braves – Could be the closer at some point this year, and is the long-term candidate to flourish in that role ala Chad Cordero and Huston Street.

Hanley Ramirez SS, Marlins – The leadoff candidate to begin the season, but probably a tough year in learning away from showing why he’s been a top prospect for three years running.

Ryan Zimmerman 3B, Nationals – Zimmerman still qualifies I think, but I don’t believe he’s ready to compete statistically at the plate. He’ll eventually become a 20-home run/ .310 type, and plays stellar defense, but I doubt 2006 will be his breakout season.

Taylor Buchholz SP, Astros – Houston’s former top prospect had bicep and labrum surgery at the end of 2004 and it flared up again in 2005. But he’s now recovered enough that a fifth spot in the rotation is in order. He was a quality pitching prospect prior to the shoulder surgery, but he looks to have been rushed back and I wonder how it will affect performance given the combination of that and the fact he’s never faced major leaguers in regular season competition.

Russell Martin C, Dodgers – A good hitting prospect for a catcher but he’s moving from Double-A with Dioner Navarro on the shelf to begin the year. And with Sandy Alomar onboard, he’ll probably to be sent down to Triple-A later unless he tears it up to begin the season. Possible but unlikely…

AL tomorrow
Dan Quon

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