Which rookie will reign supreme?
Talented youngsters poised to make their mark on the game
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
This isn't supposed to happen.
Rookies aren't supposed to shut down lineups or light up pitchers. They're not supposed to venture far from the end of the bench, and -- goodness, no -- they're certainly not supposed to throw no-hitters.
Yet baseball's rookies did all of those things in 2007. Give them a chance, and they might just do them again in 2008.
Since the fine print states that any player qualifies for rookie status as long as he hasn't posted a season with more than 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 45 days on a Major League roster -- Septembers not included -- even some of the game's more accomplished young stars remain eligible for this year's Rookie of the Year Award.
No, they're not supposed to succeed -- at least not like this. But these 10 lead a host of others who seem destined to do just that.
Though memories of his no-hitter might not be enough to land him a permanent rotation spot this spring -- he'll instead have to battle Jon Lester for first crack at the fifth starter's role -- Buchholz won't be held back for long in Boston. This is the same guy who posted a 1.77 ERA in Double-A last year and a 1.59 ERA once he reached the big leagues. Needless to say, he'll get a shot.
"I know what it's going to take for me to have to stay on the team this year," said Buchholz, who added more than 10 pounds of muscle to his wiry frame this winter. "A lot of hard work and dedication goes into being prepared for 162 games."
These are exciting times for the Red Sox, who will also give rookie Jacoby Ellsbury a chance to win the starting job in center field. Ellsbury has already proven his abilities in Boston -- he hit .360 in the postseason -- and could give the Sox a similar jolt.
Armed with a blazing fastball and an excitable personality, Chamberlain charged into the Bronx last August and was a star by September. Between the quirky "Joba Rules," which determined precisely when he could pitch, and the pesky midges in Cleveland that helped stain his October, New York developed a fascination with its newest young celebrity -- and for good reason. He lasted more than a month before allowing his first earned run, then he didn't allow another until the playoffs.
"He's like a man among boys when it comes to his stuff," pitching instructor Nardi Contreras said last year, "and being able to do the things that he's capable of doing."
This season the Yankees plan to turn Chamberlain loose and entrust him with the ball every fifth day. Should he succeed with the same flair that marked his debut, the American League Rookie of the Year Award might just be his to lose.
Meanwhile, his toughest competition might just come from teammate Ian Kennedy, who also showed skill beyond his years during a Major League stint last summer. Though Kennedy might not break camp in the rotation, he'll assuredly be there before long.
Down in Tampa Bay, Longoria is set to start at third base a year after slugging 26 homers between two levels of the Minor Leagues. And oh, yes, he's only 22 years old.
The last part of that biography seems most impressive. On a team loaded with young talent, Longoria has a chance to be the star. He's not two years removed from flying off the Draft board third overall, yet the Rays believe he's ready for the big leagues -- both on and off the field.
"You can talk about his skills if you want," manager Joe Maddon said earlier this winter. "This guy is a Major League-caliber person, and I think he's going to fit in well with the Major League clubhouse quickly. He gets it. He understands it."
Any discussion of Cincinnati's outfield, for the better part of a decade, has revolved around Ken Griffey Jr., and rightly so. He's a lock for Cooperstown and one of the most talented power hitters of his generation.
And apparently, he's not alone.
"Jay Bruce is in that category, in my opinion," Triple-A manager Rick Sweet said in September. "They're close to the same animal."
That's an awfully strong endorsement for a kid who hasn't played an inning in the big leagues, but then again, Bruce isn't just an ordinary rookie. He's a 20-year-old prodigy -- arguably the best prospect in baseball -- and he's ready to battle for the starting center-field job this spring. Last season saw him jump from Class A ball to the doorstep of the Majors and string together a .319 average, 46 doubles and 26 home runs.
And apparently, he's not alone, either.
Also vying for starting gigs with the Reds this spring are Homer Bailey -- who's all but guaranteed a slot in the rotation -- and first baseman Joey Votto, who could snag the first-base job away from veteran Scott Hatteberg. They're all proof, if nothing else, that the future in Cincinnati remains bright.
Throw aside any controversy over whether former Japanese professionals should be considered for Rookie of the Year awards. Rules are rules, and that means that this year, Fukudome has as much of a chance as anyone to take home some hardware.
Fukudome's potential stems largely from his opportunity, starting in right field and amassing RBI chances in the heart of the Cubs' batting order. Though there's always a concern that Japanese players won't perform as well once they head Stateside, history -- not to mention a guy named Ichiro -- has proven that batting averages aren't quite so likely to decline. So Fukudome's career .305 mark in Japan may just translate into something comparable at Wrigley.
"We think we have the whole package," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said. "All the things we felt or we hear about on a regular basis that we might have lacked -- on-base percentage, more speed, better defense in the outfield -- he fits the bill for all of us. We're not worried about the transition."
Expected to eventually become a mainstay in St. Louis, the 21-year-old outfielder could snag a starting position as soon as Opening Day. He has the talent -- his 29 home runs in Double-A last year certainly prove that -- and now that Jim Edmonds is gone, he has the opportunity. And so all signs point toward Rasmus patrolling center field for the Cards sooner rather than later.
"I hope he does get a look," closer Jason Isringhausen said recently. "From what everybody hears, he's supposed to be the next coming of No. 15 [Edmonds] out there. So we'll see what happens."
What's clear is that the Cards won't promote Rasmus just to have him sit on the bench. Once he is up -- be that in April, May or September -- he'll be starting every day. And that's as good a reason as any to pencil him in as a Rookie of the Year contender.
When Wood walked into Class A ball three years ago and slugged a California League-record 43 homers, jaws dropped. The kid had all sorts of talent, and all sorts of promise. But when he hit only 49 over the next two seasons combined, eyebrows raised. This wasn't the same guy. Couldn't be.
And so Wood's star has fallen, perhaps hitting its lowest point after he batted .152 in three stints with the Angels last season. But so high were all those expectations to begin with that it's easy to forget Wood is only 22 years old.
"As he gets experience and starts to understand his zone, his upside is off the charts," manager Mike Scioscia said last year. "His bat speed is right up there with anyone I've seen."
Wood's learned to play third base along with shortstop, and though there's a good chance he will begin this season back in Triple-A, his opportunity in the Majors should soon come again.
Hochevar pitched just three innings in his Major League debut last September, but that's all he needed to make his point. He silenced the mighty Yankees, but more than that, he proved he belonged.
"Most guys, in their first game, have that deer-in-the-headlights look," former Royals catcher Jason LaRue said after the game. "But it seemed like nothing fazed him."
Still, succeeding in Kansas City's rotation this summer might not be such a breeze. During only his second season as a professional -- the Royals drafted him first overall back in 2006 -- Hochevar struggled at times in the high Minors. Only after he hooked on with the big club did he begin to dominate, posting a 2.13 ERA in four appearances.
This season a rotation spot is his to lose -- and if he can duplicate last summer's success, he's not that likely to lose it.
There are two main reasons why the Marlins were willing to part with Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis in a blockbuster trade this winter.
Money was one. Maybin was the other.
Of all the talent the Marlins received in return for their two superstars, Maybin appears to have the highest ceiling. His raw athleticism sets him apart, and after flying through the Minors and reaching the Majors at the age of 20 -- he hit a homer in just his second game -- Maybin appears ready to join the Majors for good. At the least, the Marlins will give him every chance to grab the starting center-field job this spring.
And odds are, Maybin will grab it.
"He's got star-type ability," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last year. "Whether he turns into a star or not will be up to him. But he's blessed with star-type ability."
The Dodgers know that Nomar Garciaparra can't produce forever. But then again, they were prepared for this, as Garciaparra hasn't played a full season since 2003.
LaRoche was prepared for it, too, and has a prime chance to snag the starting third-base job away from Garciaparra this spring. With nothing more to prove in the Minors -- he's hit well above .300 at every stop since 2005 -- LaRoche is going to make the team. The only question will be how much he plays.
"It appears as if he'll have a good chance to make the club, either as our everyday third baseman or as an extra player," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said last week. "We'll let the players decide who the everyday players will be."
As far as raw skill goes, LaRoche may have the edge. After all, he's not far removed from ranking among some of the best prospects in the game.