Breaking 'Em In (Part 2)
More than any other award, the Rookie of the Year trophy awards performance. While the other main end-of-season awards surely rely most heavily on an individual's output, rarely will a winner come from a non-competitive team. With the Rookie of the Year award, performing on a competitive team only adds to one's resume, while the opposite hardly demands exclusion.
Yesterday, I went through the best 7 teams in the American League, and looked at the rookies that were implemented into the Major League roster. The number of players per team increases as we move down the ladder, and is quite high with bottom feeders like the Royals, Devil Rays and Mariners. Simply, these organizations have far less to risk by rushing a prospect, and letting him learn on the fly.
Today I want to look at the worst seven clubs in the AL, and examine how they used rookies throughout this season. And then, at the end of today's piece, I will be the first to hand in my Rookie of the Year ballot, with brief explanations for my choices. In order of descending records:
As always, the offense was the least of the Rangers problems in 2005. The club was third in the AL in runs scored, but third from the bottom in runs allowed. This continued problem forced John Hart to pick quite a bit from the minor leagues. The season will now finish with three of those rookies in the rotation, while at least two others received chances.
Chris Young entered the season as the best known of the group, but more for his size (6-10) and basketball history than his pitching. By July 1, Young had won eight games, and Orel Hershiser was getting pats on the back for refining the right-hander. The wheels have since come off a bit, as Chris has won only three games since then. His July was atrocious, and the club contemplated shutting Young down towards the end of the year. He'll enter 2006 with big expectations, as the club will hope to see what they did from May 1 to June 30 for an entire season.
Second in the rotation in size, and second in rookie performance is Kameron Loe. Standing 6-8, Loe also doesn't bring the velocity you would expect from a pitcher taller than 75 inches. Like Chien-Ming Wang yesterday, Loe's strikeout numbers will hardly command respect from the sabermetric crowd. However, he has a 2.42 GB/FB ratio in one of the Majors most difficult parks for pitchers. His 3.04 ERA since the All-Star Break will tease Texas fans all offseason.
Height will get you a long ways, but sometimes, nicknames will get you farther. Juan Dominguez was dubbed "Little Pedro" in the minors, when he developed one of the better professional change ups. However, his inability to develop anything else led to struggles in both the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Working close with Hershiser, Dominguez is another who has improved as the season has progressed. He will give up his share of home runs, but that's a pill the Rangers must swallow considering his 3.45 post-break ERA.
A comparison never dies, it just gets passed on. Dominguez' went to another pitcher in the organization this year, when Edison Volquez impressed Ranger brass with electric stuff. Beginning the year in the Cal League, Volquez had a chance -- and failed -- to break into the rotation in August. In that regard, he is joined by C.J. Wilson, another rushed player, albeit with a considerable smaller ceiling than Volquez. The only non-pitcher to get any time with the team was Adrian Gonzalez, who finally exhausted his rookie status, and continued to prove he's nothing more than the bad version of Carlos Pena.
Toronto Blue Jays
This was supposed to be the year everything was put together in the J.P. Ricciardi plan. Of course this did not happen, although the Jays were able to mix in rookies with veterans, as Ricciardi had planned. His farm system is middle of the pack though, and you can bet ownership was paying close attention to the two former first-round picks that received quite a bit of playing time.
The incumbent starter up the middle in April was Russ Adams, who had been drafted out of UNC in 2002. After a fantastic .887 OPS in 72 September at-bats last year, expectations were high for Adams this season. So much so, that Adams had more at-bats from the leadoff spot than anyone else this year. His output was very modest, however, with an OPS that could fall on either side of .700 as the season closes. Improved patience and a low strikeout rate will make the Blue Jays think about giving Adams the #2 spot in the lineup next year, although he must hit southpaws with more consistency. Expect a sophomore improvement as his BABIP rises from .272.
Unlike Adams, Aaron Hill can't blame bad luck for his 2005 struggles. Instead, the only way to explain what happened is to say that the former 2003 first rounder fell flat on his face. After making a lot of noise when entering the Majors -- his batting line was .337/.393/.476 at the All-Star Break-- the wheels came off as the season wore on. Hill has hit just .207 since the Midsummer Classic, with both an IsoP and ISO under .100. Neither is an acceptable number, especially one who spent much of his season at third base.
Please note that Hill was much better against southpaws than right-handers, indicating that the Blue Jays could platoon the combo next year.
But as modest as the two hyped players performed, the opposite was true for the Blue Jays 2004 minor league pitcher of the year. Gustavo Chacin, with his weird delivery and new cutter, began -- and is in the midst of finishing -- his rookie season with gusto. The southpaw picked up four wins in April, and after a combination of bad luck and ineffectiveness, would win just two more by July 1. Chacin then won 5 games in July, and has finished out the season marginal in the win column. But he has been as consistent as any Blue Jay starter this year, and will slot in very nicely behind Roy Halladay in the 2006 rotation.
Dave Dambrowski is not one for children. An acclaimed rebuilder, Dave's job in the Florida, and what he is trying in Detroit, are both more veteran-oriented than anything else. Rookies have their chance, for sure, but it was a difficult thing to do, without question.
The only position really dedicated to rookies this year was the centerfield spot. This became true in late April when Nook Logan took the job, after a fantastic start to the season. But as he gained more at-bats, Logan began to look more like Nook Logan, and his season will finish where we would have predicted: with a sub-.750 OPS. However, Nook didn't have the job for his entire plight, as the Tiger blue-chip prospect, Curtis Granderson, took over in late July. With fare less fanfare than a Murton or Francoeur, Curtis secured himself a 2006 starting spot with an .863 OPS.
Besides center, the only other two examples are of rushed prospects. Justin Verlander was called up to Detroit on two different occasions, when it looked as if the 2004 top five pick had proven all he could in the minors. But his struggles have likely convinced the Tigers to start Justin in Toledo in 2006. The other prospect rushed was Tony Giarratano, who started quite a few games up the middle after gaining notice with a .333 Spring Training batting average. The Tulane product even began his career well, getting on-base five times in his first ten plate appearances, before reaching just six more in his next 37.
With a similar stance to Dambrowski, and 'legitimate' Wild Card hopes, rookies were never going to be an important part of the Baltimore Orioles in 2005. Furthermore, if the season had continued on like the first two months, with the Orioles flying high, a rookie may not have ever even sniffed the roster. But as the injuries and losses began to mount, more and more rookies broke into the lineup.
Things began to crumble in May, when Luis Matos went down, and the club made an all-too-aggressive decision. Following a good debut and start to his Carolina League season, the Orioles called up Jeff Fiorentino in May. He was fine if not fantastic before being sent back to high-A, but showed a lot of poise despite being thrown into the fire. Then when rotation and bullpen injuries struck in late May/early June, the club turned to Hayden Penn and Chris Ray. Penn struggled in the Majors, while Ray continued to pitch well out of the bullpen.
As a result, Ray was the Oriole rookie with the most 2005 experience. Later in the season, a couple others -- Walter Young and John Maine -- had chances, but it looks as if only Ray truly stuck with the team. An improving farm system and upcoming organizational philosophy shift will likely provide Baltimore fans with more young guns to watch in 2006 and 2007.
This is when the rookies begin to really mount. All the buzz in Seattle has been around one rookie this season -- Felix Hernandez -- who has played well to earn all the credit. The teenager is a very special talent, and his fantastic debut is remarkable. It's really too bad it couldn't have happened at a different time, however, as his late start all-but-prevented Hernandez from a high finish in the Rookie of the Year race.
In fact, only one rookie went the distance with the Mariners this year, and it's one you are likely to hear complaints about from Mariner fans: Matt Thornton. The hard-throwing southpaw stuck it out all season, despite numerous bouts with control and general ineffectiveness. Another aging rookie to join Thornton on the pitching staff was Jeff Harris, who did his best Ryan Franklin impression during his stay. Organizations could do worse than Harris as their fifth starter, but blueprinting any team in February with his name on the depth chart is a bad idea.
While no rookie truly took the job, the shortstop belonged to a host of different ones throughout the year. It began with Wilson Valdez, who had been a waiver claim from the White Sox in April. Despite good defense, Valdez did not last long, and he was gradually replaced by another White Sox refugee, Mike Morse. Morse made waves in Seattle after a strong start (.856 pre-Break OPS), but fell out of favor with a poor finish, mixed in with a steroid suspension.
After Morse came the rookie that took the job, and probably the second-best Mariner rookie behind King Felix in 2005: Yuniesky Betancourt. The Cuban signing from the winter was thrown into a tough situation quickly, but gave the Mariners just what they suspected. It did not take long for the Mariner to become a regular on Web Gems, and Seattle fans will gloat about his defense to whoever will listen. Betancourt's problem is his offense, which is inept besides a good strikeout rate.
Other rookies for the Mariners included minor league veteran Greg Dobbs, as well as an offensive contingent that tried handling left field: Chris Snelling, Jamal Strong, Shin-Soo Choo. It's likely that none will stick, as the Mariners will likely sign a left-handed left fielder this winter.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
This is the place for rookies. And you can only expect that to improve when the Devil Rays change managers at year's end, and young guns stop being blocked by players like Damon Hollins. Sure, if we mentioned Aaron Small yesterday, Hollins deserves a mention, but he was more a means to an end than the opposite.
In fact, it's likely that Hollins did more harm than good. One thing we know for sure is that his presence delayed the promotion of Jonny Gomes, who unsurprisingly took very little time to become one of the Devil Rays best bats. Tampa will realize that a poor free agent class will open up a considerable market for Aubrey Huff, whose exit from the organization is helped by the presence of Gomes' bat. Hollins also took playing time from Joey Gathright, who while not as damaging to the scoreboard as Gomes, surely would have produced far more electricity in Tropicana than Hollins.
On the mound, the key rookie was Scott Kazmir, who topped the 100 walk mark yesterday. Besides control problems, Kazmir had a fantastic season, winning ten games and striking out 174 batters. His stuff is as good as anyone in the AL East, but Kazmir must hit his spots better with that fastball before making the jump to the next level. A similar thing is true of Seth McClung, who is quite simply the bad version of Kazmir. 62 walks, 88 strikeouts in 101.1 innings. A 7.11 ERA. Yikes.
Finally, the club's bullpen, one of their strongest parts, was anchored heavily by Chad Orvella. Following a fantastic 2004 minor league season, Orvella has the chance at finishing the season with 40 appearances if the week ends right. His stuff is not quite there, but Orvella challenges hitters in a similar way to Huston Street.
Kansas City Royals
The bullpen was just one of many places that rookies saw time with the pathetic Royals in 2005. The relief corps was also home to the organization's most exciting rookies, though many will be calling for changes back to the starting spot this winter.
Leading that group is Andy Sisco, their Rule 5 selection, who performed even better than we could have dreamed in December. The big southpaw has pitched in nearly 75 innings with the team, striking out just that many while keeping his ERA under 3. He has been the Royals best out of the bullpen, but never gained the trust from a manager to be given the closer role. The Royals would likely be best to leave Sisco in the bullpen, where he has flourished in short outings that lessen his issues with control. The same is true for Ambiorix Burgos and Leo Nunez, two live-armed right-handers that also made the switch in 2005. Burgos was fantastic this year, just one season removed from pitching in the low-A Midwest League.
In the rotation, the season began with Denny Bautista pitching every fifth day. I had high hopes for Bautista, who I have loved since the 2003 Futures Game, but his season was ruined with injury in the early going. He was replaced by 2004 first-round pick J.P. Howell, a southpaw with a repertoire as far different from Bautista's as one can get. Howell saw considerable struggles in 2005, but as I've said before, I do believe he has a career in the Mark Redman mold ahead of him.
One of the preseason favorites to win Rookie of the Year was Mark Teahen, the player that Royals brass fell in love with when scouting during the 2004 Carlos Beltran auction. But Teahen's bat never came alive this season, and one can bet it won't be long until second overall pick Alex Gordon is breathing down his back. Another trade acquisition, Chip Ambres, also made his debut this year, although expectations were far lower than Teahen. Ambres started off hot, so much so that he may have earned himself a starting job in 2006.
Joining him in the opposite outfield corner will likely be Matt Diaz, who was one of many bats the Royals tried to use this season. Both Justin Huber and Shane Costa were rushed to add more punch to the lineup, and unsurprisingly, neither succeeded in such a role. Huber, however, still has a good chance at helping the organization.
After two days worth of examining organizations, it is time to narrow the field and make my picks for the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year. The field was substantially mediocre this year, as well as being very deep.
Bryan's Big Ten Rookies of the Year
1. Joe Blanton - Had thrown more pitches than Street did all season by June 19.
2. Huston Street - Should have been the Padres discount pick in 2004.
3. Jonny Gomes - Top bat, and it isn't even close.
4. Tadahito Iguchi - Hard to appreciate unless you watch him for awhile.
5. Gustavo Chacin - Toronto's Blanton. A rock with a resume just a bit worse.
6. Scott Kazmir - Might become best player on the list if control and consistency improve.
7. Robinson Cano - September batting line: .382/.396/.685.
8. Dan Johnson - Beats Swisher because of consistency. Higher in VORP, lower in Win Shares.
9. Chris Young - Would have been higher without second half troubles.
10. Nick Swisher - Has good chance of becoming best bat.
11. Felix Hernandez - Product of call-up date rather than performance.
Eight honorable mentions that just missed inclusion, in no particular order: Russ Adams, Ambiriox Burgos, Kameron Loe, Chien-Ming Wang, Bobby Jenks, Ervin Santana, Andy Sisco, Jesse Crain (exclusion from yesterday).
As always, tell me why I'm wrong in the comments. And to change things up, also list your top 5 2005 rookies in terms of career value. Who will become the best?