Breaking 'Em In (Part Three)
A few weeks ago, I looked in detail at the American League Rookie of the Year race. I went through every team and analyzed how they broke their rookies in, and then went through my ballot of the league's best. As awards will begin to come out soon, I wanted to get my National League ballot out there as well.
Over the next two days, we will go over the 16 teams in the National League (in order of record), and look at what rookies had an effect on their season. Tomorrow, I will finish the piece with a look at the ten best National League rookies of 2005.
As we know, the best teams often don't have to use a lot of rookies (with the exception being the second team on this list), so the top 8 teams listed today aren't really chock-full-o-rooks. However, we often consider team record when evaluating awards, and playing a role on a contender is often much more impressive than playing a role on a bottom feeder. So, we will begin today with the National League's top half, starting with the league's lone 100-win club...
St. Louis Cardinals
With a machine like St. Louis, youngsters are not needed in large roles. The Cardinals are a team that fill veterans in every major spot, and fix holes with experience. However, injuries are a funny thing, opening up holes even a great GM like Walt Jocketty could not have planned for.
This year had a few of those instances with the Cards. Reggie Sanders had a hobbled season in the outfield, only playing half of St. Louis' games in left. Second in innings logged in left was John Rodriguez, a 27-year-old that had been an undrafted free agent in 1997. After a dominant start to the season in Memphis (his OPS was over 1.200), Rodriguez would play 56 games for the Cardinals. During that time the left-hander gave Tony La Russa a solid .295/.382/.436 line, spanning 149 at-bats.
Second in rookie at-bats to Rodriguez was another veteran minor leaguer, Scott Seabol. The 30-year-old split time all over the diamond, mostly replacing Scott Rolen at the hot corner. Seabol had some heroics with the Cards, but in the end, provided little in way of production. with Rolen returning to the lineup in 2006, you can bet the Cards won't be giving Seabol another 105 at-bats.
Moving to the mound, the only other place the Cardinals needed anything near full-time help was in the bullpen. After beginning the 2004 season with a professional baseball record of 56.2 consecutive scoreless innings, Brad Thompson's season ended with a rash of injuries. This year, however, the St. Louis front office moved Thompson to the bullpen, where he would pitch in 40 games. Despite less-than-stellar peripherals, Thompson's 2.40 GB/FB ratio shows his sinker is a powerful weapon.
Rounding out the rookies, the Cardinals gave a bit of time to John Gall in the field, and Anthony Reyes in the rotation. Both could have more significant roles next season, which is more than you can say of Seabol.
The opposite of the Cardinals. As you know, every year it looks as if the Braves will not make the playoffs. And every year, they do. What made this year special was that the foundation from past years was gone, forcing Bobby Cox into his most difficult position yet. And with the help of rookies, the Braves won it again.
Before the season, everyone thought the one area that John Schuerholz did a bad job designing was the outfield corners. The team had Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi penciled in, with very little to offer in way of replacements. Unsurprisingly, the two veterans did not take long to be both injured and ineffective, forcing Cox to improvise on the fly. His first fix was the combination of Ryan Langerhans and Kelly Johnson.
Both of these two performed admirably; Langerhans' .267/.348/.426 and versatility should make for a good fourth outfielder, and Kelly Johnson sandwiched a bad start and bad finish with very nice play. However, during a slump from both players, the Braves needed another answer, and aggressively turned to one of their top prospects: Jeff Francoeur. At this point, the rest is history. Fantastic play in right field, clutch hitting, the spark this team needed to propel forward. In the end, a .300/.336/.549 line at the age of 21.
Smaller injuries in the infield would also demand rookies attention, as Chipper Jones, Johnny Estrada and Marcus Giles all went down at some point. Giles would have been replaced by Nick Green if the club hadn't spun him into Leo Mazzone's newest reclimation project: Jorge Sosa. Instead, they one-upped Green, finding Pete Orr, who in 150 at-bats hit a solid .300/.331/.387. Estrada was replaced by Brian McCann, who played so well, that he continued to earn starts when Estrada returned. In his 180 at-bats, McCann hit .275/.348/.451, and likely convinced the Braves to deal/non-tender Estrada over the winter.
At third, two options were tried. One failed miserably, the other succeeded. If I had asked you before the season to guess which one was Andy Marte, and which was Wilson Betemit, you would have been wrong. Marte struggled badly in his call-up, and finished the season with a .140 average in 57 at-bats. Former top prospect Betemit, on the other hand, may be looked at to replace Rafael Furcal next year after a .305/.359/.435 season. And remember, this was just his age 24 season.
The pitching side of things goes quicker, as Mazzone managed to keep his staff a little more in tact than the position players. Still, with a hole in the rotation early in the season, the Braves looked to Kyle Davies to fill the role. Like Marte, he wasn't ready. His ERA finished the season at 4.93, which is very good considering his WHIP: 1.68. Look for Davies to get a little more seasoning before thrust into the rotation in 2006.
Finally, we have the bullpen, where Blaine Boyer gave the Braves more than 40 games. Not really considered a prospect before the season, a move to relieving (and Mazzone) did Boyer well, as he posted a 3.11 ERA. In the end of the season, the team also used Macay McBride in the bullpen, with solid results. 14 innings, 22 strikeouts, and a likely spot in the 2006 pen.
At least next year Cox' problem will be avoiding sophomore slumps, not dealing with rookies, right?
Before the season, the Astros were on the short list of teams that could house the NL Rookie of the Year. For after a fantastic 2004 season at AAA, Chris Burke looked poised to step right into the Houston lineup. He didn't. Postseason heroics aside, Burke's role was largely a bench one, and his line of .248/.309/.368. We could bash the Astros for playing Biggio in Burke's spot, but it looks like a good decision in hindsight.
While Burke had been unable to claim a spot in Spring Training, Willy Taveras impressed enough to become the team's leadoff hitter. Acquired from the Indians for scraps, Taveras' speed and contact abilities impressed Phil Garner. These are, however, Taveras' only strengths, as neither his discipline or power is anything to be proud of. Still, leading a Wild Card team in at-bats, hitting .291 in 152 games and stealing 34 bases in a pennant race will make anyone a RoY contender.
We all know the situation at the top of the Houston rotation, which is one of the best of all-time. Pettite, Oswalt and Clemens. However, what Tim Purpura forgot to do after that was build any depth. And before you knew it, the club was looking into the minors and calling for Wandy Rodriguez and Ezequiel Astacio. Given the rush and the environment, it should not be surprising both players had ERAs over 5.50. However, both showed promise, and the pair will likely battle it out between each other in Spring Training.
Looking at the team's smaller roles, we next focus on Eric Bruntlett and Chad Qualls. The latter was one of Garner's most dependable relievers, coming into 77 games with a 3.28 ERA. The former was his utility infielder, showing quality defense, enough patience, and quality pop. Unfortunately, this all came with a .220 batting average. But, like Burke, Bruntlett's postseason (turning a fantastic double play in Game 4) might be enough to keep him in his role next year.
Ed Wade built a deep team this season. The Phillies looked poised to make the playoffs, and steal the NL East from the Braves. He had a good lineup with big bats, and a rotation with six arms.
However, when that sixth arm was needed, he didn't perform. Before the season, we all figured Gavin Floyd was ready for the Major Leagues, that the Phillies were just babying him. Six months later, we all wonder why we liked this guy so much. His ERA was over 10.00 in 26 innings of work, as his control wasn't there, and the curve wasn't enough. So, instead, the club had to go with an unknown commodity, Robinson Tejeda. Once a semi-promising prospect, Tejeda's 2004 had been a bad one, with a 5.15 ERA in Double-A. His 2005 was better, as his Major League ERA was 3.57. If he improves his control, which he will have the opportunity to do in 2006.
The only other hole that opened on this team was at first base, as Wade had not been planning on Jim Thome to get hurt. He did, however, have a nice back-up plan in stud prospect Ryan Howard. The minor league home run leader in 2004 did not disappoint fans or his team, helping to keep them in the Wild Card race until the last weekend. He was the Phillies answer to Francoeur, hitting .288/.356/.567 in 312 at-bats. 312 at-bats, 22 home runs, as a rookie. Hard to get better than that.
New York Mets
New York's payroll makes the depth built by Wade and Jocketty look silly. If the Mets have a hole, they fix it by throwing money at it. No problem. Never would they have the crazy thought of actually building from the inside to out, would they?
Only one player on the Mets this year was needed for any decent length of time: Victor Diaz. With Mike Cameron spending much of the season on the DL, they turned to Diaz, who has always had the bat, but never played the defense. Same story this year, however Diaz looks much more geared to right field than second base. And his bat? Still looking great after spending 280 at-bats hitting .257/.329/.468.
The bullpen needed a bit of help, and from the early going, MetsGeek was calling for Heath Bell. The Mets eventually listened, and the veteran minor leaguer would appear in 46.2 innings. His ERA of 5.59 was higher than expected, however, and while his K/BB remained solid, he proved to be just too hittable.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the September breakout on the Mets, even if he didn't exhaust his rookie status. After staring at Doug Mientkiewicz try to hit for much of the season, the play of Mike Jacobs has been enough to excite Mets fans. The former catcher starred in the 100 at-bats he was given at the end of the season, hitting a fantastic .310/.375/.710, and becoming one of the favorites for the 2006 award.
Oddly enough, it seems as the farther we get down from the top, the less rookies we have to talk about. The Marlins gave just one rookie substantial time this season, while about seven others were given smaller roles. While Matt Treanor, Chris Aguila, Jeremy Hermida, Robert Andino, Joe Dillon, Chris Resop and Scott Olsen probably didn't lose their rookie status, many made enough of an impression to gain a spot on the 2006 depth chart.
It's clear the Marlins did not know what they had in Jason Vargas before the season. A 2004 second-round pick from Long Beach State, Vargas began the season in the low-A South Atlantic League. Vargas then moved to the FSL, and then again to the Southern League before finding a home in Miami. But don't expect Vargas to move much more, as his 4.03 ERA in 73.2 innings looks like a sign of things to come.
Next year there should be more rookies to talk about in Miami, as many of the seven above try to break the lineup a second time around.
San Diego Padres
The Padres depth chart was a hard one to break this season, as many of the spots were filled by inexpensive veterans. This group led the Padres to an 83-81 record, but also to the playoffs, where they were quickly exhausted by the St. Louis Cardinals. Playing the Cardinals left San Diego with very little room for error, which is what left people criticizing Bruce Bochy's decision to finally implement a rookie.
He had only appeared in 31 games, only had 75 at-bats, only hit .213. Still, the peripherals spoke highly of 24-year-old Ben Johnson. A .310 on-base percentage, and a .467 slugging thanks to twelve of his sixteen hits being extra-base hits. This bit of pop landed Johnson a starting role in the NLDS, and the rest is history. Despite his poor play in the playoffs, look for Johnson to get more of a role (platoon-guy?) in 2006.
One rookie we thought might play a lot for the Padres this year was Tim Stauffer. But like Floyd, we were wrong with Stauffer, or right, depending on how you look at it. We knew his ceiling was not a high one, destined for a career at the back of a rotation. What we didn't think was that if Stauffer (a flyball pitcher) was given 14 starts on a team that played half their games in PETCO, that his ERA would finish at 5.33. Let's hope the Pads give him more of a chance next year, as he could very well shade a whole point off that ERA.
Finally, a team with a lot of rookies! The rebuilding movement is in full effect in Milwaukee, and worked very well this season, as the Brewers finally made it back to .500. This is, without doubt, partly due to a rookie middle infield, and a bullpen that Mike Maddux contructed out of rookies and no-names.
Coming out of Spring Training, J.J. Hardy had a job at shortstop. That job did not appear so safe after a first half in which Hardy hit .183/.293/.267, only showing patience as a skill. But after a talk with Prince Fielder, who informed Hardy his swing had changed, things began to click in the head of the 23-year-old. In the second half, Hardy showed promise, hitting .308/.363/.503 in 185 at-bats. You can bet the Brewers will gamble that the second version was the real Hardy next year.
The opposite of Hardy was true with Rickie Weeks, who began the season in AAA, but was called up to the Brewers relatively early in the year. At first glance, his .239/.333/.394 line in 360 at-bats does not look very impressive from the former second overall choice. However, his numbers significantly slumped late in the year, as Weeks had a thumb injury (torn ligament) that he played through. If Weeks can make better contact in 2006, look for him to finally become the star we have been waiting for.
In the bullpen, four names got a decent amount of playing time with the Big League squad: Dana Eveland, Justin Lehr, Jose Capellan and Jorge De La Rosa. The last was the first to be pitching in the pen, and his 38 appearances was the most of the group. And despite his 4.46 ERA being the third highest of the foursome, no one impressed me more. However, I was very influenced by an April outing against the Cubs: 2 innings, one hit, no runs, five strikeouts. His 2.03 WHIP? Less impressive.
The other three were just part time fixes for the club. Eveland was the worst of the group, now in the AFL looking to get back into starting. Lehr was acquired for Keith Ginter, and outplayed him at the Major League level, as 23 appearances with a sub-4.00 ERA does that. And finally, we have Capellan, converted to relief in June, and paying the Brewers dividends in September, with his 2.87 ERA across 15.2 innings.
Next year, expect even more rookies to play, as Prince Fielder and Corey Hart will stop being found on prospect lists. But give Doug Melvin some credit, because this thing is really starting to work.