NL Rookie Countdown
Major League Baseball should be amped up for a huge September, a month promising as much drama as any year in recent memory. The American League seems as deep as ever, with some heated battles for the AL Wild Card, and a less exciting race in the AL West. In the National League, all teams are all fighting for spots behind the Mets.
In some ways, more intriguing than the races this September will be to see which rookie jumps forward with a big season's end. Perhaps the deepest rookie crop in history, there has been evidence of a Major League youth movement all over the Majors - from Miami to Los Angeles.
With the year counting down, and September about to crown a champion, I wanted to give a primer of each league's Rookie of the Year race before anyone separates himself. We start today with the National League, and my countdown of the best NL rookies of 2006 ...
10. Cole Hamels
Where He Was Last Year: My #49 prospect entering the season, Hamels' injury-riddled 2005 saw questions begin to crop up about his health problems. Hamels hadn't stayed off the DL for a long period of time since high school, and even his own frustrations were beginning to show - an early season bar-fight accident angered the organization. Still, when on the mound, Hamels showed potential of what he had in his first minor league season. The makings of a big ceiling were there, but so was a lot of risk.
How He Is This Year: Hamels began the season on time, and flew through the minor leagues when no stop posed a problem. Glorified on the internet, Hamels was not an instant success, but has performed admirably (4.50 ERA) in his rookie season. I love his peripheral numbers - which include 74 hits and 96 strikeouts in 84 innings - and Hamels has the ability to dominate that few players do at his age. He won't be winning any trophies this season, but Hamels is a good long-term bet to become an ace.
9. Takashi Saito
Where He Was Last Year: Not on American soil. Saito, 36, came over from Japan in the winter, when the top 1992 draft pick enjoyed a lackluster career. Saito had a big season in 2001, when he posted a 1.67 ERA, but the hinges appeared to come off after a bad 2004. Saito's signing took quite a bit of foresight from a scouting department emerging as baseball's best.
Where He Is This Year: With Gagne hurt, Saito has been fantastic in the late-inning role. An unsung hero from the most recent Sunday night win, Saito looked fantastic in his one inning of relief. As would be no surprise for a Japanese pitcher, Saito is best when throwing his breaking ball for strikes in fastball counts. Saito has had a good year, but remember, voters have an anti-aging bias when it comes to "rookies."
8. Scott Olsen
Where He Was Last Year: Things may have looked bad a year ago, when Olsen posted his highest ERA ever - a 3.92 showing in AA, but such was not the case. As I pointed out when ranking Olsen as the game's #20 prospect, the southpaw's rise in ERA came with large improvements in both the walk and strikeout categories. A bit 2006 was in the cards.
Where He Is This Year: Olsen hasn't been fantastic with the Marlins this season, but he's been consistently very good. The problem with Olsen, and many members of the Florida staff, will be finding a way to harness his great stuff and cut down on the walk total. While Olsen's home run mark is down again this season, he'll never turn the big corner until he learns to hit the ball where he wants.
7. Russ Martin
Where He Was Last Year: Not far removed from a conversion to behind the plate, Martin took to the position last year, following up on an awe-inspiring Spring Training. Martin ranked as my #37 prospect, and I said he had the "best plate discipline in the minor leagues." We knew then what we have now - Martin has all the makings of a very solid, very consistent Major League catcher.
Where He Is This Year: The Dodgers were cautious with much of their youth in the early season, allowing each player to start hitting the ball consistent in the Pacific Coast League. Martin was one of the first call-ups, and his presence made the team forget about Dioner Navarro's 2005 cup of coffee. With a walk-off home run on the national stage Sunday, Martin appears to be entering the upmost echelon of baseball catchers, a tier where only a few players alive currently reside.
6. Matt Cain
Where He Was Last Year: Something must have been wrong with Cain last season, who showed up in camp out of shape, and spent the season in AAA. Armed with newfound control problems, Cain was posting dangerously high walk and flyball numbers. Still, his stuff was great and his strikeout rate was high, and Cain was among my top pitching prospects, ranked as the minors' #8 prospect.
Where He Is This Year: Teams take baby steps with young bodies, and the reins are still on Cain this season. Manager Alou's grip doesn't promise to lighten until Cain can add a bit of consistency to his game. While he's flashed double-digit strikeout, no-hitter type stuff, the problem remains his HR-happy fastball, with which he must further harness control.
5. Ryan Zimmerman
where He Was Last Year: In lecture halls 16 months ago, if you can believe it. While Zimmerman's bat was considered no sure thing entering the draft, it caught on quickly, and Zimmerman began to fly through the minors. Zimmerman's defense was advertised very highly, and his package of successful indicators led me to a #12 ranking of the National on my rookie list.
Where He Is This Year: The problem with Zimmerman's bat was always in the power department - he could make contact just fine. This season his downfall, when compared to the other rookies, will be his inability to smash enough home runs to keep with the slugging percentages of the worlds Prince Fielders and Dan Ugglas. Zimmerman is a remarkable story, and you have to wonder where he would go if the 2005 draft was done all over again.
4. Dan Uggla
where He Was Last Year: ... Crickets ... The answer to this question is one that nobody knows - he wasn't that important. But exposed to the Rule 5 draft, Uggla found a perfect suitor in the Marlins, desperately looking for a Luis Castillo replacement. Uggla has been that and more in the Miami middle infield, flashing power that even his biggest supporters weren't aware of.
Where He Is This Year: While he's fallen off some since a ridiculous start to the season, Uggla still has the best numbers of any rookie middle infielder this season. Hanley Ramirez might have generated most of the early-season press -- OK, ok, well ... all of it -- but Ramirez' recent drop-off has opened the doors for Uggla to show his true colors. I would sell his stock high if I lived in Miami, but that could be a tall order depending on the market.
3. Prince Fielder
where He Was Last Year: Hitting, of course, but in the minor leagues. Since his MVP season in the Midwest League, Fielder was a threat in any league he attended. At each stop, including the PCL last season, Fielder showed power that was drawing 40-HR annually predictions. His play at first base was never lauded, but Fielder always seemed to get the better end on predictions than his father did. I was always a believer, and made him my #4 prospect.
Where He Is This Year: Fielder has been fantastic this season, putting himself in sight of 30 HR by season's end. The Brewers were simply able to trade Carlos Lee at the deadline because of Fielder's resurgence. The Brewers infield defense hasn't been good this season, but as Rickie Weeks and Bill Hall continue to make improvements, so will Fielder. Not only is he the best front-to-back rookie in the NL, he's even more of a future star than we thought.
2. Andre Ethier
where He Was Last Year: Even since Ethier starred at Arizona State, he was the profile of a 4th outfielder. Capable of playing all three outfield positions, but none of them particularly well. Capable of hitting enough for a full-time spot, but not enough power for a spot in a corner. However, last year everything seemed to click, and Ethier exctied Logan White. The Milton Bradley-for-Ethier trade looked pretty bad 1-2 months in, but now the Dodgers have managed to flip the script.
Where He Is This Year: Fantastic. Not yet eligible for the National League batting race, Ethier would now be in first place, a legitimate number. The Dodgers didn't seem to like Ethier as much as some of their homegrown options early in the season, but Ethier's wide-ranging skillset grew on the Dodgers. Now, after they found another way to acquire Maddux, the Dodgers seem committed to not move Ethier.
1. Josh Johnson
where He Was Last Year: Not ranked in my prospect list, and to be honest, Johnson wasn't particularly close. He had a good 2005 season, and some wondered if he had turned a corner, but I wasn't willing to jump on the bandwagon. Johnson's hit ratio was just too high to support a K/9 that never touched 9, and a walk ratio that was at 3.78 per nine in 2004. I didn't like Johnson.
Where He Is This Year: I was wrong. Strikeouts aren't always the answer, as apparently, Johnson's minor league 7.30 mark was enough for the Major Leagues. If the season ended today, Johnson would lead the NL in ERA, making him a shoo-in for the National League Rookie of the Year. With that in mind, it's his award to lose, and if I was a gambling man, I'd say his most likely competitors are: Prince Fielder, Dan Uggla, Russ Martin. But before one of the hitters emerge from the scramble, Johnson will have to start pitching badly, an occurrence yet to happen in 25 games this season.
And, of course, as I always urge: please use the comments to give me your own National League rookie list.