Are You For Real: Rookie Edition
Last year's rookie class was the most impressive in a long time. Players like Jered Weaver, Joel Zumaya, Russell Martin, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis, Carlos Quentin, Dan Uggla and Ian Kinsler made their major league debuts. Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano, Ryan Zimmerman, Jonathan Papelbon, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Cain, Scott Olsen, Conor Jackson, Prince Fielder and others followed up brief 2005 showings with strong rookie seasons. Oh, and let's not forget Rookie of the Year winners Hanley Ramirez and Justin Verlander.
The 2007 class is not as deep, but entering this season there were quite a few new names expected to a significant fantasy impact right away. Later in the season, "Are You For Real" will take a look at some Rookie of the Year candidates, but this week we examine three newcomers whose disappointing performances to date has been the cause of much hand-wringing among fantasy owners.
Alex Gordon, 3B, KC -- Such an exceptional prospect that he spent only one season in the minors, Gordon was supposed to be a five-category performer at the hot corner in KC. Instead, he's batting .168 and slugging .262 while striking out 36 times in 33 games. Can he turn it around, or was it a mistake to rush him to the majors in the first place?
Will: For Real. Gordon's development surely wasn't helped by being rushed to the bigs, but he really is one of those rare prospects that are as major league ready as they come one year out of college. Gordon utterly dominated Double-A last year, and had a fine spring campaign as well, batting .317 with a .419 on-base average and a .556 slugging percentage in the Grapefruit League. While it will take him a few years to hit for great batting averages in the majors, he should turn it around if the Royals are patient with him. Expect him to start hitting soon, finishing around .250 while approaching twenty home runs, double-digit steals, and around 75 runs and RBIs. If you have the luxury of reserving him until he warms up do so, but don't cut him loose. Buy low in keeper leagues if his owner is easily discouraged by small sample sizes.
Adam: For Real. Unlike most struggling, under-performing players, there is not a lot in Gordon's numbers to make owners truly confident in a rebound. He is hitting so poorly -- an OPS of .543? -- that it's nearly impossible to find much of anything positive in his stats. At least the patience is there, and although the strikeouts are bothersome, I am only slightly less high on Gordon than I was entering the season. His final numbers will no doubt fail to meet expectations, but he is still the best prospect in baseball, and he will still be an above-average third baseman by the end of this season. As long as the Royals stay committed to him, Gordon's rebound is not a question of if, but when and to what extent.
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B, SD -- Acquired from Cleveland for Josh Barfield, Kouzmanoff took over at third base, and was expected to be a reliable source of power and batting average. After 87 at-bats, however, he's hitting .115 and slugging .207 with only one home run -- and losing more and more at-bats to Russell Branyan. Will he get on track, or is he on the verge of a demotion?
Will: For Real. Kouzmanoff hit for high averages and plus power -- without striking out excessively -- at every minor league level. He's been astonishingly unlucky so far this year, with a hit percentage of only 15 percent on balls in play (compared with a major league average of 30 percent.) There's no reason to think that, like Gordon, he won't turn it around if the Padres are patient with him. Kouzmanoff's long-term prognosis as a hitter is still excellent. There's no guarantee, however, that the Padres won't give up on him too early. His situation is far more dire than Gordon's, for several reasons. Kouzmanoff isn't quite the blue-chipper that Gordon is. He's also on a team that perceives itself as a contender. Branyan's not a terrible short-term option, and the Padres will give him more playing time before they'll allow Kouzmanoff to stink it up for too much longer. Plus, in Chase Headley, David Freese and Matt Antonelli, the Padres have quality long-term third base options in their farm system. Kouzmanoff will be fine if the team allows him to play through his struggles, but he may not have that luxury. The bat is for real despite the slow start, but he's a very risky buy-low candidate in non-keeper leagues.
Adam: Unreal. Again, with Gordon, the question is not if Kouzmanoff rebounds, but when and to what extent. Gordon has youth and more natural talent on his side, and a longer leash to garner playing time. Kouzmanoff will turn 26 in July, and although his minor league stats are superb, he was quite old for his levels. His upside is significantly lower than Gordon's. He will rebound, but to what degree? A league-average third baseman? He has yet to provide evidence of even having that much upside, and since he is much closer to a finished product, you have to be more pessimistic about his fantasy chances, especially considering his home park is Petco.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B, BOS -- Boston replaced Mark Loretta with another high-effort second-sacker without great physical tools. Pedroia wasn't expected to provide much power or speed, but scouts and statheads alike believed that he could hit for average against all kinds of pitching. However, he's batting .256 and slugging just .372 so far this season. Is he overexposed, or is this just a slow start?
Will: For Real. Pedroia may never hit more than ten home runs in the majors, but he does have legitimate gap power and will hit lots of doubles. His contact rate is superb, his plate discipline is outstanding, and even this year he's walked twelve times to only seven strikeouts. He'll be a fine pro, although hitting for average will be his only plus skill. In Boston's potent lineup, however, that alone makes a player a valuable three-category fantasy commodity. He's already starting to warm up, batting almost .500 in May. The last chance to buy low is upon us.
Adam: For Real. The reason why Pedroia is not as well-liked as a lot of lesser prospects is because you can't dream on Pedroia like you can on, say, an Elijah Dukes. Pedroia is almost certainly going to be an above-average (if unsexy) second baseman, but he has little chance at becoming anything special. On the other hand, he has almost no chance of not becoming an everyday regular; take him for what he is and be happy. A solid second baseman who contributes in average and runs is nothing to scoff at. With the lack of superstars at the position, Pedroia fits in quite well.