Several rookies making a big impact
A number of first-year players stand out in American League and National League
Nothing spells "taking a flier" like a rookie of the year prediction. I should know: My choice for the American League award, Toronto's Travis Snider, is hitting .258 for Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League. My National League choice, Cameron Maybin, is tearing it up for the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs.
Then again, I'm not alone. A look back at the ESPN.com "experts" top rookie picks from spring training includes a bunch of obligatory David Price and Matt Wieters selections. There's also a smattering of Gordon Beckham and Jordan Schafer sightings.
It's been a nondescript year for rookies, but a few stand out from the crowd. In this installment of Starting 9, we recognize nine rookies who've made valuable contributions to their teams through the first three months of the season.
Rick Porcello, Tigers (8-4, 3.54 ERA)The Tigers are naturally wary of piling innings on Porcello two years removed from his tenure as staff ace at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey. But Porcello has wowed everyone in Detroit with his talent, poise and ability to navigate big league lineups and keep hitters off balance.
"This isn't an easy thing to do," said Tigers starter Justin Verlander. "I know I wasn't ready when I was 20. I was a sophomore [at Old Dominion] and I was hanging out with friends and doing the stuff you do in college."
Detroit pitching coach Rick Knapp wants his pitchers to change speeds with their fastballs, and Porcello has the arsenal to do it. He can blow a four-seamer past hitters at 94 mph, and he throws an 88-91 mph two-seamer to induce ground balls. Porcello's curve is still evolving, but he'll throw breaking pitches and changeups about 20 percent of the time.
"All the signs point to him getting bigger and stronger," Knapp said. "This is just his merit badge. He could end up being a No. 1 guy."
Heading into Wednesday's outing against the Cubs, Porcello has averaged 87.3 pitches per start. He's thrown 99 and 97 pitches in his past two appearances, and the Tigers know they might have to back off at some point.
"I'm not saying we're going to treat him with kid gloves, but we're certainly not going to do anything foolish with the young man," Knapp said.
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.874 OPS, five triples in 83 ABs)It's been a promising month in the world of Pirates player development. Pedro Alvarez just received a promotion to Double-A Altoona, and McCutchen is doing everything he can to make people forget Nate McLouth.
McCutchen recorded five triples in his first 17 games as a Pirate. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only one player since the start of baseball's integrated era in 1947 reached five triples so quickly. It was Jeff Stone, who tripled five times in his first 16 games with the Phillies in 1983-'84.
McCutchen made some big progress in the Florida instructional league, when he worked extensively with hitting coach Gregg Ritchie and outfield and baserunning coordinator Kimera Bartee. Among other things, he concentrated on bunting for base hits and doing a better job of "staying behind" the ball with his swing. McCutchen's bat is quick enough that he can afford to wait a fraction longer and use the entire field. The approach also makes him less vulnerable to off-speed pitches.
"He's really made strides in translating his athleticism into baseball skills on the field," said Kyle Stark, Pittsburgh's farm director. "Andrew became a man this offseason -- physically, personally, in every area. He walked into big league camp with a quiet confidence, and it's been fun to watch him carry that forward."
Nolan Reimold, Orioles (.532 SLG, eight homers in 111 ABs)Several rookies are making an impression in Baltimore. Brad Bergesen is 2-0 with a 2.37 ERA in June, and 34-year-old right-hander Koji Uehara has generally been good twice around the order. And Matt Wieters, who sold 42,704 tickets in his Camden Yards debut, is starting to come on with the bat.
No one has made a greater impact than Reimold, who's hit several jaw-dropping homers since his arrival from Triple-A Norfolk in mid-May.
The Orioles liked Reimold's bat when they drafted him as a second-rounder out of Bowling Green in 2005; Reimold's power rated 70 on the 20-80 scouts scale. But he also has above-average speed, a plus arm in left field and enough plate discipline to avoid extended slumps. In his first 114 plate appearances in Baltimore, Reimold has 14 walks and 18 strikeouts.
"Very rarely do you find a guy that can hit the ball 450 feet where that's not the predominant thing on his mind," said Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley. "[Reimold] has gotten a number of key base hits to right field, and a couple of huge walks in the ninth inning where you would expect a young guy to leave the bench and swing all-or-nothing."
During a recent round of batting practice, Reimold spent the entire time spraying line drives all over the field before Crowley told him it was time to unload.
"I said, 'Noley, let's get after a few now,' and he started turning on some balls and hitting them in the seats," Crowley said. "Usually, with a young player who can hit home runs, you have to talk to him about staying on the ball and going to right field. Not this guy."
Elvis Andrus, Rangers (.261 BA, 11 SB)The Rangers ranked 30th in the game last year in Baseball Prospectus' team defensive efficiency ratings, which measure the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs. This year Texas is fourth. That has a lot to do with the controversial (at the time) decision to shift Michael Young to third base and insert Andrus in the lineup at shortstop.
Andrus, 20, ranks fifth among shortstops behind Jack Wilson, Brendan Ryan, Marco Scutaro and Jason Bartlett in the Fielding Bible's plus-minus rankings. He's third among big league shortstops in total chances, second in double plays and first in putouts.
In Atlanta, Yunel Escobar has received the wrong kind of attention for his diva tendencies and on-field brain cramps. Andrus, who came to Texas from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade, has been the opposite. He's a diligent worker, and he's taken full advantage of the Omar Vizquel "mentor" influence.
Andrus' offense has been a mixed bag, but he has 15 walks and 11 steals in 12 attempts, so he'll find a way to sneak into some rallies.
Andrew Bailey, Athletics (50 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings)Oakland's young starters generated lots of buzz in spring training, and they've had their moments. Trevor Cahill has a 2.32 ERA in five June starts, and one American League scout called Vin Mazzaro a "young Kevin Brown."
But the best and most consistent performance by a young Oakland pitcher belongs to an unheralded reliever. That's Bailey, who made the team as a non-roster invitee to spring training and has quickly embraced the role of closer.
According to Fan Graphs, hitters have made contact on 67.7 percent of their swings against Bailey, compared to the major league average of 80.6 percent. Bailey is missing more bats than Francisco Rodriguez (69.0 percent), Trevor Hoffman (76.4) and Jonathan Papelbon (77.1).
"That tells you something about his stuff and his deception," an American League scout said. Bailey throws in the mid-90s, so he's more suited to closing than Brad Ziegler, a righty specialist who made a splash in the role last season.
Bailey, a New Jersey native, pitched collegiate ball close to home at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. He has a degree in finance, and he's done some analytical work for Wall Street firms the past few winters.
"It keeps your mind away from baseball a little bit," Bailey told A's beat writer Joe Stiglich. "I like the [stock] market. For some reason, math has always been good for me."
Judging from Bailey's 1.04 WHIP and 2.23 ERA, he's still adept at making the numbers work in his favor.
Colby Rasmus, Cardinals (.270 BA, .455 SLG)The Cardinals weren't too flustered when Rasmus hit .229 in April and May. That was his M.O. in four years of minor league ball.
"He's traditionally been a slow starter," GM John Mozeliak said. "But once he gets calibrated to the level he's at, he seems to make adjustments and have success."
Consider Rasmus calibrated. On May 15 in Pittsburgh, he hit a 458-foot shot into the Allegheny River on one bounce. Pirates starter Jeff Karstens, the unfortunate victim, said it sounded like an "explosion" when the ball came off Rasmus' bat.
Rasmus received some unexpected playing time when Rick Ankiel and Ryan Ludwick went on the disabled list, and now the Cardinals can't get him out of the lineup. He leads the team with 16 doubles, and he's hitting .358 in June even though he hasn't drawn a walk in 67 at-bats this month.
Rasmus has spent most of his time hitting second in front of Albert Pujols, but the ever-resourceful Tony La Russa has used him three times at cleanup and once in the leadoff spot.
Matt Palmer, Angels (6-1, 4.70 ERA)Palmer's peripheral numbers aren't much to look at, and his 6-0 start was aided by some generous run support; in Palmer's six wins, the Angels scored a total of 47 runs.
But numbers alone can't explain what Palmer has meant to a Los Angeles staff that was desperately in need of a lift. Nick Adenhart was killed in an auto accident a week into the season, and John Lackey, Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana, Dustin Moseley and Shane Loux all have spent time on the disabled list.
Palmer, a stout, bulldog-looking, 30-year-old rookie, stepped in and made the most of his opportunity. He beat CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium and pitched Tim Lincecum to a standoff last week. Palmer keeps the ball below the knees, complements his sinker with a hard cutter, and competes as if he never wants to see the minors again.
"He's done a great job, but my gut tells me he's just a guy," an AL scout said. "I think his success might be a byproduct of lack of familiarity within the league."
Palmer is accustomed to the doubts. He has a horticulture degree from Missouri State, and he thought about quitting baseball to start a landscaping business two years ago before his wife talked him out of it. Now his goal is to stay in Mike Scioscia's rotation long enough for AL lineups to get even more familiar with him.
Scott Richmond, Blue Jays (5-4, 3.79 ERA)In light of all the injuries to the Toronto pitching staff this season, Richmond probably deserves an award just for staying ambulatory.
His hectic agenda last week was a prime example: On Wednesday, Richmond struck out 11 batters in eight innings in a masterful 7-1 victory in Philadelphia.
His reward? Manager Cito Gaston used him in an emergency relief role three nights later in Washington, and Richmond allowed a game-winning homer to Willie Harris.
Richmond has given up 11 homers in 71 1/3 innings, and he's mixed in a few clunkers. But he has an impressive 61-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and righty hitters are batting .190 against him.
Richmond's stuff is better than you'd expect from a guy who spent three years pitching for the Edmonton Cracker-Cats in the independent Northern League. He also spent three years working the shipyard docks in his native Vancouver, B.C., after high school.
During the trip to Philly last week, Richmond was carrying around a copy of one of Roy Halladay's favorite books -- Harvey Dorfman's "Mental ABC's of Pitching" -- and practicing the art of positive visualization. If he can envision a way to stay off the disabled list, Gaston will be ecstatic.
Ronald Belisario, Dodgers (2.14 ERA, 39 K's in 42 innings)In previous stops with Florida and Pittsburgh, Belisario was tagged as a "great stuff, bad makeup" guy. But no one ever questioned his stuff. Belisario throws a fastball in the mid-90s, and he comes at hitters with a power sinker, slider and split.
Dodgers scout Ron Rizzi and assistant general manager De Jon Watson both pushed for Belisario after watching him pitch winter ball in Venezuela. Now Belisario is proving to be a workhorse for a Los Angeles bullpen that's logged the fifth-most innings in baseball.
"He is here as a result of excellent scouting," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said in an e-mail. "He is also here because he takes the ball all the time and has a power arm, a feel for pitching and a passion for what he does."
Other top rookiesDexter Fowler, Rockies: Fowler was great in April, so-so in May, and he's been very good again in June. He has a lot of strikeouts in the leadoff spot, but that .358 OBP is fine. Five of Fowler's 13 stolen bases came in one game. If this list were based strictly on potential, he'd be closer to the top.
Omir Santos, Mets: The former Yankee and Oriole has enjoyed some big moments for Jerry Manuel's Mets. Santos beat Florida with a walk-off single, delivered a game-winning homer against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon and has 18 RBIs in his past 29 games. He's a late bloomer at age 28.
Brett Gardner, Yankees: The pride of Holly Hill, S.C., has raised his batting average to .285 and his OBP to .361. Gardner also leads the Yankees with 16 stolen bases. Just keep him away from outfield walls.
Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals: The 5.03 ERA is kind of rough, but the 63 strikeouts in 62 2/3 innings sure look good.
Tommy Hanson, Braves: Hanson, recently arrived from Triple-A Gwinnett, showed what all the fuss was about in that 4-0 win over the Yankees on Tuesday.