One of the finest things about the national pastime is that the cycle of the seasons includes a long offseason when the hard realities of the summer pennant races are far away from the Hot Stove League -- distant enough to enjoy blue-sky fantasies about the potential of the youngsters on the hometown nine.
While the timeworn cliché says every team has a shot in spring training, mature fans know the score. But almost every team has a couple of intriguing prospects to watch each spring, and fans of teams that aren't going anywhere take much-needed solace while gauging the development of these young studs. Moreover, teams lacking legitimate prospects often will stir up some excitement when an unheralded phenom surprises in spring training, generating interest and expectations wholly out of proportion with realistic assessments of their chances.
With spring training around the corner, it's time to take a look at a select group of players who could end up competing for Rookie of the Year awards. In order to enter the top ranks of potential rookies, a young player needs three things: excellent tools, impressive professional performance, and proximity to The Show.
The chances of any rookie making an impact depend, of course, largely on opportunity. Reigning NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard won the gold last year, but it was only after unexpected injuries to veteran slugger Jim Thome opened the door. Thome had averaged 153 games, 45 home runs, and 113 RBI over the previous five seasons, so Howard easily could have spent another full year bashing Triple-A pitching.
Top-flight prospects like the Angels' Brandon Wood and Erick Aybar face a similar scenario in 2006. The odds are that they won't get a full chance until 2007, bumping them from this year's blue-chip rookie list because they lack the opportunity. (Ages in parentheses are as of July 1, 2006.)
Top AL blue-chip rookie prospects
CF Brian Anderson, White Sox (age 24): One of the few rookies to be handed a job on a defending world championship team without having to compete for it, center field on the South Side of Chicago is Anderson's to lose. The positive spin on Anderson is that he is a multi-threat player who can hit for average, has power, range and a strong arm. The opposite spin on the right-handed hitter is that he doesn't excel in any area except possibly his arm, with subpar speed, medium power and merely adequate range. Plus, he struck out 115 times in 118 games in Triple-A last year. That's a formula for disappointment if Anderson's power is stymied by big-league pitching.
RHP Craig Hansen, Red Sox (22): The timing of Hansen's ascension to the closer's role in Beantown will depend on the health of Keith Foulke and his palm change, the pitch that was so devastating in 2004 and so smackable in 2005. Hansen is the prototype hard-throwing righty, with a mid-90s fastball and a good hard slider. With only 15.2 innings pitched under this belt as a pro, however, he'll be sent back to Triple-A Pawtucket quickly if he struggles.
C Kenji Johjima, Mariners (30): A 11-year veteran and nine-time All-Star from the Japanese major leagues, Johjima is technically a rookie. As a hitting prospect, the right-handed Johjima should be no surprise; he'll hit for a lower average and a lot less power in the majors than in Japan, especially given his home park will be Safeco. And with the Mariners' limp offense, that will mean fewer RBI opportunities, further hurting his chances to make a splash. Based on the transition of the three most prominent Japanese position players to come to MLB (Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Kaz Matsui), Johjima should bat around .260 with a .740 OPS while hitting 10-15 home runs. Johjima's plus defensive skills should survive the move to the U.S. a lot better.
LHP Francisco Liriano, Twins (22): The very young pitcher is already being compared to 2004 unanimous AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana after fanning 33 in only 23.2 innings in his big-league debut in 2005. What scouts are saying about the left-hander with the sizzling slider, plus change, and mid-90s fastball will turn almost as many heads as Liriano will when he takes the mound.
3B Andy Marte, Indians (22): While the Indians are as much in love with Aaron Boone as is possible for a power-position player with a .677 OPS, the club will find it perilously difficult not to give the hot corner job to Marte when Boone struggles again in 2006. (Boone's OPS in the second half was only .730, so forgiving Boone's wretched first half doesn't make him look much better.) Marte is a sterling defender with good bat speed and excellent plate discipline; the right-handed hitter's limp 2005 debut in Atlanta in 66 plate appearances was probably just a fluke. The only way Marte isn't going to be starting every day in Cleveland by June is if the Indians put Casey Blake back at third to give Brad Snyder a shot.
RHP Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox (25): Ticketed for the BoSox bullpen to start the season, Papelbon will end 2006 in the rotation. With a trade of David Wells possible and the health and stamina of Curt Schilling up in the air, Papelbon is likely to be handed a starting assignment before June. The right-hander throws hard enough to succeed against big-league hitters, and his slider and split both could be out pitches, but he needs better command of both pitches to get there.
RHP Justin Verlander, Tigers (23): The Tigers, desperate to show their alienated fan base that they have a future, will be sorely tempted to rush Verlander to Detroit if he has a good spring or a fast start in Triple-A. But the young right-hander with the express fastball (mid- to high-90s) and two other plus pitches (hard curve and straight change) might not be ready for prime time for a few months or even a full year. After all, he has a mere 22 pro starts under his belt, only nine above Class A.
RF Delmon Young, Devil Rays (20): If Aubrey Huff gets off to a bad start, the pressure on the Rays brain trust to call up Young, the 2005 Minor League Player of the Year, will be irresistible. If Huff gets off to a good start, the Rays will almost certainly deal him to save money and make room for their highly touted uber-prospect. Young is a four-and-a-half tool player who will hit for a high average with good power to all fields. He is also a plus defender; the only average part of his game is his speed. Either way, Young should be ensconced in right field in Tropicana soon, lining home runs to all fields and giving long-suffering Tampa Bay fans a good reason to hope that the future will be better than the past.
Top NL blue-chip rookie prospects
RHP Matt Cain, Giants (21): Cain generated the kind of buzz in his NL debut late in 2005 that Felix Hernandez did in the AL. With good reason, too, as the young right-hander with the power mid-90s sinker and good curveball showed he could dominate his seniors by holding enemy hitters to a .477 OPS in seven starts. Cain has struggled with his control since reaching the high minors midway through 2004, but there is no reason he can't improve with experience given his plus stuff. At this point, Cain appears to be an exception: He is one of a legion of top high-school pitching prospects whose meteoric rise causes teams to risk high draft choices on prep pitchers.
SS Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks (23): A weak performance in Double-A failed to dim Drew's rising star after his boffo pro debut in 2005, first in the independent Atlantic League and then in the California League. Drew draws the obvious comparisons to his older brother J.D. with his left-handed power bat and good plate discipline. Defensively, he's adequate at best at shortstop, and the Diamondbacks signing of Justin Upton make it highly likely that Drew will be moved to another position. Still, with only Craig Counsell and Alex Cintron ahead of him, Drew could easily end up starting 120 or more games at short in Arizona this year.
1B Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks (24): The right-handed hitting Jackson draws kudos for his quick bat and his high batting averages (career .332 in the minors), but he lacks a position and has already washed out as an outfielder and third baseman. At first base in Arizona, he'll need to make good on expectations that he can be an average defender and hit with solid power, neither of which is guaranteed. Jackson is not young, and his poor performance in his major league debut in 2005 (.609 OPS) is a bad omen. Plus, there's the well-liked Tony Clark to consider: Clark's .302 BA, 30 home runs, 88 RBI, and 1.002 OPS in 130 games in 2005 mean Jackson won't have a lot of leeway if he struggles.
1B Prince Fielder, Brewers (22): Few power prospects have been as eagerly anticipated as Fielder in recent years. Sure, Fielder has stratospheric power. Sure, Fielder has been one of the younger players in Double-A and Triple A the past two seasons. But he has been battling a serious weight problem since his teens and his father ate himself out of the league in his early 30s when he could have been on the way to a 400-homer career. Fielder's drafting by Milwaukee was a surprise since many scouts think he'll be a serious liability at first base. The lefty slugger has obvious potential, but he's also the kind of player who could struggle mightily when he has to face major league pitching every day of the week.
RF Jeremy Hermida, Marlins (22): Projected as a future star for several years, Hermida has shown relentlessly good plate discipline so far in his pro career. Adding pull power to his game in 2005 allowed him to dominate Double-A pitching en route to a late-season call from Florida. Hermida is not a good outfielder and has already shown that he focuses intently on his hitting and somewhat ignores his defensive weaknesses. He projects as an on-base machine with plus power, good batting averages and the ability to steal 20-30 bases.
LHP Paul Maholm, Pirates (24): A left-hander with an average fastball who depends on good control and location, Maholm jumped all the way from Class A in 2004 to the majors in 2005. He has the potential to be a solid starter if he can develop a reliable third pitch to go with his plus curve, which makes him devastating on left-handed hitters, who managed only two hits in 23 at-bats in Maholm's six starts in Pittsburgh.
RHP Anthony Reyes, Cardinals (24): The polished righty created a buzz by fanning 12 in 13 frames while allowing only six hits in late-season action in St. Louis. With a low-90s sinker and two potential plus pitches in his slider and straight change, he should be well-armed to make 30 starts in The Show this year. Reyes has pitched barely 250 innings in his two-year professional career due to a late start and numerous injuries.
3B Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals (21): Hitting .397 in the majors, even if it was only in 58 at-bats, draws a lot of attention. Add to that the fact that Zimmerman was drafted just a couple of months earlier in June 2005 and had only 67 professional games under his belt. Scouts rave about Zimmerman's glove and arm, and a conservative projection for the polished right-handed hitter would be high batting averages with excellent line-drive power. Since he has so little pro experience, Zimmerman must be regarded as a work in progress, so it's hard to predict how many home runs he'll hit or how high his on-base percentage will be. Make no mistake, though, Zimmerman is the real deal; he's no mirage like Rudy Pemberton (who hit .512 in 13 games for the Red Sox in 1996) or Craig Wilson (.468 BA in 13 games for the White Sox in 1998).
Gary Gillette is the editor of The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, which will be published in early March by Sterling. Click here to order a copy. Gary can be reached via e-mail at GGillette@247Baseball.com.