Where are the 2009 Rookies of the Year? They might still be in the minor leagues.
Not that we should expect most first-year players to replicate Geovany Soto’s 2008 rookie campaign, but here we are with a little more than 20 percent of the major league season complete, and not one rookie has dominated out of the gate.
This year, Dexter Fowler got some national attention for stealing five bases in a game, but he’s been more steady than spectacular, hitting .253/.321/.374 in 115 plate appearances while playing good defense in center field for the Rockies. Oakland’s Andrew Bailey has found success dealing his cutter out of the bullpen; Toronto’s Ricky Romero has put together a few nice starts; A’s righthander Trevor Cahill has a sub-4.00 ERA despite more walks than strikeouts; and Detroit’s Rick Porcello has shown he’s well ahead of the curve for a 20-year-old.
But there’s a good chance the 2009 Rookie of the Year in either the AL or the NL is still in the minors right now, a la Ryan Braun in 2007, when he made his major league debut that year on May 25. Teams don’t start the season with their 25 best players on their active rosters, but we’re getting to the point in the season where teams stop having to worry about manipulating service time and Super Two status, which means we get to see a team’s 25 best healthy players on the big league club.
Considering only prospects who have yet to play in the major leagues this year, here are 10 of them who could make an impact—some for playoff-contending teams, others for teams in the race for the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.
Tommy Hanson, rhp Braves: The Braves have fielded one of the best run prevention units in baseball so far, ranking eighth in baseball with 4.41 runs allowed per game. They will be even better as soon as they call up Hanson, who is making the bats of his opponents look like wind turbines with all the whiffs he’s generated this year. With a plus fastball and a pair of plus breaking balls, Hanson has a sparkling 1.99 ERA in 40 2/3 innings with Triple-A Gwinnett, striking out 57 (12.6 K/9) and walking 13 (2.9 BB/9). His command is improving, too, which means it’s only a matter of time before he starts carrying his success over to the NL.
David Price, lhp, Rays: At this time last year, Price had still yet to make his first start for high Class A Vero Beach due to elbow problems. He finished the season helping propel propel the Rays to the World Series with his high-leverage relief work in the postseason. But Price hasn’t been dominant in his return to Triple-A Durham. The 23-year-old lefty has a 4.60 ERA in seven starts, mostly because he’s walking too many batters (16 in 29 1/3 innings) and leaving too many pitches out over the plate for hitters to crush. The underlying talent is still there, though, as Price has made hitters look silly at times with his stuff when he’s locating his pitches to good spots within the strike zone. If he’s still pitching like this by the All-Star break, that’s cause for concern, but he also has just 61 1/3 innings of regular-season experience above Double-A. The more likely outcome is he continues to develop into an above-average major league starter, reaching Tampa Bay at some point around June.
Matt Wieters, c, Orioles: Perhaps you’ve heard of Wieters, the No. 1 prospect in baseball. Wieters missed a week in April with a strained right hamstring and is hitting .263/.366/.368 in 112 plate appearances with 16 walks and 19 strikeouts for Triple-A Norfolk. That apparently has some Orioles fans needlessly concerned. Never mind that Wieters’ .734 OPS is above-average for the International League this year, he’s still the most talented prospect in the minors on offense and defense, with the ability to get on base at a high clip and hit for power. Though he turns 23 one week from today, Wieters could step into Baltimore’s lineup tomorrow and be one of the best catchers in baseball, though he probably will have to wait until at least June 1 for a callup.
Carlos Carrasco, rhp, Phillies: Carrasco’s 6.62 ERA in seven starts for Triple-A Lehigh Valley in ugly, but the rest of his numbers aren’t, as the 22-year-old has 37 strikeouts (9.4 K/9) and eight walks (2.0 BB/9) in 35 1/3 innings. Carrasco’s been getting hit hard because opponents are hitting .382 on balls in play against him. But with pitches that grade out as average to above-average across the board, Carrasco could help Philadelphia’s run prevention, as the Phillies rank 26th in baseball in ERA (5.43).
Andrew McCutchen, cf, Pirates: McCutchen won’t make an impact on a contending team in 2009, but he should reach Pittsburgh this year. He’s hitting .276/.346/.488 in 136 plate appearances for Triple-A Indianapolis, though the cause of that .212 isolated power is more a byproduct of his speed than any massive power breakthrough; McCutchen has as many triples (eight) as he has doubles (seven) and home runs (one) combined. McCutchen, 22, should help the Pirates on offense and on defense, allowing the Pirates to move Nate McClouth to a corner.
Mat Gamel, 3b, Brewers: There’s no use continuing to harp on Gamel’s defense—he’s well below-average at third base, and he belongs at either first base or a corner outfield position—but he sure looks like he’s going to be able to hit any level of pitching, with a quiet, balanced swing that led one AL scout to call him a future perennial .300 hitter who can handle both lefthanded and righthanded pitchers. Bill Hall at third base, Prince Fielder at first and Ryan Braun and Corey Hart in left and right field serve as barriers to entry for Gamel to get into Milwaukee’s starting lineup, but his bat appears to be big league ready, and the Brewers appear prepared to call him up today.
Austin Jackson, cf, Yankees: Jackson missed a week in April after getting hit by a pitch in the elbow, but he’s off to a .360/.429/.441 start. That high batting average is a bit surprising, given that Jackson has struck out in 24 percent of his plate appearances with 30 punchouts in 126 PAs. He’s still one of the organization’s two best prospects, along with high Class A catcher Jesus Montero, and he’s close to being big league ready.
Kyle Blanks, 1b/lf, Padres: There might soon be a 285-pound man patrolling left field for San Diego, if the Padres decide to continue with their experiment. The Padres plan to "sporadically" use Blanks in left field at Triple-A Portland to assess his ability to play the position. Blanks runs well for a big man, but that’s a lot of mass to get in motion quickly on a read off the bat. With Adrian Gonzalez at first base, the Padres want to find any way to get Blanks into the lineup, because he’s shown at every level that he’s a good hitter. Blanks, 22, is off to a .287/.387/.525 start in 142 plate appearances with eight home runs, 16 walks and 37 strikeouts. With the Padres a long shot to contend for a playoff spot in 2009, Blanks could be one bright spot to watch in San Diego in the season’s second half—much as Chase Headley, who also learned to play left field on the fly, was last season.
Brett Wallace, 3b, Cardinals: Wallace doesn’t have a clear trail to the big leagues, but if the Cardinals are still in the playoff race late in the season, he could make a difference. Wallace is a disciplined hitter with a balanced swing and good barrel awareness, allowing him to get on base at a high rate. He can hit for power, too, with the ability to hit the ball out of the park to all fields. Listed at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, he’s going to give some of the runs he creates back on defense, but by the end of the season he could play an important role in the Cardinals’ playoff chances.
Nolan Reimold, lf, Orioles: When I started writing this yesterday, Reimold was still a minor leaguer, but the Orioles have since decided to option reliever Bob McCrory to Triple-A and bring Reimold up to the big league club. While fans in Baltimore are itching to see Wieters in the big leagues, Reimold has been the one annihilating Triple-A pitching. The 25-year-old has hit some monster home runs this year, giving him nine on the season in a .396/.484/.755 performance in 30 games. Despite always being relatively old as a prospect for his level (and despite being the club’s second-round pick in ’05), the Orioles have been slow to promote Reimold, who had more than 600 plate appearances in high Class A before being promoted to Double-A, where it took nearly 800 PAs with an OPS near .900 to get to Triple-A. The Orioles have one of the best young outfields in baseball with 23-year-old Adam Jones in center field and 25-year-old Nick Markakis in right field. But left fielder Felix Pie is hitting .206/.296/.317 in 72 PAs this year and is a career .220/.287/.328 hitter in 357 big league PAs, so if Reimold gets off to a strong start, he could take over the team’s left field job for the rest of the season.
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