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Every Year There Are Some Rookie Surprises




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Scan our postseason rookie rankings through the years and you'll find the point at which dozens of elite prospects turned into productive big leaguers. You can find this year's Top 20 Rookies. But it's important to take a look back as well.

In 2006, six seasons ago, we first heard from Matt Cain, Prince Fielder, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Ryan Zimmerman in what may be remembered as a truly historic rookie class. The '07 season brought us Ryan Braun, Tim Lincecum, Joakim Soria and Troy Tulowitzki, while '08 delivered Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Alexei Ramirez and Joey Votto.

The talent flow hasn't slowed in either of the past two seasons, either, not with the likes of Elvis Andrus, Starlin Castro, Tommy Hanson, Jason Heyward, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey and Mike Stanton making their big league debuts. And these lists don't even consider talented rookies who had overlooked or abbreviated debuts, such as Josh Hamilton, Clayton Kershaw, Jon Lester, David Price, Carlos Santana, Stephen Strasburg and Justin Upton.

Even with all the high-profile talent breaking into the bigs each year, at least one team is guaranteed to get an unexpected boost from an unheralded rookie. It happens every year. Recent examples include:

2006

We ranked Dan Uggla as Florida's No. 29 prospect heading into '06 but prophesied that the Marlins "have nothing but question marks in their middle infield." The stocky second baseman, plucked from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft, quickly answered those questions by making the all-star team as a rookie and never relinquishing his post as starter (until the Marlins traded him to the Braves). He batted .263/.349/.488 in five years with the Fish, last year becoming the first second baseman in history to slug 30 homers in four consecutive seasons.

2007

Continuing in the trend of overlooked second basemen, Boston's Dustin Pedroia entered his rookie campaign ranked as the system's No. 7 prospect, behind $52 million Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka as well as top talent from the 2005 and '06 drafts—Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard and Lars Anderson. Pedroia's ranking was partially fueled by his anemic September '06 debut in which he hit just .191 in 31 games—a far cry from his American League rookie of the year ('07) and MVP ('08) efforts.

Another AL East success story transpired in Baltimore in '07, when in late January the Orioles claimed righthander Jeremy Guthrie on waivers from the Indians (who needed roster space to sign Trot Nixon). Signed for $3 million out of the '02 draft, Guthrie fizzled as a reliever in Cleveland, but free to stretch his wings with the Orioles he morphed into a rotation anchor, going 38-48, 4.06 over the past four seasons, averaging 194 innings per campaign.

2008

We noted that Twins outfielder Denard Span "hit .306 after the (2007) all-star break with improved plate discipline," but we didn't see it as a harbinger of future success, ranking the speedy '02 first-rounder as the system's No. 20 prospect. Span not only maintained his gains, he played better in '08 than he ever had, batting .340/.434/.481 in Triple-A and prompting a July callup to the in-contention Twins. In three seasons in Minneapolis, he's batted .288/.367/.392 while leading off and playing all three outfield posts for a Twins club that has averaged nearly 90 wins per season.

2009

The Pirates scored big with Twins castoff Garrett Jones (21 homers, .938 OPS as a rookie), but the Brewers hit the jackpot that same year with versatile, hard-hitting infielder Casey McGehee. A nondescript waiver claim from the National League Central-rival Cubs in October 2008, McGehee has settled in as Milwaukee's regular third baseman, batting .291/.346/.477 with 39 homers in two seasons. (He even filled in a bit for the injured Rickie Weeks at second base in '09.) Oddly, the Cubs made no corresponding 40-man roster addition at the time they waived McGehee.

2010

A product of Pittsburgh's northern suburbs, the Pirates' Neil Walker failed to make much of an impression in six seasons after being drafted 11th overall in '04. He ranked just 26th on the club's 2010 prospect list. But with hot prospect Pedro Alvarez bearing down at third base, Walker vacated the hot corner to take up second base, and his bat came to life. He hit .321 with power in Triple-A to earn a promotion to Pittsburgh, where he proved to be one of the NL's top offensive rookies by batting .296/.349/.462 with 12 homers and 29 doubles.

2011

With Uggla, Pedroia, McGehee and Walker falling under the heading "Overlooked Second Basemen," here's a trio of middle infielders to monitor this season (rankings in parentheses indicate placement in our Top 100 Prospects):

• The Mariners drafted Dustin Ackley (No. 12) second overall in 2009, changed his job description from first base to second and threw him head-first into Double-A in his pro debut last year. He began the year slowly, but from May 1 forward he batted .289/.382/.439 in 426 at-bats and finished the year in the Triple-A championship game with Tacoma.

• Much like Ackley, the Indians' Jason Kipnis (No. 54) took up second base after signing out of the '09 draft (63rd overall). Also like Ackley, he finished the 2010 season in the Triple-A finale, playing for champion Columbus. Kipnis demolished Double-A (.887 OPS) to earn a place in the International League playoffs, where he batted 7-for-18 (.389) with four extra-base in four games.

• Drafted in 2008, one year ahead of Ackley and Kipnis, the Nationals' Danny Espinosa (No. 66) already has six big league home runs to his credit. His smashing September debut (.447 slugging) last year also guarantees that the second base job is his to lose in Washington. If strong-armed Ian Desmond fails to clean up his defensive technique, then Espinosa could slide over to shortstop for the Nats.

LAST CHANCE SALOON
Here's a look at some previously highly regarded prospects who are struggling to prove they belong in the big leagues
Player, Pos., Team Drafted (Round)
Joba Chamberlain, rhp, Yankees 2006 (1s)
Shoulder surgery, makeup issues have kept him from finding form from 2007 dominant debut
Carlos Gomez, of, Brewers N/A
High expectations in Milwaukee may mean more is needed from Gomez than flashy defense
Alex Gordon, of, Royals 2005 (1)
Career .244/.328/.405 big league numbers, may be left behind in Royals' prospect wave
Andy LaRoche, 3b, Athletics 2003 (39)
Faltered in repeated trials in Pittsburgh, now battling Adam Rosales for A's bench spot
Cameron Maybin, of, Padres 2005 (1)
Maybin's .692 big league OPS stems from his contact rate (172 K's in 548 ABs)
Franklin Morales, lhp, Rockies N/A
Late-season 2007 heroics seem a career ago; control issues remain even in relief role
Glen Perkins, lhp, Twins 2004 (1)
Out of options, Perkins won 12 games in '08 but is relegated to relief duty in Minnesota
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c, Red Sox 2001 (1s)
Red Sox's high expectations means his leash as Jason Varitek's replacement will be short
Jeff Samardzija, rhp, Cubs 2006 (5)
Out of options in Chicago, ex-footballer has 50-55 BB-SO ratio in 82 career MLB innings
Jordan Schafer, of, Braves 2005 (3)
Former top Braves prospect now hoping to stick as a fourth outfielder thanks to his glove