Future Big League Stars Highlight All-Rookie Team

Tyler Colvin hit 20 home runs while playing all three outfield spots for the Cubs. Pedro Alvarez won the Pirates’ third-base job in the second half and finished with 16 homers. The Marlins’ Logan Morrison reached base in 42 consecutive games at one point.

Righthander Mike Leake and lefty Travis Wood provided the Reds with key contributions in their pennant push. The Rockies’ Jhoulys Chacin and the Diamondbacks’ Dan Hudson thrived in hostile home pitching environments. Stephen Strasburg dazzled us for 12 starts with the Nationals before he required Tommy John surgery.

Yet not one of these first-year players cracked our all-rookie team in what turned out to be a banner class, particularly in the National League. The aforementioned eight omissions, plus 12 of the 17 first-teamers, played for NL clubs.

C Buster Posey • Giants
Posey left no skeptics in the wake of a resounding rookie season, during which he demonstrated all-star ability and helped guide the Giants to the playoffs for the first time post Bonds. He hit .305 and clubbed 18 home runs (24 if you count his Triple-A clouts) while catching the wickedest pitching staff in the West. Led by Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain and Brian Wilson, the Giants struck out a major league best 8.2 batters per nine innings as a team. Unfazed, Posey yielded only one passed ball and nabbed 37 percent of basestealers in 76 games behind the plate.

1B Ike Davis • Mets
With 19 home runs, Davis trailed only David Wright for the Mets’ team lead. That same total a year ago would have led New York (by seven!) in its inaugural year in spacious Citi Field. If he reins in the strikeouts, Davis could be a steady 25-30 homer threat with plenty of patience (72 walks, .351 on-base percentage) and ample defensive contributions.

2B Neil Walker • Pirates
Walker confounded expectations in 2010, going from Triple-A afterthought (and potential first-round bust) to productive regular at second base. While advanced defensive metrics debit Walker as a liability in the field, he created more runs with his bat than all but five other rookies. The silver lining for the Pirates and their fans: Walker learned to play the keystone just this season, having matriculated through the minors as a slick-fielding third baseman.

3B Danny Valencia • Twins
In a year featuring sluggers like the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez (16 homers) and the Astros’ Chris Johnson (.481 slugging) at the hot corner, Valencia showed more feel for hitting and a steadier glove than his challengers. He also helped the playoff-bound Twins cover for the loss of Justin Morneau’s bat with a seemingly endless stream of clutch hits in the second half.

SS Starlin Castro • Cubs
The Cubs will live with Castro’s defensive inconsistencies for now because his explosive bat speed and easy actions at short send not-so-subtle reminders of why he was a big league regular at age 20. He collected two hits in his final game to finish at an even .300 to rank 10th in the National League batting race. In terms of contemporary comparables for Castro, it’s a short list, headed by the likes of Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, Robin Yount, Alan Trammell and Elvis Andrus. The common thread: All were productive regulars at shortstop at age 20.

CF Austin Jackson • Tigers
The first rookie to score 100 runs since Troy Tulowitzki did so in 2007, Jackson swiped 27 bags (in 33 attempts) and legged out 34 doubles and 10 triples. But one number stands above the rest: 170, as in his American League-leading total for strikeouts. In that regard, Jackson resembles a young Curtis Granderson, his predecessor as Tigers center fielder. But the tooled-up Jackson is so athletic that he figures to improve with age. Also worth noting: Jackson struck out less frequently per at-bat this season than either Drew Stubbs or Colby Rasmus.

OF Jason Heyward • Braves
Heyward not only led all rookies in walks (91), on-base percentage (.393) and slugging (.456), but he ranked fifth and fourth, respectively, in the National League in the first two  of those two categories. With 18 home runs, Heyward teamed with the Marlins’ Mike Stanton (22 homers) to form one of the most powerful pairings of 20-year-old sluggers in history. The only other 20-or-under duo to each hit 18 homers in the same season? Eddie Mathews (25) and Mickey Mantle (23) in 1952.

OF Mike Stanton • Marlins
Stanton assaulted Double-A Southern League pitchers in April and May, hitting 21 home runs in 53 games. Big league pitchers proved to be equally incapable of keeping him in the yard, and Stanton hit 22 more bombs for the Marlins, conjuring images of Adam Dunn’s minors/majors total of 51 in 2001. In the process, Stanton became the third first-year slugger ever to hit at least 20 homers in fewer than 400 plate appearances, joining Bob Horner (1978) and Kevin Maas (’90).

DH Gaby Sanchez • Marlins
Sanchez might have made the all-rookie team last year, but he played so poorly in spring training that he lost the Marlins’ first-base competition to Jorge Cantu. Already 27 by the end of the season, Sanchez put his experience to work in bashing 19 home runs and leading all rookies with 37 doubles and 85 RBIs. Maybe it’s just the home-field advantage—he attended high school and college in Miami prior to becoming the Marlins’ fourth-round pick in 2005.

SP Madison Bumgarner • Giants
So you think you can draft? Calling upon successive first-round picks in Bumgarner (2007) and Buster Posey (’08), the Giants went 21-11 down the stretch to capture the National League West. (They also drafted Tim Lincecum in the ’06 first round, and Matt Cain in ’02.) Though Bumgarner earned best pitching prospect nods in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League at midseason, he saved his best work for the end, going 2-2, 1.18 with a 34-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his final six starts for San Francisco. Fittingly, he and Posey served as starting battery in the decisive Game Four of the Giants’ NL Division Series victory against the Braves.

SP Wade Davis • Rays
Davis held down a rotation spot all season for the American League’s top club, turning in a performance that seems a bit ordinary until you account for six starts (one-fifth of his total) against the Yankees and Red Sox, the top run-scoring outfits in the game. Davis erased a mediocre first half (4.69 ERA) with a late-season surge. He went 6-1, 3.28 in his final 12 starts, supporting that with a 1.22 WHIP and 2.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

SP Jaime Garcia • Cardinals
Among National League hurlers, only renowned sinkerballers Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe and Jake Westbrook finished with higher ground-to-flyout ratios than Garcia’s 1.95 figure this season. The 24-year-old lefty had Tommy John surgery in 2008 but seems to have suffered no ill effects—just ask the Mets, the team Garcia nearly no-hit in his second start of the season. Armed with three average-to-plus pitches, he finished fourth in the National League ERA race at 2.70. One has to go back to Hideo Nomo’s 2.45 ERA in ’95 to find a rookie qualifier who topped that.

SP Brian Matusz • Orioles
Prior to Aug. 3, Matusz appeared to be just like any other rookie pitcher forced to ply his trade against the beasts of the American League East. He had gone 3-11, 5.46 in 21 starts for a poor Baltimore club, but once manager Buck Showalter took over, something seemed to click for the Orioles. They went 34-23 the rest of the way, winning 10 of Matusz’s final 11 starts. In that span, the young lefty strutted his stuff with a 2.18 ERA, 52-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.03 WHIP, while positioning himself as a prime 2011 breakthrough candidate, a la David Price this season.

SP Jon Niese • Mets
Niese led all rookies in strikeouts, narrowly edging Matusz 148-143, but he appeared to hit a wall in late August and faded badly down the stretch. In his final seven starts, Niese surrendered 51 hits and 19 walks over 35 2/3 innings (1.96 WHIP) while going 1-5, 7.57. His ERA shot up 87 points, from 3.33 to 4.20. Still, as a young lefty who throws strikes, has a strikeout pitch (a curveball) and shows groundball tendencies (1.4 ground-to-flyout ratio), Niese has a bright future.

RP Jonny Venters • Braves
The Braves ventured into the playoffs with five rookies on their pitching staff: Brandon Beachy, Mike Dunn, Craig Kimbrel, Cristhian Martinez and Venters, who appeared in each of Atlanta’s four NL Division Series games. (He went unscored upon in 5 1/3 playoff innings.) All Venters did during the regular season was rank first among NL relievers in opponent average (.204) and second in strikeout rate (10.1 per nine), spreading 83 innings over 79 appearances. The lefthander allowed only one home run all year, keeping both lefties (.570 OPS) and righties (.543) in check.

RP John Axford • Brewers
Austin Jackson and Neftali Feliz have been included in trades for big leaguers. Gaby Sanchez and Danny Valencia had to wait until their mid-20s to get a shot at regular play in the big leagues. But only Axford has the distinction of both being passed over in the draft (he signed with the Yankees as a nondrafted free agent from Canisius in August 2006) and being released (following the ’07 season). Since signing with the Brewers, Axford improved his walk rate from 6.9 per nine innings in ’08 to 5.0 to 3.4 this year, prompting Milwaukee to call him up in mid-May. He converted 24 of 27 save opportunities as Trevor Hoffman’s replacement, while sitting at 94-97 mph and recording nine saves of four outs or more.

CL Neftali Feliz • Rangers
Opposing batters hit just .176/.246/.269 against Feliz, even though they could be certain they’d see a fastball eight pitches out of 10. The trick is to average 96 mph and touch 100 while throwing strikes, as Feliz did in converting 40 of 43 save attempts for the American League West-champion Rangers. He tuned up for the playoffs by allowing a total of four runs in his final 29 regular-season appearances, while striking out 27 and walking just five.

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