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Rookies Play Big Role In Penant Races
By Jerry Crasnick
• 2005 All-Rookie Team
• Ryan Howard Clears His Own Path
• Gomes Is Pleasant Surprise In Tampa
• Huston Street Shows No Fear As Rookie Closer
CHICAGO--White Sox general manager Kenny Williams would have preferred to add an established starter or closer to fortify his staff when his team needed a boost in July, but his options were limited.
A.J. Burnett was awfully costly, and the Phillies were still pushing for a playoff spot, so Billy Wagner was unavailable. Danys Baez or Jose Mesa might have helped, but surrendering a mother lode of talent for either one seemed like a great way to bankrupt the farm system and commit long-term front office suicide.
Like many other executives, Williams has discovered that it’s better to push a prospect than overpay for mediocrity. So the White Sox inserted Brandon McCarthy in their rotation for the injured Orlando Hernandez and gave Bobby Jenks a shot at closing in place of the ailing Dustin Hermanson. They couldn’t have asked for more.
Jenks, whose issues were always more a reflection of maturity and commitment than talent or arm strength, harnessed his high 90s fastball, averaged 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings, notched six saves in eight tries and made rosin on the back of his cap a fashion statement. McCarthy, who so impressed the White Sox in spring training with his strike-throwing ability and poise, posted a 2.10 ERA in five September appearances to make manager Ozzie Guillen and Williams think long and hard before leaving him off the Division Series roster.
In Kenny Williams’ mind, the Jenks and McCarthy experiments were less a case of inspired planning than bumping up timetables out of necessity. With the tight trade market and budget concerns staring him in the face, he wasn’t in a mood to pamper his young talent.
“You’re looking at a lot of guys who are pricing themselves out of jobs,” Williams said. “Their performance doesn’t match their salary. So you say, ‘Hey, why go out and pay a middle-of-the-road guy this much when we have a guy who we think can do an equal job from our system who might have a greater upside?’
“For us to be in the position we are and to have developed these guys to help us in a pennant race now, that only bodes well for the future. It also makes the general manager’s job a lot easier--and I like that.”
Judging from the contributions of numerous other top rookies this summer, that philosophy is catching. In all corners of the pennant race, fresh faces were having an impact and proving that experience is overrated.
In Philadelphia, rookie Ryan Howard hit 22 homers in 312 at-bats and finished with a .567 slugging percentage for a team that contended until the final day. If Howard had been able to maintain that slugging percentage over an entire season, he would have tied for sixth in the National League with Chicago’s Aramis Ramirez. The five players who did better: Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado, Ken Griffey and Andruw Jones.
At the other end of the spectrum, Astros outfielder Willy Taveras batted .290 largely on the strength of 69 infield hits and 29 bunt singles. He raised “little ball” to an art form while giving the Astros a spark in the leadoff spot and helping them win the National League wild-card spot for the second straight year.
The Athletics, a 17-32 disaster in May, made a big push with the help of four first-year players. Starter Joe Blanton went 12-12, and would have won more if not for a feeble 3.93 runs per game in support. Nick Swisher and Dan Johnson faded in September but still combined for 36 home runs. And Huston Street, a year removed from the College World Series, saved 23 games after closer Octavio Dotel went down with an elbow injury in May. This performance earned him Baseball America’s Rookie of the Year.
Finally, the Atlanta Braves won their 14th straight division title while using a stunning 18 rookies. In the estimation of broadcaster Don Sutton, “They have a little kids’ unabashed enthusiasm, but they’re man-eating sharks.”
Some of these kids are eliciting scary comparisons. While Street is regarded by many as a young Dennis Eckersley, Howard has been likened to both Willie Stargell and David Ortiz. When Red Sox rookie Jonathan Papelbon started mowing down hitters with a stoic demeanor, he was christened a “young Roger Clemens.”
A newcomer even bailed out the Yankees, who typically have developed prospects only to use them as trade bait. Robinson Cano, summoned from Triple-A Columbus when the Yankees determined they had seen enough of Tony Womack at second base, showed quick hands at the plate and an immunity to pressure. Cano handled the scrutiny of September with a big-time performance, hitting .381 with five homers for the month and displaying what manager Joe Torre called “sneaky power.” Both Torre and Boston manager Terry Francona have likened Cano’s hitting style to that of Hall of Famer Rod Carew.
There is, of course, a risk in pushing players too quickly and labeling anyone the “next” anything. A prospect thrust into a race before he’s comfortable can experience feelings of self-doubt that can set him back for years, or even permanently. In the big leagues, players have to deal with more media requests, more scrutiny, more games, more everything.
Maybe the rigors of high school showcases and draft pressure help steel young players for the big time, but it’s stunning how many arrived this year with poise and a businesslike demeanor. They did everything but come right out and ask management, “What took you so long?”
Howard, 25, certainly wasn’t rushed. He hit 110 homers in a methodical progression through the minors, only to hit a roadblock just as his ascent to the majors appeared complete. The Phillies, committed to Jim Thome for six years and $85 million, weren’t in position to experiment. And even if Howard had been able to switch positions, they’re committed to Pat Burrell in left for six years and $51 million.
But when an elbow injury sidelined Thome in early July, creating an opening in the middle of Charlie Manuel’s lineup, Howard displayed a mature, prudent approach to hitting. With time, he’ll become more aggressive on inside fastballs and yank them out to right field. As a rookie, he was more inclined to take outside pitches or balls over the heart of the plate and drive them over the fence in center field or left center. Citizens Bank Park’s cozy dimensions didn’t hurt, but Howard also showed enough juice to hit the ball out of Dodger Stadium and other big parks.
Fellow rookie Jeff Francoeur became aware of Howard’s power in the Arizona Fall League last year. "He's the only guy I ever saw hit home runs in batting practice with the doughnut on the bat," Francoeur told the Philadelphia Daily News.
While Howard had to cope with the demands of replacing Thome, Francoeur was being billed as “the next Dale Murphy.” He made the cover of Sports Illustrated after a torrid opening month, and as an Atlanta native and budding civic treasure, he was besieged with interview requests, elementary school speaking engagements and other energy-sapping non-baseball diversions.
Fatigue and advanced scouting reports gradually got to Francoeur--he hit .413 in July, .312 in August and .237 in September and October--but not before he won over hardcore baseball men and the fan base in Atlanta with his talent and enthusiasm. “He swings a little bit like Dale Murphy and Jack Clark, and I swear, he has 57 teeth,” Sutton said.
Taveras was another rookie who got his big break out of necessity. Even though Taveras won the Double-A Texas League batting title with Round Rock in 2004, the Astros were skeptical that he could handle the load offensively over a full season. But after Carlos Beltran signed a $119 million deal with the Mets and the Jeromy Burnitz-Mike Cameron-Eric Byrnes options all failed to materialize in center field, manager Phil Garner gave the kid an extra long look in spring training.
Taveras had two hits on Opening Day and nine in Houston’s first four games, and he was on his way. He could be an adventure in the outfield, turning the wrong way and taking some odd, indirect routes. But he had the speed to run most balls down plus a strong arm, and he was so frighteningly swift out of the batter’s box that he could send a buzz through the crowd with a dribbler to short or third.
“You can play where you would normally play a righthanded hitter to bunt, and that’s not close enough for Willy,” Garner said. “He’s going to bunt and beat it out nine out of nine times. You better get your ass in about five feet closer with him than with anybody else.”
Despite his success, Taveras never lost that glad-to-be-here rookie glow. Before a game with Baltimore in June, he practically melted when he had a chance to meet his boyhood hero, Sammy Sosa, at the batting cage. From the season opener through the finale, Taveras impressed the Astros with his work ethic, his deference to the veterans and his willingness to accept constructive criticism in a positive vein.
“He shows a lot of maturity,” says teammate Roger Clemens. “I’ll be changing jerseys underneath during a game, and Willy will come up to me and ask me, ‘Am I OK? Am I playing in a good spot?’ He’s paying attention to detail. He asks questions and gets a lot of information.”
For Taveras and his first-year peers, inquisitiveness and professionalism combined with opportunity to make the 2005 season a memorable one. This group of rookies gave as good as it got.