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May 18, 2004

Breaking Balls

Rookie Progress Report

by Derek Zumsteg

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I hadn't given much thought to this year's crop of rookies, in large part because I'm in Seattle, where a rookie is a veteran who's been out of the organization for three-to-five years.

But while no one's stood up and raked, this year's bunch is interesting enough to be worth a quick tour of the majors to track their progress.

Prospects, Prospects, Prospects

I saw Khalil Greene down on the farm and I didn't see it. Whatever it was they were talking about, it wasn't there that game. Pushed through the minors, it's difficult to get a handle on whether he would hit or not, regain the walks he showed in college or not, if he could play shortstop well enough to hang there defensively. So far, he's hung in there, hitting .266/.348/.395 in the pitcher-friendly environment of Petco Park while starting at short. The surprising bit's been the walks, which are back in force. The Padres are investing playing time in the hopes that Greene will develop fast, and this may be the most interesting story to follow, as a contending team tries to break in a new shortstop while contending for a division race.

Chad Tracy has gotten regular playing time in Arizona as the team's split Shea Hillenbrand between first and third. Tracy's been hitting .341/.392/.500 on the strength of six doubles and two home runs, and interestingly he's drawn eight walks in his 98 appearances. While that's below the magic 10% you'd like to see, it's still a lot higher than his career lines would suggest. If Tracy's going to work pitchers a little harder, he'll be an even better piece of a lineup. We'll see what happens as his sample size becomes more significant.

Casey Kotchman has finally been promoted, as Angels fall to injuries like tin carnival ducks in a hail of corks. Kotchman rakes, but his health has been an issue through his minor league career. So far he's hitting, but not for the power or with the patience he's shown in the minors--in six games, he's at .348/.360/.391--but he may yet contend for the Rookie of the Year award, especially if the Angels can contend in the brutal AL West all year long and Erstad, Glaus and company stay on the DL for extended periods of time.

I didn't think Joe Mauer would hit out of the gate, but he did, tearing up spring training before tearing up his knee. So, uh, he's a catcher with a knee injury. Yeagh.

Old, But Pretty Good

Terrmel Sledge shredded Triple-A last year, hitting .324/.397/.545. We'd projected him to hit .277/.359/.463 in this, his age-27 rookie year, though PECOTA also figured he was going to be squeezed for playing time. So far, though, Sledge hasn't displayed the strike-zone judgement of last year, with a line of .267/.315/.465. PECOTA seems to have overshot the Montreal/Puerto Rico park effects, but Sledge may still come close to his projection anyone by year's end.

Who?

Lew Ford looked like he was in the worst organization possible. We liked him as a bat with a couple of possible positions, but figured that with so many outfield options and the team bringing in more, Ford was a long shot to get noticed. Fortunately for him, he's hit his way into regular playing time and has even seen duty as a DH. He's rewarded the Twins as they've found ways to get him into the lineup, going .345/.392/.526 so far this season. Ford can hit, but the early power's a surprise, and he's not going to hit for this kind of average forever. If the Twins stay in contention, though, Ford's an early candidate for Rookie of the Year.

Marco Scutaro technically isn't a rookie, but I wanted to toot our own horn here. While many say that Scutaro came out of nowhere, BP2004 started his comment (Mets chapter, p. 206) with: "These are the kind of players teams should be looking for to fill holes..." He's no world-beater, lacking the big-time power or dazzling glove to be an elite middle infielder. But he's helping the A's, just as he'd have been able to help most other teams this season.

Unheralded Deities

Kevin Youkilis, heralded by Michael Lewis in Moneyball as "the Greek God of Walks", was called up over the weekend. In his eight god-like at bats, he has four hits, one a home run, and no walks. I don't expect much, but I hope he does really well just to anger the people who want anyone mentioned in Moneyball to fail. That'd be pretty sweet..."As Billy Beane wrote in his book, Youkilis can take a walk, and he's hitting well so far, but he really needs to expand the strike zone if he wants to continue his success..."

Don't Point, It's Not Polite

Adam LaRoche. I remember those stories about his can-do attitude in spring training, his imminent contributions to the Braves, with that fine stroke and gap power, a find defensive player...his strong big league bloodlines have him hitting .242/.272/.394 so far. But he looks good in uniform. You can't teach that. In his defense, he can play defense, and his minor league lines weren't this bad. He should hit better, which would make him a bad hitter, instead of an awful one.

But wait, what about Luis A. Gonzalez? He's playing second base for the Rockies, and...well, .258/.298/.438 would be a bad line playing underwater, or in lime Jell-O-brand gelatin. Which would be worth watching, now that I think about it. It's too bad baseball's relentless drive towards a higher quality of play has had the side effect of driving out the fat guys who hit. We used to have our choice of unlikely sluggers, and when I think of Jell-O, I think of John Kruk. And not because of that well-remembered and photographed night when we stripped down and wrestled in it (for charity!) but...well, mostly because of the wrestling part. Thank goodness BP's lawyers bought off everyone with any evidence of that Pizza Feed gone wrong.

Rare Imports

Kazuo Matsui is the latest Japanese import to suffer in the translation. Heralded as a power-speed threat, we noted in BP2004 that he probably wasn't going to hold up the speed part of that equation (he hasn't, stealing three bases while being caught twice). We also noted that he'd crank out doubles (13, yup) but not so much the home runs (three, nope). Even with Clay Davenport's latest Japanese translations tweaking, Matsui was projected to hit .281/.339/.456, and it looks like he may undershoot that significantly. I've read that the Mets see signs of progress as Matsui's adjusted, but he's actually been significantly worse so far in May, compared to April.

Receiving much less press (and money), Akinori Otsuka signed with the Padres this off-season, and he's been huge. He's a short reliever who throws brutal stuff with good control: 21 strikeouts in 19 innings, while walking...five. And no home runs. His ERA's just 0.95, and on Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation report Otsuka's just out of the top 10 in the major leagues, just behind...Armando Benitez? What? And Jose Mesa? And Brian Meadows is in the top 30? Is this some kind of elaborate prank? Anyway, Otsuka's signed for two years at $1.7 million, and it looks like the Padres got a bargain.

I like variety in my rookies, and we haven't gotten it lately. This year, the guys who might compete for the hardware this year are retreads, forgotten prospects revived, and can't-miss prospects missing. It's good fun, and should make for a fine season.

Related Content:  The Who,  Rookies Of The Year

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Breaking Balls: Perfec... (05/19)
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Under The Knife: Injur... (05/18)

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