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NL Rookie Watch

August 18, 2006 | By RotoRob | comment on this post

It’s now mid-August, so the time has come to start thinking about season-ending MLB awards, always a fun process of speculation and friendly debate (read: ultimate fighting).

Today, we’re going to look at who we believe to be the top 10 National League position player rookies. We’ve spent much time already assessing rookie pitchers in both the American League and the National League, so it’s time to pay homage to the young bats of the Senior Circuit. Later, if the mood strikes us (or if we remember) we’ll check out the AL class of rookie bats (which, by the way, pales in comparison to this list).

So, now that our long-winded intro is through, let’s check out the top 10 NL rookie hitters (for dramatic purposes, we will count up):

Honourable mentions (includes players who either don’t have enough PT yet to qualify for serious consideration or those who are bubbling just under our top 10): Luke Scott, Houston (currently on fire); Chris Duncan, St. Louis (not just some pitching coach’s kid after all); Chris Coste, Philadelphia (is making the Phillies think that Mike Lieberthal is expendable); Stephen Drew, Arizona (probably a slam dunk for ROY if he had been up all season); Russ Martin, Los Angeles (a good Canadian kid who has taken over as the Dodgers’ catcher of the future); Eli Alfonzo, SF (what’s this? A homegrown Giant position player? At a premium position — catcher — to boot!); Matt Kemp, LAD (have you seen this kid? What a beast! Looks like he could run through a wall and hit a ball 600 feet); Angel Pagan, CHC (deserves a nod, but doesn’t really have one outstanding skill to hang his hat on); Ryan Spilborghs, COL (while it’s true that Rockies hitters are not obvious selections anymore, Spilborghs shows good BA and power potential, so I don’t care where he plays).

10. Nate McLouth, OF, Pittsburgh — The speedster has been slowed by an ankle injury of late, and probably won’t return until mid-September, so doesn’t offer much for the rest of the year. However, he’s just 24, and showed top-of-the-order skills last year at Triple-A (almost .300 BA, .364 OBP, 34 steals, good strike zone judgment). Worst case scenario for next year is Pittsburgh has McLouth and Chris Duffy battle for the CF and lead-off job. McLouth showed enough (50 runs in just 270 at-bats, with 16 doubles and 10 steals) to have the inside track for 2007.

9. Josh Barfield, 2B, San Diego — Known as Jesse’s son around these parts, the 23-year-old keystone cornerman is second among NL rookies with 16 steals, and his .280 BA has been better than I expected. However, he’s managed just nine homers and that’s something I’d like to see him develop over time to become a top-tier fantasy second baseman. As usual, Barfield’s strike zone judgment (24 BB/64 K) is weak, but again, not nearly as bad as I anticipated. He had been scuffling a bit this month until some decent performances earlier this week.

8. Andre Ethier, OF, LAD — The Dodgers simply stole this kid from Oakland, and all they had to surrender was Milton Bradley, a player who has talent but may be possessed by demons, and Antonio Perez, a good, but ultimately spare part. Ethier has a chance to be a very special hitter, with seriously high averages and some modest power potential. The 24-year-old had excellent minor league numbers, but nothing that would suggest this kind of MLB performance. Looking at NL players who have at least 300 plate appearances, Ethier ranks 13th in OPS. That’s among all players, not just rookies. Can he maintain this pace? I strongly doubt he’s a .545 slugger long term, but Ethier may be a bit better than the A’s thought, and Billy Beane doesn’t make many player evaluation mistakes.

7. Josh Willingham, OF, FLA — Depending on your league rules, Willingham may qualify at both first base and, more importantly, as a catcher this year, something that significantly boosts his fantasy value. He’s shown power (.480 SLG), more patience than I expected (in fact, he’s third among qualifying rookies in pitches per plate appearance) and will not hurt you with that .270 BA. For the sabremetric-heads among you, Willingham ranks third among rookies in RC/27 at 5.76, which essentially means that a complete lineup of Josh Willinghams would score 5.76 runs for every 27 outs, or normal nine-inning game. Now, I have no idea whether you’re turned on or not by the prospect of nine Josh Willinghams batting back to back to back, but this much is certain: he’s a pretty damn fine player. Willingham is 27, so there’s not a ton of room for improvement, except perhaps in the power department, but if he keeps qualifying at catcher, he becomes a very useful asset in many leagues going forward.

6. Mike Jacobs, 1B, FLA — Not to tip our hand too much, but Jacobs, the former Met farmhand, is the second of four Marlins to make the list. Talk about rebuilding in a serious hurry. The 25-year-old is batting .270 and has shown good power, with 31 doubles, a triple and 15 homers (.480 SLG). His strike zone judgment isn’t bad, but I’d like to see some improvement before I believe Jacobs will move to the next level. Still, if this is as good as it gets, it’s a solid rookie effort.

5. Conor Jackson, 1B, ARZ — Here’s a guy who’s all about strike zone judgment. Jackson shows a grasp of the strike zone that you don’t often see in a young player, and that makes me believe he has tremendous upside as a high average hitter. While he could become the next Mark Grace — a perennial .300 hitter, there’s a chance that as the 24-year-old increases his strength, he’ll be Rafael Palmeiro-lite and consistently put up 25+ HR seasons to go along with that high average. (Offhand, would becoming Palmeiro-lite involve taking a smaller dose of performance enhancement “supplements?” Just thinking out loud here, people.)

4. Hanley Ramirez, SS, FLA — I wonder if Boston is missing its shortstop of the future yet? With Josh Beckett surrendering more home runs than the NSA has wiretaps, do you think the Bosox are second guessing this deal considering the impact Ramirez has had at the top of the Marlins’ order? (Don’t forget that Florida also got the emerging starter Anibal Sanchez plus a couple of other young arms in this deal.) Any pre-season questions that Ramirez was ready for prime time are now ancient history. This kid is the real deal, a bona fide lead-off hitter with tremendous speed (38 steals). He’s shown gap power (26 doubles, 11 homers) and fantastic patience (4.1 pitches per plate appearance, tops among all rookies), which is a huge asset at the top of the order. Ramirez will learn to walk more (45 so far this season) as he matures, and that will help him rival another great shortstop and lead-off hitter in the NL East — Jose Reyes. Ramirez is still just 22, so the sky’s the limit once he starts getting on base at a clip of .370 or higher.

3. Prince Fielder, 1B, MIL — Fielder is the second son of an ex-Blue Jay to make the list, although father Cecil was just slightly more known for his exploits as a Tiger. And it was at that time that we first heard what seemed to be urban legends at the time — stories of a 13-year-old Prince launching balls out of old Tiger Stadium during BP. I’m sure that led an owner or two to draft him out of junior high in extreme keeper leagues. Well, Fielder is now 22, and he’s finally arrived in the Show, and so far he’s been showing us that his power is for real. His 22 jacks paces all rooks and he’s slugging almost .500, but he’s not one of those all or nothing power hitters. Fielder knows the zone, as evidenced by a .349 OBP. Hell, he’s even swiped five bags! Not bad for a kid who once reportedly weighed more than 300 pounds, thereby qualifying him for a Homer Simpson mumu. His current listed weight is 260, which is still plenty to pack onto a 6’0″ frame. That’s obviously the primary concern for Fielder when looking at his career path — can he maintain a sub-Super Size It weight or will he break down with injuries because of the extra poundage?

2. Dan Uggla, 2B, FLA — Surprise. The top-rated Marlin on the least is perhaps the least-touted of them all (even though he did make the All-Star team). And I admit it, I was one of the doubters. Last year when the former Diamondback showed up as a Rule 5 draft pick in Florida and was touted as the primary candidate to man second on the Marlins, I was skeptical. Uggla? What kind of a name is that, I remember saying to myself or anyone who would listen. I put him on my sleeper list, but only because he was battling Pokey Reese for the job. Anyone remember that one? Perhaps you recall that Reese actually went missing in Spring Training, thereby giving Uggla the decision by acclimation. Pokey? Has anyone seen Pokey? Well, regardless of Pokey Reese’s whereabouts, Uggla has showed himself to be a real find. He’s got power (19 homers, six triples), can definitely hit (.291 to pace all freshmen), and knows how to get on base (.349 OBP). It may come as a surprise to many, but Uggla leads all rookies in OPS, total bases, Runs Created and RC/27, among the serious hardcore-fantasy categories. So it was real close whether Uggla should rank second on this list, or go straight to the top. In the end, I decided that as impressive as Uggla has been this year, he’s already 26, so won’t improve much. So I settled instead for…

1. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, WAS — Zimmerman’s tender age (21) and broad range of skills were the deciding factors here. He came into the season highly touted after batting almost .400 in a 20-game trial last season, and while he hasn’t maintained that pace (big shock there, eh?), Zimmerman has combined batting average (.286), power (37 doubles, 16 homers, .480 SLG), run production (78 RBI), speed (nine steals, although he’s been caught seven times), patience (3.92 P/PA), on-base skills (49 walks, .356 OBP) and, reportedly, some superb defense at third base. By any means of performance evaluation, Zimmerman leads this year’s NL rookie class. But what most impresses me is the fact that he’s been showing improvements as the season has progressed. And considering Zimmerman has been legally drinking for less than a year (of course, were he from Canada, he could have been drinking since 19, but that’s another story), he has the potential to grow into one of the bigger fantasy studs in the game. Think .320, 30 HR, 120 RBI, 15 SB kind of potential. And that makes him the top NL rookie hitter for RotoRob’s money.

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