Matthew Pouliot

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NL Rookie Review

Monday, November 03, 2008

We're looking at the future of the NL's rookie class in this week's column.

NL Rookie Review (All ages as of Opening Day 2009)

John Baker - C Marlins - Age 27
Projection: No projection
2008stats: .299/.392/.447, 5 HR, 32 R, 32 RBI, 0 SB in 197 AB

The sleeper of the Moneyball draft, Baker was Oakland's fourth-round pick in 2002. He put up solid enough numbers early on in his career, but he struggled to master Triple-A, finishing with OPSs of 667 and 747 in his two years at Sacramento. It looked like he was destined for a career as a PCL part-timer when the Marlins acquired him prior to 2007. However, a fast start at Albuquerque in 2008 turned his career around, and he was one of the NL's best offensive catchers after getting a chance in July. Baker has typically posted solid OBPs thanks to a decent batting average and above average walk rate. Power isn't a big part of his game, so once his average tumbles back to .260 or so, he's not going to drive in many runs from the bottom of the order. Also, his defense isn't good enough to keep him in the lineup when he's struggling offensively. The Marlins are content with him as their starter for now, but they will look at catchers in trade talks.

Collin Balester - RHP Nationals - Age 22
Projection: 5-4, 4.39 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 55 Ks in 80 IP
2008stats: 3-7, 5.51 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 50 Ks in 80 IP

Balester never dominated in the minors, but he was consistently above average while always being young for his leagues. The Nationals called him up not long after his 22nd birthday in June, and he was an adequate five- or six-inning pitcher until giving up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings in his final start, taking his ERA from 4.81 to 5.51. Balester throws in the low-90s and features a curveball that's a quality pitch against both lefties and righties. His changeup isn't a major threat yet, but pitching coach Randy St. Claire might be able to help him out with that. The pitch could make all of the difference in whether Balester settles in as a back-of-the-rotation guy or emerges as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter. That he'll be pitching for a bad Nationals team makes him less of a sleeper for 2009, but he has more upside than most potential $1 picks.

Gregor Blanco - OF Braves - Age 25
Projection: .265/.343/.333, 0 HR, 23 R, 13 RBI, 6 SB in 162 AB
2008stats: .251/.366/.309, 1 HR, 52 R, 38 RBI, 13 SB in 430 AB

The Braves and Bobby Cox in particular had little confidence in Blanco entering last season, which is a big reason the team went and traded for a remarkably similar player in Josh Anderson, but Blanco turned in a great spring and ended up beating out Anderson for a bench job. A fast start followed, and Blanco was a regular for about four months before taking a backseat to Anderson in September. Along the way, he made it pretty clear that he could be a useful major leaguer, but more so in a role that would net him about 250 at-bats per year. Blanco's assets are his speed and patience at the plate. He had a .371 OBP in 234 at-bats as a leadoff man last year. Unfortunately, he has no power at all and he's not a very good basestealer for such a fast runner. Anderson appears to be ahead of him on the depth chart again now, so a trade is a possibility. The Braves won't want to carry both players.

John Bowker - 1B/OF Giants - Age 25
Projection: .270/.312/.420, 3 HR, 11 R, 11 RBI, 1 SB in 100 AB
2008stats: .255/.300/.408, 10 HR, 31 R, 43 RBI, 1 SB in 326 AB

Bowker was an underrated prospect after hitting a very impressive .307/.363/.523 in a great environment for pitchers at Double-A Connecticut in 2007, but it was still a surprise to see him come up in the first half of April after he was one of the Giants' early cuts in spring training and go 4-for-6 with two homers and seven RBI in his first two games. He went into a slump soon thereafter, but he entered the All-Star break at .274/.317/.449, making him one of the Giants' top hitters. Unfortunately, another slump followed, resulting his demotion. When he came back in September, he found himself on the bench behind Travis Ishikawa. He made just three starts, but he went 5-for-13 with a homer in those games. Bowker lacks huge upside, but he's just as good of a bet as any other Giants holdover to post an 800 OPS next year (none of the club's regulars got there in 2008). While he's also an option in the outfield corners, his chances of being in the Opening Day lineup will hinge on what happens with the club's pursuit of a first baseman.

Jay Bruce - OF Reds - Age 22
Projection: .258/.306/.452, 12 HR, 41 R, 52 RBI, 6 SB in 310 AB
2008stats: .254/.314/.453, 21 HR, 63 R, 52 RBI, 4 SB in 413 AB

Bruce, who entered 2008 as the game's No. 1 prospect, was no savior for a Reds team that finished under .500 for an eighth straight season. Kept in the minors until the end of May mainly so that he wouldn't qualify for arbitration after 2010, he did provide an immediate boost after arriving, going 15-for-26 with three homers in his first seven games. However, he was a below average regular for three months before bouncing back against weaker competition in September (.256/.351/.573, seven homers). Lefties held him to an awful .190/.263/.299 line in 137 at-bats. Still, Bruce's performance shouldn't be considered a let down. He's capable of hitting 30-35 homers next year and going over 40 eventually. He'll probably strike out at least 150 times in the process, and since the Reds aren't going to protect him against left-handers, another mediocre average is likely on the way. However, he could reach 90 RBI and perhaps swipe 10-15 bases.

Emmanuel Burriss - SS Giants - Age 24
Projection: .236/.288/.309, 0 HR, 8 R, 4 RBI, 3 SB in 55 AB
2008stats: .293/.357/.329, 1 HR, 37 R, 18 RBI, 13 SB in 240 AB

The numbers were hardly worth getting excited about, but Burriss was the standout from the crop of young middle infielders the Giants rushed to the majors last season. Just a year after flopping in high-A ball (he had to be sent down to the Sally League after hitting .165 with two extra-base hits in 139 at-bats), he more than held his own in the majors. In his lone full month as a regular, he hit .299/.402/.345 in 87 at-bats in August. He was supposed to start over Omar Vizquel throughout September, but a strained oblique cost him the final three weeks of the season. Burriss is never going to hit for power and he can be overmatched by big fastballs, but he has a pretty good approach from both sides of the plate and he could turn into a top basestealer once he begins figuring out NL hurlers. The Giants have penciled him in as their 2009 shortstop, and he may take over as a leadoff man at some point. His average figures to tumble to the .270 range, but since he could swipe 30-40 bases, he could prove to be a bargain in NL-only leagues.

Johnny Cueto - RHP Reds - Age 23
Projection: 10-7, 3.97 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 133 Ks in 159 IP
2008stats: 9-14, 4.81 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 158 Ks in 174 IP

Cueto's stock jumped as much any pitcher's during spring training, and he justified the hype initially by allowing one hit and striking out 10 over seven innings in his major league debut. Another strong outing followed, and Cueto had 22 strikeouts before finally walking a batter in his third start of the year. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. While his strikeout rate remained strong, he gave up plenty of hits as time went on and 29 of them left the yard. His ERA hovered right around 5.00 from April on. He went down in late August with triceps soreness, but the Reds let him return just two weeks later. Cueto was worked quite hard in 2007, and at 5-foot-10, he doesn't have the kind of build teams prefer. The risk of injury is fairly high, but that's less of a concern since his rookie struggles will keep his price tag modest next year. Cueto is simply too talented not to take a step forward if he stays healthy. He throws in the mid-90s, and his slider is a strikeout pitch. His changeup is a work in progress and his command seems to come and go, but he's capable of cutting a full run off his ERA anyway.

Blake DeWitt - 3B Dodgers - Age 23
Projection: .260/.298/.384, 2 HR, 9 R, 9 RBI, 0 SB in 73 AB
2008stats: .264/.344/.383, 9 HR, 45 R, 52 RBI, 3 SB in 368 AB

With Nomar Garciaparra, Andy LaRoche and Tony Abreu all down, DeWitt, who was supposed to begin the season at Double-A, was the Dodgers' Opening Day third baseman. Garciaparra's return took him out of the lineup after a couple of weeks and he was actually sent down to Triple-A for a day in April, but he moved back into the lineup and hit .322 with five homers in May. A June slump followed and he was demoted again when Casey Blake was acquired, but the Dodgers stuck him at second base in place of Jeff Kent in September and he hit his other four homers that month. DeWitt has a line-drive swing that should produce solid batting averages in the majors. However, his power potential is still in question. He'd be a fine regular if he could last at second base, but he lacks range there. He's going to have to deliver 35 doubles and 15 homers per year if he wants to make it at third. The Dodgers will probably pencil him in at one of the two spots next year. He could hit .280 and drove in 70-80 runs.

Kosuke Fukudome - Cubs - Age 31
Projection: .283/.370/.457, 18 HR, 82 R, 84 RBI, 9 SB in 551 AB
2008stats: .257/.359/.379, 10 HR, 79 R, 58 RBI, 12 SB in 501 AB

After landing a four-year, $48 million deal, Fukudome's Cubs career got off to a smashing start. He delivered a game-tying, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth of his major league debut, and he was hitting .353 on May 1. Unfortunately, his average went down with every month of the season and he was under .200 in both August and September. He also went 1-for-10 as the Cubs were swept in the NLDS. It appeared that his tendency to pull off pitches prevented him from doing anything with outside fastballs. He also got tied up by inside sliders. Fukudome couldn't have been such a great hitter in Japan for so long without making some adjustments. He still finished with a quality OBP as a rookie, and he was an asset defensively. If he had played center field all year, his overall numbers wouldn't have been bad at all. Perhaps the power won't be there to make him an above average regular, but he could potentially help several teams as a leadoff man. The Cubs hardly seem to be sure what they'll do with him now, but it doesn't look like he'll be handed anything in spring training.

Jair Jurrjens - RHP Braves - Age 23
Projection: 9-7, 4.14 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 110 Ks in 148 IP
2008stats: 13-10, 3.68 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 139 Ks in 188 1/3 IP

Jurrjens debuted with the Tigers in 2007 without ever having pitched in Triple-A, and he still hasn't after making 31 starts for the Braves last season. He had a 2.94 ERA through three months, and he was still down as low as 3.15 through mid-August. Fatigue likely became an issue late. Jurrjens had never thrown more than 142 innings in a year until 2008. After hitting the 150 mark last season, he had a 5.84 ERA in his final seven starts. Pitchers who see such a dramatic innings increase in one season do have a tendency to get hurt, but Jurrjens doesn't look like a particularly big injury risk. With his 91-94 mph fastball and plus changeup, he's quite capable of posting an ERA well under 4.00 again. He'll probably give up a couple of more homers next year -- while he is a groundball pitcher, it's still rather fluky that he allowed just 11 as a rookie -- but he should cut down on the walks and improve his WHIP.

Clayton Kershaw - LHP Dodgers - Age 21
Projection: 4-3, 4.18 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 73 Ks in 71 IP
2008stats: 5-5, 4.26 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 100 Ks in 107 2/3 IP

Besides maybe David Price, Kershaw was the most exciting pitcher to debut in 2008. There was support in the Dodger organization for carrying him out of spring training, even though he had made just five starts above low-A ball as a pro. Calmer heads prevailed, but Kershaw was moved from Double-A to the majors in late May. He had a 4.42 ERA in eight starts before being sent down in early July. He returned later that month and ran off five straight quality starts at one point. His ERA still wasn't great, but he went from walking 24 in 38 2/3 innings in his first stint in the majors to 28 in 69 innings in his second try. Kershaw throws in the mid-90s and has the fastball-curveball combination to be a major league ace. He'll likely continue to maintain a rather high walk rate for a couple of years, but he'll be about as tough to hit as any NL starter. Health may yet prove to be an issue, though he hasn't had any arm problems so far. The Dodgers will likely want to keep him under 200 innings even if he does stay healthy, and since early exits could cost him a couple of wins, he'll probably fall short of being a $20 pitcher right off.

Hiroki Kuroda - RHP Dodgers - Age 34
Projection: 12-11, 3.89 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 144 Ks in 199 IP
2008stats: 9-10, 3.73 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 116 Ks in 183 1/3 IP

Kuroda came pretty much as advertised after landing a three-year, $35.3 million contract from the Dodgers. He was quite inconsistent during the first half -- in June, he surrounded an 11-strikeout shutout with two starts in which he combined to give up 12 runs in five innings -- but he didn't allow more than four runs in any of his last 11 starts and he won both of his postseason outings, posting a 1.46 ERA in the process. His walk rate went from strong early on to exceptional in the second half, allowing him to maintain a very good WHIP despite giving up a hit an inning. Kuroda throws 91-94 mph and shows a quality slider, so nothing about his performance was a fluke. However, he is something of an injury risk. Even though he was given a modest workload, he missed a couple of weeks with a sore shoulder. If the Dodgers are careful, they'll probably get 180-190 innings and similar results from him again. A string of 110-pitch starts early on would make him a smart sell-high candidate in fantasy leagues.

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Matthew Pouliot is the Executive Editor of and has been doing the site's baseball projections for the last 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @matthewpouliot.
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