Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Sunday, August 29, 2010
NL has some high-quality young talent

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

Someday, it might be remembered as one of the best rookies classes in the history of the National League, a class with at least one dominant starting pitcher, a catcher who can hit cleanup, a 20-year-old shortstop who might be an All-Star by the age of 21 and two 20-year-old, highly athletic outfielders who hit a baseball as hard and as far as almost anyone in the game.

Buster Posey
Buster Posey, 23, was the fifth-overall selection in the 2008 draft by the Giants.

Here's our NL All-Rookie Team. The backups at some positions are nearly as good as the starters:

C: Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
1B: Gaby Sanchez, Florida Marlins
2B: Neil Walker, Pittsburgh Pirates
SS: Starlin Castro, Chicago Cubs
3B: Chris Johnson, Houston Astros
OF: Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves
OF: Mike Stanton, Florida Marlins
OF: Tyler Colvin, Chicago Cubs
RHP: Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals
LHP: Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals
SET: Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves
CL: John Axford, Milwaukee Brewers

"More than anything else, it's about opportunity,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of the remarkable rookie collection in the NL. "They are appealing because they can play, and they're inexpensive. They're also enthusiastic, and have a better chance to stay healthy.''

"There are lots of really good players,'' Nationals catcher Pudge Rodriguez said. "I haven't seen this many in one league in a long time. I don't know why. Maybe colleges are preparing them better for pro ball. Maybe it's because some of them are so big and strong.''

This class made an immediate impact when Heyward, then 20, hit the first pitch he saw on Opening Day for a three-run home run to right-center field, sparking a 16-5 win for the Braves over the Cubs. Heyward became the youngest player to hit a home run in his first major league at-bat since 1950 when the Cincinnati Reds' Ted Tappe, 19, homered as a pinch-hitter at Ebbetts Field. A teammate of Heyward's, Brooks Conrad, is the only rookie in the past 60 years to hit two pinch-hit grand slams in the same year; one was a walk-off to finish a seven-run ninth inning.

Castro, 20, became the first player since 1900 to drive in six runs in his major league debut. Strasburg became the first pitcher to strike out 14 and walk none in his big league debut, then became the first pitcher since 1900 to strike out 10 and walk none in two of his first three major league starts. In Garcia's first 13 starts, he allowed two or fewer earned runs, the longest streak by a rookie pitcher since 1913 when earned runs began being counted in both leagues. And Mike Leake became the only pitcher in Reds history to go unbeaten in his first 12 starts of a season, and he did that having never thrown a pitch in the minor leagues.

Stanton became the youngest player (20) to get three hits in his major league debut since Danny Ainge did it for the Blue Jays in 1979. On Aug. 11 against Washington, Stanton became the second youngest player (Phil Cavarretta was the youngest in 1935) since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920 to go 5-for-5 with four RBIs in a game. Stanton joined Gary Sheffield as the only Marlins to go 5-for-5 with four RBIs. But the best rookie on the Marlins has been Sanchez, who leads NL rookies in hits, total bases, RBIs and extra-base hits.

On July 20-21, Pirates rookie third baseman Pedro Alvarez hit two home runs in consecutive games, something that Hank Aaron and Ted Williams never did, and something that no Pirate rookie had ever done (the last Pirate to do that was Jason Thompson in both ends of a doubleheader in 1984). Alvarez hasn't even been the best rookie third baseman in the league. That's because Chris Johnson has been. The Cardinals' David Freese will be out for the rest of the season, but he was the best rookie third baseman in the NL until he got hurt, batting .296 with four home runs in 70 games.

Axford has been so good, he supplanted all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman as the Brewers' closer by saving 19 games and striking out 58 in 46.1 innings. The Braves found a bridge to closer Billy Wagner with Venters, who has a 4-2 record, a 1.76 ERA, 42 hits allowed and 71 strikeouts in 66.1 innings. Jon Niese has been a solid No. 3 starter for the Mets and Madison Bumgarner, who turned 21 earlier this month, has given the Giants more than they could have expected from the back end of their rotation.

Pat Listach There are six or seven guys who could win [the NL Rookie of the Year]. There are another six or seven who, in a normal year, would have Rookie of the Year numbers.

-- Nationals coach Pat Listach

Walker hits third in the Pirates' lineup in part because he is one of the NL leaders in average with runners on base and average with runners in scoring position. Mets rookie first baseman Ike Davis has tailed off slightly, but he might be the Mets' best rookie position player since David Wright. The Cubs' Colvin leads all rookies with 19 home runs. The Cardinals thought enough of Jon Jay to trade Ryan Ludwick to the Padres before the July 31 trade deadline. The Pirates' Jose Tabata shares the lead in stolen bases (14) among NL rookies with Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who also has great athleticism and range.

The best rookie of all has been Posey. The Giants traded veteran catcher Bengie Molina to the Texas Rangers to clear a space behind the plate for Posey, who hit .417 in July. In the first 10 games, Posey had 19 hits, six homers and 13 RBIs -- no rookie in NL history has ever had those numbers for any 10-game stretch. And he did all that while catching a pitching staff with a number of guys with violent stuff, not an easy job even for a veteran catcher.

"He is working on his defense, blocking balls,'' Rodriguez said of Posey, "but he can really, really hit.''

It is quite a collection of players, which will make the Rookie of the Year voting so compelling. Sanchez has been the best, most productive hitter all year for the Marlins. Heyward is one reason the Braves are in first place in the NL East. Once Castro gets enough at-bats, he might be in a race for the NL batting title. Garcia has been extremely productive, mixing and matching his pitches, "and having a great feel for pitching,'' La Russa said. And Posey looks to be the leading candidate in a year of great rookie candidates.

"There are six or seven guys who could win it,'' said Nationals coach Pat Listach, the American League Rookie of the Year in 1992. "There are another six or seven who, in a normal year, would have Rookie of the Year numbers.''

Someday, it's possible the NL class of 2010 will be looked at as the best rookie class ever.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.