The assignment is to identify the "hottest rookie" who will begin the season in the major leagues. Thank goodness I can sidestep defining "hot." Because first, a definition of "rookie" is in order.
Like it or not, Daisuke Matsuzaka, eight-year veteran and 108-game winner in the Japanese Leagues, has officially pressed the reset button, kicked out the cord, and is rebooting as far as the major leagues are concerned. It doesn't matter that Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki made mockeries of the official Rookie of the Year awards in their first seasons after coming west. It doesn't matter that comparing these seasoned veterans to 22-year-olds just out of high school and college is either an insult to Japanese baseball or unprecedented flattery toward American education.
Dice-K is a Roo-K. Dem's the rules.
And in being so, Matsuzaka becomes not just the hottest but the richest, the nastiest, the you-bettah-be-worth-$103-millionest rookie entering the majors in 2007. Bobby Valentine told me that the guy has around eight pitches -- and not Greg Maddux, he-takes-something-off-to-get-to-eight pitches, but eight freaking pitches. (Think about that -- even if he never throws one so-called gyroball, which to me has always sounded far more Friz Freleng than Fritz Peterson, Matsuzaka gives hitters six more pitches to worry about than Trevor Hoffman.) This is the same Bobby Valentine who six years ago raved that the not-yet-imported Ichiro Suzuki was one of the top five players in the world to a chorus of condescension. So I'll take Bobby V's word on this one: He's legit.
Anyone who watched the World Baseball Classic knows this, obviously. Matsuzaka was named tournament MVP by going 3-0, 1.38 in three starts, the last a championship-winning victory over Cuba. (Interestingly, he never faced the United States, Dominican Republic or Venezuela, whose countrymen become almost 90 percent of his competition come April.) So we'll be conservative and say Matsuzaka can win 16 games with a 3.20 ERA for a postseason contender. No other 2007 rookie should succeed so much so early.
So who will succeed Chipper Jones, Terrence Long and C.C. Sabathia -- the rookies who were edged aside for top-rookie honors by Nomo, Sasaki and Suzuki in 1995, 2000 and 2001 -- when the '07 season ends? Ignora Igawa and Iwamura, and you get the following:
1. Delmon Young, RF, Devil Rays
In a year disembowled by his infamous bat-throwing incident and 50-game suspension at Triple-A, Young still hit .316-8-59 in 86 minor league games and then held his own after a promotion to Tampa Bay, batting .317 with three homers. Still rookie-eligible because he got just 126 at-bats, Young has the pure bat and approach to put up Gary Sheffield numbers once he learns to be less jumpy at the plate.
2. Alex Gordon, 3B, Royals
Many pundits' Rookie du Jour because he's more unknown than Matsuzaka and Young, Gordon should leverage his 2006 Minor League Player of the Year award into a 2007 Opening Day job with Kansas City. A David Wright-type who can do everything well (he hit .325-29-101 with 22 steals at Double-A Wichita), Gordon could move to an outfield corner.
3. Matt Garza, RHP, Twins
Garza is much more the pitcher who went 14-4 with a 1.99 ERA at three minor league stops last year than the kid who struggled after his call-up, going 3-6, 5.76 in 50 innings, just enough to keep him rookie-eligible this year. He's got four pitches, a plenty solid fastball with control, and 34 starts staring him in the face on the pitching-depleted Twins.
4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
After batting .291 with plate discipline and power as a Double-A leadoff man in his first full professional season -- before being named the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League -- Tulowitzki looks like he's ready for another jump. Chris Young (Diamondbacks) and Andy LaRoche (Dodgers) might be better players in Tulowitzki's own division, but he could put up gaudier numbers in Coors Field.
5. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants
Less than a year after being drafted, Lincecum has an outside shot to break camp in the San Francisco rotation and become this year's Justin Verlander. He's only 6 feet tall but has a big fastball and even bigger curve.
Alan Schwarz is the host of ESPN.com's Baseball Today and the senior writer of Baseball America. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," can be ordered on Alan's Web site.