By Scott Kelnhofer
While collectors in all sports love rookie cards, baseball is where the rookie card phenomenon began.
Once again this season, there are a number of promising rookies scattered throughout the majors. How many of them have a legitimate chance at stardom?
According to Tuff Stuff baseball pricing analyst Joe Clemens and representatives from Topps and Upper Deck, there are about half a dozen rookies who appear to be “can’t miss” prospects.
When it comes to baseball rookies, collectors love power hitters. And when it comes to this year’s baseball rookies, the best-looking power hitter is Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun.
Braun, the fifth overall pick in the 2005 draft, was called up to the Brewers in late May and is the only 2006 rookie who was nominated as a “can’t miss” by all three of the experts we consulted.
A major-league scout who advises Topps on players to select for its Bowman Baseball product, said Braun has “a great mix of power and speed” and that “he should excel in hitter-friendly Miller Park.” The scout also projects that Braun could become a 30-30 player as early as next season.
Gregg Kohn, baseball product manager for Upper Deck, says Braun has “as smooth a right-handed swing as you’ll ever see” and describes him as one of the top young offensive talents in the game.
Clemens notes that Braun had been a proficient hitter at every level during his brief minor-league career. “He hit .303 with 15 homers and 40 RBIs for Double-A Huntsville in 2006 and was off to a torrid start in 2007 for Triple-A Nashville, hitting .342 with 10 homers in only 117 at bats before he was called up by the Brewers,” he said. “Braun will be an impact hitter in terms of power and average.”
Braun isn’t the only rookie infielder who can swing a hot bat. Arizona third baseman Mark Reynolds has the ability to hit for power as well as average. The Bowman scout calls Reynolds “Mr. Reliable” because of his consistent bat and his durability. “He’s done nothing but hit the last two years,” the scout said. “Now that he has hit his way into the Diamondbacks lineup, it will be hard to take his bat out of the lineup.”
Another third baseman to keep an eye on is Tony Abreu of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Abreu is actually considered to be the eventual replacement for Jeff Kent at second base and has also played shortstop. That versatility will make him invaluable to the Dodgers, and his offensive skills make him one to watch for hobbyists. The Bowman scout calls Abreu “an exciting, aggressive player who shows all the tools to be a top infielder in the major leagues. He’s also going to be one of the tougher outs in baseball.”
The Los Angeles Angels have a third base prospect of their own in Brandon Wood. The one-time shortstop lead all of minor league baseball in homers (43), doubles (53) and extra base hits (101) in 2005. He had a brief stint with the Angels this season but struggled and was sent back to Triple-A. Like most power hitters, he has a tendency to strike out too often. If he can become more disciplined at the plate, he’ll get another shot with the Angels.
In the outfield, one rookie to watch is Delmon Young, the 20-year-old outfielder for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Young hit .317 as a late-season callup for the Rays last year. This year, he’s been a fixture in the team’s starting lineup. “Young has all the tools to be a star,” said Clemens.
Arizona has a promising Young outfielder of its own – as in Chris Young. The Diamondbacks believe so much in Young’s ability that the team handed the rookie the everyday centerfield job at the start of the season. Last year in Triple-A, Young hit .276 with 21 HR, 77 RBIs and 17 steals. “He has the combination of speed and power that collectors love,” Clemens said.
In Houston, outfielder Hunter Pence has quickly become a fan favorite. Pence – a native of Texas – hit .283 with 28 home runs, 95 RBIs and 17 stolen bases last year at Double-A Corpus Christi. This year, he was off to a hot start for the Triple-A Round Rock Express with a .341 average before he was called up by the Astros in late April. Since then, Pence has continued his hot-hitting ways, chalking up a .356 average in his first 40 games on the big-league roster. “He’ll be a mainstay in the Astros lineup for years to come,” Clemens predicted.
Another rookie outfielder of note is Cincinnati’s Josh Hamilton. At 26, Hamilton is making his big-league debut later than most scouts had predicted. Hamilton went from being a highly touted high school star and top draft pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999 to being suspended from baseball from 2004-06 due to drug problems. Hamilton has turned his life around and has finally reached the big leagues with the Reds. “Hamilton represents a great comeback story from one of the greatest schoolboy talents ever,” said Upper Deck’s Kohn.
On the mound, the most highly touted rookie pitcher this season has been Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka. “Great hype always surrounds the top Japanese stars and he is no exception,” said Kohn. “He’s brought great excitement to the hobby and pitches for a first-place club, which means he’ll probably have a chance to show his stuff in the postseason.”
Matsuzaka dominated while pitching for Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Championship and he’s been a big part of the Red Sox success so far this season, winning seven of his first 10 decisions. Matsuzaka will turn 27 this year, so he probably won’t have a long major-league career. But if he helps Boston to at least one more World Series title, his cards will remain valuable.
The Red Sox top rivals, the Yankees, have a promising pitching prospect of their own in Philip Hughes. Unfortunately, injuries to his ankle and hamstring landed him on the 60-day disabled list after he pitched 6.1 innings of no-hit ball against Texas on May 1. The Yankees need every healthy arm they can muster this season, and the hope is that Hughes will be healthy to pitch again sometime after the All-Star break. New York added Roger Clemens to its roster, and Kohn said Hughes “has Clemens-type stuff.”
Another American League rookie pitcher with a lot of upside is Minnesota’s Kevin Slowey. The 23-year-old right-hander only has an average fastball by major league standards, but he has had a solid strikeout-to-walk ratio during his minor-league career. The Bowman scout say Slowey is very similar to another successful Twins hurler, Brad Radke.
On the National League side, the rookie pitcher who’s enjoyed the most success so far this season has been Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants. The right-hander made his big league debut less than year after being drafted by the Giants out of the University of Washington, where he won the 2006 Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top college baseball player.
Lincecum has not been intimidated by the quick jump to the big leagues. He allowed three earned runs or fewer in five of his first seven starts for the Giants. Since he made it to the majors so quickly, he has “true” rookie cards in this year’s products. “He was nothing but dominating during his brief minor league career,” Clemens said. “He’s been equally impressive for the Giants since being called up to the majors.”
As far as players who could still make their rookie debuts this season. Milwaukee is a good place to start. Pitcher Yovani Gallardo is one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. Last year he lead the minors in strikeouts (188) and finished third in ERA (1.86) and will likely get a call to join the Brewers before the summer is over.
Fans in Tampa Bay may soon be watching the offensive exploits of third baseman Evan Longoria. The third overall pick in the 2006 draft has had little trouble adjusting to pitching on the professional level, slugging 32 homers in his fi rst 120 games at Double-A.
In Kansas City, the Royals will likely make the call to 21-year-old Billy Butler at some point this summer. He hits for good power and average (he hit .331 last year and has been hovering around .300 this season), but is somewhat of a defensive liability. Clemens believes Butler’s bat is potent enough that Kansas City might even use him as a DH if his defense doesn’t improve.
Scott Kelnhofer is the editor of Tuff Stuff and Card Trade magazines. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org