Hope springs eternal for all 30 major league teams this time of year and nowhere is that feeling more intense among collectors than in the potential contributions from emerging rookies. The 2007 campaign appears to have a plethora of prospects ready to make an impact at the game’s top level, which should create an interesting first half of the season.
Baltimore: Left-hander Garrett Olson has made rapid progress since the Orioles drafted him as a supplemental first-round pick out of Cal Poly in 2005. He won 10 games while splitting the 2006 season between the high Class A and Double-A ranks by mixing three solid pitches and an impressive ability to learn from his mistakes. Olson will have a chance to make the Baltimore rotation in spring training, but a midseason promotion after the Orioles fail to catch lightning in a bottle from any of their free agent retreads is more likely.
Boston: The Red Sox shocked the world in November by posting a bid in excess of $51 million for Japanese starter Daisuke Matsuzaka. Boston then signed the righthander to a similar sum in hopes that the former Seibu Lions hurler can match his 17-5 record from the 2006 season. Matsuzaka has a deep repertoire that includes a fastball in the high 90s. With Boston’s popularity and Matsuzaka’s marketing potential, this righty has the makings of an international standout.
Chicago: The White Sox had difficulty finding a steady center fielder last year after trading Aaron Rowand, but Ryan Sweeney could stop the revolving door. Sweeney has blazed through the Chicago farm system since he was drafted out of high school in 2003. He hit .296-13-70 last year at Triple-A Charlotte and shows the versatile defensive skills and a mature approach at the plate to earn a starting job this season.
Cleveland: Right-hander Adam Miller has yet to pitch in the big leagues but is on the verge of becoming a mainstay in the Cleveland rotation. The supplemental first-round pick from 2003 went 15-6 with a 2.75 ERA at Double-A Akron last year by mixing his 98-mph fastball and one of the hardest sliders in the game. While he may open the 2007 slate in Triple-A, Miller is expected to have a positive impact on the Indians’ pennant hopes this year.
Detroit: The sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft, Andrew Miller became the first player from his class to reach the big leagues when the Tigers promoted the University of North Carolina product to Detroit at the end of last season. Miller has the makings of a dominant starter with a 98-mph fastball and a hard, mid-80’s slider. The Tigers front office is adamant about not using Miller in relief in the majors, which might delay his presence in Detroit until midway through the 2007 season.
Kansas City: The Royals refrained from promoting Alex Gordon at the end of last season, but he will be given the chance to earn the starting duties at third base to open the 2007 campaign. Tabbed the Minor League Player of the Year by numerous outlets last season, Gordon batted .325-29-100 in 110 games at Double-A Wichita. Gordon, a product of the University of Nebraska, was the second overall pick in the 2005 draft and serves as a lightning rod for hope in Kansas City.
Los Angeles: Few teams have more high-ceiling depth in the minors than the Angels. And while the Anaheim dwellers may have Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, Erick Aybar could change that scenario. Aybar is a fluid defensive whiz with the ability to drive the ball. He batted .283-6-45 with 32 stolen bases last year in Triple-A and is on the verge of claiming a starting position in Los Angeles.
Minnesota: Matt Garza narrowly fell under the rookie qualifications after pitching 50 innings down the stretch last year with the Twins. Prior to his promotion and 3-6 mark in Minnesota, the first-round draft pick from Fresno State went 14-4 in the minors during the 2006 season. With Francisco Liriano expected to miss the entire season, Garza will be counted upon to fill a void in the Minnesota rotation once again.
New York: The Yankees signed Andy Pettitte and entered spring training flirting with Roger Clemens. The fact remains that starting pitching is not a major strength in New York, although Philip Hughes could alter that situation. The right-hander went 12-6 last year between the high Class A and Double-A ranks and owns a career minor league record of 21-7. Hughes’ overall stuff and impressive command make him a potential top of the rotation starter. He’s likely to open the 2007 season in Triple-A, but his future in New York will come sooner rather than later.
Oakland: The A’s need to fill the void left by Barry Zito’s departure and will give a long look to right-hander Jason Windsor. The Cal State Fullerton product tied for the minor league lead with 17 wins last year between the Triple-A and Double-A ranks, including a 13-1 mark at Sacramento. His best pitch is a devastating changeup to go with a solid fastball and breaking ball. After getting his toe wet last year in Oakland with 13.2 innings of work, Windsor should make an impact with the A’s this season.
Seattle: Adam Jones made the move from shortstop to center field last year and nary missed a beat in his rapid ascent to the big leagues. Although he struggled at times in 74 at-bats with Seattle, Jones has an impressive combination of speed, power and overall athleticism to become a standout in the major leagues. Jones is only 21 and has as high a ceiling as any player in this year’s rookie class.
Tampa Bay: After serving a 50-game suspension for throwing a bat at an umpire earlier in the season, Delmon Young lived up to high expectations by hitting a home run in his major league debut and batted .317-3-10 while narrowly maintaining his rookie status for 2007. The first overall pick in the 2003 draft, Young has the speed, power and hitting ability to be a perennial all-star in right field.
Texas: Right-hander Edinson Volquez has been considered the Rangers top prospect for the past two years, but he has struggled in brief appearances in the major leagues. In 14 games with Texas, he’s just 1-10 with a 9.20 ERA. Volquez has the ability to be a front of the rotation starter, but he must make adjustments and improve his command to live up to the hype.
Toronto: The signing of free agent Frank Thomas could limit his playing time early, but Adam Lind showed last season as the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player that he is ready for a jump to the big leagues. Lind turned doubles into home runs last year, going deep 26 times. He also makes consistent contact as a career .319 hitter in the minors and a .369 average in 18 major league games last season. He’s a future middle of the lineup slugger for the Jays.
Arizona: D-backs fans received a brief look at the future in center field last year in Chris Young. Young is a potential 30-30 producer with excellent speed and emerging power that led to 21 homers and 17 steals with 77 RBIs at Triple-A Tucson last season. Young is one of the players Arizona will build around in the next few seasons.
Atlanta: By trading Adam LaRoche to the Pirates, the Braves opened a spot for Scott Thorman at first base. A former first-round draft pick out of Canada, Thorman was leading the International League in most power categories when he was promoted to Atlanta for the first time midway through the 2006 slate. Thorman is a pull hitter who can swat majestic home runs as well as hit for average. He had five home runs in 128 at-bats last season with Atlanta.
Chicago: Felix Pie is a gifted center fielder who rebounded from a slow start last year at Triple-A Iowa to hit .283-15-57. Though raw in many aspects, the 22-year-old Dominican is one of the most athletic players to emerge from the Chicago organization in years. He may need another month or two in the minors, but will play a role in Wrigley Field this year.
Cincinnati: The Reds have a true number one starter in Homer Bai ley. The righthander won 10 games last year between the high Class A and Double-A levels by overpowering hitters with his fastball that touches 98 mph and an overhand curveball that falls out of the sky. If Bailey does not earn a spot in the Cincinnati rotation during spring training, collectors can be certain his big league debut will occur prior to the All-Star break.
Colorado: The Rockies have been a haven for young players of late and 2007 will be no exception. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki made the jump from Double-A Tulsa to Colorado last year before being named the top prospect in the Arizona Fall League. Tulowitzki is a steady defender with the bat speed to hit for average and 20+ home runs annually. All signs suggest Tulowitzki will be a future all-star.
Florida: The Marlins gave nearly every youngster a shot at playing time last year and emerged with surprising results. The 2007 season will not feature as much of a youthful influx, although right-hander Jose Garcia, the organization’s lone representative in last year’s Futures Game, could break into the lower half of the rotation after going a combined 12-10, 2.88 last year in the minors.
Houston: The Astros shook things up when they acquired pitcher Jason Jennings for top prospect Jason Hirsch and Willy Taveras. That could create an opening in center field for Hunter Pence, tabbed the most exciting player in the Texas League last year. Pence has 59 home runs over the past two seasons, including 28 with 95 RBIs in 2006. While he may need a month or two in Triple-A to open the 2007 season, Pence is expected to contribute in Houston this year.
Los Angeles: The Dodgers have struggled to fill third base since Adrian Beltre left for Seattle but believe they have a long-term answer in Andy LaRoche. The brother of Pittsburgh first baseman Adam LaRoche, Andy hit .315-19-81 between Double-A and Triple-A last season. He is an excellent defender and projects to hit 25+ home runs annually in the major leagues. The Dodgers believe LaRoche is an all-star in the making.
Milwaukee: A pair of players that split last season between high Class A and Double-A will vie for major league opportunities early in 2007. Ryan Braun is a slugging third baseman who hit a combined .289-22-77 last year but is not a sure thing with the leather. Right-hander Yovani Gallardo won 11 games last year and owns a miniscule 2.38 ERA in 60 minor league outings. Both are significant parts of the Brewers’ long-term plans, yet they may not reach Milwaukee until midseason.
New York: With Pedro Martinez out until midseason and several other question marks in the rotation, the Mets are giving Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber opportunities to make permanent jumps to the big leagues. Pelfrey reached Shea Stadium last year in his first professional season after ranking as the third-best prospect in the Eastern League. The third overall pick in the 2004 draft, Humber rebounded from Tommy John surgery and should join Pelfrey as significant parts of the Mets’ pitching plans for the foreseeable future.
Philadelphia: The Phillies shopped Aaron Rowand most of the winter with the hope of giving Michael Bourn a shot at the starting job in center field. Bourn is a true leadoff hitter with excellent speed and the ability to spray line drives from pole to pole. The Phillies have rebuilt their club with a host of talented young players and Bourn has the ability to become another building block in 2007.
Pittsburgh: Having dealt Mike Gonzalez to acquire Adam LaRoche, the Pirates could be in need of a closer. Jonah Bayliss twirled in 14.2 innings with Pittsburgh last year after saving 23 games and registering a 2.17 ERA at Triple-A Indianapolis. Relievers rarely make the hearts of collectors skip a beat, but the rest of the Pirates’ prospects, such as Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, are at least a year away.
St. Louis: The upper reaches of the Cardinals farm system does not appear to have a starter on the verge of making his debut with the big club. Outfielder Skip Schumaker has the most potential after serving as the leadoff hitter for Team USA last August and batting .405 with 15 runs. Schumaker has good speed and is a solid defender, but the return of Jim Edmonds will keep the rookie from seeing extensive activity in 2007.
San Diego: Third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff arrives from Cleveland with the opportunity to be the Padres starter at the hot corner. Kouzmanoff led the minors with a .656 slugging percentage and ranked second with a .379 batting average in 2006. He also hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the big leagues and received the nickname “The Crushin’ Russian.” He’s somewhat of a late bloomer but has the chance to become a favorite among collectors.
San Francisco: The Giants make nursing home residents look young and spry by comparison, particularly in terms of position players. Second baseman Kevin Fransden has the most potential, but he is likely to be relegated to a utility role after the Giants opted to re-sign Ray Durham. Jonathan Sanchez showed starter ability after twirling 40 innings last year with San Francisco but is likely headed back to the bullpen with the signing of Barry Zito.
Washington: There does not appear to be a Ryan Zimmerman-type rookie ready to impress collectors in 2007. Kory Casto has the best chance if he can move from third base to left field and fill the void created by the free agent departure of Alfonso Soriano. Casto hit .272-22-90 last year at Double-A Harrisburg and could need some more minor league seasoning prior to making his big league debut.