Posted: Wednesday September 20, 2006 11:52AM; Updated: Wednesday September 20, 2006 2:41PM
His break came last winter after a good season in the Arizona Fall League, when the Diamondbacks, stuck with a few more infielders than they expected, were forced to leave Uggla unprotected in the now-famous Rule 5 draft. The Marlins, in the midst of a payroll purge on their major league club, snapped him up and, forced by baseball rules to either give him back to the D'backs after spring training or put him on their 25-man roster, made him their Opening Day second baseman. He's been there ever since.
And he doesn't look like he's going anywhere anytime soon.
"Everyone's like, 'Five years in the minor leagues....' But it's not 10. It's not like seven or eight," says Uggla. "I'm still getting my first full season under my belt at the age of 26. I know a lot of guys sign out of high school and break in at 22 or 23, and I was just playing rookie ball at 21 or 22. But I didn't have a choice."
Uggla's a funny fit, in a lot of ways, even on the youngest team in the majors. He's a rookie, but he's the oldest member of a talented infield that includes the speedster Ramirez, rookie first baseman Mike Jacobs and 23-year-old All-Star third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
He's not particularly fast and, right now, he probably strikes out a tad too much (113 times, to 45 walks). But Uggla's not concerned about it, and Marlins manager Joe Girardi seems so dismissive of the numbers that Uggla is practically cemented into the No. 2 spot in the Marlins' lineup.
When he was exposed by the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft, the word on Uggla was that he wasn't the smoothest fielder, either, that he struggled with his footwork and had a mediocre arm. Now, after a spring training with noted infield coach Perry Hill and a season on the job, Uggla, according to Girardi, turns the double play as well as any other second baseman in the league.
The delayed start to his big-league career clearly didn't affect Uggla at the plate. He's been steady, and occasionally spectacular, from Day One. In May he hit .356 with a .508 slugging percentage. He slammed seven homers in June, when he was named the NL's Player of the Month. And he made the All-Star team in July.
In back-to-back games in late August, Uggla smashed a 437-foot homer off Milwaukee's Jose Capellan to left at Dolphin Stadium and, the next night in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, went 449 feet to left off the Cards' Jorge Sosa.
"What I like about Dan is he's been able to make adjustments. Anything we ask him to do, he'll do it. That day," says Girardi. "I just think he has good baseball instincts. When you see him and you give him something, he understands why."
Right now, Uggla is tops among all NL rookies in batting average with at least 500 plate appearances (.290). Among first-year players he's tied for the league lead in home runs (26), he's second in RBIs (89) and runs (103) and he's third in slugging percentage (.499). His 26 homers are already more than any rookie second baseman ever has hit (breaking the mark of 24 set by the Yankees' Joe Gordon in 1938).
And only four NL players in the past 50 years have had more than 20 homers and more than 75 RBIs in their debut year: Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Albert Pujols and Uggla.
Whether all those numbers and all that history result in a Rookie of the Year trophy for Uggla -- he is, by the way, the only player to make an All-Star team the season after his Rule 5 selection -- is up to the voters. It's a tight race. But for a guy who never would be mistaken as a phenom, it's an impressive start to a career, nonetheless.
As for Uggla's competition, here's the rest of my NL rookie Top 10. Some -- mainly Ethier and Chris Duncan -- have not played as much as others on the list, and that should be taken into consideration before anyone casts a make-believe vote:
Matt Cain, Giants SP: Rookie-high 168 strikeouts (in 178 IP). Chris Duncan, Cardinals OF: Leads in OBP and SLG in limited time. Andre Ethier, Dodgers OF: A .316 average, came up in May. Prince Fielder, Brewers 1B: Tied with Uggla for rookie HR lead (26). Josh Johnson, Marlins SP: 12-7 in 24 starts with a 3.10 ERA. Russell Martin, Dodgers C: Solid all-around receiver (.286, 59 RBIs). Hanley Ramirez, Marlins SS: Tops rooks in steals (49) and hits (167). Josh Willingham, Marlins OF: An .866 OPS, best among rooks with 500 PA. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals 3B: Leads rookies in RBIs (98).