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Year of the Rookie
TOM VERDUCCI
July 03, 2006
With veteran help in short supply, talented first-year players are stepping into key roles for contenders, adding an X-factor to the wide-open playoff races
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July 03, 2006

Year Of The Rookie

With veteran help in short supply, talented first-year players are stepping into key roles for contenders, adding an X-factor to the wide-open playoff races

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As is the case every year, injuries, like those to Matsui and Sheffield, have created opportunities for young players. Kemp, too, was summoned because outfielders Lofton and J.D. Drew, though not placed on the disabled list, were banged up. But according to general managers and other team executives, a diminished inventory of available, desirable veteran players has created an environment that encourages contenders to give young players their shots. That environment has been driven by several factors:

?Fully-phased-in revenue sharing
Low-revenue teams no longer are forced to dump contracts as frequently as they once were. The flow of money from large-revenue teams to low-revenue teams, for instance, has helped facilitate contract extensions for Johan Santana in Minnesota, Ben Sheets in Milwaukee, C.C. Sabathia in Cleveland and Roy Halladay in Toronto, signings that restrict the market for the big spenders who in recent years have picked off aces such as Curt Schilling, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Randy Johnson.

"You can make a case that the most valuable commodity in the game today is the homegrown ace," Boston G.M. Theo Epstein says. "They're just not getting on the market." Adds Colletti, "I don't hear anybody calling and saying, 'We can't afford this guy. We have to move him.' I don't hear that anymore."

?Weak free-agent classes
Few stars were on the market last winter, and this year's crop may not be much better, with Oakland lefthander Barry Zito perhaps the headliner. "With older players you like having a better idea of what you're going to get," Colletti says, "but teams are asking why they should pay a premium for a guy who may not be a premium player. You start to ask, What's wrong with giving a young kid a chance?"

The free-agent market has been thinned not only by revenue sharing, but also by a trend toward longer contracts. Says Milwaukee G.M. Doug Melvin, "What were two- and three-year deals have become four- and five-year deals, so you don't get the free agents turning over as often."

?A weak trade market
The Marlins are saying they will keep pitcher Dontrelle Willis; the Brewers aren't ready to move leftfielder Carlos Lee; and the Nationals, capitalizing on a sellers' market, can hold out for a high price for leftfielder Alfonso Soriano. The pickings beyond that are slim. "The inventory of available players is small," Colletti says.

?A down cycle in the development of pitchers has finally turned upward
No starting pitcher has won the AL Rookie of the Year award since Dave Righetti of the Yankees did in 1981, yet Verlander (9-4, 3.39) and the dazzling Francisco Liriano of Minnesota (7-1, 2.17) should contend for the honor with Papelbon. Meanwhile, Lester, Rheinecker, Casey Janssen of the Blue Jays (5-6, 4.76), Jamie Shields of the Devil Rays (4-0, 3.00), Jeremy Sowers of the Indians (who lost his major league debut on Sunday after going 9-1 with a 1.39 ERA in Triple A) and Jered Weaver of the Angels (4-0, 1.37 before being sent back to Triple A) make up the wave of top young pitchers to hit the league. And don't forget 20-year-old Felix Hernandez of Seattle (7-7, 5.10), already in his second season.

"Liriano, Verlander and Hernandez are a cut above everybody else," one AL G.M. says. "They have special stuff."

The crop of NL rookie starting pitchers, though not as impressive, still features the Dodgers' Billingsley (no decisions in his first two starts), Matt Cain of San Francisco (6-6, 5.20), Cole Hamels of Philadelphia (1-3, 4.41), Josh Johnson of Florida (6-4, 2.01) and Anthony Reyes of St. Louis (1-1, 1.80).

How these young pitchers hold up in the second half of the season figures to influence, if not outright decide, the pennant races. One AL G.M., for instance, called Verlander's health and effectiveness the key to the Tigers' chances. The righthander threw 130 total innings last season, his first year in pro ball, but is on pace to exceed 200 this year. Manager Jim Leyland said he occasionally will give Verlander an extra day of rest between second-half starts.

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