- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
One day in late May, Matt Kemp was in Huntsville, Ala., preparing to play outfield for the Double A Jacksonville Suns. The next day he was in Washington, D.C., making his big league debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The difficulty in adapting to such a swift move was immediately and painfully obvious. Kemp misplayed a ball in centerfield and whiffed three times on sliders from the Nationals' Ramon Ortiz, a rather pedestrian righthander. Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti would later say that Kemp, 21, who only three years ago was playing high school baseball and being recruited to play basketball at Oklahoma, "looked totally overmatched." � Kemp, after all, never saw such a promotion coming. His first reaction upon hearing he was being called up was excitement--about the idea of playing in Triple A. After Kemp's unseemly debut, Colletti walked into the office of manager Grady Little and said, "Well, we're going to learn a lot about Matt Kemp real quickly after that." � Here is what the Dodgers had learned about the 6'2", 230-pound Kemp after his next 64 at bats, during which he hit .391 and blasted seven home runs: The guy has the all-around game of Joe DiMaggio with the instant impact of Chipper Jones (according to Little), the size and athleticism of Dave Parker (say many scouts) and the talent of Manny Ramirez but with a better glove (in the estimation of teammate Sandy Alomar Jr.).
"At this stage of a player's career it's about making adjustments, and Matt's been making them," Colletti says of Kemp, who at week's end was hitting .324. "Young players often succeed at first because of adrenaline and the newness of it all. But as Grady says, at this level the games do come fast. And advance scouts are very good at what they do. You learn quickly what scouts think can be exploited in your game.
"So soon after that initial rush the great unknown about a player is, Can he adjust? Matt looks like he's here to stay."
As the major league season reaches the halfway point this week, Kemp is the most prominent player on the most prominent team among those following an industry trend in which contenders are counting on rookies in key roles to help them get to the postseason. In addition to Kemp the Dodgers are relying on first-year big leaguers at catcher (Russ Martin), in the rotation ( Chad Billingsley), as a setup reliever ( Jonathan Broxton), at closer ( Takashi Saito) and as a platoon outfielder ( Andre Ethier).
The infusion of inexperienced players made a surprising first half even more unpredictable. Seventeen of the 30 clubs were within five games of a playoff spot through Sunday, including four teams that haven't been to the postseason in at least 10 years ( Cincinnati, Colorado, Detroit and Toronto). Noticeably absent from the 17 were perennial division champ Atlanta (the last time the Braves missed the playoffs was 1990) and Cleveland, two teams that have taken a step backward after infusing their clubs with youth last year.
The Dodgers and the Tigers, teams that each lost 91 games in 2005, are strong contenders in part because of impact rookies. Detroit starting pitchers Justin Verlander and Zach Miner and reliever Joel Zumaya got off to a combined 16-6 start.
The Texas Rangers, another losing team last year (79-83), are battling the Oakland A's for the AL West lead with rookies John Rheinecker (3-1, 3.57 ERA) in the rotation and Ian Kinsler (.287 batting average) at second base. The Milwaukee Brewers, in search of their first winning season since 1992, have wild-card aspirations and a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in first baseman Prince Fielder (.287, 14 homers, 40 RBIs).
Even the large-market, free-spending clubs are finding room for rookies. The New York Yankees, for instance, upon losing veteran corner outfielders Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield for most of the season to injuries, have given rookie Melky Cabrera (.250) extended playing time. And fellow AL East superpower Boston has four rookies on its pitching staff: recently promoted setup men Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen, starting pitcher Jon Lester (2-0, 2.76) and closer Jonathan Papelbon (23 saves, 0.24), who has been near perfect.
If you think the first half of the season was hard to predict, just wait for the second half. That's because most rookies have never played a six-month season. Not only will young players face the physical challenge of a longer season, but also some will feel the pressure of a major league pennant race. "To be able to survive takes the right balance of young players and veterans, especially as you get closer to October," Indians G.M. Mark Shapiro says. "The Dodgers have veterans, guys like Kenny Lofton, Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra, who can take some of that pressure off the young players."
One NL G.M., however, says youth will be especially important this season, the first in which amphetamines have been banned in the big leagues. "I expect if there is an effect with amphetamines out of the game, it will show up in the second half," he says. "And the players who will have more trouble keeping their bodies ready to play are the older players."