September 6, 2001

The Diamond's Diaper Dandies

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Just a quick look at the Major League Baseball standings a few pages behind this column is enough to tell you that this month will feature a few playoff races to remember. In the National League, all three divisions can claim a race tighter than five games, not to mention the Wild Card, where five teams are within five games of each other.

There will also be a ton of attention paid to Giants star Barry Bonds down the stretch. His tater total continues to add up as he pulls nearer and nearer to Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record.

One of the most impressive things about this season that continues to excite, though, is the wealth of young talent that has surfaced. The new crop of ballplayers is so phenomenal that you could field a team comprised solely of this year’s rookies, and it would be competitive with any actual MLB team. The rookies continue to make their mark this month, when the rosters are expanded to 40 players and new faces take Major League fields.

Two nights ago, a highly touted pitcher for the Marlins made his debut and was a huge success. Josh Beckett went six innings against the surging Cubs and allowed only four baserunners — three walks and one hit. Along the way, he fanned five Cubbies, among them Sammy Sosa, who was hitless in three at-bats against Beckett. Nobody is more confident in the 21-year-old pitcher than Beckett himself. He had predicted that he would be in this year’s All-Star Game.

Although Beckett wasn’t in Seattle for the Midsummer Classic, the game did set a record for most rookies in All-Star history with four.

Three of the players were on the National League squad: Third baseman Albert Pujols, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and pitcher Ben Sheets. Pujols, who was playing class A ball a year ago, is in the top five in the league in hits, doubles and average, and has power to boot. Rollins, a 5’8″, 160 lb. speed demon, leads the NL in stolen bases (42) and triples (11). Sheets has been a bright spot for the Brewers this season after leading Team USA to a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. At the Olympics, Sheets allowed just one run in his 22 innings of work.

The Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki, the seven-time Japanese batting champion, led all voting for the All-Star Game and has certainly justified the adoration and attention he has received. He leads the AL in batting with a .349 average, is second in steals with 46, and with 211 hits is currently on pace to blow the old rookie hits record away (It’s 227, set in 1927 by the Pirates’ Lloyd “Little Poison” Waner).

Ichiro’s countryman, Tsuyoshi Shinjo, has also made a splash in the majors with the Mets. Shinjo is third in the NL behind Pujols and Rollins in rookie RBIs and has proven himself as an excellent clutch hitter. At age 29, Shinjo is the oldest of this year’s outstanding rookie crop. He and Ichiro are the first two Japanese position players to make the jump across the Pacific to MLB, and their success will likely pave the way for even more Japanese imports.

Another young star who came to the majors by way of Japan is Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees’ second baseman. He actually hails from the Dominican Republic, but at the tender age of 16 — think Danny Almonte in two years — he signed with Hiroshima of the Japanese League. In 1998, he joined the Yankees as a free agent, and this year, his first full year in the bigs, Soriano has swiped 39 bases, good for third in the league.

Speaking of Almonte, he made his debut with the Yankees on Tuesday night. 23-year-old Erick Almonte, that is. He pinch-hit for Soriano in the midst of a 14-0 loss, but made the most of his one at-bat, singling off Chris Carpenter.

Two other rookies have made their presence felt at the major league level lately, most notably Bud Smith of the Cardinals. On Monday Smith, in just his 11th career start, tossed a no-hitter, becoming the fourth-youngest pitcher in history to accomplish the feat.

The other is Cincinnati outfielder Adam Dunn, who popped 12 home runs in August, eclipsing the rookie record for most home runs in a month. The previous record of 11, set by Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, had stood for 45 years.

There are still two more rookies who are worth mentioning, both of whom should be at least considered for the Rookie of the Year Award. C.C. Sabathia cracked the Indians’ rotation in spring training and has been their most consistent pitcher this year, going 15-4. He has whiffed 144 batters in 152.2 innings, and opponents are hitting just .194 off him. If Ichiro weren’t a rookie (and in the truest sense of the term, he isn’t), the honors would go to Sabathia in the AL.

In the senior circuit, Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt has been equally impressive. He began the season as a reliever but soon made his way from the pen to the starting rotation. In 25 games, he has started 17 times. Along the way, he’s compiled an amazing 13-2 record to complement a 2.68 ERA and has allowed about one baserunner per inning. But Pujols’ incredible season will likely keep Oswalt a runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting.

Granted, the game still belongs to Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa, Pedro and the rest of the elite. But their reign at the top has to end eventually, and when it does, a new generation will take their place. Many from that generation will likely call 2001 their rookie year. As the season winds down to what promises to be a thrilling conclusion, keep an eye on how tomorrow’s marquee players perform under pressure today.

Archived article by Alex Fineman