This entry is the second in a series highlighting the best rookies of 2011 who are most likely to have a major impact on their team in 2012. The National League is covered here, and much like the junior circuit, they have a number of excellent young players who could make quite a mark on their respective teams in 2012.
Arizona Diamondbacks- Paul Goldschmidt (First Baseman): Arizona has maintained their status as a young, up and coming team now for several seasons. Other than closer J.J. Putz, every significant player on the team is 30 or younger, and there have been a number of youngsters arriving on the scene, including right-handed slugger Goldschmidt.
The Diamondbacks' offense has some nice pieces like Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young, but first base has been a position that has been lacking. Enter Goldschmidt, who hit 30 home runs in a half season in the minors, and owner of a 1.026 career minor league OPS. He will strike out a lot, but will also hit a ton of home runs, and has the ability to hit for pretty good average as well. He has already hit a couple of monster shots at the major league level over the past couple of weeks, and could very possibly be the lynchpin of the Arizona lineup in 2012.
Atlanta Braves- Freddie Freeman (First Baseman): With Chipper Jones nearing the end of his illustrious career, the Braves need a leader to take his place, both on the field and in the lineup. Jason Heyward is still going to be a star, but has not taken off in the way that many predicted. That leaves Freeman as the likeliest choice to assume the role next year.
Freeman is an excellent defensive first baseman, who was expected to be nothing more than a placeholder with the bat this year. Instead he is on pace to end the season with a .300 batting average and 20 home runs. Having already proven himself, it will be important for Freeman to at least repeat his performance in 2012, so the Braves can allow Heyward to continue to grow, and they don’t have to worry if Jones can stave off Father Time.
Chicago Cubs- Tony Campana (Outfielder): It may not be a sexy pick, but Campana is the current Cub rookie most likely to impact their 2012 season. Many believe that he is currently the fastest man in baseball, and that sort of tool can be a game changer in and of itself.
At a diminutive 5’8, Campana never hit a minor league home run, but averaged close to a stolen base every two games. The Cubs don’t have another player like him on the roster, and he offers a great deal of versatility. He may not start in Chicago next year, but is a good bet to see plenty of time off the bench as an extra outfielder, pinch runner, and defensive replacement. His specific skill set should be very important to the Cubs as they seek to rise out of perpetual mediocrity.
Cincinnati Reds- Yonder Alonso (First Base/Outfielder): Alonso is obviously not going to be playing much first base in Cincinnati with the presence of last year’s MVP Joey Votto. However, he could give the team good value if he can transition to a corner outfield spot. The left-handed hitting Alonso has the tools to produce a high average, and is still developing his power. The Reds can afford to let him take some time to get used to the majors this year, because it looks like he may be counted on as a starter in 2012.
Colorado Rockies- Juan Nicasio (Starting Pitcher): This pick is clouded with the recent horrific broken neck injury suffered by Nicasio. However, prior to that he had done enough to cement his spot in the 2012 Rockie rotation. The right-hander emerged from the minors this year to have a surprisingly effective rookie season. It remains to be seen if and when he will resume baseball activities, but if he is able to come back next year, he could be an important piece to the pitching staff, especially now that Ubaldo Jimenez was traded.
Florida Marlins- Steve Cishek (Relief Pitcher): For a team as young as the Marlins, it is surprising that they have not relied on a number of impact rookies this season. Cichek, a lanky right-handed reliever, has been their best rookie in 2011. He is exceptional at nothing, but has produced solid results out of the bullpen. This will give the Marlins one less thing to think about in 2012, as they have a number of other holes that are dire need of being filled.
Houston Astros- J.D. Martinez (Outfielder): I have always liked Martinez, who flew under the radar of many prospect evaluators, despite putting up excellent minor league numbers, including a .342 career batting average.
Now that Houston has traded or sold away just about everything that wasn’t nailed down, they are in major rebuilding mode. In particular, their offense is in shambles, resembling something you might expect at Triple-A. This is a great opportunity for Martinez. A right-handed hitter, he has some pop, in addition to his ability to hit for average. Playing in a bandbox like Minutemaid Park will also help him, as he is a prime candidate to shoulder the Astro offense in 2012.
Los Angeles Dodgers- Josh Lindblom (Relief Pitcher): Although he was only recently called up, the right-handed Lindblom has pitched well out of the Los Angeles bullpen. The financial woes of the Dodgers could lead to them jettisoning some of their higher paid talent in the off-season, and one area that could be trimmed in the bullpen. If that happens, Lindblom could step up and assume a late inning role. He has not had any experience as a closer, but has the stuff to be an effective set-up man.
Milwaukee Brewers- ? (?): Like their counterparts, the Texas Rangers, the Brewers have not had any rookies who have made significant contributions to their team this year. In what is likely to be Prince Fielder’s final season in a Milwaukee uniform, the Brewers went with a group of veterans in an effort to make a push for the playoffs. Unlike Texas, the Milwaukee farm system is not quite so fully stocked with talent, so it remains to be seen who the next rookie contributor will be for them.
New York Mets- Pedro Beato (Relief Pitcher): Most people outside of the New York area would be hard pressed to pick Beato out of a lineup, but he has become quite familiar to Met fans this season with his steady work out of the bullpen.
Originally a first round pick of the Orioles, Beato was taken by New York this past off-season in the Rule 5 draft, and has been a pleasant surprise. He has had some up and down months, but overall has been one of the more consistent members of the Met bullpen. With New York having a recent tradition of being thin in the pitching department, Beato will be counted upon to match or exceed his rookie season, in 2012.
Philadelphia Phillies- Vance Worley (Starting Pitcher): There has been much ballyhoo about the celebrated Phillie starting rotation of Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt. However, Worley, who has manned the fifth spot for much of the season, has pitched just as well as his better known counterparts, in his rookie season.
The stocky right-hander was a third round pick in 2008, but never gave any sign in the minors that he would be as effective as he has been thus far. If he can roll over his success to 2012, he would give Philadelphia an All-Star possibility in every spot of their rotation. Worley taking the next step would also mean that opposing teams would not be able to have any days off against the Phillies, and make them even harder to beat, which is difficult to fathom given their status as World Series front runners.
Pittsburgh Pirates- Michael McKenry (Catcher): To be clear, McKenry is never going to be a star, but he has the ability to be an average major league catcher, and that is good enough for many teams. McKenry has never been considered a top-flight prospect, but appeared in the national spotlight earlier this year for being involved in the most controversial play of the 2011 season.
Pittsburgh already has Ryan Doumit at catcher, but they could choose to trade him, or move him to another position. McKenry’s value comes more from his defensive skills, but he has kept his batting average in the vicinity of .250-.260 so far this season. McKenry has shown that the Pirates can feel comfortable handing him a starting job in 2012, and see what he can do with fulltime at bats.
San Diego Padres- Cory Luebke (Starting Pitcher): The Padres, always operating on a shoestring budget, seem to have finally found another frontline pitcher to pair in the rotation with Mat Latos. The left-handed Luebke started the season in the bullpen, but since moving to the starting rotation in late June, has been a revelation. He has averaged better than a strikeout per inning on the year, and seems to have gotten better as the season has gone on. For the Padres to compete in the tight-knit NL West, they will need to have good starting pitching, and Luebke should help provide that in 2012.
San Francisco Giants- Brandon Belt (First Base/Outfielder): The handling of Belt at the major league level this year should be considered criminal. Despite having a weak offense, that was made all the less intimidating when Buster Posey suffered a season ending injury, the Giants have bounced Belt up and down from the minors all year.
Belt is a .343 career hitter in the minors, with good power, but because of his inability to get regular playing time in the majors, has yet to produce consistently with the Giants. That should change in 2012, as the Giants have let go of antiques like Pat Burrell, and will look to Belt to start and help transform their offense.
St. Louis Cardinals- Lance Lynn (Relief Pitcher): Selected in the first round of the 2008 MLB draft, Lynn was a starter in the minors, but has pitched well out of the Cardinal bullpen since making his debut in June. Possessing four average pitches, he has racked up a lot of strikeouts despite lacking a true out pitch.
Unfortunately Lynn was recently place on the disabled list, but it is with a minor injury. It remains to be seen if the Cardinals will use him in the bullpen or the starting rotation in 2012, but it seems to be a foregone conclusion that he will be on the team in some capacity.
Washington Nationals- Wilson Ramos (Catcher): Much of the attention lavished on the Nationals early in the season was because of their mega expenditure on Jayson Werth during free agency- and how he subsequently has not come close to living up to his contract. One of the least appreciated and minimally paid Nats is Ramos, who has made big strides this season, and should be the undisputed starter in 2012.
Ramos came over to Washington last year in a trade from Minnesota. He has shared the position with Jesus Flores, but has received the lion’s share of playing time. Flores seems to do everything well, but not great. He can play some defense, hit a little, and is capable of some power. That is all the Nats will need next year, as they have not had a starting catcher hit double digits in home runs since Brian Schneider hit 10 in 2005.
Much like the American League, the National League has an interesting crop of rookies in 2011. Many of them have come out of nowhere or exceeded previous expectations. Because of their production, their teams will look for them to take another step forward season.
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