By Ryne Sandberg, Yahoo Sports
August 26, 2005
In1984, the Chicago Cubs were in the pennant race the entire year and it was an incredible experience. I was very young (23), but it seemed like every game meant something and that just made me focus even more.
The stands were packed every day and that veteran Cubs team simply cruised all season. During that time, I never really stepped back to look at the type of year I was having, so I never felt any pressure. I just knew I didn't want to let my teammates down, so I worked even harder.
In my day, young players had to pay their dues and struggle a bit before having success in the majors. But this season, some new names are already making a big impact in the playoff races.
A rookie that is called up in midseason can rejuvenate a team by the way he plays the game. Those in the bigs for the first time play the game with an exuberance that is often not seen from veterans. Young players get excited over big wins and take tough losses very hard, and they usually go through a time when they make mental mistakes.
The fact that there are so many first-year players helping division leaders and wild-card contenders is a testament to the strength of the minor league system. The minor leagues are very strong because players have a chance to play against top talent.
Here are some of the new talents who have stood out this year:
Jeff Francoeur – The Atlanta Braves' rookie outfielder has had as good a month as you can have. He has hit for power (10 home runs) and average (.360) and he has played great defense (9 outfield assists). I like the way he is aggressive at the plate. He never gets cheated. Once teams figure out that he swings at a ton of pitches, he may have to shrink his zone.
Brian McCann – Another Braves prodigy, the rookie catcher is batting .277 with 14 RBIs in 39 games. McCann has struggled defensively, throwing out just one baserunner in 14 tries.
Ryan Howard – The Philadelphia Phillies' rookie first baseman has filled in brilliantly for Jim Thome. Howard has the respect of his teammates, who have said the Phillies haven't lost too much with Howard in the lineup and Thome on the disabled list.
Willy Taveras – The Houston Astros' center fielder has great speed (31 stolen bases) and ranks seventh in the NL in hits (146). He also plays great defense and possesses a solid arm in center field.
Rickie Weeks – I love Rickie's defense. The Milwaukee Brewers rookie's range at second base is above average, and I see him being able to hit for some solid power.
Jon Papelbon – The rookie right-hander has made three starts for the Boston Red Sox, with his longest outing going 5 2/3 innings. I can see him being Boston's closer in the future – he can throw multiple pitches for strikes.
Grady Sizemore and Jhonny Peralta – Both are big reasons why the Cleveland Indians are in the AL wild-card hunt. Sizemore (.290, 15 home runs, team-best 84 runs) understands the strike zone better than most veteran players and has done a great job in the leadoff spot. Peralta has 20 home runs while playing great at shortstop.
Ervin Santana – Being a starting pitcher as a rookie is one of the toughest adjustments in the majors. There will be times when a starter gets hit hard. That's the case with Santana. He's 7-5 with a 4.41 ERA in 15 starts for the Los Angeles Angels and he should have a great year next year if he takes his struggles in stride.
Huston Street – He's another rookie who has pitched very well this year. Street has anchored the Oakland Athletics' bullpen during their turnaround into playoff contenders. He's currently 4-1 with a 1.31 ERA and 16 saves. He's going to be a good one.
Dan Johnson and Nick Swisher – I saw both A's rookies a few times in spring training and they surprised me with their power. Johnson has 11 home runs in 73 games, and Swisher has 16 home runs and 60 RBIs.
Of all these players, I think Francoeur will have the biggest impact in the playoff races. The Braves can use his strong bat in the five or six spot in the lineup, and if he can work on his strike-zone vision and understand which pitches he can drive, he'll have a great last month. I especially like the fact that he has power to all fields.
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Updated on Friday, Aug 26, 2005 5:28 pm, EDT
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