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Rookies have big shoes to fill

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

When historians look back at the 2006 season, they might not fixate on what actually happened during it. What last year begat – the greatest rookie class in perhaps 25 years – should be a greater gift than the pleasure of watching Ryan Howard blast 58 home runs and the pain of watching the Detroit Tigers' pitchers try to field the ball in the World Series.

The list seems endless: Justin Verlander, Jonathan Papelbon, Jered Weaver, Ryan Zimmerman, Hanley Ramirez, Prince Fielder, Joel Zumaya, Matt Cain, Stephen Drew, Cole Hamels, Chad Billingsley, Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis, Melky Cabrera, Josh Barfield, Chuck James, Jonathan Broxton, Scott Olsen, Josh Johnson, Carlos Quentin, Conor Jackson, Dan Uggla, Adam Wainwright, Ronny Paulino, Ian Kinsler, Josh Willingham, Matt Kemp, Andy Marte and Jeremy Hermida.

Oh, and Francisco Liriano, who might have won the American League Cy Young Award had his elbow not blown up.

So forgive 2007 if it is not the horn of plenty that its predecessor was.

No, it should just be the year that two cornerstone position players and two of the most anticipated rookie pitchers in years arrive for good.

Here they are, along with six others, plus another 10 to watch for by midseason.

1. Alex Gordon, 3B, Kansas City Royals – Gordon threatened to return to Nebraska for his senior season before the Royals ponied up $4 million after choosing him second overall in 2005. That sum looks like a bargain now, with Gordon poised to supplant Mark Teahen at third base. No matter what the Royals say, Gordon will start the year with them and should be hitting third by June.

2. Delmon Young, RF, Tampa Bay Devil Rays – Young exceeded his hype in a late-season callup last year when he hit .317 with gap-to-gap power, flashed a tremendous right arm and showed not a nit of the attitude that had him labeled a potential problem. With third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac in the pipeline, the Devil Rays' coming talent is undeniable.

3. Philip Hughes, SP, New York Yankees – With all due respect to Chien-Ming Wang, the last great arm the Yankees developed was Andy Pettitte, and he arrived in 1995. General manager Brian Cashman's goal to restock New York's farm system starts with Hughes, a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a fastball-curveball-change complement that should land him in the Bronx by June at the latest.

4. Homer Bailey, SP, Cincinnati Reds – The next great Texas power pitcher may be in the big leagues by the time he turns 21 in May. The Reds flirted with promoting Bailey for the stretch run last season, and his numbers at Double-A – 7-1 with a 1.59 earned-run average – certainly merited it. Caution prevailed, and it's the only reason Bailey will start the season at Triple-A.

5. Mike Pelfrey, SP, New York MetsPedro Martinez's injury leaves a gaping hole in the Mets' rotation that Pelfrey should fill. Philip Humber could get a sniff, too – or both could be in there, depending on which Oliver Perez shows up to spring training – but Pelfrey has the better shot for one reason: His sinker rests in the mid-90s and can hit 98 mph.

6. Chris Young, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks – Once Carlos Gonzalez arrives in right field – which should be soon – the Diamondbacks' young outfield could be 1a. to Tampa Bay's No. 1, largely because of Young. Young's power caught up to his athleticism last season, when he had 57 extra-base hits in 402 Triple-A at-bats.

7. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies – Part of the bonanza 2005 draft that yielded Gordon, Zimmerman, Pelfrey and another dozen top prospects in the first round, Tulowitzki compares favorably to Bobby Crosby, with whom he shares an alma mater of Long Beach State. Unlike Crosby, Tulowitzki has managed to stay healthy.

8. Matt Garza, SP, Minnesota Twins – The Twins, normally conservative with their pitchers, shuttled Garza from Class A to the majors last season, and were he to have recorded one more out, he wouldn't have made this list. Because he had 50 innings on the nose, though, Garza is still considered a rookie, and with the final spot in the Twins' rotation open, it's his to lose.

9. Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B, San Diego Padres – Age has stifled Kouzmanoff as much as injuries. He turns 26 in July, and while that seems old, it's a wonder teams don't hold back top prospects more to get them during the peak years in their late 20s and early 30s. Kouzmanoff has hit everywhere he's been – he was over .400 at Double-A most of last year – and the Padres are counting on him to more than replace the bat of Josh Barfield, for whom he was traded.

10. Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP, Boston Red Sox – OK, so in terms of pure impact this season, Matsuzaka should be No. 1 on this list. After all, he is technically a rookie – as are Yankees pitcher Kei Igawa and Devil Rays infielder Aki Iwamura. And though Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett may say otherwise, Matsuzaka should be the Red Sox's No. 1 starter by the end of the season.

10 more to watch

Billy Butler, DH, Royals – When Mike Sweeney gets hurt – it's no longer an if – Butler and his prodigious bat will get the call.

Yovani Gallardo, SP, Milwaukee Brewers – While the Brewers' rotation is set and solid, GM Doug Melvin won't be afraid to plug in the hard-throwing 21-year-old upon an injury.

Andy LaRoche, 3B, Los Angeles Dodgers – Should the Dodgers choose to put Wilson Betemit in the Chose Figgins role, LaRoche, brother of Pittsburgh first baseman Adam, would get the rest of the at-bats at third.

Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants – Mighty mite throws 100, has perhaps the best curveball in the minor leagues and could be an All-Star as a starter or closer.

Adam Miller, SP, Cleveland Indians – With their bullpen still a question, the Indians could go the route Minnesota did with Liriano, starting Miller in relief before easing him into their rotation.

Troy Patton, SP, Houston Astros – The left-handed Patton could make the leap from Double-A even if Roger Clemens comes back to Houston.

Glen Perkins, SP, Twins – Garza's main competition is a 6-foot left-hander with gaudy strikeout totals – like some other guy in the Twins' rotation.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C/1B, Atlanta Braves – If Scott Thorman doesn't cut it at first base, Saltalamacchia could move there for good, with Brian McCann entrenched behind the plate.

Tony Sipp, RP, Indians – Left-hander throws 96 with a great slider. He's closer material should the Keith Foulke/Joe Borowski/Roberto Hernandez experiment falter.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds – Scott Hatteberg's fine season notwithstanding, the Reds can keep Votto – whose power numbers have gotten progressively better – down for only so long.

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