Rookies drinking it in

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

The hero gets everything. The glory, the admiration – and, apparently, the bar tab.

So it went for Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Russell Martin on Sunday night after he punctuated a classic pitchers’ duel with a walk-off home run to lead off the 10th inning for a 1-0 victory and sweep of the rival San Francisco Giants. Martin and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Andre Ethier went to Hollywood to celebrate, and instead of free drinks, they were greeted with a bill that Ethier handed to Martin.

“Whoever’s the hero,” Ethier said, “has to be the hero at the bar, too.”

If that’s the case, rookies are spending an awful lot of money on drinks this season.

Both leagues have seen an influx of young talent this year, perhaps the greatest haul to arrive at one time in the last 25 seasons, and maybe even longer. Three executives and two scouts surveyed by Yahoo! Sports certainly thought so, pointing not only to the class’ extraordinary depth but also its top-level stars.

Almost instantly, the Minnesota TwinsFrancisco Liriano, the Detroit TigersJustin Verlander, the Boston Red Sox’s Jonathan Papelbon and the Los Angeles AngelsJered Weaver distinguished themselves. All are likely to appear on the American League Cy Young ballot in addition to its Rookie of the Year tally.

More than a dozen players could receive votes in the National League balloting. There’s Ethier, hitting .345, and Martin, handling the Dodgers’ pitching staff like a veteran. Can’t forget the Florida MarlinsDan Uggla, a Rule 5 draft choice-turned-All-Star second baseman, and Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, a first-round pick last season who, San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers said, “could develop into a Scott Rolen type.”

How about Florida’s Josh Johnson, whose earned-run average tops the NL, and his teammates, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Scott Olsen? Or Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder or Padres starter Clay Hensley and second baseman Josh Barfield or Dodgers relievers Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton or surging Philadelphia Phillies starter Cole Hamels?

“It’s the best class I can think of,” Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. “There’s so much depth in both leagues. And the contributions they’re making are incredible.”

From Verlander and reliever Joel Zumaya giving the Tigers a pair of 100-mph gunslingers to Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin and Stephen Drew keeping the Arizona Diamondbacks afloat in the NL West, rookies across baseball are actually affecting pennant races.

In cases such as Zumaya’s, a rookie makes it to the big league’s because of his undeniable talent. In others, teams needing to balance their higher-priced players with low-cost options look from within, knowing rookies, in most cases, make the league minimum $327,000.

And while that’s nothing new, the number of rookies not just in pennant races but relied upon in pennant races has spiked – the rookies themselves putting the teams in position for the postseason.

“Teams tend to rush guys more than ever now,” said Dan Evans, a special assistant to Seattle Mariners GM Bill Bavasi. “You have such a short window of opportunity. And with the fear of injury and the turnover at the major-league level, what we’ve seen is that you can rush them and they can win.”

Verlander is tied for the big-league lead with 14 victories, and Papelbon has saved 31 games and still sports a sub-1.00 ERA. Without 13 victories and zero losses from rookies Weaver (8-0), Joe Saunders (4-0) and Dustin Moseley (1-0), the Angels might be in last place instead of within sniffing distance of the first-place Oakland Athletics.

“We’re not talking fourth or fifth starters with some of these guys,” Evans said. “They might have started the season there, but they’re go-to guys now. And those are just the pitchers. I don’t ever remember this many young pitchers walking into the big leagues and having this kind of impact on clubs.”

The 2001 class was the closest in stars and depth. Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki both won Rookie of the Year awards. Roy Oswalt and Alfonso Soriano are perennial All-Stars, and Jimmy Rollins, David Eckstein, Adam Dunn, Jake Westbrook, Felipe Lopez, Cesar Izturis, Shea Hillenbrand, Marcus Giles, Danys Baez and Brian Roberts have made at least one All-Star Team.

Other classes have their gems (Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza in 1993), and a few have a handful of gold (Gary Carter, Dennis Eckersley, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn in 1975), and even fewer are all-time classics (Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline in 1954).

The combination of hitting and pitching and skill and depth? Not gonna find anything like 2006.

“Liriano and Verlander are as good rookies as I’ve ever seen,” said one NL scout. “I’d say Liriano, then Verlander. But you know what? While Weaver doesn’t have the electric stuff, his numbers are better. He might be the best pitcher.”

“All-around tools-wise, Stephen Drew is the best hitter,” the other scout said. “Ethier is a lot better hitter than anyone thought he was going to be coming out of college. He’s polished. If he gets a few more at-bats, he might win the batting title in the NL.”

If Ethier’s average floats around .350, could voters really deny him the Rookie of the Year award?

With this class, it’s no cinch.

“It’s tough to say who’s the Rookie of the Year,” Ethier said. “Some guys might not be putting up the same numbers, but they’re just as valuable to their team or helping them out in the playoff race. It’s a tough job to say.”

Just in case, Ethier’s got his credit card poised. He knows if he does win, drinks are on him.

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