Who Wants To Be The Next K-Rod?

Every season there seem to be at least one rookie who comes from out of nowhere and gives his team a boost down the stretch or in the postseason. Last season, Bobby Jenks didn’t pitch in his first Major League Baseball game until July 6, but ended the season pitching in 32 of Chicago’s last 80 games, racking up six saves and a 2.75 ERA along the way. During the playoffs, he served as White Sox closer, saving four of the White Sox’s 11 wins en route to a World Series title.

Four years ago that player was Francisco Rodriguez, who came up in September, pitched in just five games in the regular season, and ended up winning five games in the playoffs as the Angels surged to their first ever World Series victory.

Now that the trade deadline has passed, calling up prospects will be the only practical way for teams to potentially add an impact player; see the Andruw Jones saga for a primer on the folly of trying to pass a star through waivers. As I noted in last week’s column, projecting minor leaguers and prospects is an iffy proposition, but nonetheless, here are five young guys whom you might not have heard of (so no Jered Weaver, who’s a victim of his own early success, in this case) who could be one of this season’s breakout rookies.

Howie Kendrick, IF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Angels have been getting very little out of their infield for most of the season, with only shortstop Orlando Cabrera consistently producing and holding down a job. A look at what some of the Angels regulars have done this season so far:

Adam Kennedy     2B        356   .685
Kendry Morales   1B        199   .689
Robb Quilan      1B/3B     154   .809

Of course, Robb Quinlan is only hitting .254/.265/.343 against right-handed pitching, so it’s no wonder that the Angels are trying to get super-prospect Howie Kendrick in the lineup at second or first as often as possible, setting the stage for his breakout while also keeping expectations low. Kendrick has obliged by hitting a scorching .380/.397/.536 since being recalled to the team after the All-Star break. Rated the Angels’ number two prospect and the 12th best prospect overall going into the season by Baseball America, Kendrick performed up to expectations, having bashed his way to a line of .369/.406/.631 at Triple-A Salt Lake City.

Granted, the lack of plate discipline is somewhat troubling, and Salt Lake City is a good place to hit. However, Kendrick has demonstrated the ability to maintain high batting averages at nearly every stop in his minor league career so far, and he’s flashed a quick bat in the games he’s played against the A’s, so I have no doubt that he will hit for a high average in the majors. Kendrick impresses me as much as any young position player in the majors right now, and an Angels run to the postseason and beyond could quickly propel him to superstar status.

Carlos Quentin, RF/1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

Coming into the season, Baseball America rated Conor Jackson as the slightly better prospect, while Chris Costancio, THT’s minor league guru who also runs the cutting edge prospect site, Firstinning.com, had Carlos Quentin as the superior prospect. Jackson made the team out of spring training as the regular first baseman, but has posted a modest .789 OPS. Quentin, on the other hand, has mashed in his second go-around at Triple-A Tucson, putting up a .289/.420/.493 line to follow up on his .301/.422/.520 line from a season ago.

So far Quentin has been a part-time player, starting only three of his last 10 games, but he’s become a regular pinch hitter/defensive replacement off the bench, and also could have a chance at dislodging Shawn Green, who disappointingly wasn’t moved at the trade deadline. Quentin is probably a better player than Green right now, and could soon force the Diamondbacks hand with a blistering .306/.390/.750 start to his major league career.

Only two games back in the division and 1.5 back in the Wild Card, Quentin could open a lot of eyes if he gets into the lineup and hits the Snakes into the postseason, showing off his stuff on the national stage.

Anthony Reyes, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

Everyone knows who Jered Weaver is, but how many know that the 24-year-old Anthony Reyes has arguably been the Cardinals’ best pitcher since being called up in late May? If he were not a rookie facing major league hitters for the first time, his 4.06 ERA in 51 innings probably wouldn’t be as impressive, but his minor league performance record and scouting reports suggest that he could be a good number two or three starter.

The consensus top Cardinals prospect coming into the season, Reyes has shown that he has little more to learn in Triple-A, allowing only 60 hits and eight walks against 65 strikeouts in 70.1 minor league innings this season on the way to a 3.06 ERA. And when the Cardinals make the playoffs, he will likely get a chance to make a name for himself with a playoff start or two.

Matt Garza, SP, Minnesota Twins

Like the Twins, Matt Garza flew under the radar before the season; Baseball America didn’t even include him in their top 100 prospects, while Firstinning.com had him as only the Twins’ seventh best prospect and didn’t even get a full player comment in his profile. Garza, drafted just last season, started the year in Single-A but has now dominated every level of the minors. He was called up yesterday and will likely start on Friday against the Blue Jays.

There hasn’t been a lot written about Garza, but his performance this season, just months removed from pitching for Fresno State, is nothing short of astounding.

A        8         1.42
AA       10        2.51
AAA      4         1.61

The rapid successes of relievers like Huston Street and Chad Cordero after being drafted out of college have changed the way most people look at pitcher development and have probably influenced Garza’s rise through the minors to some degree, but no starter in recent history has made such a quick jump to the majors after being drafted. If Garza can continue his hot season in August and September, he could combine with Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano as the successors to Oakland’s former Big Three of Tim Hudson, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder.

Homer Bailey, SP, Cincinnati Reds

OK, so he’s the long shot pick here. I could have gone with Philip Hughes or Craig Hansen here, but Homer Bailey has simply been a better player this season and will at least tempt the Reds with the idea of using him to solidify their bullpen in September. The hard-throwing right hander has been putting together a monster season that stands up to the one being notched by the more heralded Hughes.

After dominating Single-A to open the season, Bailey has shown no signs of letting up at Double-A, which is traditionally a hard jump for prospects to make. Rather than struggling, Bailey has put up a 1.51 ERA in 35.2 innings, to go along with 35 strikeouts, just eight walks and a miniscule one home run allowed. Bailey’s 97-mile-per-hour fastball and power curve should play anywhere, and Baseball America’s #11 pitcher coming into the season could shine if given a chance to come out of the bullpen and dominate for an inning.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

References & Resources
The stats and analysis over at Firstinning.com were invaluable to the writing of this article. Anyone who likes prospects or the minor leagues should go check it out.

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