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Rookies On A Roll

Dodgers' Ethier and Angels' Weaver are among emerging stars making their mark in their first year

September 03, 2006|Steven Wine | Associated Press

MIAMI — The Florida Marlins' team bus was bound for a midseason game against the New York Mets when Dontrelle Willis began teasing Josh Johnson, shouting demands that the rookie dance in the aisle.

Johnson said no.

"Dontrelle was on all the rookies," Johnson said. "He was yelling at me, 'Get up and dance.' I said, 'My legs hurt. I can't.' "

Hazing rookies is harder than it used to be, even for an established star such as Willis. This year's newcomers are proving particularly assertive, on the bus and on the field, where a bumper crop of kids is making a significant impact on the playoff races.

In this year of the rookie, who's going to be rookie of the year? The Marlins alone tout seven contenders in starting pitchers Johnson, Scott Olsen and Ricky Nolasco, All-Star second baseman Dan Uggla, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, first baseman Mike Jacobs and left fielder Josh Willingham.

Other National League contenders are first baseman Prince Fielder of Milwaukee, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman of Washington and left fielder Andre Ethier of the Dodgers. The top American League candidates include starting pitchers Francisco Liriano of Minnesota, Justin Verlander of Detroit and Jered Weaver of the Angels, and All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon of Boston.

Whew. That's quite a list.

"Unbelievable," said first baseman Conor Jackson, one of three rookies starting regularly for Arizona. "I mean, the NL rookie race is pretty ridiculous right now. You've got guys that are having veteran-type years. You look at the rookies of the year in the past compared to this year, it's really a huge stride."

Without rookies, the Marlins barely would have enough players to take the field. As it is, baseball's youngest team is also perhaps the most surprising, starting the season 11-31 and playing at a .600 clip since to surge into the NL wild-card race.

With Johnson, Olsen and Nolasco, Florida is the third team since 1900 to have a trio of rookie 10-game winners. Rookie pitchers have accounted for two-thirds of the Marlins' wins.

Kid power dominates the everyday lineup too. With Uggla and Willingham, the Marlins are the first NL team to have two rookies hit 20 home runs. Uggla is only the fourth player in the last 50 years to total at least 20 homers and 75 RBIs in his first season, joining Albert Pujols, Orlando Cepeda and Frank Robinson. The speedy, slick-fielding Ramirez has 12 homers, and at 22 he may be the most precocious Marlin of all.

Florida has used 21 rookies this season -- and that doesn't include rookie Manager Joe Girardi.

"It was kind of different on this team," Uggla said. "Usually when you come up, guys don't get a chance to play every day. You have veterans doing the job. Here we were expected to play and compete and do a job right off the bat. You really lost that feeling of being a rookie early on."

During the year's first trip, some of Florida's young players lugged their own luggage at luxury hotels, unaware that bellhops were an option. More than 130 games into the season, the Marlins still act like kids -- which may serve them well down the stretch.

"The energy that they bring all the time kind of invigorates the days you're dragging a little bit," said 35-year-old closer Joe Borowski. "You watch those guys, and it's like watching my 5-year-old run around -- endless energy."

It courses through all of baseball. Ethier and fellow rookie Russell Martin joined the Dodgers in May and helped them surge into first place in the NL West. Liriano was 12-3 with a 2.19 earned-run average before a bad elbow sidelined him, Weaver tied an AL record by winning his first nine decisions and Verlander quickly emerged as the ace of baseball's best pitching staff.

The top rookie slugger is Fielder, son of former major leaguer Cecil Fielder. He remembers hanging around the New York Yankees' clubhouse when Derek Jeter was a rookie and recognizes the 2006 rookie class as special.

Like most fans, he loves it.

"I like to see rookies do well," Fielder said. "That's how I've always been growing up. When Dad played, I liked to see the rookies on his team and the other teams do well."

And why are so many doing so well? Ethier, making the major league minimum of $327,000, believes one factor is money.

"It used to take rookies a year or two or even three years for them to establish themselves as regulars," Ethier said. "But now, with a lot of guys retiring and leaving spots open, rookies are stepping in and getting the job done. If you look at it from the business side, it's a lot cheaper option sometimes to go that way."

Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti agrees, saying teams that fare badly in the free-agent market fear repeating the mistake.

"You're putting together a club and you're thinking, 'Do I give X amount of millions and X amount of years to somebody who I'm not really enthralled with, versus giving a kid an opportunity?' " Colletti said. "Teams more and more will say, 'Let's give the kid the opportunity.' "

The Marlins' decision to go that way has paid off. They broke up an underachieving team after the 2005 season and slashed their payroll to $15 million, by far baseball's lowest. Projecting their win-loss record over a full season, each victory is costing them $188,000, compared with more than $2 million for the Yankees.

One of the best bargains has been 22-year-old right-hander Johnson. His salary is $327,000, less than some players make in a week, but he went into Saturday's start at Milwaukee with a 12-6 record and an ERA of 2.87, best in the major leagues.

In short, he has done everything the Marlins asked -- except dance for his teammates.

"I told Dontrelle, 'By the time the end of the season comes, I'll get you, don't worry,' " Johnson said. "I owe him a dance."

AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix and AP freelance writer Joe Resnick in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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