Last season occasioned an influx of young talent into Major League Baseball that was rare in its quality. In the National League alone, it included an outfielder elected to the All-Star Game (the Braves' Jason Heyward); a catcher who hit third in the lineup of the World Series champion (the Giants' Buster Posey); a starting pitcher who finished fourth in the league in ERA (the Cardinals' Jamie Garcia); and a slugger who ranked fifth in the league in at-bats per home run (the Marlins' Mike Stanton).
This year's crop of burgeoning stars will likely not equal 2010's, as few do. "Everybody was talking about that group even during spring training last year -- the Stantons, the Heywards, the Poseys, the Garcias," says Braves GM Frank Wren. "I don't get the sense that it's as high profile a group this year."
Not as high profile, perhaps, but potentially deeper. Leading the pack could be a 21-year-old, 6'5", 225-pound Californian whom the Braves selected in the second round of the 2007 draft, 64 spots after they picked Heyward, who would quickly become his best friend and roommate: first baseman Freddie Freeman, who enters spring as perhaps the only rookie position player with a starting spot all but locked down. "We have every confidence that he'll be our Opening Day first baseman," says Wren.
Were Freeman a member of another organization, he might spend the first few months of this season gorging on minor league pitching, as he did last year when he hit .319 with 18 home runs and 87 RBI's with Triple-A Gwinnett, and was named the International League's Rookie of the Year. Both Posey and Stanton, for example, spent roughly two months on the farm last season (in which they posted OPS' of, respectively, .995 and 1.171) before being called up, in order for their clubs to be sure that they were more than ready and also, undoubtedly, to delay for as long as possible their eventual eligibility for arbitration and then free agency. That is not, and has not traditionally been, the Braves' modus operandi: They promote their top prospects when they believe they can contribute, as they did with Heyward at the beginning of the 2010 season, with few contractual considerations. "I think that when a player is projected to be a key part of your team, and you think you have a team that has a chance to win, I think you have to put [service time issues] second," says Wren.
Despite the retirement of their iconic manager (Bobby Cox) and of their 2010 closer (Billy Wagner), and despite the fact that their longtime offensive bellwether (Chipper Jones) will turn 39 in April and is recovering from ACL surgery, the Braves certainly have a chance to challenge the Phillies in the NL East, and to improve upon last season's 3-1 NLDS ousting at the hands of the Giants. The plan is for Freeman and Heyward to serve as cornerstones of that effort both now and for years to come. "To be honest with you, I think there's no part of his game on which I think he needs to focus and improve," says Wren of Freeman. "He has a very good swing and uses the whole field. I think what we hope will develop will happen naturally -- more power -- and not something he needs to work on. We're not going to spend time trying to teach him how to hit with more power."
Freeman slugged 35 doubles as a minor leaguer last season -- the second most in the International League -- and, as he ages, many of those will start clearing the fence. He hit one homer in his 24 at-bat call-up last September, and it happened to come off of Philadelphia's Roy Halladay, the unanimous NL Cy Young Award winner. "He just didn't know me, I think, and he threw a fastball," said Freeman, reached by phone last week, humbly. "I was pinch-hitting, so I'm not going to sit around, I'm going to swing. I ambushed him, and luckily I got it." Then, to underscore the point, Freeman said, "If he reads this he might get a little mad at me. I really did get lucky! I think it might be different if I face him again."
"If" will almost certainly become "when" in short order, as the Braves will face their divisional rivals 18 times this year, the first on April 8. Freeman will spend his spring further learning, with Heyward's help, the big league ropes (Freeman was, for instance, surprised to learn how many staff members at major league-caliber hotels are due tips -- "Jason was like, have them bring your bags up; I was like, I can bring them up myself!" Freeman recalls), with the goal of immediately becoming the first-base fixture for which the Braves have for years longed. "I'm going to work hard to be that guy," he says. "I would love to be with the Braves forever."
For Freeman and the Braves, forever starts this spring.
Here are seven other players who are, like Freeman, both 25 and younger and entering a season that should constitute the real beginning of long and successful major league careers (NOTE: Not all of the below players are technically rookies; any player is no longer considered a rookie if he has in a season accumulated 130 big league at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 45 days on a club's active roster.)
Domonic Brown, Phillies, OF
When asked for his pick for 2011 NL Rookie of the Year, Freeman doesn't hesitate. "Domonic Brown," he says. "He's just got every tool." The 6-5 Brown, a former top high school wide receiver prospect, improved his OPS every season of his minor league career (from .557 as an 18-year-old in the Gulf Coast League in 2006 to .980 in Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley in '10), and in 93 minor league games last season he hit .327 with 20 home runs, 68 RBI's and 17 steals. That trend of improvement didn't persist once he got his first taste of the majors starting last July -- he hit .210 with two homers and 13 RBI's in 70 at-bats -- and G.M. Ruben Amaro has suggested that Brown might start '11 in a rightfield platoon with the likes of Ben Francisco, Ross Gload or John Mayberry, Jr. This is most likely what one would call a motivational tactic. Rightfield in Citizens Bank Park should soon belong solely to the 23-year-old Brown.
Carlos Santana, Indians, C
Santana was in the majors for less than two months last year, thanks to a knee strain that initially looked as if it might be something much worse he sustained in an August home plate collision with a player whose name appears below. During his first seven big league weeks, though, the 24-year-old did little but live up to his immense billing. While he hit just .260, his precocious batting eye allowed him to draw 37 walks in 46 games, and his OPS was a sterling .868. Santana, a switch-hitter, is no longer technically a rookie, but he is healthy, and in 2011 could become one of the game's great catchers.
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays, SP
The Rays, who remain a World Series contender despite their significant losses in free agency, traded Matt Garza -- a solid (and sometimes brilliant) 27-year-old starter who had averaged 197 innings pitched and a 3.86 ERA in his three seasons for Tampa Bay -- to the Cubs in exchange for prospects in part because they were so confident in the 23-year-old Hellickson's ability to fill Garza's void. In 10 major league appearances last season, including four starts, Hellickson went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA and struck out 33 batters in 36.1 innings. Now, the righthanded Hellickson is slotted in as the No. 5 starter in a rotation that remains deep, and he ought to appear on many AL Rookie of the Year ballots come season's end.
Drew Storen, Nationals, RP
The Nationals picked Storen nine slots after they selected Stephen Strasburg No. 1 overall in the 2009 draft with the idea that it wouldn't take him long to finish the big league games that Strasburg was starting. While Strasburg's major league career was put on hold after just a dozen outings last summer -- he had to have Tommy John surgery, and won't pitch again until at least September -- Storen reached Washington about three weeks before his draftmate, and his career appears set to continue apace. The 23-year-old Stanford alum had five saves in seven chances as the Nationals' closer after the club traded Matt Capps to the Twins, and enters 2011 as the leading man in a bullpen that was surprisingly strong last season (Nats relievers posted a 3.35 ERA that was fifth-best in the majors despite being forced to throw a league-high 545 2/3 innings). The 'pen might have to be even better this year: while GM Mike Rizzo added sluggers Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche to his lineup, his rotation, until Strasburg returns, is still topped by Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis.
Ivan Nova, Yankees, SP
When the offseason began, it appeared Nova would have to fight for a 2011 roster spot. But Cliff Lee took less money than the Yankees were offering to sign with the Phillies, and Andy Pettitte decided to retire in early February. Those unexpected developments mean that the sinkerballing Nova, who just two winters ago was left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, could start the year as New York's No. 4 starter (behind CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett). This season will feature many higher-profile rookies but none who will face more pressure than the 24-year-old Nova, who went 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA over 42 innings (including seven starts) last season.
Ryan Kalish, Red Sox, OF
Kalish, selected in the ninth round as a New Jersey high schooler in 2006, was perhaps best known as a rookie last season for executing the slide into home plate that prematurely ended Carlos Santana's own rookie year. But Kalish, 22, filled in admirably in an injury-depleted Red Sox outfield, hitting .252 with four homers in 163 at-bats while stealing 10 bases and playing solid defense at all three outfield positions. He is no longer, technically, a rookie -- he had 33 at-bats too many in 2010 -- and he might well spend Opening Day in Triple-A Pawtucket, as the Sox' other outfielders, including free agent prize Carl Crawford, are all healthy. That situation might not last long, as J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron are all aging, injury-prone, or both, and Kalish could soon find himself playing regularly for the AL favorites.
J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays, C
Kyle Drabek, the Jays' likely fourth starter and the club's universally-acknowledged top prospect, will likely garner more attention this season, but equally important to Toronto's fortunes will be the man to whom Drabek will most of the time be throwing. Arencibia, 25, possesses a truly powerful bat -- he slugged two home runs in his major league debut last Aug. 7, and averaged 27 home runs (in an average of just 115 games) over his last three minor league seasons -- but also one with which he often has trouble making contact. He struck out exactly 300 times in those three minor league seasons, and 11 more times in the 30 homerless (and largely hitless) big leagues at-bats that were to follow his notable debut. Arencibia's task as Toronto's likely starting catcher will be to maintain his power while cutting down on his whiffs, and increasing his walk rate, as he has drawn only 98 bases on balls in 420 games as a pro.