Last winter, as the San Francisco Giants were trying to decide how to fill their need at catcher they had two choices: re-sign a 35-year-old veteran of 12 mostly unremarkable big league seasons or hand the job to a highly-touted 22-year-old who had all of seven games of big league experience.
Initially, the Giants elected to play it safe, signing the veteran, Bengie Molina, to a one-year contract while sending the rookie, Buster Posey, back to the minors for more seasoning. By mid-May, when it was clear that Posey belonged in the majors, the Giants promoted him to the bigs but played him almost exclusively at first base. By July, the rookie's impressive performance forced the Giants to trade Molina to the Rangers and install Posey behind the plate. By November, Posey was running out from behind the plate to be the first player to embrace closer Brian Wilson as the Giants celebrated their first World Series championship in 56 years and two weeks later won the NL Rookie of the Year award.
That the Giants were able to navigate the Molina-Posey conundrum so effectively last season was rare. Many teams don't have the luxury of re-signing veterans while holding off on promoting young players as talented as Posey, nor do those decisions often pay off with world championships. Every year teams must decide whether to re-sign often expensive veterans or hand their jobs over to rookies who are raw but talented, younger and, of course, cheaper. As the free-agent market slows down and spring training draw near, several teams will be replacing established veterans from 2010 with rookies in 2011. Here are six young players who could play vital roles for their respective teams in the season ahead.
Jennings won't be the only rookie asked to carry a heavy load for Tampa Bay in 2011. The trade of Matt Garza to the Cubs opens up a spot in the rotation for 23-year-old Jeremy Hellickson, who impressed during his brief stint in the majors last season, going 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA in his four starts.
Brown will need to learn plate discipline, but he should have plenty of time to mature in a lineup that's more than capable of waiting for him to develop. Given a month or two in the majors, he could pose a legitimate threat out of the five spot in Werth's absence. With Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Chase Utley and Howard hitting in front of him, Brown should get plenty of at-bats with men on base.
Perez, however, has the tools to make an impact. He has a terrific changeup, curveball and location for his fastball, he has the repertoire to be a dynamic starter. The 19-year-old Venezuelan is strikingly durable, totaling 214 2/3 innings over the past two seasons at Single A and Double A, giving him an asset Rangers co-owner Nolan Ryan clearly values. He's also lefthanded, allowing Texas to maintain balance in its rotation (C.J. Wilson is also lefty; Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter are righthanded).
The problem is, at just 19 (he'll turn 20 in April), Perez is unpolished. He was roughed up in to the tune of a 5.96 ERA in 24 games at Double-A Frisco last year. his expedited stint to Double-A Frisco last year, carrying a 5.96 ERA. But he also averaged more than a strikeout per inning there, showing off a live arm that could be a big boost to the Rangers' rotation as they seek to defend their American League title.
Though many scouts project that he won't crack the big leagues until 2012, Matzek has the stuff to contribute immediately. He has a fastball that touches 95 mph, a nasty slider, and curveball that began to come into its own as last season progressed. If all of his pitches are working, he should be able to silence many light-hitting National League lineups.
The Rockies may decide to keep the 20-year-old in Triple-A to start the season, but should the need arise for another starter during the season, look for Matzek to be the best option. Colorado's pitching staff possessed a 4.14 team ERA in 2010, a number that outpaced only the Cubs, Brewers, Diamondbacks and Pirates in the National League, and could greatly benefit from his presence if he continues to dazzle in spring training.