MLB's 'must-see' youngsters

MLB's 'must-see' youngsters

If you haven't seen Prince Fielder hit, put the Milwaukee first baseman on your "must-see" list.

If you're curious about this guy Papelbon whose name keeps showing up in box scores, better make it a point to see the Boston right-hander pitch, even if you're not a Red Sox fan.

Missed Brian McCann in the playoffs last year? Never heard of Francisco Liriano, Edwin Encarnacion or Taylor Buchholz?

You will.

Each spring, a new crop of exciting "must-see" youngsters sprouts across Major League baseball fields. Some are rookies, some are not, but all arrive as 20-something talents long on potential but short on Major League experience.

Occasionally one of these relative unknowns, like Albert Pujols of St. Louis back in 2001 or Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins in 2003, uses that initial opportunity for increased playing time to become a star. Willis won 14 games and helped the Marlins win the World Series in 2003. Pujols started fast in 2001, never slowed down and went on to superstardom.

This season, more gifted youngsters are getting an opportunity to see if they can also reach stardom. Like Pujols, perhaps they too will go from relative unknown to household name virtually overnight.

This is a special time for these players, a time when their stars are just beginning to climb above the horizon. Until now, they have been largely unknown to casual fans, though player development types and hardcore fans may have been hearing their names for a few years now.

What sets these players apart from most youngsters is their above-average skills in addition to the flashes of brilliance they have already displayed in their young careers.

They are "must-see" players who are already attracting attention.

There are at least 10 young players -- five in each league -- worth making the effort to see. They are all essentially newcomers, since other than a few who had the proverbial cup of coffee with the parent club in 2005, all are getting their first true shot in the Majors this spring.

In alphabetical order, they are:

American League

Ian Kinsler, Texas: A 17th-round draft choice out of the University of Missouri in 2003, Kinsler has done nothing but impress since turning professional. After hitting .402 at Class A Clinton and .300 at Double-A Frisco in 2004, Kinsler spent the entire 2005 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he hit .274 with 23 homers, 94 RBIs and scored 102 runs. He also swiped 19 bases in 24 attempts.

Kinsler impressed Texas manager Buck Showalter enough this spring to win the starting job at second base.

"He's a confident young man, but he wears it on the inside. He has a lot of respect for this level of competition," Showalter said. "We wanted to see how he handled himself defensively and his feel for the rest of the club, and he passed the test on both."

Kinsler was hitting .476 when he went on the disabled list because of a dislocated left thumb on April 11. His recovery has gone smoothly and he took full batting practice Saturday for the first time since the injury. If all goes well, he will then be sent to the Minors -- probably Triple-A Oklahoma -- for a rehab assignment, and could be back with the Rangers within a week.

Kinsler, who turns 24 next month, may have a tough time getting his job back as Mark DeRosa has been red hot in his absence. But whenever he gets back in the lineup, don't miss a chance to see Kinsler play. He's solid defensively, hits for average but has some power and is one of those players who seems to make those around him better.

Felix Hernandez, Seattle: Hernandez made his Major League debut last Aug. 4 at Detroit, making him only the third 19-year-old to debut as a starter since 1984, joining Dwight Gooden (1984) and Todd Van Poppel (1991). Hernandez quickly had Seattle fans buzzing as he fanned 11 Royals in one game and posted quality starts in 10 of his 12 outings. The right-hander went 4-4 with a 2.67 ERA with 77 strikeouts in 84 1/3 innings.

Hernandez, 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, throws extremely hard and is still learning how to pitch. He's in the Mariners rotation this spring and although he's off to a disappointing start (2-4 with a 4.58 ERA), his losses have come against hot teams (Tigers, White Sox, A's and Rangers) and he's averaging more than a strikeout per inning.

Hernandez has the potential to be a drawing-card power pitcher for many years to come.

"Very rarely do I sit in a bullpen and watch someone throw," Seattle manager Mike Hargrove said, "but it is fun to watch this kid. It's easy to like a 98-mph fastball, but he has good action on his changeup. He throws strikes and keeps it down. The possibilities are just really exciting."

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota: Liriano is only 22 years old and looks like an ace in the making. He's a lefty who routinely brings his fastball to the plate in the mid-90s -- though his heater has been clocked as high as 98 mph -- to go with a very good changeup (84-86 mph) and improving curveball.

Liriano appeared in six games for the Twins last season, including four as a starter, but is in the Minnesota bullpen this year.

Liriano has 28 strikeouts and just four walks in 20 innings this season. Seven of the eight runs he's allowed have come during two appearances against Detroit. Against the Yankees, Indians, Royals, Indians, A's, Blue Jays and Angels, however, Liriano has a 0.68 ERA with one earned run allowed and 19 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Liriano is further along than Twins Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana was at the same age, but he has no plans to move Liriano into the rotation just yet.

Liriano was obtained along with closer Joe Nathan from San Francisco in the A.J. Pierzynski trade back in 2003 in a deal that looks like a steal for the Twins.

Jonathan Papelbon, Boston: The Red Sox right-hander wasn't the closer when the season began, but after converting 10 of 10 save opportunities in April and winning recognition as Major League Baseball's Delivery Man of the Month for April, Papelbon is rapidly gaining fame.

In 14 1/3 April innings, the 25-year-old from Baton Rouge, La., did not give up a run and struck out 14.

The Red Sox view Papelbon, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003, as a starting pitcher down the road. But right now, he is too invaluable as the closer.

"I like the competition, the fact that you have to go in there and be successful every day," Papelbon said. "You've got to get outs right then and there -- the pressure is on."

Papelbon, who counts a 95-mph fastball and splitter in his repertoire, has been dominating.

"I set my goals high. If you were going to tell me I would have had 10 saves and not given up a run, I would have believed it," Papelbon said. "That's just the way I go about it. It's not cocky, it's just confidence. It's just me going out there knowing who I am, knowing the pitcher that I am and going out there and executing."

Joel Zumaya, Detroit: Detroit's 11th-round pick in the 2002 draft (320th overall), Zumaya was second among all Minor League pitchers with 199 strikeouts and a .189 opponents batting average last season.

The 21-year-old right-hander has played an important part in the Tigers' fast start this season. He's already made 11 appearances, and is 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA with 16 strikeouts and only three walks in 13 innings.

Though Zumaya was a starter in the Minors, he's been so impressive in relief Detroit manager Jim Leyland has no plans to take the youngster out of the setup role.

Zumaya's fastball has been clocked at 100 mph and his off-speed stuff generally runs 78-83 mph. The differential, combined with Zumaya's above-average controls, makes the rookie very tough for opposing hitters.

National League

Taylor Buchholz, Houston: Buchholz was one of three candidates for the final spot in the Astros rotation during Spring Training and has been very impressive since joining it on April 17.

"He's been outstanding," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We knew he was a good pitcher and he's shown that he is every time he's gone out there."

Buchholz was obtained along with pitchers Ezequiel Astacio and Brandon Duckworth from Philadelphia for Billy Wagner in 2003. Considered the top pitching prospect in the Houston organization the last two years, Buchholz was bothered by shoulder tightness last year.

"The big difference for me now is I'm completely healthy," Buchholz said. "I haven't felt this good in two years.

It certainly shows.

The 24-year-old right-hander ranks fourth among all Major League pitchers with a 2.16 ERA. He has gone six innings or more and allowed three runs or less in all four of his starts. He held Pittsburgh to two hits and no runs in 8 2/3 innings on April 22.

Buchholz, a third-round pick by the Phillies in 2000, has been a consistent starter in the Minors after a rocky start to his pro career. His fastball tops out at 94, and he also uses an improving changeup and curveball.

"He's been throwing all of his pitches over the plate for strikes," Garner said. "He's been able to keep [opponents] off the fastball."

Edwin Encarnacion, Cincinnati: Encarnacion rode a monster spring to the starting job at the hot corner for the Reds, and the 23-year-old is part of the reason Cincinnati is atop the NL Central.

Encarnacion is hitting .296 with five homers and a team-high 26 RBIs. He is tied with Austin Kearns for the team lead with 17 extra-base hits.

Manager Jerry Narron was well aware of Encarnacion's potential from their days together in the Texas organization (Encarnacion was obtained from the Rangers along with outfielder Ruben Mateo back in 2001 for pitcher Rob Bell) and isn't surprised the youngster is maximizing some of the impressive bat speed he has always possessed.

"He's not swinging at balls out of the zone as often," Narron said. "He's improved his mechanics and has worked hard to become a better hitter."

Encarnacion appeared in 69 games in 2005, hitting .232. Playing one of the more difficult positions is never easy for a youngster, especially one who also has to bat eighth.

"I'm getting better pitches to hit," Encarnacion said. "I feel more comfortable this time. I know what I'm supposed to do and [that] I'm going to play. I can relax more."

Prince Fielder, Milwaukee: One of the most heralded rookies in recent memory, Fielder is the son of former Major League slugger Cecil Fielder.

Some scouts believe the son will display more power, hit for better average and draw more walks than his father, who belted 319 homers and drove in 1,008 runs while hitting .255 during a 13-year career in the Majors.

There's no doubt Prince Fielder has ample power, too.

"He has all the tools to be a offensive force in this league for years to come," an opposing scout said. "He has power to all fields and a good knowledge of the strike zone, especially for someone so young."

Fielder, who turns 22 on May 9, hit .299 with 91 homers and 327 RBIs in 448 career Minor League games after being selected by Milwaukee in the seventh overall in the 2002 draft. He hit .288 in 39 games with the Brewers last season.

Fielder hasn't wasted any time since being named the starting first baseman. He's among the team leaders in hitting (.333), on-base percentage (.394), walks (12), RBIs (18) and runs (19).

Brian McCann, Atlanta: McCann stepped into the national spotlight last season when he became only the second catcher in Major League history to hit a home run in his first postseason at-bat. McCann did that against Houston's Roger Clemens.

His 59 games in the Majors last season, followed by a strong postseason, helped the 24-year-old nail down the starting job this spring. McCann has been paying dividends for the Braves ever since. He's batting .337 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 29 games.

"This is the best I've felt offensively and defensively since I started playing baseball," he said.

McCann is also much improved defensively. Last season, McCann threw out only five of 27 runners attempting to steal. This year he's gunned down eight of 19.

"Last year, the speed of the game took me by surprise," McCann said. "Everybody that was running could just fly. I was trying to rush, and my footwork was just out of whack big time."

Adam Wainwright, St. Louis: It would be easy to get overlooked on a staff that includes Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Jason Isringhausen, but it has been hard to miss the performance of this 6-foot-7 right-hander.

Wainwright has been sensational out of the bullpen. In 15 2/3 innings out of the bullpen, the 24-year-old has a team-best 0.57 ERA with 14 strikeouts and only three walks. Opposing batters are hitting .161, including a miniscule .083 by right-handed hitters.

Not bad for a guy who had appeared in only two Major League games before this season.

Wainwright has added some weight to his lanky frame, making him look more intimidating. He combines a sinking fastball that tops out at 96 mph with a very good breaking ball that appears to be a cross between a slider and a hard curve. Wainwright has also added a changeup, but doesn't use it often.

Wainwright was acquired along with Ray King and Jason Marquis from Atlanta in the J.D. Drew trade in December 2003.

Jim Molony is a writer for reporters T.R. Sullivan, Ian Browne, Mark Bowman, Mark Sheldon and Jim Street contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.