- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

The rebuilding Florida Marlins will say they have the National League’s rookie of the year.

When talking famous bloodlines, the Milwaukee Brewers’ son of a slugger jumps to the top of the rookie list.

The visual evidence seen nightly at RFK Stadium or on ESPN’s SportsCenter highlights suggests the most complete rookie of them all might well play in Washington: Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

With the baseball season nearing its halfway point, Zimmerman is making a strong case he is the best of this year’s class. On Sunday at a packed RFK Stadium, Zimmerman added to his growing reputation with a two-run walkoff home run that stunned the New York Yankees and allowed the Nationals to win the three-game series.

The competition for the rookie honor is fierce: The Marlins have five legitimate candidates in shortstop Hanley Ramirez, second baseman Dan Uggla, outfielder Josh Willingham, first baseman Mike Jacobs and right-hander Josh Johnson. Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, son of former Detroit Tigers masher Cecil Fielder, appears to be the early favorite. The Los Angeles Dodgers have dark-horse contenders in outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and catcher Russell Martin. Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Conor Jackson also is a contender.

“I don’t really pay attention. If I’m watching SportsCenter or something like that and their teams are on, I see what they do, but I don’t go to the papers every day and check and see if they got a couple hits or whatever,” Zimmerman said. “I just go out and play. At the end of the year, if the numbers are there and they think I deserve it, I get it. I really don’t think about it.”

Dontrelle Willis, the Marlins’ high-kicking ace, won the award in 2003 after jumping up from Class AA. With six rookies in Florida’s current starting lineup, Willis is confident the NL rookie of the year is heading to South Florida for a second time.

“It’s fun to watch because I’m not too far removed from that. I know exactly how it feels to go out there and have no one believe in you but yourself and your teammates, yet you go out there and succeed,” Willis told the Palm Beach Post. “I’d be very upset if the rookie of the year doesn’t come out of this clubhouse.”

Willis has a point. Before last night’s games, Uggla led all NL rookies in hits with 83 and a .313 batting average. Shortstop Ramirez is the runaway leader in stolen bases (20) and also leads in runs (52) and triples (five). Uggla is second in home runs (13), RBI (43), total bases (141), triples (four) and slugging percentage (.532).

Zimmerman leads the league’s rookies in RBI with 46 and is tied with Fielder for the lead in doubles with 20. He also is batting .274 with 10 homers. It is his sparkling defense, however, that may separate him from the pack.

Zimmerman has made spectacular plays in the field this season. In an April 21 game, Atlanta Braves second baseman Pete Orr blooped a ball over third base into shallow left field. With his back to the plate, Zimmerman made a diving catch in the outfield grass — his body fully extended and parallel to the ground — to rob Orr of a hit.

“He’s up there, he’s one of the top guys. But it’s really early, and we’re going to have to wait and see what happens,” Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said. “He’s got all the tools and has got everything to win it. Not just his offense, but his defense is going to help him out. Hopefully, his defense will help him win it. If he keeps going the way he is, I don’t see how he can’t win it.”

The race, though, promises to be close.

Fielder has the most power of all the first-year players. He ranks among the top five in most hitting categories and leads all NL rookies in home runs with 14 — and in name recognition, thanks to his father, who hit 51 home runs in 1990.

Fielder looks like his dad — thick, compact, and powerful. According to Brewers manager Ned Yost, that’s where the similarities end.

“I think he’s a little smaller than his dad was, but he’s really agile.” Yost said. “He’s better than his dad — a pure hitter — he can drive the ball with power to all fields. He can hit the ball a mile. He’s a complete hitter, he’s not just a power hitter, a home run hitter. Here’s a guy that can hit the ball in a lot of different spots on the field.”

Midseason callups can also play a factor in the voting. Last year, Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur looked like a lock to win the award after getting called up from Class AA Mississippi. But a late-season, fence-rattling onslaught by Ryan Howard gave the Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman the award. Howard, like Francoeur, was called up from the minors during the season.

Zimmerman also made his major league debut last year, less than three months after the Nationals took him fourth overall in the draft out of Virginia. He hit .397 with 10 doubles and no homers in 58 at-bats last year, well under the 130 at-bat maximum to still be considered a rookie this season.

Along with the players already in the race, some future call-ups may merit consideration.

“That was one of the biggest disputes last year with [Willy] Taveras,” Zimmerman said of the Houston Astros outfielder. “He had been up there all year and helped his team win all year. There’s something to be said about coming out and playing every day the whole year, your first year in. I don’t think playing the whole year really factors into it.”

Nationals outfielder Marlon Byrd finished fourth in rookie of the year voting in 2003 with the Phillies. He thinks there will come a point when his teammate just can’t help but check out the competition.

“It’s a privilege, it all depends on what class you’re in,” said Byrd, who hit .303 with seven home runs, 28 doubles and 45 RBI in 2003. “Like Jimmy Rollins, he had Roy Oswalt and Albert Pujols [in 2001], so he had no chance but to finish third that year. [Zimmerman is] going to look at it, especially as the year comes winding down — that last month — to see what kind of numbers he needs to make that last push.”

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