MINNEAPOLIS — If the series this week between the Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers proves to be a showdown of playoff teams, it probably will have a lot to do with some of the top rookies in the National League.
In what looks like a historically deep rookie class, three of Baseball America’s top eight prospects heading into the season are expected to be in the lineup Monday — including early Rookie of the Year favorites Kris Bryant of the Cubs and slugging center fielder Joc Pederson of the Dodgers.
Not that it’ll seem especially unique in the game right now. Baseball America’s top three prospects — Bryant, Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton and Cubs second baseman Addison Russell — were in the lineup all weekend during the Cubs’ series victory.
All three made their major-league debuts after the season began, along with the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber and Twins left fielder Eddie Rosario, both of whom also started all weekend.
“It’s one of the best [rookie classes] I’ve seen in a long time,” said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hinske, the 2002 American League Rookie of the Year for the Toronto Blue Jays. “They’re everywhere.”
It might seem like that again this week, with Pederson (18 home runs) and Bryant (.277 average, .834 OPS) playing prominent offensive roles for teams sitting in playoff positions. Also lurking are Cubs right fielder Jorge Soler, who is close to returning from an ankle injury, and the Dodgers’ Alex Guerrero, the biggest bench/platoon bat on either team.
“I don’t have too much experience with it,” Buxton said, “but just the fact that it’s been this many rookies called up and this many rookies are starting in the bigs is pretty amazing — and pretty eye-opening.”
Few have been as eye-opening as Bryant and Pederson, the lefty slugger who homered in five consecutive games at one point this season and has played Gold Glove-caliber defense in center.
Hinske sees the high caliber and depth of the rookie class — which also includes Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, Texas Rangers third baseman/outfielder Joey Gallo and New York Mets pitching phenom Noah Syndergaard — as a sign of the times.
“The game’s getting much younger, and they’re trying to get these kids here quick and it just seems like they’re smart enough to be here,” Hinske said. “I think it’s going to continue to go that way.”
If so, that puts teams such as the Cubs, Astros, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals at the front of the youth movement.
“I don’t really watch too much TV or any of that, so I don’t really keep up too much, but it’s hard not to recognize some of the other guys,” Bryant said. “Joey Gallo’s one of my good friends, and I played against Buxton. And Correa from the Astros is doing really good, too. I guess this is kind of the year of the younger guys.”
Even on a Sunday afternoon when Jake Arrieta, 29, threw a complete-game four-hitter and Dexter Fowler, 29, hit a grand slam in an 8-0 victory, the Cubs’ young corps had an impact. Anthony Rizzo, 25, homered in the fifth after walking and scoring on 25-year-old Starlin Castro’s sacrifice fly in the third.
And rookie Kyle Schwarber broke open a close game with a two-run single in the eighth.
Rizzo and Castro aren’t even close to being rookies.
“Castro’s already in his sixth year, and he’s only 25. That’s weird,” Twins veteran Torii Hunter said. “His insurance just went down. He can rent a car now.
“It’s impressive what those guys are doing over there. That drought that they have of getting to the World Series? It’ll be over soon, because I’m looking at the future right now.”
DODGERS AT CUBS
Monday: Clayton Kershaw (5-4, 3.29 ERA) vs. Tsuyoshi Wada (1-1, 3.68), 7:05 p.m., Ch. 9, 780-AM.
Tuesday: Zack Greinke (5-2, 1.81) vs. Jason Hammel (5-2, 2.89),
7:05 p.m., CSN, 780-AM.
Wednesday: Mike Bolsinger (4-2, 2.87) vs. Kyle Hendricks (2-3, 4.28), 7:05 p.m., CSN, ESPN2, 780-AM.
Thursday: Carlos Frias (4-5, 4.68) vs. Jon Lester (4-5, 3.80), 1:20 p.m., Ch. 7, 780-AM.