Rookie gazing: How does this year’s exceptional class handle modern traps?

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Joc Pederson

Like Kris Bryant in Chicago, they saw Joc Pederson coming in Los Angeles. The Dodgers made sure of that when they traded the popular Matt Kemp to the Padres last winter to make room for the Pacific Coast League MVP.

Pederson didn’t have the billboard outside the stadium with his face on it, or the commercial with the goat preceding him the way Bryant did. But he had 56,000 people waiting and clamoring for him at Dodger Stadium, expecting big contributions and a championship season.

“These guys are stars already, before they even get here,” said veteran Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter, a former first-round draft pick, five-time All-Star and teammate of hyped rookie Mike Trout in 2012 and Byron Buxton this year.

“In the past you might read about guys. You didn’t see video, you didn’t hear about them. We didn’t have the MLB Network or whatever it might be where you can talk about guys.”

And, said Hunter: “That’s a bad thing.”

The hyper-scrutiny, the A-ball fame — the Instagram-, Vine-, and Twitter-lined career path from draft day.

In a game that seems younger every year, with the media attention blurring the definitions of stardom across big-league and minor-league lines, that’s the striking difference that veterans see in the challenges facing rookies today that didn’t exist – except in the rarest cases – even five or six years ago.

“It looks like the game is in a great spot. It’s an all-time high prospect world,” said Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan, the 2009 National League Rookie of the Year. “There’s more talking about prospects than about guys that are producing everyday all the time. And it’s a sexy thing.

“You just worry about whether the young guys can handle the pressure that it involves up here in the Show, because it’s totally different than in the minors.”

Nobody should feel that more than the Cubs, who again had three rookies in Tuesday’s starting lineup, including Bryant, whose biggest competition for Rookie of the Year this season might come from the center fielder on the other side: Pederson.

“It’s been pretty difficult I think for rookies nowadays because you’ve got the whole media,” Cubs rookie second baseman Addison Russell said. “And you want to live up to the expectation and all that stuff. I guess sometimes you might want to get ahead of yourself a little bit. You just have to relax and take it all in. Just come in and do what you know how to do.”

Easier said than done.

“It’s exciting to see these young guys come up and perform the way they’ve performed,” Hunter said. “It’s just that they come up and do their thing, and then once the league catches up and they struggle, people stalk about them. Why? That makes no sense. They still have to go through their growing pains.”

And if the draft-day-to-debut glare – with all its expectations and social-media-driven intensity – isn’t fair?

“Life’s not fair,” Pederson said. “It comes with the territory. You either learn to embrace it or. …”

Or what? There don’t seem to be a lot of choices.

Maybe that’s what makes this year’s especially talented, especially deep rookie class stand out.

“They’re trying to get these kids here quick, and it just seems like they’re smart enough to be here,” said Cubs assistant hitting coach Eric Hisnke, the 2002 American League Rookie of the year.

“It’s impressive,” Hunter said.

Just look at Monday’s series opener at Wrigley Field between a pair of early contenders, with Clayton Kershaw – considered by many the best pitcher of the game – going for the N.L. West-leading Dodgers.

Rookies stole the show – four of them hitting five home runs to account for all six runs in the Cubs’ victory. That included two by Bryant and another by Pederson.

Pederson has 19 home runs – and 50 walks. Bryant, 10 home runs and a .382 on-base percentage.

“It’s a new breed of kids into the game now,” said Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire, the 1987 American League Rookie of the Year.

McGwire said he thinks the early and constant exposure prospects now get coming through the minors is good for the game: “It drives people to come to the ballpark to come and see them play.”

But fair?

“Yes and no,” he said, “but with an understanding that you have to deal with the ups and downs of how to play this game.”

That’s something Hinske said he’s seen separate this class from other rookie classes.

“They have really good attitudes about failing,” he said. “Like when they don’t get the job done or when they strike out, they’re good at letting that go and getting to the next at-bat and getting to the next pitch.”

But the learning curve remains steep, and the process never ends, say the veteran players and coaches. And the impressive early returns don’t guarantee anything long-term.

“This game is so much faster than any minor-league level,” McGwire said. “They find your weakness in a matter of one or two at-bats, and they’ll expose you in a heartbeat, so you have to be ready to make adjustments on the fly, and if they [can do that] they’ll be pretty damn successful.”

“That’s what this game’s all about, with all the information we have. We have all this video. Back in the day we didn’t have all that stuff. We had scouts that sit in the stands, and it might take a week or two before it gets to the team. Today it’s a matter of one game and everybody knows your weakness. And everybody knows your strength.

“These kids are talented. It’s really fun to watch. But with the understanding it’s definitely a learning experience.”

Pederson sounds like Bryant and Russell when he talks about that part of it.

“I think we’re all young in the game and we have a lot to prove,” Pederson said, adding that the apparent ability of more prospects being able to adjust quicker to the big-league pace these days might not be complicated.

“I guess you go with evolution,” he said. “The iPhone 1 came out a while ago, and now there’s an iPhone 6. Things change.”

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