MLB Opening Day: Brandon Belt and the Top 10 Rookies to Watch on Opening Day

Christopher HowlandCorrespondent IIIMarch 31, 2011

MLB Opening Day: Brandon Belt and the Top 10 Rookies to Watch on Opening Day

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    Opening day is finally here!

    These 10 rookies have made it one step further to becoming an MLB mainstay by breaking camp with their big league squad, so look for them to capitalize on every opportunity they get.

    Capturing Rookie of the Year honors with a spectacular 2011 season as their main goal and here are the 10 rookies to watch on Opening Day weekend.

10. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals

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    Entering Spring training as the favorite to claim the Washington Nationals’ second base job, Danny Espinosa certainly made the most out of his shot to crack manager Jim Riggleman’s roster.

    In his first two full minor league seasons, Espinosa hit 40 homers and coupled that with 54 stolen bases on his way to being one of only three minor leaguers to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in 2010.

    Originally a shortstop out of Long Beach State that saw the likes of Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki and Bobby Crosby graduate before him, Espinosa is a tough out to get when he digs his 6-foot, athletic frame into either side of the batter’s box.

    Coming off surgery to repair a broken hamate bone and missing some time this spring after fouling a ball off his foot, Espinosa exploded on the scene as the Nats’ opening day second baseman where he can utilize his average speed, but superior baseball knowledge to create a deadly double-play combo with Ian Desmond.

9. Brad Emaus, 2B, New York Mets

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    Grabbing Brad Emaus in the Rule 5 Draft from the Toronto Blue Jays, Emaus has hooked on with the New York Mets as their opening day second baseman.

    With prime supporter J.P. Ricciardi backing Emaus from the very beginning as his draft choice from his GM tenure in Toronto, Emaus beat out incumbent Luis Castillo, Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner for the starting gig in 2011.

    Drawing comparisons to ex-Met Ty Wigginton, Emaus is an OBP king and offers some pop for the Mets at the bottom of their order.

    Winning the starting job with his sweet stroke and excellent defensive play, Emaus will have to keep all eyes on him and remain healthy if he wants to finish 2011 out as the Mets second baseman.

8. Chris Sale, LHP, Chicago White Sox

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    Despite Matt Thornton being named the Chicago White Sox’s primary closer, Chris Sale will still get some opportunities to close games out when Thornton is unavailable.

    As one of the biggest wild cards in Ozzie Guillen’s bullpen, Sale has the potential to surprise people this season as a great setup man.

    Regardless of his 10 total minor league innings, Sale is ready to get major league hitters out now and the bullpen is the perfect place for him.

    As a high strikeout pitcher, Sale will ultimately own the eighth or ninth inning for the Sox and turn some heads in the process.

7. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Atlanta Braves

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    Told by Atlanta Braves' manager Fredi Gonzalez that he will split closing duties with Johnny Venters, from all other perspectives Craig Kimbrel has captured the Braves’ closer role.

    Striking out 23 of the final 36 batters he faced in 2010, Kimbrel should be a consistent aspect to the Braves bullpen in the future.

    But the question remains, can he consistently thrown strikes?

    Averaging 92-96 mph on his fastball, Kimbrel demonstrates superior control and even better movement.

    His breaking ball can’t be definitively named. Some scouts call it a slider, some call it a knuckle-curve, but Kimbrel simply calls in a curve ball and it’s nasty in all sense of the word.

    Sweeping across the plate and keeping hitters off balance, one of the best adjectives to describe Kimbrel’s offspeed pitch: unhittable.

6. Kyle Drabek, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    One of the gems of the Toronto Blue Jays minor league system, Kyle Drabek will finally get the chance to show what he’s got for a full major league season.

    Breaking into the Jays’ starting rotation, Drabek will utilize his rapid delivery and handful of pitches to get major league batters out.

    He showcases a mid-90's fastball, can induce a groundball with is deadly two-seamer and will use his curve as an out pitch in the potent AL East.

    A true workhorse, Drabek will not suffer any transition or growing pains from pitching at the highest level and he definitely has the potential to be a front of the line starter for any major league team.

5. J.P. Arencibia, C, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Mashing in Triple-A with a .301 average, 32 homers and a .985 OPS, J.P. Arencibia is the backstop future for the Toronto Blue Jays…but I’m just stating the obvious.

    One thing Arencibia will need to work on as he transitions to the major league game is his strikeouts.

    Walking just 96 times in his four seasons of professional ball, Arencibia matched that with 356 total wiffs in his career.

    Regardless, Arencibia is a dead-pull hitter that can supply the Jays lineup with power from the catcher position.

    Arencibia is very good defensively and if the Jays can handle his low average and on-base percentage, they’ve got their catcher of the future starting in 2011.

4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves

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    Rather than waiting for the 21-year-old Freddie Freeman to accumulate experience at the minor league level, the Braves will be starting the 2011 season with their top prospect at first.

    Posting an impressive .319/.377/.521 stat line at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2010, Freeman will be given the opportunity to provide power and spectacular defense for the 2011 Braves.

    Despite not looking like a superior baseball prospect physically, Freeman can certainly be penned for at least 20 homers, a high batting average and a solid OBP in his first full season.

    Being an above average defender can’t hurt his ROY chance either, right?

3. Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    With one of the most powerful arms in the league, Aroldis Chapman will best be suited for the backend of the Reds bullpen in the future and it’s where he will begin the 2011 season.

    Throwing a pitch that was recorded 105 mph last season, Chapman will focus on airing it out again this season while he awes fans with how fast he can throw.

    Using a two-pitch, fastball-slider combo, Chapman will have plenty of success keeping batters off balance and getting the K.

    Chapman should experience some success as a quality setup man and will eventually advance into the closer’s role, but for now, let’s just ooh and aah and drool over how fast this kid can throw a baseball.

2. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    An early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year honors, the Rays’ fifth starter will have plenty of pressure early on as he was the main reason they traded away Matt Garza.

    Jeremy “Hellboy” Hellickson was 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA in 36-plus innings after getting called up last September and that was reason enough to consider him big league-ready.

    Drawing comparisons to David Cone in his prime, Hellickson showcases superior location on his fastball coupled with a big league curveball and an above average circle change, all adding up to a promising rookie.

    Competing in the homer-heavy AL East, Hellickson will have some struggles early on, but expect him to hit the ground running and show fans why he is the Rays' premier rookie hurler.

1. Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants

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    One of the most impressive players coming out of spring training, Brandon Belt is poised for an incredible rookie season for the San Francisco Giants.

    The Giants, no stranger to a super-star youngster, picked Belt with a fifth-round selection in the 2009 draft and he posted an incredible 2010 across the Giants three minor league levels.

    Batting a combined .352 with a 1.076 OPS in 2010, Belt can be seen as an underrated ROY candidate, but he will change opinions in 2011 as San Fran’s starting first baseman.

    Belt will impress with his ability to work the count and hit his pitch, his ability to create a power stroke from a smooth swing and his power to all fields.

    He is an athletic defender that isn’t afraid to get dirty and he will have to impress Giants leadership early on if he wants to continue his starting gig after Cody Ross returns from the disabled list.

    Look for Belt to make a few highlight reel plays while hitting in the middle of the Giants lineup on his way to the 2011 ROY award.