Fielder tops impressive crop of rookies

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A powerful Prince leads this season’s talented group of youngsters who could make an immediate impact and be crowned as baseball’s top rookies.

Prince Fielder, the son of former home run king Cecil Fielder, is stepping in as Milwaukee’s starting first baseman after the Brewers traded Lyle Overbay in the offseason. The left-handed hitting slugger already has shown he’s up to the challenge, with the same strong, bulky build and power at the plate as his Big Daddy.

“I look at it as a positive thing because when people have high expectations, I see it as they just want you to do well,” Fielder said.

“You can’t let the pressure bother you. You just want to go out and have a great season.”

Fielder is one of a handful of first-year players being counted on to perform right away as starters, including San Diego second baseman Josh Barfield, Florida outfielder Jeremy Hermida and Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima.

Barfield, the son of former home run champ Jesse Barfield, beat out veterans Mark Bellhorn and Bobby Hill despite having no major league at-bats.

“He’s done everything you could ask for this spring,” Padres GM Kevin Towers said. “He’s played great defense, he’s had timely hits with runners in scoring position, he’s run the bases very, very well.”

New York Mets right-hander Brian Bannister, son of former major league pitcher Floyd Bannister, beat out Aaron Heilman for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.

Other top rookies with famous bloodlines include Arizona shortstop Stephen Drew, brother of Dodgers outfielder J.D. Drew; and Tampa Bay outfielder Delmon Young, brother of Detroit’s Dmitri Young.

Both will begin the season in the minors, but could be in the bigs by midseason.

The new-look Marlins are relying heavily on youngsters, with at least five rookies among their eight position players

•Hermida, who had a pinch-hit grand slam in his first major league at-bat; highly touted shortstop Hanley Ramirez; first baseman Mike Jacobs, who hit 11 homers with the Mets last year; catcher Josh Willingham, and center fielder Reggie Abercrombie.

“A lot of people are looking at us as the young team that’s not going to do much,” Hermida said.

“We’re going to go out there and work hard and surprise some people.”

Seattle’s Johjima is no secret in Japan, where he won seven consecutive Gold Gloves. But he’ll make history on opening day when he becomes the first Japanese-born catcher to play in the majors. The 29-year-old hit .308 or better the last three seasons.

“We understand the difficulty of the transition he is facing, but he is handling it very well,” manager Mike Hargrove said.

Here’s a quick look at some of this year’s other top rookies:

• Brian Anderson, OF, White Sox. Chicago had so much confidence in his abilities, gritty center fielder Aaron Rowand was traded to Philadelphia for Jim Thome.

• Matt Cain, RHP, Giants. Enters season as No. 4 starter after going 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in seven starts last year.

• Joey Devine, RHP, Braves. With a 95 mph fastball and nasty slider, could be Atlanta’s closer of the near future. But had rough debut, becoming the first pitcher to give up grand slams in first two appearances, and then surrendering season-ending homer to Houston’s Chris Burke in playoffs.

• Anderson Hernandez, 2B, Mets. Set to be in starting lineup on opening day because of injury to incumbent Kaz Matsui, despite 1-for-18 debut last season.

• Conor Jackson, 1B, Diamondbacks. Bat couldn’t be kept in minors anymore, especially after he hit better than .350 in Triple-A. Assumes first base job, knocking veteran Tony Clark back to bench.

• Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers. Will fill spot vacated when four-time All-Star Alfonso Soriano was traded to Washington. Has some pop, and improved defensively after not playing second base until last season.

• Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Red Sox. Will begin season in Boston’s bullpen, but could find way into rotation if Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, David Wells or Matt Clement struggles with injuries.

• Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers. First-round draft choice in 2004 cruised through system, reached majors last season and will be No. 5 starter.

• Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals. Scouts said his defense was major league-ready in college, and he’s already considered one of top-fielding third basemen in game. His bat’s pretty good, too, hitting better than .300 in three stops – including with Washington – after getting drafted in June.

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