Forget for a moment that Chris Coghlan and Andrew Bailey sound more like Irish rugby players than major league baseball's newest Rookies of the Year. Forget that they toiled in relative anonymity all season long for two non-playoff teams whose payrolls combined are less than half that of the Yankees. Forget that neither produced a statistical season of great historical importance or that a compelling case could be made for several other players to have won the award in both leagues. And forget, too, that despite their impressive debut campaigns, it seems likely that this year's winners will one day more closely resemble those from 1989 (when forgettables like Gregg Olson and Jerome Walton were the AL and NL winners, respectively) than 2001 (when future Hall of Famers Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols took home the hardware).
Instead, the announcement that Bailey and Coghlan have been honored as the top rookies in their respective leagues should come as a pleasing reminder of the egalitarian nature of this award. They might not be the most glamorous choices, but they are deserving choices and that is all that really matters. In a deep crop of contenders in both leagues that included both highly touted position players (Andrew McCutchen in the NL, Elvis Andrus and Gordon Beckham in the AL) and heavily relied-upon starters for playoff-contending teams (J.A. Happ and Tommy Hanson in the NL, Rick Porcello in the AL) and that could have gone to as many as a half-dozen players in each league, the winners were a pair of players who were almost completely unheard of when the season began and have undergone impressive transformations already in their young careers. Coghlan won for his performance as a left fielder and leadoff hitter when he had been neither until he arrived in the major leagues a month past Opening Day, and Bailey as a closer who was a non-roster invitee to spring training who had never saved a game in his career and who once seemed destined for a career on Wall Street.
It's too soon to know whether Coghlan or Bailey are headed for numerous accolades, or whether they have just received the only honor they'll ever be remembered for, but we do know that these victories will go a long way toward increasing their name recognition. Whoever wins the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards in the days ahead, it will undoubtedly be players of more established pedigrees who have all the cachet that Coghlan and Bailey lack. In a sense, that makes these first awards far more exciting, because they were so difficult to predict before, during and after the season, and they are going to a pair of previously unknown players whose stories are so unique for winners of such a major prize.
Coghlan didn't even reach the majors until early May, whereupon he was quickly switched from second base, where he had played 246 of his 288 career games as a professional, to left field, where he had played exactly once since Little League. That one game came on May 7 for Triple-A New Orleans. Even though he didn't have a single chance in the outfield that day, he must have made quite the impression, for he was summoned to the majors the next day and after making his debut at his more familiar second base, shifted to left field for good on May 10. He remained there the rest of the season, finishing fifth among all NL left fielders in putouts, sixth in zone rating and sixth in total chances.
But where Coghlan really shined -- and where he won the award -- was at the plate. He batted .321, the third-highest average in the league from his May 8 debut through the end of the season, and eighth-highest in the majors from that point on (only Joe Mauer, Ichiro, Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, Pablo Sandoval, Matt Holliday and Derrek Lee hit better). Coghlan also did it while batting leadoff, another adjustment for a player who had always batted in the middle of the order while coming up through the minor leagues. Once again, Coghlan handled his new role with aplomb, as his .397 on-base percentage -- the second-highest of any National League leadoff hitter -- will attest.
Bailey's ascension may have been even more surprising. He had pitched just one game in Triple-A (back in 2007) and was a starter until midway through the 2008 season. In fact, he had never saved even one game in three minor league seasons, and he entered spring training unlikely to make the team. Yet not only was he still with the club as the season began, he didn't spend a single day in the minor leagues. He took over as closer in May and was so effective that by July he had been tapped for the All-Star team. He finished the year with 26 saves, a 1.84 ERA and better than one strikeout per inning. He allowed opponents just a .167 average with runners in scoring position, including .081 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Not bad for a guy from Wagner College who spent five consecutive summers interning in the finance industry.
Speaking of finances, both Coghlan and Bailey have added value to their cash-strapped franchises by being so good at so little cost (obviously, neither is anywhere close to being eligible for either arbitration or free agency). The Marlins and A's have the lowest payrolls in their respective leagues, and Coghlan and Bailey can do much to boost the team's chances at winning without compromising their bottom line. At the same time, their talents and intriguing personal narratives can only help increase their popularity among fan bases that ranked last (Oakland) and next-to-last (Florida) in the majors in attendance.
Most importantly, they are good enough to help the Marlins and A's build winning teams. In Coghlan, the Marlins have a dangerous hitter who gets on base and can be expected to improve defensively as he continues his on-the-job training. The Marlins have already parted ways with Jeremy Hermida, and may have seen the last of Dan Uggla as well, meaning they need to increased offensive production to complement their talented stable of young pitchers. In Bailey, the A's have a gifted and reliable closer, which, despite GM Billy Beane's famous protests to the contrary, is not a job for just about anyone (witness the carnage of this postseason, in which the only team left standing was the only one whose closer did not blow at least one playoff or World Series game). He can anchor a bullpen behind a similarly young and talented starting rotation.
Part of the intrigue that accompanies the Rookie of the Year winners is less about knowing who they are as players right now and more about the speculating about what type of player they will become. Sometimes the talent reaches full bloom in its first season and then withers. Indeed, for every future Hall of Famer like Ichiro and Pujols, the ROY roster is littered with numerous forgettables like Bob Hamelin (AL, 1994), Joe Charboneau (AL, 1981) and Bake McBride (NL, 1974). Which path will Coghlan and Bailey follow? That answer can only be revealed in the years ahead. They have already answered the only questions that matter so far:
Do they belong in the major leagues?
And can they become cornerstone pieces for their teams to build around?
In winning Rookie of the Year, the answer to both is a resounding yes.