Monday July 5th, 2010

In my third look at the Rookie of the Year races, the June call-ups make their first appearance and a pitcher takes over the National League lead, though not the one you're thinking of.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 4; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, have had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or have spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on September 1.

1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)

Season Stats: 3.00 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 3.63 K/BB, 22 SV

Last Three Weeks: 2.08 ERA, 0.58 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 11.00 K/BB, 7 SV

The last rookie to lead his league in saves was the Cardinals' Todd Worrell, who ran away with the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1986, when he saved a rookie record 36 games. Worrell's mark remains the NL record for saves by a rookie and has since been surpassed in the AL only by 32-year-old Japanese veteran Kazuhiro Sasaki, who saved 37 games for the Mariners and won the AL Rookie of the Year in 2000, his first major league season. Feliz, who is tied with the Royals' Joakim Soria for the AL saves lead as of this writing, is poised to break Sasaki's record (he's on pace for 45 saves), which makes him hard to bet against in this race. Saves are an overrated stat, but Feliz has the peripherals to back up his case, and for those who like advanced metrics, the combination of his dominance and those high-leverage opportunities have Feliz way out in front of the rookie pack in Baseball Prospectus's cumulative win-expectancy based statistic for relievers, WXRL, (Milwaukee closer John Axford is a distant second), and eighth among all American League relievers in that category.

2. Brennan Boesch, LF, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .345/.390/.605, 12 HR, 46 RBI, 29.6 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .352/.403/.563, 4 HR, 16 RBI

If Feliz for any reason falls short of Sasaki's record, it will open the door for Boesch, who has slipped by the injured Jason Heyward for the rookie leads in home runs and RBIs and leads all rookies with more than 100 plate appearances in batting average and slugging while trailing only John Jaso in on-base percentage. Boesch has only gotten better as his season has progressed. After hitting .345/.378/.595 with three homers and 15 RBIs in May, he hit .337/.400/.625 with eight homers and 23 RBIs in June, and he enters this week's action with an active seven-game hitting streak. Prior to this past weekend's series against the Mariners, in which he went 7-for-12 but failed to homer, the last team to hold Boesch homerless for an entire series was the Indians over the first three days of June. Even with Feliz on a record pace, the race between the top two men on this list is impossibly close right now.

3. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (4)

Season Stats: .305/.354/.401, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 13 SB, 14.0 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .289/.357/.342, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 3 SB

At this point, Jackson is a vestigial candidate, lingering on this list thanks to his hot start and a shallow pool of challengers. Since May 10, he has hit just .250/.298/.313, though since returning from a week lost to back spasms on June 26, he has shown some signs of life, putting together an eight-game hitting streak during which he has hit .333/.389/.364. That line is mostly batting average, which doesn't speak well for its sustainability, but a rookie center fielder who can hit for average and steal some bases is a valuable commodity. Still, the value gap between Jackson and his teammate Boesch is huge.

4. John Jaso, C, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: .274/.398/.389, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 10.6 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .256/.373/.302, 0 HR, 2 RBI

Jaso outranks fellow catcher Carlos Santana of the Indians solely because Santana has only been in the majors since June 11. Santana had made just 89 plate appearances through Sunday. Jaso's batting line when he hit 89 plate appearances this season was .324/.449/.493 with two home runs and 18 RBIs. Jaso hasn't hit much since then, but his ability to get on base has not only earned him a share of the Rays' catching job (with 2008 All-Star Dioner Navarro being optioned down to Triple-A), but a handful of starts at designated hitter and even 14 starts as the Rays' leadoff hitter. I don't expect this 26-year-old with seven minor league seasons under his belt to remain on this list, but the American League's weak field has allowed him some recognition this week.

5. Carlos Santana, C, Indians (N/A)

Season Stats: .300/.438/.600, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 12.2 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .305/.447/.593, 3 HR, 12 RBI

Santana is the American League's answer to Stephen Strasburg minus nearly all of the hype. I say nearly all because, for those who haven't been paying attention, Santana won the Class-A California League MVP in 2008 and the Double-A Eastern League MVP in 2009 and entered this season as one of the top hitting prospects in the game. Yes, Santana has yet to play a full month in the majors, but, like Strasburg, he has lived up to his hype thus far and therefore lands on this list via a combination of performance and reputation. After 22 games, Santana is not only hitting .300, but 13 of his 21 hits have gone for extra bases, and he has walked four more times than he has struck out. He's also providing all of that production as a catcher, one of the weakest offensive positions in the game (the average major league catcher is hitting .253/.329/.388), and has thrown out six of the 14 men who have tried to steal against him (43 percent against a league average of 27 percent). Though he's already slowing down a bit, Santana is on pace for 43 doubles, 19 homers, 70 RBIs and 84 walks in just 103 games, a performance which would easily put him in the top three on this list. I still can't believe the Dodgers traded this guy for Casey Blake.

Off the list: Mitch Talbot (3), Sergio Santos (5)

1. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: 8-4, 2.10 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 1.97 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 4.09 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 3.60 K/BB

Three weeks ago I expressed some concern over Garcia's walk rate and resultant inability to reach the seventh inning. In his four starts then, he has walked just five men (for a tidy 2.05 BB/9) and twice completed seven innings. His lone bad start of the year, a two-inning disaster against the Royals of all teams, pushed his season ERA above 2.00 for the first time this season, but he followed that up with his second-best start of the season, seven shutout innings against the Brewers in which he allowed just five baserunners (two singles, a double, and two walks) while striking out seven. With that outing in Kansas City as the exception, Garcia has completed a minimum of five innings and allowed a maximum of three earned runs in all but one of his sixteen starts on the year. After Ubaldo Jimenez's recent struggles, Garcia trails only Josh Johnson for the major league's best ERA among qualifiers, and among major league rookies with 40 or more innings pitched, Garcia's ERA is the lowest by more than a run.

2. Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins (4)

Season Stats: .308/.376/.481, 9 HR, 38 RBI, 20.1 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .389/.443/.569, 2 HR, 10 RBI

Jason Heyward's thumb injury and a hot month of June have launched Sanchez into the thick of the NL Rookie of the Year race. Sanchez has reached base in each of his 24 games dating back to June 6, hitting .392/.439/.619 with five homers and 17 RBIs over that stretch while striking out just 11 times against nine walks. He's even thrown in a couple of stolen bases (in his only two attempts) for good measure. Mix in Sanchez's sure-handed play around first base, and the Marlins might have to consider moving first-base prospect Logan Morrison (currently hitting .320/.428/.500 in Triple-A) to the outfield.

3. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (1)

Season Stats: .251/.366/.455, 11 HR, 45 RBI, 10.5 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .175/.233/.275, 1 HR, 2 RBI

"Barring injury." It's a common caveat, but a necessary one. Five weeks ago, Heyward was hitting .301/.421/.596 and leading the NL in slugging, prompting me to write in this space that, "Heyward already has the NL Rookie of the Year award sewn up (barring injury, of course)." Little did anyone realize then that Heyward had already suffered the injury that would derail his season. Heyward jammed his left thumb sliding head-first into third base on May 14. Though he failed to get a hit the next two days, he played through the pain and hit .353/.450/.667 over his next 13 games before the thumb finally began to take its toll as May turned to June. From May 31 through June 25, Heyward hit just .172/.274/.232 before finally seeing a hand specialist and being placed on the disabled list with what an MRI revealed to be a deep bone bruise and strained ligament. Heyward doesn't need surgery, but the thumb won't heal completely until he's able to rest it over the offseason, which means we can't be sure what to expect from him upon his anticipated return immediately after the All-Star break. For now, his production from the season's first two months is keeping him on this list.

4. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals (N/A)

Season Stats: 2-2, 2.45 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 13.3 K/9, 5.30 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 0-2, 2.59 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 6.20 K/BB

Were the voting held today, the question for voters would be how to weigh Strasburg's performance against his hype and potential. But after his first six starts, the combination of hype (five of his first six starts were broadcast on national television and the president showed up for one of them) and performance (just look at his peripherals above, which lead all rookies with a minimum of 35 innings pitched) would no doubt garner him enough votes to land in the top five. Strasburg is as much a victim as a benefactor of that hype, as three of his starts, including his last two, have felt fairly ordinary, though they have resulted in a 3.24 ERA and 10.8 K/9. In those three, Strasburg has averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start, allowed seven runs (six earned), and walked 10 (albeit against 20 strikeouts) in 16 2/3 innings while taking two no decisions and a loss. In his other three starts, including his first two, he has averaged 6 2/3 innings, allowed four runs, and walked none against 33 strikeouts in 20 innings while going 2-1. You can't blame Strasburg for his record. In his his last four starts, the Nationals haven't scored a single run while he was still in the game. You can't really blame him for his shorter outings, either, as the organization appears to be capping his pitch counts at 95. Strasburg may be on this list a bit early, but I'm confident he'll still be here three weeks from now.

5. Mike Leake, RHP, Reds (3)

Season Stats: 6-1, 3.38 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.72 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-1, 5.63 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.50 K/BB

Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin nearly knocked Leake off this list by homering off him twice on Sunday to pull even with Heyward for the NL rookie lead in home runs, but Leake has arguably been the ace of the surprising NL Central leaders while Colvin is a part-time player with a .320 on-base percentage. Besides, Leake can hit a little himself. Dan Haren is the only pitcher having a better year at the plate than Leake, who has hit .344/.400/.375. Still, Leake is on shaky footing here. Colvin's homers gave Leake seven allowed in his last five starts after allowing just four in his first 11 appearances, and in his four starts prior to Sunday, Leake had walked 13 men against just 12 strikeouts. Leake hit rough waters in June as three of his final four starts of the month saw him surrender five or more runs. He seems to be coming out of the woods, as two of his last three outings have been quality starts, and Colvin's homers accounted for all of the scoring against him on Sunday, when he finally picked up his sixth win in just his third decision since May 15. Still, it's worth noting that Leake is now over 100 innings pitched and, having thrown just 142 as a junior at Arizona State last year, will likely be limited to roughly 170 innings by the Reds. As for how the Reds plan to replace Leake down the stretch, Edinson Volquez, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, has been sharp in three Triple-A rehab starts and is already starting in synch with Leake.

Off the List: David Freese (5)

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.