Monday August 2nd, 2010

At no point this season has the contrast between the depth of the rookie fields in the American and National Leagues been as strong as it is right now. The challenge in ranking the top five candidates in the AL is finding a fifth rookie worth including. The challenge in ranking the top five candidates in the NL is paring down a list of 12 while keeping an eye on more than another dozen top prospects and hot performers. Consider that among those who didn't make my NL list this week are the major league rookie home run leader Tyler Colvin (16 homers), rookie RBI leader Ike Davis (53 RBIs, plus 15 homers, and this bobblehead), the red-hot Chris Johnson of the Astros (.341/.371/.530) and Jon Jay of the Cardinals (.378/.427/.571) -- who inspired St. Louis to trade 2008 All-Star Ryan Ludwick -- Brewers closer John Axford, and left-handed Braves reliever Jonny Venters (1.21 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 52 innings). That list doesn't include the many top prospects called up mid-season and having various degrees of success such as the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata, the Marlins' Mike Stanton, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and now the Phillies' Domonic Brown. It also doesn't include Stephen Strasburg, who as good as he was in his nine starts, has landed on the disabled list with shoulder stiffness having thrown just 2 1/3 more innings than Venters. One wonders if this disparity is in any way a result of the senior circuit being the weaker league, or if, better yet, it might be a solution to that.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, August 1; 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. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals

Season Stats: 9-4, 2.33 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.04 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 1-0, 3.32 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.43 K/BB

Other NL candidates have come and gone, slumped and surged, but Garcia has been steady all year. After 20 starts, he has allowed more than three earned runs in a game just once. In fact, here's his breakdown of earned runs allowed:

0 ER: 5 starts

1 ER: 5 starts

2 ER: 7 starts

3 ER: 2 starts

5 ER: 1 start

The net result of those performances is the fourth-best ERA in the NL in a great year for pitching. The three men ahead of Garcia are Josh Johnson, Adam Wainwright and Roy Halladay. Garcia hasn't shown the ability to dominate a game like those three; he's not pitched more than seven innings or struck out more than seven men in any start this season. But his consistent ability to deliver quality starts and the fact that he's been doing it since the start of the season makes him the clear favorite in the crowded NL field.

2. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves

Season Stats: .270/.384/.456, 11 HR, 50 RBI, 8 SB, 17.0 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .266/.360/.357, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 4 SB

The wrist injury that threw Heyward into a vicious slump in June (.181/.287/.245 on the month) and ultimately forced him to the disabled list for the two weeks prior to the All-Star break delivered a mighty blow to his candidacy, but his .349/.453/.460 performance since returning after the break provides hope that he just might recapture his pre-injury form down the stretch. Heyward's all-around talent is undeniable, but the one thing missing from his current comeback is power. His last home run was June 17, and that batting line since the break gives him an isolated slugging (slugging minus batting average) of just .110 against a major league average of .147 and his own .287 mark prior to his June swoon. That seems to confirm the reports that Heyward's wrist won't be able to completely heal until he can give it extended rest over the offseason, but given just how devastating an offensive performer he can be when hot, it's foolish to count Heyward out just yet.

3. Buster Posey, C, Giants

Season Stats: .350/.392/.537, 8 HR, 34 RBI, 21.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .409/.457/.688, 6 HR, 23 RBI

Stuck behind Bengie Molina for the first half of the year, the 23-year-old Posey wasn't called up until the end of May, then hit an uninspiring .289/.314/.381 in June while spending most of his time at first base. The Giants traded Molina to the Rangers on July 1, handing Posey the catching job that everyone knew would be his as soon as the Giants took him with the fifth overall pick the 2008 draft. Since then, he has hit .406/.458/.679 with seven of his eight home runs and 24 of his 34 RBIs. That means he's really here on the strength of one hot month, but that hot month was enough to put him in a tie with Austin Jackson for the lead in VORP among rookie hitters (with an assist from the low standard of his current position), and his status as a blue-chip prospect (he hit .333/.427/.542 in the minors while waiting for Molina to vacate his position) suggests that there's more where that came from.

4. Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs

Season Stats: .303/.351/.432, 3 HR, 31 RBI, 5 SB, 17.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .363/.370/.549, 1 HR, 13 RBI, 4 SB

Castro isn't going to put up the kind of eye-popping numbers Heyward and Posey are capable of, but taken in context, his performance has been plenty impressive in its own right. The average major league shortstop has hit .263/.321/.370 this season, and Castro, who turned 20 just a week before Opening Day, has done much better, including .365/.398/.557 with 13 doubles since June 26. That would be pretty eye-popping coming from a 27-year-old at just about any position on the field, never mind a 20-year-old shortstop. Castro's a solid defender but not especially fast or quick afield. His career minor league line of .310/.362/.421 looks a lot like his season stats above. From a scouting perspective, he's not projected to be a star, but players who can hit like All-Stars in the majors at the age of 20 are few and far between, and their futures look a lot brighter as a result. One name that springs to mind is Robinson Cano, a not-especially-quick middle infielder who hit .278/.331/.425 in the minors. Actually, that's a bad comparison. Cano didn't reach the majors until he was 23.

5. Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins

Season Stats: .288/.352/.455, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 17.0 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .226/.273/.376, 3 HR, 11 RBI

There's a lot to dream about when it comes to the futures of Heyward, Posey, and Castro, but the 27-year-old Sanchez likely is what he is already, which is an average major league first baseman. The standard at that position is higher than at any other, and the average major league first-sacker has hit .270/.355/.459 this season, roughly what Sanchez has done, and he doesn't add anything special in the field or on the bases. What gives Sanchez the slight edge over rookie pitchers like Mike Leake of the Reds and Jon Niese of the Mets is availability. He has started all but eight of the Marlins games this season while Leake is on an innings limit and Niese spent some time on the DL.

1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)

Season Stats: 3.57 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.69 K/BB, 29 SV

Last Four Weeks: 5.79 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7 SV

2. Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .291/.354/.490, 12 HR, 51 RBI, 19.3 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .145/.265/.181, 0 HR, 5 RBI

While Boesch has endured the first extended slump of his major league career (he was hitting .345/.390/.605 at the time of my last Rookie of the Year column), Feliz remains on pace to save a rookie record 45 ballgames, easily outdistancing the mark of 37 set by 2000 AL Rookie of the Year Kazuhiro Sasaki. As a result, Feliz deserves to stay on top for yet another week. There are reasons to doubt that the 25-year-old Boesch, a career .273/.319/.434 hitter in the minors and a negligible prospect entering this season, will ever recapture his first-half form, but now that we're into August, it seems clear that one of these two will claim the award.

3. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (3)

Season Stats: .306/.354/.418, 1 HR, 23 RBI, 61 R, 16 SB, 21.8 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .312/.354/.473, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 14 R, 3 SB

Jackson hit just .253/.299/.325 from May 10 through July 5, the date of my last Rookie of the Year column, but his red-hot start (.371/.420/.508 through May 9) and the lack of other serious contenders in the Junior Circuit kept him on this list, and since then, he's rediscovered his stroke. His strikeout and walk rates are still a major concern; his 107 K's are second in the American League, and he only walks once every 16.4 plate appearances. But his basestealing has occurred at an efficient 80 percent success rate, and while his defense in center seems to be average at best, simply holding his own at a key defensive position boosts his candidacy.

4. Carlos Santana, C, Indians (5)

Season Stats: .265/.404/.476, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 16.7 VORP

Last Four Weeks: .234/.374/.364, 2 HR, 7 RBI

Santana has cooled off since his blazing start (.345/.458/.707 with four homers and nine doubles in his first 72 major league plate appearances), but he continues to walk more often than he strikes out, which not only has propped up his value at the plate via a stellar on-base percentage, but is incredibly impressive for a switch-hitting rookie who always seems to swing from his heels. Santana has also impressed behind the plate, where he has thrown out 35 percent of attempting basestealers, comfortably above the league average of 28 percent. Santana's biggest problem since arriving in the majors has been his performance from the right side of the plate, where he has batted just .149/.317/.277 (note the still-stellar batting eye), a stark contrast to his career .317/.421/.539 line from the right side in the minors. A blue-chip prospect who has won minor league MVP awards each of the last two seasons, Santana is a clear future star, but his late (June 1) debut and July struggles have likely put this award out of reach.

5. Sergio Santos, RHP, White Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: 1.62 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.12 K/BB

Last Four Weeks: 0.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 3.00 K/BB

Santos has a great backstory. He is a former infielder and first-round pick of the Diamondbacks who spent seven years bouncing around the minors for three organizations before the White Sox got a hold of him last year. They made him a pitcher, and there was a genuinely touching moment in the premier episode of the MLB Network's The Club when White Sox general manager Kenny Williams told Santos he had made team's Opening Day roster. That footage surely raised Santos's profile and should help garner him a few down-ballot Rookie of the Year votes given his dominance on the mound to this point. Though he did allow a pair of inherited runners to score in one outing in July, the 26-year-old Santos hasn't allowed an earned run, or any other inherited runs, since June 17. Though he continues to be largely a placeholder on this list, the case for Santos, a relief pitcher who has thrown just 33 1/3 innings, looks less sketchy when you realized that Feliz has thrown just 45 1/3, and the only other full-season candidates worth considering in the AL are right-handed starters Wade Davis of the Rays (9-9, 4.21 ERA) and former Rays prospect Mitch Talbot of the Indians (8-9, 4.09 ERA), neither of whom has pitched better than those cursory numbers would suggest, while the latter just hit the disabled list with a back injury.

Off the list: John Jaso (4)

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