Monday April 4th, 2011

With most teams having played just three games through Sunday, it's obviously way too early to start ranking MVP or Cy Young award candidates, but the Rookie of the Year races began to take shape as soon as the Opening Day rosters were announced. There are 750 players in the major leagues at any given moment, but as of this writing, just 71 of them, a mere nine percent, are rookies (defined as 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). Taking the two leagues individually, with 31 rookies in the American League and 40 in the National, it's easy to pare down the current rookie crop into two short lists of potential Rookie of the Year contenders.

To begin with, nearly half of the rookies in the major leagues right now (33 of the 71) are relief pitchers. Though the last two AL Rookies of the Year were closers, and 10 relievers have won the award in the two leagues combined, no relief pitcher has ever won the award with fewer than 15 saves.

Of the current crop of 33 rookie relievers (16 in the AL and 17 in the NL), not one opened the season in sole possession of his team's closing job (though, neither did 2010 AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz of the Rangers or 2009 award winner Andrew Bailey of the A's). The rookies most likely to accrue double-figure saves this season are the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, who is currently sharing Atlanta's closer job with sophomore Johnny Venters and is the only rookie to record a save thus far this season; Jake McGee, who seems like the pitcher most likely to emerge as closer from the Rays' season-opening bullpen-by-committee; and fireballing Cuban Aroldis Chapman, who is currently setting up veteran closer Francisco Cordero with the Reds, though one imagines that order will reverse itself in time, as was the case for Feliz and then-incumbent closer Frank Francisco last year.

Of the remaining 38 rookies, eight are in their team's starting rotation, eight are full-time regulars, and the other 22 are part-timers or bench warmers. From that last group, keep an eye on the Angels' Hank Conger, who could make Rookie of the Year waves if he can wrest the Angels' catching job away from no-hit Jeff Mathis, Casper Wells, who could put up some nice numbers as part of an outfield platoon with the Tigers, and Juan Miranda, who might thrive in hitting-friendly Chase Field as part of a first-base job share with the Diamondbacks. All are extreme longshots at the moment, however, with Conger and Wells having yet to appear in a game this season.

That leaves us with just 19 legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates from among the 750 active players in the majors: three relievers, eight starting pitchers and eight everyday players. Here's how they stack up by league:

There are eight more rookies in the NL than in the AL right now, but once you weed out all of the secondary relievers and part-timers, you get a shorter list in the senior circuit than you do in the junior. There are just four rookie hitters with full-time starting jobs in the NL, and just three NL rookies in their team's starting rotations, two of whom, the Reds Sam LeCure and the Braves' Mike Minor, are short-term injury replacements. Here's how the 2011 NL rookie class stacks up coming into the season (the 2011 stats in parentheses had no impact on the ranking).

1. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants (2-for-13, HR, 4 BB, SB)

2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (2-for-10, 2B, 2 BB)

3. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves (0.00 ERA, 1 IP, 2 K, 1 SV)

4. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Reds (0.00 ERA, 1 IP, 1 K)

5. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals (4-for-9, 2 2B)

6. Brad Emaus, 2B, Mets (1-for-6, BB)

7. Brandon Beachy, SP, Braves (will start Monday vs. Brewers)

8. Mike Minor, SP, Braves (will start Wednesday vs. Brewers)

9. Sam LeCure, SP, Reds (will start Thursday vs. Astros)

Not among those seven is the Phillies' Domonic Brown, who should assume the rightfield job upon returning from the 15-day disabled list later this month. Brown had surgery to remove the hamate bone in his right hand on March 8, a fairly common procedure with a four-to-six week recovery period. I listed him third on my pre-season list of NL Rookie of the Year candidates just last week and only omitted him here because I'm limiting this list to active major league rookies. Minor, incidentally, is a top prospect, but lost the Braves' fifth-starter job to Beachy in spring training and will make just one start in place of Jair Jurrjens before Jurrjens is expected to return from a strained right oblique.

Though the AL contains the only team in the majors without a rookie on its 25-man roster (the Red Sox, whose youngest player is 25-year-old set-up man Daniel Bard), it has the deeper rookie class led by a quartet of top starting-pitching prospects. In total, five AL rookies have legitimate places in their team's starting rotations, but just four AL rookie hitters are full-time starters, and one of those, Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, is an injury replacement likely to lose his job once Kendry Morales returns from the disabled list, which could happen before April is over. Add McGee to that lot, and you get a list that looks like this:

1. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Rays (will start Wednesday vs. Angels)

2. Zach Britton, SP, Orioles (1-0, 1.50 ERA)

3. Kyle Drabek, SP, Blue Jays (1-0, 1.29 ERA)

4. Michael Piñeda, SP, Mariners (will start Tuesday vs. Rangers)

5. J.P. Arencibia, C, Blue Jays (3-for-7, 3B, 2 HRs, BB)

6. Jake McGee, RP, Rays (9.00 ERA, 1 IP, 1 K)

7. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, 2B, Twins (2-for-11, 2 BB, SB)

8. Bret Morel, 3B, White Sox (3-for-9, 2B, SB)

9. Ivan Nova, SP, Yankees (will start Monday vs. Twins)

10. Mark Trumbo, 1B, Angels (3-for-13, 2 2B)

Note that I had Drabek ahead of Britton on my pre-season list because Britton had been sent to the minors to start the season, but an injury to Brian Matusz resulted in Britton starting just the third game of the season for the O's. Now that his major league service clock as been started, Britton is unlikely to return to the minors unless his performance demands it. I rank him ahead of Drabek here because I believe Britton is ever-so-slightly further along in his development than Drabek, who is just two weeks Britton's senior but lost a year of development time to Tommy John surgery and made the jump to the majors straight from Double-A last September.

The AL also has a greater crop of top prospects bubbling under at Triple-A, several of whom could have an impact on this race before the season is over. The following are ranked according to a combination of their own potential and the likelihood of them bumping the big-league starter currently filling their position in the majors before the All-Star break without the help of an injury.

1. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Royals

2. Dustin Ackley, 2B, Mariners

3. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, Indians

4. Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays

5. Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays

6. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees

7. Chris Carter, LF, A's

Awards Watch will check back in on the Rookie of the Year races in three weeks. Next week, I'll take an early look at the Most Valuable Player candidates in each league.

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