Monday April 25th, 2011

In 2010 the National League featured a deep rookie class that stood in stark contrast to the American League's dearth of viable Rookie of the Year candidates. This year, the balance is tipped the other way, with the American League boasting the more compelling rookie class, led by a quality quartet of starting pitchers. The National League race, meanwhile, is missing some of its expected contenders -- Phillies rightfielder Domonic Brown, who isn't likely to return until mid-May from a broken bone in his hand, and popular pre-season pick Brandon Belt, who was demoted by the Giants last week after hitting just .192/.300/.269 as their starting first baseman.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, April 24; 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 an active major league roster prior to rosters expanding on September 1.

1. Michael Piñeda, RHP, Mariners

Season Stats: 3-1, 1.78 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.33 K/BB

Piñeda has been the most impressive of the AL's rookie starters thus far. Rated the 16th-best prospect in baseball coming into the season by Baseball America, the 22-year-old, 6-foot-7, Dominican righty throws both his four and two-seam fastballs in the mid-to-upper 90s, averaging 96 miles per hour with the latter, and misses even more bats with his nasty slider, which has a sharp, downward break. His four starts this season have all been quality, and his earned runs allowed totals have been counting down from three in his major league debut on April 5, to two in his next outing, one in his third and none against the A's in his most recent start last Friday. Perhaps most impressively, he has recorded three of the Mariners' eight wins despite receiving an average of just 3.18 runs of support per start.

2. Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles

Season Stats: 3-1, 3.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.70 K/BB

Britton didn't break camp with the Orioles, but when Brian Matusz went down with an intercostal strain, Britton was called up to start the third game of the season. The 23-year-old lefty allowed just one run in his first two major league starts, covering 13 2/3 innings, and three of his four starts thus far have been quality. A groundballer, Britton throws his low-90s sinker roughly two-thirds of the time, but also misses a lot of bats with a mid-80s changeup, leading some scouts to believe he has the stuff to be a Brandon Webb-style ace. He may already be the team's best starter; he has recorded two of the slumping Orioles' last three wins dating back to April 9.

3. Kyle Drabek, RHP, Blue Jays

Season Stats: 1-0, 3.00 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.27 K/BB

The top prospect received by Toronto in the Roy Halladay trade and the son of 1990 NL Cy Young award winner Doug, Drabek got his feet wet in the majors with three late-September starts last year after making the leap directly from Double-A. This year, the 23-year-old righty did not allow more than two runs in any of his first three starts, but he's walking a few too many batters, had a weak outing against the Yankees in his last turn, and will face another big test by starting against the Rangers in Arlington tonight. Drabek mostly works with a variety of fastballs that he throws in the low 90s with movement (four- and two-seamers and a cutter), and gets his swings-and-misses with a big, 12-to-6 curve. There's some debate over whether or not he'll top out as a No. 2 starter, but for now he's part of an impressive top three for the Jays, along with lefty Ricky Romero and the just-activated Brandon Morrow.

4. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays

Season Stats: 1-2, 4.32 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.82 K/BB

Coming into this season, Hellickson was Baseball America's sixth-rated prospect and was the most experienced of this AL quartet, having made four starts (all quality) and six relief appearances for the Rays down the stretch in 2010. Considered the most mature pitcher of the four, the 24-year-old Hellickson has a repertoire similar to Drabek's but with the addition of a changeup that is both his best and most frequently deployed pitch. Hellickson struck out 10 Angels in his season debut, but his next two starts were less impressive, and he didn't turn in a quality start until his fourth, and most recent, outing against the Blue Jays on Friday (7 IP, 3 R, 6 K). Still, he was the consensus favorite for this award coming into the season, and it's still early enough to give him a bit of a boost on this list based on that projection.

5. Jordan Walden, RHP, Angels

Season Stats: 0.00 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 2.0 K/BB, 3 SV

Walden is on the Neftali Feliz plan, having taken over as his team's closer in the season's opening week. The difference being that Feliz, the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year, didn't have a quartet of impressive starters to contend with for this award. A former starting pitcher prospect, Walden was converted to relief last year, after struggling with arm problems in 2009, and pitched his way into set-up work after making his major league debut on August 22 thanks to a high-90s four-seamer and a sharp slider. The 23-year-old has thrown 9 1/3 innings across 10 appearances this year producing this line: 9 1/3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 10 K

1. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves

Season Stats: 0.96 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 13.5 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 6 SV

Kimbrel is also on the Feliz plan, but with Belt and Brown out of the picture, he has a clearer path to the award that Walden. Of course, Kimbrel isn't just racking up saves, he's dominating. He has blown one of his seven save opportunities, but even in that outing he struck out four men in two innings against just one single and one walk, and he hasn't allowed an inherited runner to score in his 9 1/3 innings this season. The 22-year-old righty had several stints with the Braves last year. He wasn't with the big club long enough to lose his rookie status, but was up long enough to make himself known via a 0.44 ERA, 40 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings -- the highest strikeout rate in baseball history among pitchers with 20 or more innings pitched -- and a strong showing in the Division Series against the Giants. He shares Walden's classic relief-pitcher repertoire, and should get even more save chances as the Braves work to dig themselves out of their early hole.

2. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals

Season Stats: .281/.364/.484, 2 HRs, 15 RBIs

The switch-hitting Espinosa is a career .270/.365/.455 hitter in the minors and hit 28 home runs overall in 2010, which he spent in Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors. That's a nice bat to have at the keystone, as the average major league second baseman hit .265/.330/.389 last year. Espinosa, now 24, took over the Nationals' second base job in September and should prove to be sophomore double-play partner Ian Desmond's superior everywhere but on the bases.

3. Brandon Beachy, SP, Braves

Season Stats: 1-1, 3.68 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.44 K/BB

Beachy beat out more highly regarded prospect Mike Minor for Atlanta's fifth-starter job this spring and thus far has rewarded the Braves for that decision, posting a better strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio than any of the AL's big four rookie starters. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, Beachy throws in the low-90s, has good command of his secondary pitches (slider, curve, change), and made his major league debut in his second full professional season, making three starts for the depleted Braves rotation down the stretch last year, albeit without a quality start or a team win. This year, the 24-year-old has three quality starts, all team wins, in five tries and has struck out fewer than seven men in just one of his five starts.

4. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves

Season Stats: .250/.349/.431, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs

The third Brave on this list is the only one of my top-three preseason picks for this award currently on an active roster. Freeman went 2-for-19 to start the season, but has gotten a hit in 13 of his 16 starts since, hitting .302/.403/.528 over the latter stretch, not a far cry from the .319/.378/.521 he hit in Triple-A last year. The 21-year-old was Baseball America's 17th-best prospect coming into this season and is expected to be a significant run producer going forward.

5. Darwin Barney, 2B, Cubs

Season Stats: .329/.360/.414, 0 HR, 11 RBIs

A surprise entry, and, at 25, the oldest player on these lists, Barney didn't take over the Cubs' second-base job on an everyday basis until April 10, shaking an early platoon. A minor league shortstop, Barney makes for a strong fielder at the keystone, but he wasn't much of a prospect due to his lack of patience or power at the plate. Indeed, his line above is a lot of empty batting average, but in a shallow field, that's enough to get him onto this list.

The three men who just missed the above lists are all catchers who are sharing their jobs with inferior veteran backups. Check back in three weeks to see if the Blue Jays' J.P. Arencibia, the Angels' Hank Conger, or the Nationals' Wilson Ramos has cracked the top five in their league. Next week, Awards Watch revisits the Most Valuable Player awards.

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