Monday May 16th, 2011

The last three weeks have not been kind to the Rookie of the Year candidates, particularly those in the National League. Since that time, when I last checked in on the ROY races, the AL's quartet of strong starters has been reduced to a trio with the Blue Jays' Kyle Drabek having gone 0-2 with a 8.31 ERA over his last three starts. Meanwhile, Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia, who just missed the top-five cut three weeks ago, has hit just .175/.267/.400 in May. Fortunately, reinforcements have arrived in Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, Indians starter Alex White, and Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo, who has received a stay of execution with the news that Kendrys Morales will miss the entire season.

In the NL, the Giants' Brandon Belt remains in the minor leagues. The Phillies' Domonic Brown suffered a new injury to his right hand, a ligament sprain in his thumb, just as he appeared ready to return from the hamate bone surgery that caused him to miss Opening Day. Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman has hit just .210/.292/.290 over the last three weeks. Nationals' second baseman Danny Espinosa has hit .113/.232/.239 over the same span. The Cuban Missile, Aroldis Chapman, not only hasn't pushed Francisco Cordero out of the Reds' closing job, he has struggled with velocity fluctuations, walked more men than he has struck out on the season, and in his last four appearances has given up 10 runs, allowed both of his inherited runners to score, walked 12 against just three strikeouts and has recorded just one out in his last three appearances. Last week, Braves starter Brandon Beachy, who had emerged as a surprisingly strong candidate, hit the disabled list with an oblique strain. The result is a NL rookie class that is thin enough for two of those players to still make my top five below.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 15; 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 (1)

Season Stats: 4-2, 2.84 ERA, 7 GS, 1.11 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.46 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 3.24 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 4.83 K/BB

Zach Britton has one more win (in one more start) and a lower ERA than Piñeda, but the 22-year-old Mariners righty leads the AL in strikeout rate and is the better bet going forward, in part because of his dominance in the strike zone, and in part because of his relative lack of luck on balls in play (.284 BABIP to Britton's .219). Piñeda has six quality starts in seven tries, and the one exception saw him allow just three runs in his first six innings only to give up a fourth in the seventh. He's a legitimate stud prospect with nasty stuff who is living up to the hype.

2. Zach Britton, LHP, Orioles (2)

Season Stats: 5-2, 2.42 ERA, 8 GS, 1.02 WHIP, 5.0 K/9, 1.81 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.71 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 4.1 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

Britton's luck on balls in play isn't inexplicable. He's an extreme groundball pitcher throwing in front of a solid defensive infield comprised of first baseman Derrek Lee, second baseman Brian Roberts, shortstop J.J. Hardy and third baseman Mark Reynolds. The catch is that Britton's ground ball rate hasn't been that extreme thus far, and his strikeout rate has been poor. Britton has six quality starts in eight tries, missed a seventh by just two outs, and is coming off his strongest start of the season, nine scoreless innings of three-hit, no-walk ball against the Mariners. Still, he struck out just five men in those nine innings, got only two more ground balls than fly balls, and was facing the second-worst offense in the league. He was also matched inning-for-inning by Jason Vargas, passing the game to the bullpens in extra innings. The 23-year-old Britton is supposed to be as good as his record and ERA make him look, but thus far he hasn't really been.

3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (4)

Season Stats: 4-2, 2.98 ERA, 7 GS, 1.21 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.67 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.98 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 1.78 K/BB

The pre-season favorite for this award, Hellickson has come on strong after an underwhelming start to his season, but a peak behind the curtain shows a performance closer to Britton's than Piñeda's. Since striking out 10 against just two walks in his season debut, Hellickson has struck out just 4.5 men per nine innings and just four more than he has walked (1.25 K/9). He has also benefitted from a .226 opponents batting average on balls in play in those last six starts. He enters this week's action with an active 14-inning scoreless streak covering his last two starts, the most recent of which was a shutout, but both of those starts came against Britton's Orioles, another team that has scored fewer than four runs per game this season, and he struck out just three men in the shutout. Still, like Britton, he has the stuff and the minor league track record (including a 9.8 K/9) to suggest that his performance is more likely to catch up to his results than vice versa.

4. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals (N/A)

Season Stats: .241/.343/.517, 2 HRs, 5 RBIs (8 games)

Hosmer is a bit of a stretch in this spot in that he has only made 35 plate appearances in eight games since making his major league debut on May 6, but given that he's a former first-round pick (third overall in 2008), was rated the eighth-best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the season, was raking in Triple-A before his promotion, and went 7-for-21 with two doubles, two homers, and five walks (one intentional!) in his first six games, it's not a stretch to see him staying on this list. Hosmer, now 21, struggled in his full-season debut in 2009, but had LASIK surgery that offseason and has hit a combined .349/.422/.570 in High-A (375 PA), Double-A (211 PA), Triple-A (118 PA), and the majors (35 PA) since. Even with the weak 2009 season, he's a career .312/.393/.493 hitter in the minors, and could put up even better numbers in the heart of the Royals' lineup going forward. He's also just the tip of the iceberg as far as the Royals upper-level talent is concerned.

5. Mark Trumbo, 1B, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: .258/.306/.460, 6 HRs, 17 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .318/.392/.568, 3 HRs, 8 RBIs

Trumbo is just one of four down-ballot Rookie of the Year candidates on the Angels, including the previous holder of this spot, closer Jordan Walden (2.95 ERA, 7 saves), right-handed starter Tyler Chatwood (2-1, 3.67 ERA, 7 starts), and catcher Hank Conger (.282/.338/.451). Of those four, Conger has been the most valuable, but, even though he appears to be slowly convincing his manager of that value, Conger's candidacy is undermined by the fact that he is still sharing the catching duties with Jeff Mathis. Instead, Trumbo takes the fifth spot this week in the wake of the news that Kendrys Morales needs another surgery on his left ankle and will not be returning to reclaim the first base job this season. Mix in the slumping field and Trumbo's strong performance over the last three weeks and he slips just past Walden.

Off the list: Kyle Drabek, RHP, Blue Jays (3), Jordan Walden, RHP, Angels (5)

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 2.29 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 14.2 K/9, 3.10 K/BB, 10 SV

Last Three Weeks: 3.48 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 2.12 K/BB, 4 SV

With Brown and Beachy hurt, Belt still in the minors, and Freeman, Espinosa, and Chapman slumping, Kimbrel is very nearly the last man standing in this race, at least at the moment. He's a strong candidate with or without the competition, however. He walks a few too many men, but gives up precious few hits without the benefit of luck on balls in play (.316 BABIP), has yet to surrender a home run in 44 2/3 major league innings dating back to last year and including the postseason, and his strikeout rate is very nearly off the charts. Kimbrel has blown three saves thus far this season, giving him a weak 77 percent conversion rate, but the job is his alone, the Braves are emerging from their early malaise, increasing his save opportunities, and he's far more likely than his closest competitor on this week's list to maintain or even improve on his performance.

2. Darwin Barney, 2B, Cubs (5)

Season Stats: .333/.355/.422, 1 HR, 17 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .338/.348/.431, 1 HR, 6 RBIs

Barney wasn't supposed to be here, but his remarkably consistent performance at the plate thus far this season has allowed him to emerge as a strong candidate in a weak field. Barney was hitting .329/.360/.414 when he snuck into the fifth spot on this list three weeks ago, and as the two batting lines above show, he's maintained that performance since. Add in strong keystone defense from this former minor league shortstop and Barney is suddenly the major league rookie leader in FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (which places extra emphasis on defense via Ultimate Zone Rating) among non-pitchers.

3. Brandon Beachy, RHP, Braves (3)

Season Stats: 1-1, 3.45, 8 GS, 1.08 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.83 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 0-0, 3.00, 0.90 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 7.33 K/BB

Beachy left his May 13 start after just two innings due to an oblique strain that has since landed him on the disabled list, but his performance through his first seven starts (2.98 ERA) was strong enough that he could keep his hat in the ring as long as he's able to avoid a lengthy DL stay. Early estimates have him returning in early June. If he only misses a month, he'll have plenty of time to compete for this award. If he's out longer, however, he may fall out of the running, though superior candidates will have to emerge in the interim for that to happen.

4. Wilson Ramos, C, Nationals (N/A)

Season Stats: .267/.333/.419, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .204/.259/.408, 2 HRs, 5 RBIs

Ramos has made three consecutive starts just once this season as he continues to yield roughly a third of the starts behind the plate to veteran caddy Ivan Rodriguez, and he hasn't hit much over the past three weeks. Still, in this weak field, a strong defensive catcher with a batting line superior to the average major leaguer (never mind the average major league catcher, though the gap between the two is surprisingly small thus far this season) is a serious candidate. Ramos has thrown out six of 13 attempting basestealers, a league-leading 46 percent, hasn't allowed a passed ball, and has hit just .216 on balls in play over the last three weeks, a good indication that his slump is bad luck, not bat hitting.

5. Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, Giants (N/A)

Season Stats: .192/.300/.269, 1 HR, 4 RBIs (60 PA)

Including a minor leaguer on this list goes against Awards Watch orthodoxy, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and seeing as Belt was my pre-season favorite, there's at least some sort of consistency to his presence here. While Freeman and Espinosa dig themselves into deep holes, both having now surpassed 150 plate appearances with batting lines well below average, Belt has an easily-correctable small sample of weak hitting at the major league level and is absolutely destroying the admittedly hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League to the tune of a .388/.533/.567 line through 22 games. As evidenced by that .300 on-base percentage above relative to the batting average more than a hundred points lower, Belt was having good at-bats before being forced off the Giants' roster by Cody Ross's return from injury, so the Giants still have confidence in his ability to bring his hot hitting up to the majors. There's a need for him, as well. First baseman Aubrey Huff and corner outfielders Ross, Aaron Rowand (pushed to left by Andre Torres's return from injury), and Pat Burrell are hitting a combined .238/.310/.387 on the season, and the Giants are dead last in runs scored per game in the senior circuit. Belt, who has spent most of his time back in the minors in leftfield, while also spotting in right and at first, could bounce any one of them, and the sooner he does, the better it will be for the Giants.

Off the list: Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals (2), Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (4)

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