Monday June 6th, 2011

The National League Rookie of the Year race has perked up over the last three weeks while over in the American League, a deep class is about to get even deeper with the seemingly imminent arrival of more top prospects, such as Blue Jays prospect third baseman Brett Lawrie (who has been temporarily delayed by a minor wrist injury) and Mariners' farmhand Dustin Ackley.

When I last checked in on these awards, it seemed as though every NL rookie but Braves closer Craig Kimbrel and Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney was in a viscous slump, on the disabled list or back in the minor leagues. I resorted to listing the Giants Brandon Belt fifth despite the fact that he was still in the minors. (Belt has since been called up only to land on the DL with a hairline fracture in his left wrist.) Still, the rest of the competition has picked up enough that my list doesn't have room for the suddenly hot bats of first basemen Freddie Freeman and Juan Miranda of the Braves and Diamondbacks, respectively.

Back in the American League, another of the heralded quartet of rookie starters has fallen behind the pack, leaving just two of those four atop the list, while the competition for the final spot continues among Angels teammates.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 5; 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: 6-2, 2.30 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.65 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 1.38 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 4.00 K/BB

Piñeda had his worst start of the season during the last three weeks. In it, he struck out five men in five innings while allowing just three hits to the top offense in baseball (the Yankees'). What made it his worst was that it was his shortest, saw him issue a season-high five walks (none intentional), and the three runs he gave up left him with a single game ERA of 5.40 (also his worst mark after 11 starts). In his other three starts over that time, Piñeda allowed just one run in 21 innings while striking out 23 against just two walks. Sure he was facing the feeble Twins, Padres, and Orioles lineups in those three games, but those numbers are outstanding regardless of the opponent. The league leader in strikeouts per nine innings (9.3), he's not just the clear pick for the Rookie of the Year award, he's forcing his way into the Cy Young discussion as well.

2. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 7-3, 2.64 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 1.79 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.05 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

Hellickson has gone 6-1 with a 1.74 ERA over his last seven starts. Three weeks ago I wrote that there has been more than a little luck involved in that success, and that remains true. Hellickson's strikeout and walk rates have been pedestrian over that stretch (5.8 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9, the latter league average, the former a full strikeout per inning below). Most of his balls in play have been in the air, but only three of those fly balls have left the park, and his opponents have hit just .206 on balls in play over those seven games. That belies the impression that Hellickson, a popular pre-season pick for this award, is pitching up to the hype.

3. J.P. Arencibia, C, Blue Jays (N/A)

Season Stats: .250/.311/.488, 9 HRs, 30 RBIs (180 PA)

Last Three Weeks: .288/.328/.492, 3 HRs, 15 RBIs

Since Eric Hosmer's major league debut on May 6, Arencibia has driven in three more runs than the Royals' first baseman, drawn three more walks (four more if you discount Hosmer's one intentional pass), and matched him in home runs, doing all of that in 29 fewer plate appearances. Add in the position adjustment for a catcher versus a first baseman, and Arencibia has been far more valuable than Hosmer during the length of the latter's major league career, even with a batting average 50 points lower (Arencibia has hit .250 both on the season and since May 6). I'm not entirely confident that the voters would look past that 50-point deficit in batting average, but for now, Hosmer is still playing catch-up.

4. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals (4)

Season Stats: .300/.331/.500, 5 HRs, 18 RBIs (127 PA)

Last Three Weeks: .319/.326/.495, 3 HRs, 13 RBIs

Hosmer has largely lived up to the hype thus far, having hit consistently for average and power since his promotion in early May. However, his walk rate is beginning to emerge as a concern. Hosmer drew an unintentional walk once every 9.3 plate appearances in the minors, a solid rate, and drew five walks (one intentional) in his first 22 plate appearances in the majors. Since then, however, he has walked just once in 105 PA. That undermines his value (a .300 hitter with his kind of power should get on base far more often than a third of the time, while Hosmer has fallen short of even that) and suggests a free-swinging approach that could lead to trouble when the inevitable slump arrives. Maybe it's just an aberration, but it bears watching.

5. Jordan Walden, RHP, Angels (N/A)

Season Stats: 3.08 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 2.15 K/BB, 13 SV

Last Three Weeks: 3.38 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 2.25 K/BB, 6 SV

Orioles lefty Zach Britton, who ranked second on this list three weeks ago, hasn't won a game since May 1 and allowed 13 runs (11 earned) in 10 2/3 innings over his last two starts. That has made his season line appear rather pedestrian (5-4, 3.33 ERA, 4.9 K/9) and allowed the Angels' rookie closer to bump him from the list. Walden, who held this spot six weeks ago, could see his candidacy suffer from the fact that this award has gone to AL West closers in each of the last two seasons as voters might be eager for a change of pace. On the other hand, he could threaten Neftali Feliz's one-year-old rookie saves record of 40, which would force the voters to give him serious consideration, or would if not for the fact that the leading NL Rookie of the Year candidate might reach that record first.

Off the list: Zach Britton (2), Mark Trumbo (5)

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 2.79 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 13.3 K/9, 3.31 K/BB, 17 SV

Last Three Weeks: 3.86, 1.50 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7 SV

Kimbrel is on pace to save 47 games, which would obliterate Feliz's rookie record of 40. He's also on pace to strike out 118 men, a total surpassed by a pure reliever just once in the last six seasons. That exception was Carlos Marmol's 138 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings last year. Marmol's resulting 15.99 K/9 was a record for pitchers with 40 or more appearances in a season. Kimbrel's current 13.35 K/9 would rank 15th on the all-time list. If he does take the award, he'll be the first National League winner to lead his team in saves, and just the second NL reliever to win the award, since Cardinals closer Todd Worrell was named Rookie of the Year in 1986.

2. Justin Turner, 3B/2B, Mets (N/A)

Season Stats: .308/.344/.436, 2 HRs, 24 RBIs (122 PA)

Last Three Weeks: .308/.337/.436, 1 HR, 15 RBIs

Talk about unexpected. Turner is a 26-year-old with his third organization in his third major league season but is still technically a rookie and suddenly the Mets' third baseman and number-two hitter in the wake of David Wright's mysterious stress fracture in his back. Turner's line above is of a piece with his career minor league numbers (.309/.373/.443), so while he's far from a prospect, what he's doing (hitting for average with doubles power) could well be for real. What's less likely to sustain itself is his RBI pace (21 in his last 21 games). Turner is hitting .406/.444/.625 in 32 at-bats with runners in scoring position, but those sort of clutch-stat spikes are the definition of small-sample illusions. Also, Turner's lack of power is a drag at a corner position. If he claims the second-base job upon Wright's return, his value will increase unless (or until) he proves unable to handle the position defensively. Whatever plans the Mets might be forming for Turner's future, they'd be well advised to remember that he's unlikely to ever be much better than he has been over the last month.

3. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Nationals (N/A)

Season Stats: .219/.325/.449, 10 HRs, 33 RBIs (233 PA)

Last Three Weeks: .279/.389/.656, 6 HRs, 13 RBIs

Cover up the batting averages and the competition between Espinosa and Darwin Barney isn't even close. Add in the fact that Espinosa has thus far graded out as a significantly better fielder than the former shortstop Barney and the gap gets even wider, even despite the 77 points of batting average Espinosa spots Barney. Espinosa leads all major league rookies in runs batted in and is one behind the Angels' Mark Trumbo in home runs. He's also one behind the Braves' Freddie Freeman in walks (20) and leads the NL (non-rookies as well) in times hit by pitch (12). That last somewhat artificially inflates his on-base percentage, which is conversely dragged down by his low batting average, but when you combine his power, his patience, and his fielding at a key position, he's clearly among the most valuable rookies in the majors, even with a .219 batting average.

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

Season Stats: .296/.317/.370, 1 HR, 25 RBIs (229 PA)

Last Three Weeks: .235/.256/.284, 0 HRs, 8 RBIs

The only thing Barney has really excelled at this season is the only thing Espinosa really hasn't: hitting for average. Barney gets some bonus points for seizing a starting job that wasn't his in camp and running with it, but if you're going to be all batting average, you had better hit for enough average to get your on-base percentage above league average (currently .319 in the NL). Three weeks ago, Barney was doing that (hitting .333 with a .355 OBP). Now he isn't, and he seems likely to fall off this list when I return to it three weeks from now. That last three weeks line says it all.

5. Domonic Brown, RF, Phillies (N/A)

Season Stats: .304/.353/.478, 1 HR, 6 RBIs (51 PA)

As with Eric Hosmer three weeks ago, I'm probably a bit premature in including Brown here, but, like Hosmer, he's a top prospect (in fact, one of my top three pre-season picks for this award) who has hit the ground running and seems likely to sustain if not build on his hot start. Brown was tabbed as Jayson Werth's replacement in rightfield even before Werth reached free agency, but Brown broke the hamate bone in his right hand in spring training and sprained the thumb on the same hand during his minor league rehab assignment, delaying his 2011 debut (he first reached the majors last July). Finally healthy, Brown played his first game for the Phillies this year on May 21 and went started 0-for-14 but has hit .406/.441/.625 in 34 plate appearances since. That's a tiny sample and has come with some luck on balls in play and almost exclusively against righthanded pitching thanks to a Charlie Manuel platoon, but Brown still deserves his spot in this list. I expect him to be here again in three weeks because Freddy Freeman's recent hot streak has yet to overcome the preceding slump, and because, even with Russell Branyan in Anaheim, the Diamondbacks' Juan Miranda is still sharing time at first base, now with Xavier Nady.

Off the list: Brandon Beachy (3), Wilson Ramos (4), Brandon Belt (5)

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