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Darvish, Cozart among top rookies off to impressive starts

Welcome to the third season of Awards Watch, my weekly column tracking the developing races for baseball's three major player awards in each league: Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year. As I did last year, I'm opening this season with a look at the field of candidates for Rookie of the Year in the American and National League.

There are just 73 rookies currently on active MLB rosters, a group that can rather easily be whittled down to a list of less than 30 legitimate candidates but which is significant because of where we are in the young season. Most teams have played 12 games thus far, and of the last 60 Rookies of the Year dating back to 1982, just eight made their season debut after that point, all of them National Leaguers. The last American League Rookie of the Year to start his award-winning season after his team's 12th game was the Yankees' Dave Righetti in 1981.

There's no guarantee that the eventual winners of this year's Rookie of the Year awards are already in the major leagues, particularly with top prospects Bryce Harper of the Nationals and Mike Trout of the Angels lurking in Triple-A, but the odds are against Harper, Trout, and all of the lesser prospects still riding buses.

Even most of the rookies already in the majors can be eliminated from consideration. Twenty-five of the 73 are relief pitchers but not closers (significant because no relief pitcher has ever won the award with fewer than 15 saves), and 21 others are bench players not receiving regular starts. That leaves 27 men, five of whom are short-term place-holders for injured veterans (starting pitchers Randall Delgado of Atlanta, Adam Wilk of Detroit and Joe Wieland of San Diego, centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis of the Mets and first baseman Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals) and another five who are in job-shares and thus not everyday players (A's third basemen Josh Donaldson and Eric Sogard, catchers Devin Mesoraco of the Reds and Wilin Rosario of the Rockies, and first baseman Brett Pill of the Giants). One could add Blue Jays' fifth starter Joel Carreno to that group, even though he's back in the minors at the moment, and still be shy of 30 players.

That leaves 17 players across the entire major leagues who might contend for Rookie of the Year honors. Here is that ranked list, which makes clear how much better the rookie crop is in the AL this year than in the NL.

1. Yu Darvish, SP, Rangers

Season Stats: 1-0, 4.76 ERA, 2.21 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 1.13 K/BB

Darvish allowed four runs in his first major league inning, but just three more, one unearned, in 10 1/3 innings since.

2. Matt Moore, SP, Rays

Season Stats: 0-1, 5.54 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.00 K/BB

Moore looked good in a quality start in Detroit in his season debut despite five walks, but gave up six runs at Fenway Park in his follow-up. By opposing the Tigers and Red Sox, he has faced far stronger competition than Darvish, who has faced the Mariners and Twins.

3. Yoenis Cespedes, CF, A's

Season Stats: .238/.347/.571, 4 HR, 12 RBIs, 2 SB, 17 K

Cespedes has awesome power, has looked good in the field and hasn't been caught stealing on the bases, but he's also striking out once every 2.9 plate appearances.

4. Jesus Montero, DH, Mariners

Season Stats: .262/.283/.357, 1 HR, 6 RBIs

Montero opened the season with a seven-game hitting streak but has just two extra-base hits and two walks on the young season and hasn't thrown out a baserunner in any of this three starts behind the plate.

5. Wei-Yin Chen, SP, Orioles

Season Stats: 1-0, 3.27 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.33 K/BB

This 26-year-old Taiwanese lefty is a veteran of Nippon Professional Baseball. He allowed two unearned runs (on top of two earned) in his major league debut and has come out of the game in the sixth inning in both of his starts.

6. Drew Smyly, SP, Tigers

Season Stats: 0-0, 0.90 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

Smyly split 2011 between High-A and Double-A before winning the Tigers' fifth-starter job in camp. He has allowed just one earned run in 10 innings and the Tigers have won both of his starts, but he projects as more of a mid-rotation arm.

7. Hector Santiago, CL, White Sox

Season Stats: 3 SV, 6.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 13.5 K/9, 6.00 K/BB

Santiago, who started in Double-A last year, has blown one of his four save chances and allowed three home runs in four innings.

8. Tom Milone, SP, A's

Season Stats: 1-1, 2.57 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 3.2 K/9, 1.00 K/BB

Part of the return from the Nationals for Gio Gonzalez, Milone threw eight shutout innings without striking out a batter in his first start, then struck out five men in his second start and gave up four runs in six frames.

9. Chris Parmelee, 1B, Twins

Season Stats: .267/.313/.400, 0 HR, 2 RBIs

Parmelee, who hit .355/.443/.592 in 21 games with the Twins last September, won the first base job when it was decided that Justin Morneau would be better off as the designated hitter. With Joe Mauer getting regular rest from catching at first base, Parmelee, who has started just seven of the Twins' 12 games thus far, is going to get his share of days off and should yield to Morneau in NL parks.

10. Graham Godfrey, SP, A's

Season Stats: 0-2, 4.09 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 3.3 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

Godfrey fell three outs shy of a second quality start in his last turn and has received just three total runs of support. He's 27 and not a prospect.

1. Zack Cozart, SS, Reds

Season Stats: .318/.388/.523, 1 HR, 3 RBIs

The 26-year-old Cozart, who hit .310/.357/.467 in Triple-A last year, has impressed in the early going, looking like a legitimate major leaguer on both sides of the ball.

2. Drew Pomeranz, SP, Rockies

Season Stats: 0-1, 10.38 ERA, 2.54 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.50 K/BB

Pomeranz made his 2012 debut last Sunday and was touched up for five runs in 4 1/3 innings by the Diamondbacks but he remains one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

3. Yonder Alonso, 1B, Padres

Season Stats: .225/.289/.275, 0 HR, 2 RBIs

Alonso hit .330/.398/.545 in 98 plate appearances for the Reds last year, so it's hard to get too worked up about his slow start. He can hit, but his new ballpark won't do him any favors.

4. Lucas Harrell, SP, Astros

Season Stats: 1-0, 2.55 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 5.1 K/9, 1.43 K/BB

Claimed off waivers from the White Sox last July, 26-year-old righty Harrell has two quality starts in three turns thus far this season.

5. Freddy Galvis, 2B, Phillies

Season Stats: .237/.256/.395, 1 HR, 5 RBIs

Galvis is technically an injury replacement for Chase Utley, but given that Utley's disabled list stay remains indefinite, I'm including Galvis here as a full-fledged regular (the same applies to Godfrey above vis-à-vis Dallas Braden). Galvis is a glove-first infielder, who may not improve significantly on his current batting line, if at all.

6. Tyler Pastornicky, SS, Braves

Season Stats: .167/.219/.367, 1 HR, 4 RBIs

Pastornicky was handed the Braves' shortstop job heading into spring training and hit so little in camp that he nearly lost it. He still might.

7. Kyle Weiland, SP, Astros

Season Stats: 0-2, 8.44 ERA, 2.25 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 1.17 K/BB

Acquired from the Red Sox in the Mark Melancon trade, the 25-year-old Weiland, a veteran of Boston's 2011 collapse, has made just one quality start in his first seven major league opportunities.

Given those lists, it's easy to see why Harper, not Trout, was among my top-three pre-season candidates for his league's Rookie of the Year award. However, it's Trout who is currently raking at Triple-A, not Harper, whose 0-for-5 on Wednesday dropped his season line to .222/.250/.333 with no home runs in 13 games. Trout, who missed most of spring training with the flu, is hitting .397/.446/.569 for Triple-A Salt Lake with four steals in five attempts and a hit in every game this season.

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