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Ranking the year's top rookies


Brilliant right-hander Stephen Strasburg looks so flawless in the minors, he seems more machine than phenom.

But with Strasburg's people and the Nationals decisionmakers informally agreeing prior to the season to limit his major league exposure to about 100 innings, Strasburg will have to wait awhile longer to test himself against hitters who actually have a chance against him. It appears very likely that mid-June is the target before Strasburg is seen in a major league game.

With little more than three months in the bigs, it's going to be difficult for Strasburg to top Braves wunderkind Jason Heyward for National League Rookie of the Year honors in what's turning out to be the Year of the Rookie. But why take a chance on the arm of perhaps the best pitching prospect since Tom Seaver?

No matter when he arrives, Strasburg is still making quite an impression. To this point, he has actually outpitched even the crazy hype (some of it seen here). Strasburg's Triple-A numbers can only be compared to those of the great Tim Lincecum, the Giants' two-time Cy Young winner. Strasburg is 3-0 at Triple-A Syracuse with a 0.00 ERA and 0.44 WHIP, compared to Lincecum's 4-0 Triple-A Fresno record, 0.29 ERA and 0.74 WHIP in 2007. Strasburg's overall stats are as ridiculous as anyone could imagine: 6-1 with a 0.89 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A, where he has limited overmatched opposing hitters to a .124 batting average. In his most recent start Wednesday in Rochester, Strasburg hit 99 mph four times while pitching 6 1/3 shutout innings and received a rare road standing ovation when he left.

The Nationals deserve applause, too, for not agreeing not to rush the ballyhooed rookie.

Even without Strasburg, the Nats, a punchline no more, already have as splendid a collection of rookies as anybody (shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Roger Bernadina, starting pitcher Luis Atilano and the just-promoted reliever Drew Storen) in this great year for rookies, when most teams have at least one or two productive first-year players. (Side note: The only team without even one active rookie is the Pirates, who are in desperate need of fresh impact players.)

With Strasburg on his smart schedule of protection and others like Marlins slugging prospect Mike Stanton and Reds pitching phenom Aroldis Chapman also still waiting for the call, Heyward has to be considered the top rookie so far. But there are many other superb ones. Here's a rundown of the top rookies in the Year of the Rookie.

1. Heyward, Braves OF. Heyward has amazed scouts with his instincts as well as his vast talent and even legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox, who's seen it all, seems slightly awe-struck. Cox wisely promoted Heyward to the No. 2 spot in the order on May 14, sparking a mini-revival for Atlanta, which won five of its first seven games with Heyward batting second. But left unsaid is if and when he'll bat cleanup or supplant longtime star Chipper Jones from the No. 3 spot. Cox is loyal to his veterans, but Heyward (.276, 8 HRs, 30 RBIs) looks like easily his best position player on a pitching-strong team that needs runs.

2. Mike Leake, Reds SP. GM Walt Jocketty said they couldn't think of sending Leake down to the minors since they wouldn't know what to teach him. Good line, and true, too. The Arizona State product was a rare prospect who was major-league-ready without one day in the minors, and while some have suggested his stuff isn't ace material, he certainly knows how to pitch. He's 4-0 with a 2.91 ERA for the surprising Reds, who are just a half-game out of first.

3. Jaime Garcia, Cardinals SP. The left-hander has been nothing short of brilliant. His brief big-league stint last year in which he had a 5.63 ERA in 10 games didn't suggest he'd be 4-2 with a 1.28 ERA to this point this season.

4. Brennan Boesch, Tigers OF. He received no headlines in a spring training where all the big-name rookies were being trumpeted, but he's made a huge difference in a Tigers lineup that at first looked like it might be over-reliant on Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez. Boesch is hitting .354 with three homers and 19 RBIs and has been so good he's forcing manager Jim Leyland to move Carlos Guillen to second base when he returns from the disabled list. Boesch has .987 OPS and two of his homers have come against CC Sabathia and Jon Lester

5. David Freese, Cardinals 3B. Expectations were low for Freese, who garnered unwanted publicity for a an offseason drunk-driving incident in which he had an unusually high blood-alcohol level of .23. But he, and not Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday, was their best hitter at times early, believe it or not. "He's a guy who's always worked hard to prove he belongs,'' Pujols said. "He carried the club for six weeks. I'm pretty happy for him.''

6. Ike Davis, Mets 1B. In mid-April, the Mets wisely switched from veteran Mike Jacobs to Davis, who seemed ready from the start and quickly sparked a nice win streak. He has four home runs, including a tape-measure job into "the bridge'' at Citi Field, and he hasn't looked overmatched vs. lefties at all.

7. Austin Jackson, Tigers OF. Obviously, it's been a big year for Tigers outfielders. Some folks thought Detroit got the short end of the three-way blockbuster with the Yankees and Diamondbacks, but it doesn't look that way now -- not with Edwin Jackson struggling for Arizona and Curtis Granderson on the disabled list for New York. The Tigers also think Jackson is better defensively than Granderson. The former Georgia Tech basketball recruit is very smooth in center. At the plate, Jackson has 48 strikeouts and one home run but he's still hitting .329, and he won the endorsements of no less than a pair of Hall of Famers, Reggie Jackson (no relation) and Al Kaline.

8. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins 1B. Marlins people were hoping the more talented Logan Morrison would steal the job this spring. But Sanchez won it easily, and never looked back. Has a .276 average, four home runs and 18 RBIs.

9. Ian Desmond, Nationals SS. The energetic Desmond has continued to be an offensive presence, with three homers, 18 RBIs and .272 batting average. He makes spectacular plays at short, thanks to his superior range and arm, but one scout said he'd like him to be a bit steadier afield. He made three errors in his first four games but has only five in 35 games since.

10. Starlin Castro, Cubs SS. At age 20, he's already such a talent that the Cubs made the extraordinary move of promoting him and bumping veteran Ryan Theriot to second base. Castro had a home run and six RBIs in his debut on May 7 and he is still hitting .375 but there's been a rough moment or two, as well, including a three-error game.

11. Tyler Colvin, Cubs OF. The lefty-swinging Colvin has been a nice addition for the North Siders, who had more prospects in spring training than they've had in quite some time. An infusion of youth was badly needed for the Cubs, who've also gotten some work in the pen from two rookies, James Russell and Esmailin Caridad.

12. Neftali Feliz, Rangers RP. He's earned a share of the closing job for Ron Washington's team, though he hasn't been quite as overpowering as he was in a cameo last year. Feliz is 1-1 with a 3.38 ERA and has 23 strikeouts with only 16 hits and four walks. The hardest thrower in the game.

13. Mitch Talbot, Indians SP. The Rays had so much starting pitching talent they've thrived after trading away four young starters in the last year and a half: Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Jason Hammel and, most recently, Talbot, who's had a surprisingly nice year for the Indians after coming over for catcher Kelly Shoppach. Talbot isn't overwhelming, but he's been very effective, Thursday's rough start against the Royals notwithstanding. He's now 5-3 with a 3.88 ERA.

14. Wade Davis, Rays SP. He's one of the reasons the Rays could afford to trade so many starting pitchers. The hard-throwing righty is 4-3 with a 3.35 ERA, which still puts him at the back end of a superb rotation.

15. John Ely, Dodgers SP. An underpublicized pickup by Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, he's shown tremendous aptitude since coming to Los Angeles in the Juan Pierre trade during the offseason. "He's not going to overwhelm anyone,'' one scout says. But Ely has impressed Dodgers people with his maturity and know-how, and he's 2-1 with a 0.94 WHIP, three walks and 25 strikeouts.

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16. Brian Matusz, Orioles SP. The AL Rookie of the Year favorite has big potential to move quickly up this list but he's been held back by non-support from the struggling Orioles. He's 2-4 with a 5.26 ERA but could easily have two or three more wins.

17. Sergio Santos, White Sox RP. The hard-throwing converted shortstop is the latest project of excellent ChiSox pitching coach Don Cooper. He has 18 strikeouts and an 0.63 ERA in 14 1/3 innings.

18. Reid Brignac, Rays INF. They seem to have a factory for young players. Whoever thought he'd be a light-hitting infielder may be wrong. Brignac has two home runs, 16 RBIs, and a .263 batting average.

19. Luis Atilano, Nationals SP. He was a perfect 3-0 until a loss to the Mets on Thursday. Not even in the picture in spring for a rotation spot, he's proved very solid in the surprising start by Washington.

20. John Jaso, Rays C. Catcher was a position of question for the Rays, and they were hoping Shoppach would improve things. But it's been the youngster Jaso who's made the most impact behind the plate for the killer 30-11 team. He's hitting .333 with one homer and 14 RBIs.

21. Alcides Escobar, Brewers SS. The slick fielder isn't the reason for the Brewers' recent collapse. He's hitting just .241 but has 12 extra-base hits, including five triples. Some say he still needs to mature, though, both on the field and off it.

More rookies: Nick Stavinoha, Cardinals OF; Storen, Nationals RP; Bernadina, Nationals OF; Rusty Ryal, Diamondbacks OF; Michael Saunders, Mariners OF; Alex Burnett, Twins RP; Russell, Cubs RP; Dusty Hughes, Royals RP; Jenrry Mejia, Mets RP; Hisanori Takahashi, Mets RP; Brooks Conrad, Braves IF.

• David Ortiz's big turnaround (.405 over 11 games) came just in time for him. The Red Sox were starting to think about what else to do with Ortiz, and a release wouldn't have been out of the question with a few more bad games. Ortiz had said he would turn his season around and next time, maybe we should believe him. He's just a very slow starter. Credit goes to manager Terry Francona for sticking with him.

• Longtime Red Sox Mike Lowell upset his bosses by talking to the media about how he has "no role'' before meeting with the higherups. The bosses didn't think the quotes were terrible, they just would have liked to have heard them first. The quotes weren't that bad. Plus, it's true that he has no role. The only way for him to get his release at this point would be to pay back a small part of the $12 million he's making to get his release from the Red Sox, but of course, that is never happening. That's not something that occurs in the real world. But the truth is, it's going to be hard for Boston to just release Lowell and eat the $12 million when it had $3 million coming for him from Texas in the winter deal that was killed because of Lowell's need for thumb surgery at the time.

• The Rays did absolutely the right thing by releasing Pat Burrell, who was hitting just .202 and isn't a good clubhouse presence even in the best of times. Some folks noticed Evan Longoria, a very good kid, hanging with Burrell last year, and Rays people surely didn't want Burrell influencing their prize young player. One of the reasons Philly didn't try hard to keep him after the 2008 season was his attitude. Defense was reason No. 1, attitude 1A.

• For the Rays to go 30-11 while hitting around .257 is pretty impressive. Good for them. Great job by Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and the rest of the Rays.

• The Jays certainly are having an interesting season. Adam Lind and Aaron Hill might like to turn the clock back to 2009 as they are both struggling with an on-base percentage below .300. But lesser players Jose Bautista (12 home runs, 3 RBIs) and Alex Gonzalez (10 home runs, 30 RBIs) are off to monster starts, and Vernon Wells (11 homers, 32 RBIs) is experiencing a revival.

• Mariners icon Ken Griffey Jr. had a nice walkoff hit Thursday, putting the Jays to bed. Sorry, couldn't resist.

• The Yankees say they will "definitely'' lock up Derek Jeter after this year. And that's easy to believe since in many ways he is the player of the past decade and a half. This doesn't diminish him one bit, but he has some interesting stats so far this year, including a .968 OPS at Yankee Stadium and a .512 OPS on the road (that's really odd since the ball isn't flying at Yankee Stadium like it did last year).

• Royals GM Dayton Moore told, "I'm not talking getting to .500, I'm talking about winning the World Series when I say eight to 10 years.'' Pirates fans must be wondering: Why is he in such a hurry?

• Yankees backup catcher Francisco Cervelli will get a lot of playing time with Jorge Posada expected to be out for a month with a hairline fracture of his right foot. Cervelli is batting .579 with runners in scoring position and .750 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

• John Maine's spot in the Mets' rotation was in jeopardy even before a one batter outing Thursday against Washington in which he worried Mets people by clocking 83 mph and looked so bad he's been ordered to see a doctor Friday morning. Maine is going only under protest. So not only is he pitching poorly, he now is bickering with Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen.

• The Mets may be forced to put Oliver Perez back in the rotation.

• Carlos Beltran had a positive report within the last few days and now appears to be aiming for a late June return from his knee surgery.

• Mets hitting coach Howard Johnson appears to be in some jeopardy at this point. He and manager Jerry Manuel are not tied in any way, so it's possible HoJo could be the first and only one to be fired. The Mets team OPS of .698 is 22nd best in baseball and their road batting average of .223 is 29th best (only the Astros' .219 is worse). Johnson was a member of the 1986 Mets so that might be a deterrent to making the move.

• If it seems like the Diamondbacks make one move a day involving a reliever, it's because they do. At least, they have lately. Within the past few days they've acquired Saul Rivera and Luis Ayala and dumped Bobby Howry and Blaine Boyer.

• Even if the Rockies are concerned about Clint Barmes, who has just one home run, they can't afford Luis Castillo. "Not even close,'' said someone connected to the Rockies. Castillo makes $6 million a year through next year and the Mets have been looking for a year to find a trading partner. It was reported on that the two teams talked.

• Score one for Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez with Hanley Ramirez apologizing (such as it was) before retuning to play. Ramirez's indiscretions were several: after obviously loafing on the field, he criticized Gonzalez and also "threw teammates under the bus," in the words of a Marlins person. An assist goes to Marlins employees and Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Tony Perez, who staged an intervention for the selfish young superstar. According to the Palm Beach Post, Dawson told Ramirez, "I'm not going to say a lot because if you say the wrong thing to me, then you might wind up on the floor on your rear end.'' Dawson did point out to Ramirez regarding teammates that "the guys are laughing at you.'' No joke, Ramirez finished second to Joe Mauer when major leaguers were polled by SI last week as to which player they'd build their team around. Ramirez wouldn't make my top five. Not anymore.