Heyward out in front of National League's deep rookie pack

Publish date:

Every week I will rank the top five candidates in each league for one of baseball's three major awards. Having looked at the MVP and Cy Young races the last two weeks, I turn my attention to the Rookie of the Year award this week.

A reminder, players lose their rookie status upon having 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or having spent 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on September 1. That last is significant this year as it eliminates Yankee catcher Francisco Cervelli, off to a .354/.426/.451 start with Jorge Posada on the disabled list, from contention.

NOTE:All stats through Sunday, May 23.

1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers

Season Stats: 3.09 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 12 SV

Last Three Weeks: 0.84 ERA, 0.56 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 10.00 K/BB, 8 SV

Dominican fireballer Neftali Feliz headed into this year as the number-three prospect in all of baseball (behind Washington's Stephen Strasburg and Atlanta's Jason Heyward) according to Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein. Primarily a starter in the minors, Feliz dominated out of the Texas bullpen over the last two months of 2009 (1.74 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 4.88 K/BB), posing a quandary to the organization about his role for 2010. The Rangers opted to leave Feliz in the bullpen, and it took just two early-April blown saves by incumbent closer Frank Francisco for manager Ron Washington to hand the job to Feliz. Since then, Feliz has converted 12 of 14 save chances while posting a 3.15 ERA with 18 strikeouts and just two walks in 20 innings. In May, he has allowed only one run and one walk in 12 appearances. In a weak field, Feliz stands a chance to join Oakland's Andrew Bailey as the second AL West closer in as many years to win Rookie of the Year.

2. Wade Davis, RHP, Rays

Season Stats: 4-3, 3.35 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.42 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-2, 3.04 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 1.55 K/BB

Davis has been the worst of the Rays' five starters thus far this year, which says more about the Tampa Bay rotation than it does about Davis. The 24-year-old former third-round pick has the frame and the stuff to be a front-of-the-rotation starter, but his walks and home runs have been up and his strikeouts down this year relative his minor league track record and solid six-start debut in September of 2009. Still, he hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his four May starts and has gone at least five innings in all eight of his starts this season. With room to improve, he could stick around on this list.

3. Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers

Season Stats: .340/.357/.617, 4 HR, 22 RBI, 11.4 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .368/.380/.647, 3 HR, 14 RBI

Bulky, 6-foot-4 outfielder Boesch went 2 for 4 with a double in his first major league game on April 23 and has done nothing but hit since, becoming a regular in the Tigers' lineup and ranking among the productive hitters in the team's stars 'n' scrubs lineup. That said, the 25-year-old former third-round pick has drawn just two unintentional walks in 99 plate appearances and drew an UIBB just once every 19 PAs in the minors, which is evidence of a poor plate approach that is likely to become exposed as the league becomes more familiar with him. Even if Boesch continues to hit for power on contact (half of his major league hits have gone for extra bases thus far), when his batting average dips below .300, so will his on-base percentage, and that will go a long way to undermine his value.

4. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers

Season Stats: .337/.393/.451, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 6 SB, 15.5 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .288/.347/.379, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 1 SB

Acquired in the three-team deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees last offseason, Jackson leads the AL in strikeout rate (one every 3.82 plate appearances) and unsustainable rate of hits on contact,suggesting he is primed for a fall. In fact, it seems he's already experienced one. Jackson was hitting .371/.420/.508 on May 9 and was leading the AL in hitting before being passed by his teammate, Miguel Cabrera. Since May 9, the 23-year-old Jackson has hit just .233/.313/.279, and in a pinch-hit at-bat on Saturday, he was hit in the face with a pitch that caused his left eye to swell shut by Sunday. A CT scan showed no significant injury, but until the swelling goes down and Jackson is able to see perfectly out of that eye again, one has to be concerned not just for his Rookie of the Year candidacy, but for his career.

5. Sergio Santos, RHP, White Sox

Season Stats: 0.55 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 2.86 K/BB

Last Three Weeks: 1.35 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 2.33 K/BB

Drafted 27th overall out of a California high school by the Diamondbacks in 2002, Santos spent seven years with three organizations as a minor league infielder before the White Sox stuck him on the mound last year. After working just 28 2/3 minor league innings in the regular season and posting an ERA of 8.16, the hard-throwing 26-year-old impressed in the Arizona Fall League and made the White Sox bullpen out of camp this spring. Santos has since made 17 big league appearances and has allowed just one run while stranding all eight runners he has inherited. With White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's willingness to shuffle roles in his bullpen, Santos is finding himself in increasingly higher-leverage situations. It's all absurdly improbable, but there's little doubt that Santos has been one of the most impressive rookies in the AL over the first two months of the season.

1. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves

Season Stats: .290/.409/.580, 9 HR, 33 RBI, 14.8 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .320/.443/.580, 2 HR, 10 RBI

The depth of the rookie pool in the National League is head and shoulders above that in the Junior Circuit. The fifth place candidate in the NL would probably be first in the AL, and Stephen Strasburg, who isn't on this list, has yet to throw his first major league pitch. Despite that impressive field of rookies, Jason Heyward practically has the NL Rookie of the Year award sewn up. Heyward is the ultimate blue-chipper: the 14th overall pick in 2007, he tore through the Braves' minor league system last year, hitting .323/.408/.555 across three levels as a teenager. This year, at the ripe, old age of 20, he opened the season as the Braves' starting right fielder, homered in his first major league at-bat, and hasn't looked back. He went through a minor slump in late April and has missed some games this month with groin and thumb issues, but he's still among the league leaders in homers and RBIs and is fifth in on-base percentage and OPS. He's not just a Rookie of the Year candidate, he's an MVP candidate. Strasburg would have to exceed his Sidd Finch-level hype to catch him.

2. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals

Season Stats: 4-2, 1.28 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.10 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-1, 1.54 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 2.27 K/BB

Garcia, a 22nd round pick in 2005, underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2008 and made just eight minor league starts after returning to action last year, only half of them above Single A. Despite that, the 23-year-old lefty won the last spot in the Cardinals rotation coming out of camp and has been nothing but impressive in his first major league action since 2008, only once allowing more than two runs in a game (those extra runs were unearned), and only once lasting fewer than six innings, going a mere five in his last start despite not allowing any runs at all. Currently second in the NL in ERA, he is not just a Rookie of the Year candidate, he's a Cy Young candidate.

3. Mike Leake, RHP, Reds

Season Stats: 4-0, 2.91 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.86 K/BB

Last Four Starts: 2-0, 2.52 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.5 K/BB

The eighth overall pick in last year's draft, Leake went straight from Arizona State to the Reds' rotation with only a layover in the Arizona Fall League to prep him for the job. Leake posted a 1.37 ERA in the hitting-friendly AFL, and has been a huge part of the Reds' surge to the top of the NL Central standings. Ignore that lousy overall K/BB ratio. Leake walked 12 men in his first two starts and has walked just nine in his last six. He has gone at least six innings in all eight starts and only once allowed more than three runs, giving him seven quality starts in eight tries. Most impressively, Reds manager Dusty Baker has not asked the 22-year-old to throw more than 106 pitches, so there's hope that Leake's golden arm won't turn to lead.

4. Ike Davis, 1B, Mets

Season Stats: .290/.398/.477, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 9.1 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .282/.393/.479, 3 HR, 6 RBI

The Mets resisted the temptation to open the season with the 23-year-old Davis, who had never played above Double-A, as their first baseman, but it took just 11 games of Mike Jacobs and Fernando Tatis (plus one of Frank Catalanotto) for them to cave. Davis, the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft and the son of former Yankees and Twins reliever Ron, arrived on April 19, went 2-for-4 in his first game, and hasn't stopped hitting since. That Davis, who was Leake's teammate at ASU, is hitting is not a huge surprise. That he has done most of his damage against lefties (.440/.481/.760 compared to 244/.376/.390 against righties) is and is a great indicator for his continued success.

5. David Freese, 3B, Cardinals

Season Stats: .315/.391/.456, 3 HR, 28 RBI, 12.4 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .274/.376/.370, 0 HR, 12 RBI

A ninth-round pick by the Padres in 2006, Freese was dealt to the Cardinals after the 2007 season for what turned out to be a miserable month from Jim Edmonds. After skipping Double-A and turning in a strong Triple-A debut in 2008, he seemed in line to be the Cards' third baseman last year but was foiled by a slow start and an ankle injury. An offseason DUI didn't seem to improve his chances of finally holding the job this year at age 26, but he won it out of camp and has been an important run producer in the Cardinals' hit-or-miss lineup, rising to the fifth spot behind Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols (thus all those RBIs). Freese's minor league track record suggests he'll maintain his current level of production, though his age makes him less likely to be a long-term star than the four players above him on this list.