Skip to main content

From Strasburg to Santana, impact rookies arriving in majors


Before you go skipping ahead trying to find out where I ranked Stephen Strasburg I'll tell you right now: He's not on my list . . . yet. Though the Washington Nationals' phenom will no doubt be a major factor in the National League Rookie of the Year race as soon as my next look at the award three weeks from now, I don't think two starts -- one of which featured five walks in 5 1/3 innings -- would be enough to get the vote of even the laziest voter had the voting been held today. After all, Neftali Feliz was untouchable down the stretch for the Rangers last year and didn't get a single Rookie of the Year vote. Ditto Joba Chamberlain for the Yankees in 2007. If I was going to rank Strasburg based on his likely performance over the remainder of the season, I would have had him on my list from the start, but like every other rookie in the league, he'll have to earn it. He has a great head-start in that direction, and with Jason Heyward slumping of late, the door may be opening for him to take the award which has thus far been Heyward's to lose.

As a result, I'm surprised by how little the Rookie of the Year rankings have changed over the past three weeks. Just one new name appears in the top five in each league, and seven of the returning eight rookies are in the same spots they were three weeks ago. I don't expect that will be the case three weeks from now. Strasburg is just one of a number of top prospects who were called up to the majors in the past few weeks, many debuting late due their teams' desire to delay their salary arbitration eligibility by a year, thus keeping them in the minors past the point at which they could become "Super Two" players after the 2012 season.

In the National League, Strasburg, Marlins right fielder Mike Stanton, and Giants catcher-cum-first baseman Buster Posey would make a strong rookie class all by themselves, but they, as well as Pirates second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Jose Tabata, will have to continue their hot starts to break into the already crowded rookie field in the senior circuit. In the American League, Indians catcher Carlos Santana, who walked and singled against Strasburg on Sunday while batting third in the Cleveland lineup, Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta, who beat the Yankees in his debut two days after Strasburg made his, and Rangers first baseman Justin Smoak, who was up in April but has only just started hitting, look primed to make waves in their league's much weaker rookie class.

Still, though the lists below are designed to project the winners, I couldn't quite bring myself to include Strasburg or Santana, who have appeared in five major league games between them, this week. Three weeks from now, however, we could see this "second wave" of 2010 rookies begin to dent these lists.

Note: All stats through Sunday, June 13. 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 the active roster prior to rosters expanding on September 1.

1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (Previous Ranking: 1)

Season Stats: 3.29 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 2.90 K/BB, 15 SV

Last Three Weeks: 4.50 ERA, 2.25 WHIP, 11.3 K/BB, 0.83 K/BB, 3 SV

Feliz is the only American League rookie to open the 2010 season on a major league roster and perform at an All-Star level consistently since. On pace for 40 saves, Feliz is the clear favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award thanks in large part to a dearth of serious competition. Feliz's poor stats from the last three weeks stem from a combination of lack of use and one bad outing on Saturday, when he allowed two hits and two runs while getting just one out against the Brewers. Prior to that, he had allowed just one run and six hits in his last 17 appearances.

2. Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers (3)

Season Stats: .342/.384/.625, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 21.1 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .345/.424/.638, 4 HR, 8 RBI

Though I ranked Boesch third three weeks ago, I cautioned that his walk rate was alarmingly low and suggested that the league would soon figure him out. Well, it seems Boesch might be smarter than the collected pitchers of the American League, as rather than letting his walk rate drag him down, he has brought his walk rate up and just kept on hitting. Boesch had just two unintentional walks in 98 plate appearances three weeks ago. Since then, he's drawn seven more walks in just 66 plate appearances, or one every 9.4 PA. Small sample warnings apply, and the overall result is a major league walk rate that's still poor and only a hair better than his minor league rate (majors: 18.2 PA/UIBB, minors: 19.4 PA/UIBB), but 41 games into his major league career, Boesch has shown no sign of slowing down and has drawn right up behind Feliz, whom he could ultimately pass if he keeps up his current pace as he has an outside shot at 30 home runs and 100 RBIs despite not making his debut until April 23.

3. Mitch Talbot, RHP, Indians (N/A)

Season Stats: 7-4, 3.59 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 3.9 K/9, 1.10 K/BB

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 2.96 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 2.00 K/BB

Cleveland starter Talbot just missed making my initial list three weeks ago. Per the second stat line above, he has pitched better since then, but what tripped me up at the time were his miserable peripherals. Talbot actually had four more walks than strikeouts three weeks ago and the Indians had scored an average of 7.6 runs per game in his five wins, but three more strong starts, one coming against a powerful Yankees team, and the retreat of his competition has him comfortably mid-list this week.

The 26-year-old Talbot has had quite a journey to this point. Drafted out of high school by the Astros in 2002, he was flipped to the then-Devil Rays along with Ben Zobrist in the July 2006 Aubrey Huff trade. Rule 5 eligible that fall, he was added to the Rays' 40-man roster, but he struggled in his Triple-A debut in 2007 and his brief major league look in 2008, then missed half of 2009 due to an elbow sprain. Out of options and coming off injury in a pitching-rich organization, he was flipped to the Indians for catcher Kelly Shoppach last December, only to win a spot in the rebuilding Tribe's rotation out of camp. Talbot is playing with fire with his miniscule strikeout rate, but has gotten by thus far with an excess of infield pop ups and double plays and some luck on balls in play, the last of which runs counter to his team's poor defensive showing thus far. Correction is coming, but I can no longer deny his performance to this point.

4. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (4)

Season Stats: .308/.352/.412, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 10 SB, 13.3 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .240/.250/.320, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 4 SB

Jackson has recovered from his frightening beaning on May 22, but he has not recovered from the slump that preceded that beaning by 12 days. Since May 10, a stretch of 124 plate appearances, Jackson has hit just .237/.274/.305. He is here purely on the strength of his performance through May 9, when he was hitting .371/.420/.508 after 143 PA. Even then, his league-leading strikeout total seemed worrisome, and though he's now three off the league lead, his high strikeout rate (now 67 in 60 games, a 179 K place) seems to be all that remains from his hot start. With Santana and company on the rise, Jackson, who left Sunday's game with lower back spasms, could be off the list three weeks from now.

5. Sergio Santos, RHP, White Sox (5)

Season Stats: 1.69 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 2.25 K/BB, 7 Holds

Last Three Weeks: 5.40 ERA, 2.40 WHIP, 12.6 K/9, 1.40 K/BB, 5 Holds

Converted infielder Santos was something of a placeholder three weeks ago and, despite some struggles in the interim, remains in that role again this week. He's here more because of the disappointing showings from Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz (who has pitched better than his 2-7 record, but not better than his 4.92 ERA) and Rays righty Wade Davis (who went 1-3 with an 8.41 ERA over his last four starts to fall off this list) and Smoak's slow start than because of his own solid set-up work. Santos is a long-shot at best for the actual award and should finally get bounced from this list the next time around.

Off the list: Wade Davis (2)

1. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (1)

Season Stats: .265/.388/.488, 10 HR, 43 RBI, 13.0 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .226/.356/.345, 1 HR, 10 RBI

Heyward hit a home run in his first major league at-bat and was hitting .298/.411/.617 two weeks into the season. He then fell into a nasty 1-for-20 slump that dropped his season line to .224/.358/.448, but that only lasted a week. From April 29 through May 30, Heyward hit .360/.468/.708 despite missing time due to groin and thumb injuries. Now he's slumping again. From May 31 to June 7, he went 3-for-32 with 12 strikeouts and no extra-base hits in eight games. He's perked up a bit since then, going 7-for-27 (.259) with just a pair of doubles among those hits and 10 more strikeouts in six games, giving him 20 Ks in his last 10 contests. Is that left thumb, which he hurt sliding on May 14, still bothering him, as his hitting coach claimed it was last week? Is he still banged up from his outfield collision with Nate McLouth last Wednesday? Is the league finally catching up? Should we be concerned about his predilection for minor injury thus far this season? Heyward seemed beyond reproach just two weeks ago, when I ranked him third in the NL MVP race, but he suddenly has a lot of questions to answer.

2. Jaime Garcia, RHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: 6-2, 1.49 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 1.74 K/BB

Last Three Weeks: 2-2, 1.96 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 1.21 K/BB

Garcia fell off the Cy Young watch list last week because I was concerned about his walk rate (4.2 BB/9 on the season and 5.8 BB/9 in his last five starts), which I thought was causing him to run up his pitch count early and thus making him a six-inning pitcher (he has averaged just shy of 5 2/3 innings over those last five starts and has only recorded one seventh-inning out since the end of April). That, in turn, has given his bullpen too much opportunity to blow his games (three of those last five starts were Cardinals loses in which Garcia failed to register a decision). However, those complaints came in the context of the most dominant pitchers in the league. In the context of his rookie class, six innings with a few too many walks is perfectly understandable as long as he keeps that ERA below 2.00. Garcia has yet to allow more than two earned runs in any of his dozen starts this season, and though he's having trouble getting past the sixth, he has pitched a minimum of five innings every time out and only failed to finish the sixth twice. The groundballer has also allowed just two home runs, which helps all those walks from hurting as much as they could. With Heyward slumping, Garcia is suddenly a very close second in this race.

3. Mike Leake, RHP, Reds (3)

Season Stats: 5-0, 2.68 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.79 K/BB

Last Three Weeks: 1-0, 2.19 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 4.7 K/9, 1.63 K/BB

Leake's first legitimately poor outing, which came last Thursday, broke a streak of eight quality starts during which the Reds' righty went 4-0 with a 1.55 ERA and 3.08 K/BB. Like Garcia, Leake has made 10 quality starts in twelve attempts, the difference being that Leake has allowed 10 runs and four homers in his two non-quality outings, while Garcia simply fell three outs short of the innings requirement each time. Leake's dud on Thursday marked the first time he failed to finish six innings in a major league start and was just the second start this season in which he allowed more than three runs, earned or otherwise. This from a 2009 first-round draft pick who has never appeared in a minor league game. Take that, Strasburg.

4. Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins (N/A)

Season Stats: .281/.354/.452, 7 HR, 28 RBI, 9.5 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .286/.320/.471, 3 HR, 7 RBI

Sanchez takes the spot of fellow NL East first baseman Ike Davis, who has hit just .197/.240/.366 since ranking fourth on my list three weeks ago. A fourth-round pick out of the University of Miami in 2005, Sanchez was expected to win the Marlins' first-base job straight out of Double-A last year, but instead spent 2009 in Triple-A and emerged as the Opening Day starter this year at the age of 26. Save for a two-homer, six-RBI game against the Rays on Friday, Sanchez hasn't been blowing anybody away. Rather, he has been an almost perfectly league-average first baseman to this point in the season, but that's a strong showing for a rookie. Sanchez may not be much more than that moving forward in his career, but for now it's enough to get him a cameo on the pre-Strasburg version of this list.

5. David Freese, 3B, Cardinals (5)

Season Stats: .308/.376/.434, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 12.7 VORP

Last Three Weeks: .286/.327/.367, 1 HR, 4 RBI

Freese has started just one game since June 5 due a fluke right ankle sprain that he suffered when making incidental contact with third base during a play elsewhere on the infield, but that lack of opportunity to lose this spot (he has made just 11 starts in the last three weeks) has resulted in his keeping it for one more turn through the awards. Freese has avoided the disabled list thus far, but he'll have to return to the lineup soon and successfully in order to keep Strasburg, Stanton, et al. at bay.

Off the list: Ike Davis (4)