This week's look at the Rookie of the Year candidates completes this column's fifth cycle through the three major awards. With just five weeks left in the season, Awards Watch will shift gears starting next Monday as we enter the home stretch. Rather than rank the top five contenders in each league for a single award each week on a rotating basis as we have been doing, we will move into the lightning round, in which we will look at the top three contenders in each league for all three awards every week.
Three spots are more than enough for the American League Rookie of the Year race, which seems to have already produced a winner due to the variety of slumps and injuries experienced by the few legitimate challengers in that league's shallow rookie pool. The National League rookie field, however, remains impossibly deep, though the same name keeps rising to the top of my list.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, August 23; The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. 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 (1)
Season Stats: 3.57 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.73 K/BB, 31 SV
Last Three Weeks: 3.52 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 2 SV
Feliz has topped this list since this column began in May, and having survived a mid-season threat from Brennan Boesch, he now seems like a lock to win the award. For that, Feliz can thank his manager, Ron Washington, who promoted him to closer just one week into the season, thus giving Feliz a chance to break Kazuhiro Sasaki's rookie saves record of 37, set in Sasaki's Rookie of the Year season of 2000. Truth be told, that saves total, which has as much to do with Washington's use of Feliz as the closer's performance, is why Feliz will take this award home. He has pitched well, but a similar performance from a set-up man would not be seen as award-worthy. Relative to the two roughly league-average batting lines from the two Tiger outfielders on his tail, however, Feliz's performance as a dominant rookie closer has been both unique and impressive enough to earn him the hardware.
2. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (3)
Season Stats: .308/.358/.411, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 19 SB, 26.6 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .317/.378/.378, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 3 SB
Had this column started in April, Jackson would have been the first man atop this list on the strength of his .371/.420/.508 performance through May 9, but a wicked slump (.228/.274/.299 from May 10 to June 25) brought him down to earth. Since then, he has stuck pretty close to the season line you see above, which seems to represent Jackson's real level, particularly given its resemblance to his batting line from Triple-A last year (.300/.354/.405). Or does it? Jackson's .438 average on balls in play suggests he's still hitting over his head, and his poor walk and strikeout rates (the latter leading to a league-leading 130 Ks) are also red flags. Still, Jackson has been an above-average center fielder on both sides of the ball this season, which makes him the only real lingering threat to Feliz.
3. Brennan Boesch, OF, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .275/.336/.464, 14 HR, 59 RBI, 15.6 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .200/.246/.338, 2 HR, 8 RBI
Speaking of wicked slumps, Boesch has hit .144/.212/.208 in 137 plate appearances since the All-Star break. His hot hitting before the break (.342/.397/.593 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs) was enough that he's still keeping his head above the level of the average corner outfielder, but unless he can find his stroke and have a big September, he looks to have fallen out of this race.
4. Sergio Santos, RHP, White Sox (5)
Season Stats: 1.74 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 2.00 K/BB
Last Three Weeks: 2.25 ERA, 1.75 WHIP, 6.8 K/9, 1.50 K/BB
Converted infielder Santos keeps sneaking back onto this list as one of the few American League rookies to have made his team's Opening Day roster and performed at a consistently high level all season. Santos's ERA is a bit deceptive. He's been exactly league average at preventing inherited runners from scoring, which gives him a Fair Run Average (which factors in a share of responsibility for allowing inherited runners to score and bequeathing runners to subsequent relievers) of 2.85, still good, but not as eye-catching.
5. John Jaso, C, Rays (N/A)
Season Stats: .271/.386/.378, 3 HR, 37 RBI, 15.8 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .268/.404/.366, 0 HR, 4 RBI
Injured Indians backstop Carlos Santana is actually still second to Jackson in VORP among AL rookies, but with Santana out for the year following a nasty collision at home plate, Jaso should pass him in the coming week. A seven-year minor league veteran who got his first taste of the majors in 2008, Jaso has started roughly half of the Rays games this year and hit lead-off in roughly a quarter of them. As that last might indicate, his value is largely wrapped up in his ability to get on base, but that's no small thing. Jaso has walked 47 times against just 28 strikeouts, and among major league rookies with more than 125 plate appearances, only Santana and the NL's red-hot Buster Posey and Jon Jay have higher on-base percentages.
Off the list: Carlos Santana, C, Indians (4)
1. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (1)
Season Stats: 11-6, 2.42 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 2.06 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 2-2, 2.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 2.13 K/BB, 1 SHO
Garcia has been remarkably consistent at a very high level of effectiveness all season, and thus may already has this award put away, which is impressive given the depth of the rookie class in the NL this year. He has allowed more than four runs just once in his 24 starts this season, and on Sunday he turned in his best performance of the year, a three-hit, no-walk shutout of the wild card-contending Giants in which Garcia threw a total of 89 pitches. Thanks to a pair of double plays, Garcia faced the minimum in that game until the 27th batter he faced, pinch-hitter Nate Schierholtz, singled. Garcia then got his 28th man to ground out, wrapping up the game without allowing a runner past first base.
2. Jonathon Niese, LHP, Mets (N/A)
Season Stats: 8-5, 3.33 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.56 K/BB
Last Four Starts: 1-0, 1.38 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.00 K/BB
Niese is surreptitiously sneaking up on Garcia with a surprisingly similar season in sum to what the Cardinals' lefty has achieved. When the calendar flipped to June, Niese was on the 15-day disabled list, nursing a sore hamstring and a 4.79 ERA. Activated five days later, he allowed just one run in 16 innings over his first two starts back in action, including a one-hit shutout of the first-place Padres. In total, he has gone 7-3 with a 2.70 ERA in 15 starts since coming off the DL. Of those 15 outings, 11 were quality starts, only two were disasters, and Niese has not allowed more than one run in any of his last four starts. Still, despite a 2.89 ERA in his last nine starts, Niese picked up a win in just two of those appearances due to an average of just 3.11 runs of support per game. That lack of wins could (unfairly) cost him this award if he continues to excel and Garcia struggles in September. Another potential problem for Niese is the chance that the Mets will impose an innings limit on him, something manager Jerry Manuel and pitching coach Dan Warthen are expected to discuss this week. Including a rehab start at Triple-A, the 23-year-old Niese has thrown 144 innings this season, which is more than the 120 innings he threw between the minors and the majors in 2009 but far less than the 178 frames he pitched in 2008. In other words, Niese should be be able to finish the season without an artificial limit.
3. Buster Posey, C, Giants (3)
Season Stats: .341/.385/.518, 9 HR, 46 RBI, 27.9 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .315/.367/.466, 1 HR, 12 RBI
The Giants kept Posey in the minors until late May and played him primarily at first base until July, but Posey has swung a hot enough bat over the last two months (.369/.422/.592, 8 HR, 36 RBI since July 1), particularly relative to the standard of his position (the average major league catcher has hit .249/.320/.381), to make him both the major league VORP leader among rookie batters and a serious contender for this award. Still, the seven weeks he missed at the beginning of the season seem likely to prevent him from overtaking the two pitchers above him without both having disastrous Septembers.
4. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (2)
Season Stats: .265/.378/.452, 14 HR, 57 RBI, 9 SB, 20.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .233/.347/.433, 3 HR, 7 RBI
The prohibitive favorite for this award entering the season, Heyward nearly fell off this list as he was hitting just .183/.296/.300 in August through Saturday, but a big day on Sunday (4-for-4, with two homers and two walks), puffed his season averages back up. That was a reminder of why it would be foolish to count Heyward out completely; he has the ability to go on an absolute tear in September, but his various aches and pains this season and the resultant slumps have likely put the consistent Garcia out of his reach.
5) Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins (5)
Season Stats: .289/.353/.465, 14 HR, 62 RBI, 22.6 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .292/.361/.523, 2 HR, 13 RBI
An almost perfectly average first baseman, Sanchez's consistency and reliability have made him the rookie leader in RBIs (the Cubs Tyler Colvin, not on this list, holds the home run lead with 18) and placed him fourth among rookie hitters in both leagues in VORP (behind Posey, Jackson, and Starlin Castro). However, a first baseman without 20 homers, a .300 average, or Gold Glove-quality defense isn't going to draw much support from the voters in this deep rookie class, and unlike many of his classmates (Posey, Heyward, Mike Stanton, Pedro Alvarez, Domonic Brown) he's not a young blue chipper showing early hints of larger promise. Sanchez will turn 27 a week from Thursday, and what we've seen from him this season is likely about all he has to offer.
Off the list: Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs (4)