Handicapping the National League Rookie of the Year Award
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This year's National League crop of rookies isn't quite like the one that featured the likes of Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Michael Stanton, Starlin Castro, Jaime Garcia and Stephen Strasburg last year. That doesn't mean that it lacks talented players.
This article takes a look at the top 10 candidates to win this year's Rookie of the Year Award in the National League as well as some of the others that deserve some recognition. To be eligible a player must have used up their rookie eligibility, so that's why some top prospects like Julio Teheran won't be found.
Just Outside the Top 10
Speedy Dee Gordon stole 24 bases in 56 games.
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Jesus Guzman, 1B, San Diego
Guzman had an impressive season with a triple slash line of .312/.369/.478 to go with five homers and nine steals, but the reason he isn't included is because he only played in 76 games. If he put up similar numbers over the course of a full season, he'd rank very high on this list.
Darwin Barney, 2B, Chicago Cubs
Barney is the perfect example of why you can not judge a rookie by a half season, as he played above his head in the first half while hitting .306. He fell back to earth in the second half, hitting just .238 the rest of the way. Barney is more of a utility guy than an everyday player, but still deserves mention for a solid rookie year.
Dee Gordon, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
The son of former major league reliever Tom Gordon, Dee is already one of the most exciting players in the game. Although he lacks any real power, he hit .304 and stole 24 bases in only 56 games. Like Guzman, Gordon missed the list because he didn't see enough time but would have ranked very high if he put up the same numbers over a full season.
Alex Presley, OF, Pittsburgh
Presley doesn't fit the top prospect bill as he is only 5'9" and already 25 years old heading into the season, but he hit minor league pitching well enough that the Pirates had to promote him. In his 52 games he was more successful than expected with his triple slash line reading .298/.339/.465 with four homers, 20 runs batted in and nine steals.
He just didn't see enough time to earn a spot in the top 10 because of his midseason promotion as well as missing time with injury. It will be interesting to follow Presley in 2012 to see if he can keep hitting at this pace.
Mike Minor, SP, Atlanta
Like some of the others above, Minor missed the top 10 based on the fact that he only played about half a season. Still in his 15 starts he went 5-3 with a 4.14 ERA and pitched very well down the stretch with his Braves in the middle of a pennant race.
Joshua Collmenter, SP, Arizona
Collmenter pitched in 31 games on the year, including 24 starts and posted a 10-10 record with a 3.38 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. The reason he just missed out on the final spot in the top 10 is because he went 3-1 with a 1.49 ERA through May, but just 7-9 with a 3.97 ERA the rest of the way.
Kenley Jansen, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Through May, the 23-year-old converted catcher had a 6.42 ERA in 20 appearances, but rebounded to give up only two more earned runs in his next 31 appearances. The only thing that could slow Jansen after May was a heart issue that cost him a couple weeks. After finishing 2-1 with a 2.85 ERA and 1.04 WHIP to go with 96 strikeouts in 53.2 innings, Jansen could end up stealing the closer's job away from teammate and fellow rookie Javy Guerra next season.
Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati
Like Jansen, the Cuban Missile struggled early with a 6.92 ERA in 13 appearances through May. After being demoted, Chapman responded well and pitched to a 2.43 ERA in his final 38 appearances. Overall he went 4-1 with a 3.60 ERA and 1.30 WHIP while striking out 71 in 50 innings.
Also like Jansen, Chapman may take over the closer role for his team next year depending on if the Reds bring back veteran Francisco Cordero.
Due to injuries promising young pitchers Rubba De LaRosa (Tommy John surgery) of the Dodgers and Juan Nicasio (broken neck) of the Rockies missed out on making this list, but were both having success before they were hurt.
10. Javy Guerra, RP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Javy Guerra shaking hands after his 21st and final save of 2011.
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The Dodgers had some issues with injuries at closer starting when their Opening Day closer, Jonathan Broxton, went down early on. Broxton was replaced by journeyman starter Vicente Padilla, who only recorded three saves before going down himself. After Padilla, rookie Javy Guerra got a look after only having made four major league appearances before his first save situation.
Guerra responded well, saving his first 10 games before finally blowing his first save on August 20th. For the year Guerra finished with 21 saves in 23 chances, a great success rate for anyone let alone a guy who never pitched in the majors before this season. His final stat line read 2-2, 2.31 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 38 strikeouts in 46.2 innings over 47 appearances. In fact, the only thing that he struggled with was a high walk rate(3.5 per nine innings), something that made him pay in both of his blown saves.
Guerra did well enough to deserve being pencilled into the closer's role for 2012, but the presence of talented fellow rookie Kenley Jansen means that Guerra will need to compete for the job in spring training. Guerra will be 26 years old at the start of 2012, and the right-hander should have a solid career as a late-inning reliever if he cuts down his walk rate.
9. Dillon Gee, SP, New York Mets
Dillon Gee had a solid rookie season.
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Dillon Gee made five successful September starts for the Mets in 2010, going 2-2 with a 2.18 ERA and exceeding all reasonable expectations. That performance was good enough to pretty much assure the 25-year-old a rotation spot in 2011—at least until Johan Santana was due back at sometime in the second half.
Mets fans weren't expecting Gee to repeat those 2010 numbers, but were hoping for him to be solid at the back end of the rotation. Gee exceeded those expectations again, as he was arguably the Mets' second-best starter behind R.A. Dickey going 13-6 with a 4.43 ERA in 30 games (27 starts). Gee's 13 wins led all National League rookies and tied him for second among all rookies behind Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson.
Gee could build upon this year and improve his numbers if he lowers his walks, as his 71 walks in 160.2 innings were the only real negative this year. The good news is that his career minor league walks per nine innings rate (2.0) is exactly half of the walk rate he posted this year (4.0), which means he does have the potential to improve.
As it looks now Gee appears to be a fifth starter on a good club, but if he can cut the walks and give his team more quality starts (only 12 in 27 starts) then he could profile as a decent fourth starter. Gee should be assured of a starting job for the Mets next year unless the team makes some drastic changes due to their financial situation.
8. Lucas Duda, OF, New York Mets
Lucas Duda returns to the dugout after his 10th homer of the year.
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Lucas Duda made his major league debut in 2010, and after hitting just .202 in 29 games he wasn't expected to play a large role in 2011. Duda actually made the 2011 Opening Day roster as a reserve, but ended up getting a bigger role due to the injury to Ike Davis. Then after Carlos Beltran was traded, Duda spent more time in right field.
Duda split the year between first base and right field, playing 100 games and ending up with a triple slash line of .292/.370/.482 with 10 homers and 50 runs batted in. Duda surprised fans and scouts, many of whom expected him to be more of a career bench player.
If Duda received more than his 301 at-bats, he would have ranked higher on this list, but he still has to prove he is capable of putting up the same numbers in the future. Duda has earned a shot at regular playing time in 2012, most likely to come at right field with the return of Davis. Even if Duda can't replicate his production in 2012, he should at least make a solid career as a power bat off the bench.
7. Wilson Ramos, C, Washington Nationals
Wilson Ramos should be the longterm answer at catcher for Washington.
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The Nationals acquired Wilson Ramos from the Minnesota Twins at the 2010 trading deadline in exchange for relief pitcher Matt Capps. Although Capps saved 16 games for the Twins in 2010 and helped them get into the playoffs, this may be a trade they regret with Joe Mauer experiencing injury issues.
After hitting .278 in 22 games between Minnesota and Washington in 2010, Ramos was expected to take the Nationals starting job and share time with Ivan Rodriguez this season. Despite spending the bulk of the season as a 23-year-old, he had a triple slash line of .267/.334/.445 with 15 homers and 52 runs batted in. In addition to providing a quality bat, Ramos was third among all major league catchers with a 32.4 percent caught-stealing percentage.
Ramos isn't just the Nats catcher of the future, but he's already the catcher of the present helping with both his bat and glove. Ramos could be the starter in Washington for the next decade and could eventually end up with some All-Star selections.
6. Cory Luebke, SP, San Diego Padres
Cory Luebke quietly put together a strong second half to the season.
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Cory Luebke is the oldest player to make the top 10 at age 26, but he quietly put together a very strong year for the Padres. After making three starts and a relief experience in 2010, Luebke made the Padres Opening Day roster as a reliever. He was solid in 29 appearances going 1-2 with a 3.23 ERA, before finally getting his first start of the year on June 26th against the Braves.
In 17 starts Luebke went 5-8 with a 3.31 ERA, and made fans wonder why he didn't get to start all along. Luebke finished the year making 46 appearances including 17 starts, and went 6-10 with a 3.29 ERA and 1.07 WHIP to go with 154 strikeouts in 139.2 innings. Some believe his numbers are inflated because of his home park, but he actually pitched better on the road (2.55 ERA) than at pitcher-friendly PETCO Park (4.04 ERA).
Luebke wasn't ranked higher because he spent half of the season in a low-leverage relief role. As long as Luebke pitches in San Diego he is going to be a solid No. 3 starter, but if he was to pitch elsewhere he would be just an average fourth starter.
5. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals
Danny Espinosa was the favorite to win Rookie of the Year before an awful second half.
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After Danny Espinosa hit six homers in a 28-game September trial in 2010, expectations for him were to compete for the National League Rookie of the Year Award. After a huge first half where he had a triple slash line of .242/.332/.460 with 16 homers, 52 runs batted in and 12 steals, he was among the front-runners.
That was until he struggled to hit in the second half, posting a triple slash mark of .227/.310/.352 with five homers, 14 runs batted in and five steals. His overall line for the year was .236/.323/.414 with 23 homers, 66 runs batted in and 17 steals, a strong year for a second baseman.
Espinosa's second-half slump is the only reason he isn't a serious contender to the award, but he will likely be one of the Nationals' key pieces for the next decade. If his first-half production was any indication he could approach a couple 30/30 seasons and could be an annual 20/20 guy.
4. Brandon Beachy, SP, Atlanta Braves
Brandon Beachy's story of going from undrafted free agent to Rookie of the Year contender is a great one.
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Brandon Beachy impressed in three late-season starts in 2010, but headed into spring training without any guarantees for playing time. Beachy battled more-hyped prospect Mike Minor for most of spring training before finally winning the fifth starter job just before the start of the season.
Beachy, formerly an undrafted free agent, only went 7-3 in his 25 starts, but that was more due to the lack of run support he received than anything that was his doing. His peripheral stats show what kind of pitcher he was, as he had a 3.68 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 169 strikeouts in 141.2 innings. His 14 quality starts were enough to tie him for 50th place in the majors despite only making 25 starts due to missing over a month in the first half due to injury.
These numbers would be impressive for any rookie, but Beachy deserves some extra credit since he didn't actually become a starter until the middle of 2010. Beachy is already a solid No. 3 starter after just one season pitching in the major leagues. As long as the Braves keep him, as they will be forced to move some of their excess of talented young arms, they should have a solid and consistent pitcher.
3. Vance Worley, SP, Philadelphia Phillies
Vance Worley came up big for the Phillies after Joe Blanton battled injuries and inconsistency.
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After pitching in five games in 2010, including two starts, Vance Worley was an afterthought in Philadelphia. Phillies fans were much more focused on the four big-time starters in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels and decent fifth starter Joe Blanton. Worley wasn't expected to have any role for the 2011 Phillies unless it came in relief.
Due to an injury to Blanton, Worley got his shot in Philly before April came to an end. Worley took advantage of the situation and was good enough to earn some national recognition despite being overshadowed by the Phillies' big four starters. In 25 games (21 starts) Worley went 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 119 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. Worley actually started the year 7-1 with a 2.33 ERA through July before coming back to Earth in the season's final two months.
Worley was a key piece for the National League's best team, but finished third for the Rookie of the Year Award because he didn't see a full season's workload and considerably slowed down the stretch. He isn't as good as the pitcher we saw in the season's first four months, but looks like a good middle-of-the-rotation starter. Since three of the Phillies' big four starters will be at least 33 years old for the bulk of 2012, Worley will be a key piece for them going forward as well.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman was the National League's top rookie hitter in 2011.
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Freddie Freeman was being groomed to be the Braves starting first baseman for 2011, a fact which became obvious prior to 2010 when the Braves signed veteran Troy Glaus for one year to keep the position warm. Freeman had a huge 2010 season in Triple-A despite being only 20 years old, and earned a short trial in September when rosters were expanded, going 4-for-24 with a homer.
Freeman started the year very slow hitting just .217 through April, which made fans and the media question if the 21-year-old was ready for the role. Freeman rebounded by hitting .312 in May, proving he does belong. Overall his triple slash line was .282/.346/..448 with 21 homers and 76 runs batted in. The only mark against him was the fact he hit just .226 in September, something normal for a young rookie who tires after the grind of his first long season.
Scouts were calling for Freeman to be the second coming of Mark Grace, a strong defensive first baseman who hits for a good average and well-below-average power for the position, but he showed much-better-than-expected power this season with his 21 homers and 32 doubles—some of which should turn into homers as he develops. Freeman will be pencilled into the Atlanta lineup for the next decade or so and has the potential to develop into a franchise player.
1. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta Braves
Craig Kimbrel has one of the most electric arms in the game.
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The Braves selected Craig Kimbrel in the third round of the 2008 draft out of his Alabama junior college with the purpose of making him their closer of the future. Kimbrel made 21 appearances in 2010, going 4-0 with one save and a 0.44 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, plus an eye-popping 40 strikeouts in 20.2 innings. More importantly the Braves let Kimbrel, who had major control issues, learn from Billy Wagner, another closer under six feet tall that could hit 100 MPH with his fastball.
Kimbrel headed into the season expecting to share the closer role with Jonny Venters after the two competed for the job all through spring training, but Kimbrel was simply too good to even give up part of the job. Kimbrel wasn't just good, but he was all-time good as his 46 saves broke the major league record for a rookie. Kimbrel emerged as one of the best closers in the game in just one season, going 4-3 in his 79 appearances with a 2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 127 strikeouts in just 77 innings. He even cut his high walk rate in 2010 (7.0 per nine innings) nearly in half (3.7).
Kimbrel was just dominant the entire year, but his year ended on a down note after he blew saves in two of his final three games including the season-ending loss to the Phillies. Those blown saves aren't all on Kimbrel as Freddi Gonzalez clearly overworked him and he was struggling to locate his fastball, especially in the loss to the Phillies. Prior to those games his ERA was 1.81, showing just how dominant he really was.
Kimbrel should be an easy choice to win the National League Rookie of the Year because of his dominance. At just age 23, Kimbrel has already firmly established himself right along with the likes of Mariano Rivera as one of the best closers in baseball. The scary part is that Kimbrel could actually improve upon this season's numbers if he cuts his walks a bit.