Ranking the year's top rookies
It now appears likely that Stephen Strasburg will debut for the Nats in mid-June
Jason Heyward of the Braves and Mike Leake of the Reds lead the impact rookies
Ike Davis, Austin Jackson and Starlin Castro are also impressing early
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.