NL's latest rookie crop shining bright

June, 2, 2013
6/02/13
12:40
AM ET

 
When it comes to this year's rookies, as fans I think we sort of came into this season like the kid at Christmas the year after you got the bike and the pony, or the new car and the Red Ryder BB gun. Because, let’s face it, the year after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper arrived on the scene had to be something of a letdown, right?

Turns out, not so much, at least not in the National League. The difference is that this year the kids are all right on the mound. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been one of the few bright spots on a Dodgers team desperate for something worth bragging about beyond its price tag. But the Cardinals’ Shelby Miller just got his ERA down to 1.82, almost a full run lower than Ryu’s, while catching the Korean southpaw in the win column for at least a day, what with Ryu set to take the mound Sunday.

It’s a showdown between a pair of outstanding candidates who press many of the hot-button issues about Rookie of the Year voting every season. Some fans -- and perhaps more than a few voters -- might favor the future value they anticipate when they see Miller. Some might have qualms about voting for a foreign leagues veteran, MLB-rookie status or no. But as long as Miller keeps pitching like a man who belongs with teammate Adam Wainwright in the conversation on who the best pitcher in the league might be, two months into the season it’s Miller’s race to win -- if he pitches all year.

[+] EnlargeShelby Miller
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesShelby Miller improved to 6-3, and lowered his ERA to 1.82, in the Cardinals' win over the Giants.
That said, it is a long season, and as the Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 reflected, pitchers might be excused for factors that have nothing to do with performance.

Happily, the NL field for first-year talent is wider than that tandem, even as Miller and Ryu contend for headlines. Just from among the hurlers, Jose Fernandez might have to labor in relative obscurity with the Marlins, marooned in the depths of a new-park hangover that has many Miami fans and voters asking themselves the coyote-ugly question about their franchise a year or two too late. But that has nothing to do with Fernandez’s talent, on full display as he mowed down Mets on Saturday. Like Miller, he’s striking out more than a man per inning, good enough to put him in the top 10 among NL starters in K/9. If it weren’t for Ryu and Miller, even in the spring of Matt Harvey, we’d be talking about Fernandez a lot more. So you can imagine how Julio Teheran, doing well as a rotation regular on a first-place Braves team, feels.

This year, you can really only say one NL rookie position player is generating anything like the same buzz. Atlanta's Evan Gattis deserves the love he’s getting, not for the backstory but for the production. This is not Chris Coste 2.0 -- not that a guy like Coste wasn’t as easy to root for as Gattis, but when you’re slugging north of .600 two months into the season, you’re not a passing fancy, you’re somebody hitting so well that demoting an eight-figure salary becomes something more than merely speculative.

Gattis is doing for position players what Miller and Ryu have done for the pitchers in terms of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. As a result, Jedd Gyorko of the Padres might not merit more than a courtesy mention now, but I wouldn’t count him out over the next four months. Gyorko has the power to slug .450 or better despite having to call Petco Park home as a rookie; if he cranks 60 extra-base hits while helping the Padres finish around .500, that’s an amazing season.

You could say much the same for the pair of rookies starting up the middle for the Diamondbacks. However overmuch attention has been given to Kirk Gibson’s clubhouse makeover or the likely big-picture penalties for trading away Justin Upton, the work Arizona is getting from Didi Gregorius at shortstop (and A.J. Pollock in center field) has helped propel the Snakes to first place in the NL West. As easy as it might be to say Gregorius has been helped by the D-backs’ bandbox ballpark, three of his four homers have come on the road. If he starts slugging at home, too, how do you count out a slick-fielding shortstop with power on a first-place team?

Even with their delayed call-ups, by this time last year Trout and Harper had already been strutting their stuff. Trout was putting up an .887 OPS for an Angels lineup that needed all the help it could get overcoming Albert Pujols’ slow start. Harper was hitting .274/.357/.504 in a little more than a month. They might not have been brought up until the end of April, but you already knew we were in for something special. But this year’s class? Its players might not compare directly, but they’re doing more than enough to pay attention to, now and down the stretch.

The American League, on the other hand ... well, you have to give the Rangers some unexpected due. I don’t know if anyone really expects Justin Grimm or Nick Tepesch to still be in this conversation at the end of June, let alone September, but their contributions have clearly helped keep the Rangers' riding to the league’s best record. But Conor Gillaspie? Yan Gomes? That they're among the top WAR-generating rookies in the AL so far just means that nobody has shown enough, for long enough, with the expectation that he’ll still have a job at the All-Star break. I wouldn’t rule out Nick Franklin or Jurickson Profar in partial seasons. I also wouldn’t rule out that the eventual AL Rookie of the Year hasn’t been called up yet. Or possibly even drafted yet -- who said Christmas comes just once per year?

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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