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Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Jose Fernandez clearly top NL rookie

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

Rookie of the Year races are snapshots in time and not necessarily predictive of future success. Given the benefit of hindsight, would voters go back and take Joe Morgan over Jim Lefebvre 1965 or select Joey Votto over Geovany Soto in 2008? Of course, but the electorate has the luxury of assessing a player's contribution over only a six-month span before making a judgment that might or might not look prudent a decade down the road.

Classes that appear loaded can fail to live up to the hype, and groups that seem underwhelming can assume greater cachet with time. That's what makes it so entertaining to revisit the list of winners, runners-up and down-ballot finishers so many years after the fact.

At first glance, the 2013 National League rookie class appears noteworthy for its depth and international flair. The list of top candidates includes two Cubans (Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig), a high-priced free agent from Korea (Hyun-Jin Ryu) and a bonus baby from Colombia (Julio Teheran). It's stacked with pitching talent and includes a few players who arrived too late to enter the rookie of the year debate. New York Mets pitcher Zack Wheeler and Cincinnati stolen base machine Billy Hamilton quickly spring to mind.

Time will ultimately bring perspective on how good this group is. But it looks like the deepest and most productive rookie class since 2006, when Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Prince Fielder, Matt Cain, Andre Ethier, Dan Uggla and Russell Martin debuted in the National League, and Justin Verlander, Jonathan Papelbon, Francisco Liriano, Jered Weaver, Ian Kinsler and Nick Markakis first appeared in the American League.

"It's a little weird in that almost all the prominent rookies are in the National League," said Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. "That's just the luck of the draw. You also have rookies like Teheran and Ryu who are playing big roles for contending teams. I always think that's worth something. I know it's not a popular stance these days. But I think playing games that are important to something more than your own statistical line is of value."

How will the 2013 ballot shake out? Here's a guess:

1. Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA)

Fernandez shared his long-term aspirations with the world during a 2012 interview when he declared, "I want to be a Hall of Famer." It might take a dozen years for that pursuit to shake out, but he has established himself as the clear front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year even though the Marlins shut him down with three weeks left in the season.

"From the All-Star Game on, he's been phenomenal," Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. "Think about the numbers he's been able to put up and the excitement he's brought to Miami in a situation where we desperately needed some positive news. He's been able to capture that for us."

Signature achievement: How much time do we have?

Fernandez finished with a 2.19 ERA to become only the fourth pitcher since the rookie of the year award's inception in 1947 to post a sub-2.20 ERA in his debut season. Stan Bahnsen of the 1968 White Sox and Dave Righetti of the 1981 Yankees both won the award, and Jerry Koosman of the Mets finished second to Johnny Bench in the '68 NL balloting.

Since the advent of divisional play in 1969, only three pitchers with 170 or more innings have allowed fewer than the measly 5.8 hits per nine innings that Fernandez permitted this season. Nolan Ryan did it twice, and Pedro Martinez and Sid Fernandez achieved the feat once each.

How pivotal was Fernandez to the Marlins? Miami went 18-10 in his outings and has a 40-89 record in games pitched by the team's other 10 starters this season.

The manager's take: "Watching this kid pitch, it's a no-brainer for me," Redmond said. "I know people say, 'Puig is an every-day player.' You always have that argument over the every-day player versus the pitcher. But when you look at Jose's numbers compared to the rest of the pitchers in the league, you say to yourself, 'How does he not get it?'"

Outlook: Unless voters fail en masse to notice Fernandez because he played in Miami, this one looks like a lock.

2. Yasiel Puig, Dodgers (.327, 18 homers, .941 OPS)

Puig, nicknamed the "Wild Horse" by Vin Scully, has been a polarizing figure during a spectacular rookie year in Los Angeles. He won fans and gained national attention by collecting hits in bunches, running the bases with abandon and challenging baserunners with laser throws from the fence. He also undermined those jaw-dropping moments by running into outs, airmailing cutoff men and banging into walls and nearly injuring teammates.

The Dodgers were limping along at 23-32 in early June when Puig arrived from Double-A Chattanooga and went 2-for-4 with a game-ending throw to beat San Diego 2-1. Hanley Ramirez returned the following day from the disabled list and began tearing it up from the cleanup spot. But Puig, more than anyone, changed the tone of the conversation surrounding the Dodgers.

Feel free to quibble with Puig's .236 batting average (17-for-72) with runners in scoring position, his 11 steals in 19 attempts or diminished production since the All-Star break. It's hard to ignore the fact that the Dodgers are 62-29 when he's in the starting lineup.

Signature achievement: Elias notes that Puig is the first player since Joe DiMaggio in 1936 to amass 70 or more hits and 10-plus homers in his first 50 major league games. Puig's 18 home runs are the most by a Dodgers rookie since Mike Piazza slugged 35 in 1993. He'd have a lot more if he hadn't missed the first two months.

A teammate's take: "Yeah, Puig might come off as cocky to some people," Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp told Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLA.com. "But why not think you're one of the best players in the league? Every great player has a swag to their game. That's what makes them great. If he's one of your teammates, you like the way he plays."

Outlook: For all the entertaining copy Puig has generated, the most intriguing questions will be answered in 2014. With Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier still owed a combined $280 million or so in long-term deals beyond this season, there are only so many at-bats to go around. Dodgers management has some important decisions to make this winter.

3. Julio Teheran, Braves (13-8, 3.09 ERA)

Teheran was 16 years old when Atlanta signed him to an $850,000 bonus out of his native Colombia in 2007. "With an electric arm, excellent instincts and maturity beyond his years, Teheran makes baseball look easy," Baseball America wrote upon naming him the Braves' top prospect two years ago.

It didn't look easy in 2012, when Teheran posted a 5.08 ERA with Triple-A Gwinnett and suffered from a prolonged bout of home-run-itis. But Teheran found his stride in the Dominican winter league and continued to progress in spring training when he added a sinker under the tutelage of Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell.

The Braves love Teheran's athleticism and ability to make adjustments on the fly. He throws two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, curveball and a changeup that has a chance to be a major weapon. Teheran threw the changeup only 5.1 percent of the time this season, according to FanGraphs, and the Braves would like to see him make greater use of the pitch in the future.

Signature achievement: Teheran's best outing came on June 5, when he struck out 11 and held the Pittsburgh Pirates hitless before giving up a single to Brandon Inge with two outs in the eighth inning. It was the longest no-hit bid by an Atlanta starter since Kent Mercker threw the team's last no-hitter in 1994.

A scout's take: "He's made some nice strides," said an American League personnel man. "A lot of it is mechanical. Last year he was collapsing under the ball and he had a lot of misfires up in the zone. Now his arm and body are in sync. He's taller in his delivery and staying over the rubber and commanding his pitches better. He has an air of confidence about him, like he knows he belongs."

Outlook: At 22, Teheran has the highest upside of any Atlanta starter. He's not going to win the NL's top rookie award. But Teheran, Mike Minor and Kris Medlen need to seize the initiative and pitch well if the Braves plan to make an extended run in the postseason.

4. Shelby Miller, Cardinals (14-9, 3.12 ERA)

Miller, 22, has helped the Cardinals navigate a season marked by upheaval in the rotation. Chris Carpenter is done. Jaime Garcia went down with a torn labrum in May. Jake Westbrook has made two trips to the disabled list, and Lance Lynn posted a 5.19 ERA from June through August. But Miller and Joe Kelly stepped in and provided stability behind Adam Wainwright in the St. Louis rotation.

There's no secret to Miller's success. According to FanGraphs, he ranks ninth in the majors with an average fastball velocity of 93.7 mph. He also throws his fastball 71.1 percent of the time. Among major league starters, only Bartolo Colon, Justin Masterson and Lynn rely more heavily on the fastball.

Signature achievements: Miller's most impressive outing of the season came at Busch Stadium on May 10, when he allowed a leadoff single to Eric Young Jr., then set down 27 Rockies in a row. Miller's 166 strikeouts place him third on the St. Louis rookie strikeout list behind Rick Ankiel and Dizzy Dean. His 14 wins are the most by a Cardinals rookie since Dick Hughes went 16-6 in 1967.

The general manager's take: "Clearly, when you think about Shelby's season, what stands out is that he will be able to go wire-to-wire," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said in an email. "With young starters, that is one of the bigger hurdles to get by. Shelby has always been a talent, and expectations have been high. He learned a lot from his minor league experience and that's helped him grow into the pitcher he is now. Given the injuries our rotation sustained, having him step in and contribute like he has was critical to our success."

Outlook: It's a pick 'em between Teheran and Miller for the third spot behind Fernandez and Puig.

5. Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers (13-7, 3.03 ERA)

Ryu outlasted Josh Beckett, Ted Lilly, Chad Billingsley, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano to emerge as the Dodgers' No. 3 starter behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. He has dealt with some back issues of late, but still has a 2.94 ERA since the All-Star break. Ricky Nolasco appeared to be moving ahead of him in the postseason pecking order, but the Dodgers might want to stick with Ryu now that Nolasco has been shelled in his past two outings.

As a 6-foot-2, 255-pound lefty with a diverse repertoire and natural strike-throwing ability, Ryu has generated lots of comparisons to David Wells. Ryu has a 3-0 record, 1.64 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 33 innings this season against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis -- the National League's other four playoff teams. That bodes well for him to make a positive contribution in October.

"We had scouted him since he was 18 and had more information on him than any international player we have signed," GM Ned Colletti said in an email. "He competes very well, adjusts mid-game and challenges hitters. He is one of those people who rises to the level of the competition. He's got a great sense of humor, and even though there is some language barrier, he has become a favorite of many in the room."

Signature achievements: Ryu ranks among the NL's top rookie starters in innings pitched (181), strikeouts (144), ERA (3.03) and wins (13). With one more win, he'll tie Kazuhisa Ishii for second-most victories by a Dodgers rookie starter behind Rick Sutcliffe, who set the franchise standard with 17 wins in 1979.

The manager's take: Opponents are hitting .216 against Ryu with runners in scoring position. "He throws the ball around the plate, [and] he's going to give up some hits," Don Mattingly told the Los Angeles Times. "But he's a guy who knows what he's doing. He pitches out of trouble. This guy can pitch."

Outlook: Ryu was a seven-time All-Star in the Korea Baseball Organization and signed for $36 million as a free agent last winter, so the Dodgers had reason to expect an immediate contribution. At 26, he's more experienced and significantly more advanced than the kid pitchers competing with him for the NL's top rookie award. A top-five finish is probably the best he can expect.

Others of note

• Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals: He ranks third among National League relievers in strikeouts behind Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. It's only a matter of time before he's St. Louis' closer.

Gerrit Cole
Cole

• Gerrit Cole, Pirates: Cole has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 17 of his 18 starts. He has recorded 28 strikeouts in his past 20 innings, and should be in line for a spot in the postseason rotation if the Pirates advance beyond the wild-card round. Cole's velocity is undeniable. Now, all of a sudden, he's finding a way to miss bats.

• Jedd Gyorko, Padres: When Gyorko (pronounced Jerk-o) went deep against Edinson Volquez on Friday, he joined Joe Gordon, Dan Uggla, Alexei Ramirez and Danny Espinosa as the fifth second baseman in history to hit 20 homers as a rookie. Padres beat writer Corey Brock came up with one of the signature Tweets of the year when he heralded each Gyorko long ball with #GyorkStoreCalled on Twitter.

• Matt Adams, Cardinals: Adams, a former NCAA Division II batting champion at Slippery Rock University, ranks second to Puig among rookies with a .498 slugging percentage. Will the Cardinals be able to get him more than 300 at-bats next season?

• Evan Gattis, Braves: Gattis leads all rookies with 59 RBIs and is tied for first with Gyorko with 20 homers. His 486-foot blast off Cole Hamels in Philadelphia is the longest homer in baseball this season. "I felt like I was throwing a golf ball and he had a driver," Hamels said later.

Nolan Arenado
Arenado

• Nolan Arenado, Rockies: Arenado ranks eighth among big league third basemen with a 3.9 WAR thanks in large part to his defense. He's second only to Baltimore's Manny Machado in the Fielding Bible's plus-minus rankings with 36 runs saved at third.

• Tony Cingrani, Reds: Cingrani helped the Reds weather the absence of Johnny Cueto with a 2.92 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 104 2/3 innings. He hasn't pitched in two weeks because of back spasms.

• Jim Henderson, Brewers: Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett and Wily Peralta have all had their moments in Milwaukee. But Henderson ranks first among rookie closers with 26 saves.

• Paco Rodriguez, Dodgers: Rodriguez, a second-round pick out of the University of Florida in 2012, has been a major weapon from the left side. Lefty hitters are batting .125 (12-for-96) with 42 strikeouts against him this season.

• Justin Wilson, Pirates: Opponents are batting .194 against Wilson, who hasn't allowed a hit in 25 of his 56 appearances.