Twelve players last season garnered votes in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting, a testament to the depth of a class that played second fiddle to the flashy first-year pitchers in the American League.
Oh, well. History will smile on the NL Class of '06 and may well deem it the greatest ever.
Think that's an exaggeration? Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins, the award's winner, is the best offensive shortstop in baseball. Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers is among the game's three best power hitters. Russell Martin is already a Los Angeles Dodgers fixture. The bat of the Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman matches his impermeable glove.
And since that's enough fawning, names alone should suffice: sluggers Dan Uggla, Josh Willingham and Mike Jacobs, not to mention pitchers Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Chad Billingsley, John Maine, Adam Wainwright, Rich Hill, Scott Olsen, Takashi Saito, Jonathan Broxton, Matt Capps and Carlos Marmol.
Which brings us to this year, one of depth, yes, though not of wavering when it comes to the vote. Everyone's playing for second, unless the favorite's poor fielding somehow deters Baseball Writers Association of America voters.
Not terribly likely. Though for fun, we outlined the 10 best rookies in the NL so far this season anyway. Here they are, with the AL handicaps to come Monday.
1) Ryan Braun, 3B, Milwaukee – First, the obvious. Braun's offensive numbers are as prolific as we've seen from a rookie since 2001.
That is good company. His fielding, on the other hand, is unfathomably bad. He has 20 errors, the fourth-most in the major leagues and as many as Miguel Cabrera, who ate his way out of infield reputability a while ago. Braun's range factor and zone rating are far and away the worst for everyday third basemen, and, as Rich Lederer points out, he could become the fourth third baseman since 1916 to finish with a sub-.900 fielding percentage. Still, his offensive numbers are too significant to ignore. A switch to outfield can wait. A trophy beckons.
Rather favorable. And considering that the numbers suggest Tulowitzki is turning in one of the greatest fielding seasons ever for a shortstop – and scouts, though not so effusive, say he has played Gold Glove-caliber defense – he is a worthy contender.His incredible 5.55 range factor and 17 fielding runs above average rank with some Ozzie Smith's best seasons and are better than any of Omar Vizquel's.
3) Chris Young, CF, Arizona Diamondbacks – Young may very well hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases and not garner a single vote in the balloting. Such is life when your batting average hovers close to the Mendoza Line and your on-base percentage can't crack .300. And yet only six players have put up a 30-30 seasons this decade, putting Young in elite company if he can hit two more home runs and steal nine more bases.
4) Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants – Combine AL rookies Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jeremy Guthrie and you've got Lincecum. The whirling dervish has a won-loss record like Guthrie (7-4) and other numbers like Matsuzaka (more than a strikeout an inning, .218 opponents' batting average, 3.94 ERA). Best of all: He's four years younger than Matsuzaka and five years younger than Guthrie.
5) Hunter Pence, CF, Houston Astros – A wrist injury stole a month of Pence's season and any chance he had at the award. When he went on the disabled list, his numbers stacked up well against Braun's, he had invigorated a moribund Astros lineup and some considered him the favorite. Not anymore, and going 7 for 31 with one RBI since his return hasn't helped.
6) Kevin Cameron, RP, San Diego Padres – So what if the Padres lost Joakim Soria to the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 draft? They picked up Cameron from Minnesota, and he has turned into the Hideki Okajima of the NL, albeit in lower-pressure situations. Cameron carried a 0.00 ERA until the end of May and still is at 1.45, despite allowing 69 baserunners in 49 2/3 innings. Will it last? Never can tell with relievers. But it doesn't diminish what he has done.
7) Josh Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds – Only two disabled-list stints kept Hamilton this low. When he does play, the numbers sparkle: 17 home runs and a .920 OPS in 257 at-bats. His comeback from drug addiction has been well-documented. That doesn't make what Hamilton has done this season any less miraculous.
8) Peter Moylan, RP, Atlanta Braves – Who? Oh, just the best reliever no one knows – and nearly as good a story as Hamilton. Moylan, a fireballing sidearmer, was a pharmaceutical salesman who pitched well enough for Australia in the World Baseball Classic to get a sniff from the Braves. Now, a year after signing with them, he's an invaluable part of their bullpen, posting a 1.95 ERA in 73 2/3 innings.
9) Kyle Kendrick, SP, Philadelphia Phillies – The Brian Bannister of the NL. With only 31 strikeouts in 88 innings, only Steve Trachsel is worse at fanning hitters in the major leagues. Yet since his debut in June, Kendrick has plugged a hole in the Phillies' rotation and gone 7-3 with a 3.91 ERA. The 7.26 runs per game certainly have helped, as has his 1.54-to-1 groundball-to-flyball ratio.
10) Micah Owings, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks – Owings' .617 slugging percentage ranks second to Braun, which would be wonderful if he weren't a pitcher. He's done all right on the mound too, throwing 124 2/3 innings of 4.69 ERA ball. Owings' bat, however, deserves special recognition: four home runs, a triple and two doubles in 47 at-bats – and, perhaps, a two-pronged role next season.
- Ryan Braun