AL Rookie of the Year: First impressions

Jeff Passan

Terry Francona, employing the diplomacy of a seasoned politician, sidestepped the question.

Who, it was posed to the Boston Red Sox manager, should be the American League Rookie of the Year?

"At some point, it'll be fun to talk about," Francona said. "It makes for great debate."

Translation: He would not choose among Daisuke Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and Dustin Pedroia.

Each is a legitimate candidate as baseball heads into September, where the award can be won (Ryan Howard, 2005) or lost (Dan Uggla, 2006). The usual storylines will permeate. Do players on the same team split votes? Pitcher or everyday player? How much does fielding matter?

"And, of course," Francona said, "there will be that argument against the Japanese players."

All those questions are pertinent in the AL, which boasts a deep class and no surefire favorite. So much so that were the voting held today, none of the three Red Sox would be the best choice.

1. Brian Bannister, SP, Kansas City – Royals general manager Dayton Moore stole the 26-year-old from the Mets for Ambiorix Burgos this offseason and has seen him grow into one of baseball's great anomalies. Bannister doesn't strike batters out (72 in 148 1/3 innings) and yet he doesn't give up many hits (135). His stuff is average (88-mph fastball), yet the results are anything but (nine home runs allowed, third-fewest in the AL among regular starters). In 18 of his 23 starts, Bannister has gone at least six innings, and his 3.16 ERA is tops for a rookie and fourth in the AL. If Bannister holds form, this could be a lot like Angel Berroa in 2003. Ultimately, he may not be the best player in his class. In his rookie season, though, he has been.

2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Boston – Considered putting him first, and not just because of the underdog factor, however alluring it may be. One look at Pedroia and you think: David Eckstein. One look at his numbers and you think: A lot better than David Eckstein. Pedroia's .324 batting average ranks eighth in the AL, his .393 on-base percentage 11th and his .447 slugging percentage stacks up well against the roster of powerful second basemen. Pedroia's defense is solid too, whether measuring with traditional stats (five errors) or sabermetric (four fielding runs above average). For those who believe an everyday player should win the award, Pedroia is the guy. The best player, period? It's been Bannister.

3. Daisuke Matsuzaka, SP, Boston – Before consulting the numbers, he seemed a shoo-in for the award. For a six-stretch start from June to early July, he was probably the best pitcher in baseball. Yet despite his gaudy strikeout numbers (174 in 176 1/3 innings), Matsuzaka has given up five or more runs in seven of his 27 starts. Yes, his ERA is still a respectable 3.88. Yes, his 13 victories lead rookies and his VORP and WARP3 are tops in the AL. Yes, he plays an important role on a pennant-contending team. All of those count for something. Just not enough. (And, for what it's worth, this had nothing to do with Matsuzaka's years in Japan. If he's the best rookie here, he's the best rookie here. Though the margin is slim, he hasn't been.)

4. Hideki Okajima, RP, Boston – This may very well underrate Okajima and his dominance. In his 62 1/3 innings as the Red Sox's primary setup man, opponents have hit .182. His ERA is 1.59 (and was 1.17 before he imploded against the Yankees earlier this week). He has stranded 21 of 24 inherited runners. He has been the best middle reliever in baseball. That said, he remains just that: a relief pitcher. And no matter how high-leverage the situation, he has pitched one-third the innings of Matsuzaka. Relievers deserve to win if they dominate among a barren rookie crop. That doesn't apply.

5. Jeremy Guthrie, SP, Baltimore – The King of the No-Decision has 12 in 23 starts – and in those games, his ERA is 2.95. Unless Guthrie wins all his September starts, his misleading 7-5 record will keep him from getting votes. However great a story his emergence is, it won't get due credit because his team and bullpen stink.

6. Joakim Soria, RP, Kansas City – Another unlikely story: Plucked from San Diego in the Rule 5 draft after a scout watched him dominate the Mexican League, Soria played setup man before inheriting the closer role after the Royals traded Octavio Dotel. He might throw the best cutter this side of Mariano Rivera, sawing off a few dozen bats as opponents hit just .197 against him.

7. Josh Fields, 3B/LF, Chicago – Since Fields hit his first home run a week after the White Sox recalled him in early June, only Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, Chris Young, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Peña and Lance Berkman have hit more home runs than his 17. If Fields didn't have other issues – 103 strikeouts in 295 at-bats, sub-.300 on-base percentage and atrocious team – he might challenge for the award.

8. Delmon Young, RF, Tampa Bay – Considering that Young is only 21 years old, his numbers – .294 batting average, AL-rookie-best 71 RBIs – look rather good. Still, he has shown neither the pop (10 home runs) nor the speed (seven stolen bases) that made him such a can't-miss prospect.

9. Reggie Willits, OF, Los Angeles – One of these days, Willits might hit a home run. Until then, he can get by on playing the slap-hitting, free-wheeling, base-stealing menace he turned into this season when the Angels handed him an outfield job. Guess all that work at the batting cage in his house helped, as his .397 on-base percentage is seventh in the AL and 25 stolen bases eighth.

10. Alex Gordon, 3B, Kansas City – Over teammate Billy Butler, Tampa Bay infielders Akinori Iwamura and Brendan Harris, Oakland outfielder Travis Buck and relievers Brandon Morrow (Seattle) and Rafael Perez (Cleveland). Since the All-Star break, Gordon has slugged over .500, and his two home runs Sunday gave him 14, second among AL rookies behind Fields. No question, Gordon has disappointed. Along with Matsuzaka, he entered the season as the favorite. And not even he could have predicted that two of his teammates – and, depending on Butler's September, perhaps a third – would have eclipsed him along the way.