MINORS: 2012 AL/NL Rookie of the Year Candidates

(This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2012 edition of USA Today SportsWeekly.)

Now that the dust has settled on spring training and 25-man rosters have been finalized, we can get a clearer picture of the likely candidates for the 2012 AL and NL Rookie of the Year Awards.  While there are plenty of high-profile prospects expected to be the early pace-setters, the rookie of the year field is notoriously difficult to handicap.  Last year, few prognosticators saw Vance Worley, Ivan Nova, or Josh Collmenter as likely ROY contenders, but all three finished in the top 5 in voting.

This year, the American League has four strong contenders for the award and it would be a major upset if one of didn’t come home with the hardware.  The four favorites are the Rays Matt Moore (LHP), Japanese sensation Yu Darvish (RHP), the recently-traded Jesus Montero (C/DH, SEA), and Cuban CF Yoenis Cespedes (OF). 

Moore is a 22-year-old lefty with plus raw stuff.  Last year, he used a 92-96 mph fastball, a good curve, a slider, and an improved change-up to dominate hitters, going 12-3 with a 1.92 ERA while striking out 210 batters 155 IP.  Moore had one start in the majors, striking out 11 in 5 shutout innings against the Yankees and then threw a gem against the Rangers in first round of the playoffs.

Speaking of the Rangers, the club made one of the boldest off-season moves when they signed Darvish to a 6-year, $60 million deal.  The 25-year-old Darvish is arguably the most talented pitcher to come out of Japan and has five above-average offerings, including a 92-95 mph fastball, a curve, change-up, and a filthy slider.  Darvish might hit some rough patches over the course of the hot summer in Arlington, but he should win plenty of games with a sub-4.00 ERA.

The Oakland A’s were also busy in the off-season, signing Cuban defector Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million deal.  Cespedes is an exciting 26-year-old who can do a bit of everything on the baseball field.  If Cespedes learns to be more selective at the plate, he has the raw tools to be the next .300, 20/20 hitter.  He might not do that in his first full-season in the majors, but he has that kind of potential.

The Mariners surprised many when they traded their own 23-year-old All-Star, Michael Pineda, to the Yankees for the offensive-minded Montero.  Montero seemed as though he was stagnating in his second stint at Triple-A in 2011, but showed his offensive upside when he hit .328 with a .590 slugging percentage in 61 late-season AB with the Yankees.  Safeco is a much less hitter-friendly ballpark, but Montero is one of the best pure hitters in the minors and should quickly develop into a solid middle-of-the-order run-producer for the Mariners.

Other potential contenders include the multi-talented Mike Trout (OF, LAA) and reliever Addison Reed (RHP, CHW).  Trout struggled with illness and injury this spring and for now is stuck playing CF for Triple-A Salt Lake, but a slow start by Vernon Wells or a trade could see Trout back in the majors by mid-May.  The White Sox closer role is currently being filled by fellow rookie Hector Santiago, but Reed has the best stuff in the Sox pen and in 2011 he posted an ERA of 1.26 and struck out 111 batters in just 78.1 IP.  If Reed gets a chance to close, he will have plenty of value.

Dark-horse candidates in the AL include Tom Milone (RHP, OAK) and Drew Smyly (LHP, DET). Neither one has tremendous upside, but both are strike throwers and have secured rotation spots.  Milone’s fastball rarely breaks 88 mph, but his curve and change-up are above-average and he keeps putting up impressive results.  In 86 career minor league starts, Milone has an ERA of 3.05 with 84 BB/465 K, and a WHIP of 1.14.  Smyly does an excellent job of keeping hitters off balance and pounding the strike zone.  In 2011, he was 11-6 with a 2.07 ERA.  He walked just 30 while striking out 130 in 126 IP between High-A and Double-A.

The NL ROY race is much more wide-open.  Few of the elite prospects in the NL enter the season with a clear path to regular playing time.  Bryce Harper (OF, WAS) is the top prospect in baseball, but will start the season at Triple-A Syracuse as he polishes his game and works on adjusting to CF.  Still, Harper is talented enough that even with as little as a half-season of AB, he could be the most valuable rookie in the NL.

Of those NL prospects that will start the season in the majors, Drew Pomeranz (LHP, COL), Zack Cozart (SS, CIN), Yonder Alsonso (1B, SD), and Randall Delgado (RHP, ATL) are the front-runners. 

Pomeranz was one of the key pieces in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade.  The 23-year-old lefty features a 90-94 mph fastball with better than expected control.  He locates the ball well in the bottom-half of the strike zone, has good secondary offerings, and some nice deception.  Pomeranz gave up just one earned run in 17 IP this spring and is one of the most polished pitching prospects in baseball.

The 22-year-old Delgado did not pitch particularly well this spring (7.89 ERA), but his main competition, Julio Teheran (RHP, ATL), was even worse.  Delgado has plus stuff that includes a 92-94 mph fastball, but struggles with control.  If he can learn to throws strikes more consistently, he has some nice upside, but there could some growing pains here.

Alonso brings his sweet left-handed stroke to PETCO, where San Diego has handed him the starting 1B job.  There are many who speculate that Alonso’s line-drive stroke will result in below-average power in his new home park, but he did hit .330 with a .545 slugging percentage in 88 late-season AB in Cincinnati—including a .440 average away from home.  Don’t be surprised if Alonso puts up better than expected power numbers just like his predecessor in San Diego, Adrian Gonzalez.

Cozart isn’t the flashiest prospect around, and at 26 he is older than most of his NL competitors, but he is a strong defender who puts the ball into play and has above-average speed.  Cozart has shown glimpses of power in the past and Cincinnati will be a great place to see extended action.  Cozart isn’t the best prospect in the NL, but he could accumulate the best stats in 2012.

Two of the best catching prospects in baseball, Willin Rosario (C, COL) and Devin Mesoraco (C, CIN) could factor could contend for the award if they can somehow get enough AB.  Rosario is a high-energy backstop with the best throwing arm in the minors and plus power potential.  In 2011, he hit 21 home runs in 405 AB and is fully recovered from a torn ACL in 2010.  For now he will back up veteran Ramon Hernandez, but Rosario was red-hot this spring (.404 with 6 doubles and 4 home runs) and could put up solid numbers in Coors Field. 

Likewise, Mesoraco will open the season as the Reds #2 backstop behind Ryan Hanigan, but Mesoraco is a future middle-of-the-order hitter and could take over the starting role by mid-season.  Regular AB in Great American Ballpark could translate into plenty of ROY votes come October.

Among the dark horse candidates:

Bryan LaHair (1B, CHC) and Tyler Pastornicky (SS, ATL) don’t get a lot of love in the scouting community and have better long-term options (Anthony Rizzo and Andrelton Simmons) waiting for them to fail, but the fact is that they enter the season with full-time roles and have had success in the past. 

Nolan Arenado (3B, COL) and Trevor Bauer (RHP, ARI) are two of the best prospects in baseball, but are currently stuck in the minors and have yet to play at Double-A.  Still given the glaring hole at 3B in Colorado and the disastrous spring Josh Collmenter has had for the Diamondbacks, it isn’t too difficult to envision a scenario where one or both of them see extended major league action in 2012.

Finally, the Cardinals Lance Lynn (RHP) will fill in for the injured Chris Carpenter.  In theory Carpenter will be back in a couple of months, but for now the Cardinals have not yet set an official time-table for his return.  Lynn had a solid season in the Cardinals pen in 2011 (3.12 ERA in 18 appearances) and the Cardinals do have a track record of converting relievers into effective starters.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.