Looking at the American League's Top Rookies

We are officially at the quarter mark to the 2008 baseball season. Sure, it has been a relatively small sample size, but there have many surprises in baseball this year, from the Florida Marlins' success to Cliff Lee's dominance on the mound for the Cleveland Indians. And, while it is still early, it is a good time to look at the ongoing race for the Rookie of the Year in the American League.

We are officially at the quarter mark to the 2008 baseball season. Sure, it has been a relatively small sample size, and we are not even in June yet. But there have many surprises in baseball this year, from the Florida Marlins' success to Cliff Lee's dominance on the mound for the Cleveland Indians.

And, while it is still only May, it is perhaps the perfect time to look at the ongoing race for the Rookie of the Year Award in the American League. Headed into the season, I came up with a list of seven up-and-coming prospects who had a legitimate chance of taking home the hardware for the league's top rookie. Let us look at how they have performed to this point.

Daric Barton--The Oakland Athletics have been a surprise team this season, and are hovering around the top of the standings in the AL West. (With Billy Beane at the reins, though, how can one ever be truly surprised?) Barton, however, has not played a major factor in the team's success, posting a line of .221/.335/.331 in 46 games. Which means that, yes, his slugging percentage sits lower than his OBP.

Following the 2004 season, Barton was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals as one of the cornerstones in the trade that ended Mark Mulder's days in Oakland. Regarded as a top hitting prospect in the Cardinals' farm system, he caught the eye of Billy Beane for his eye--at the plate, that is; he has compiled 333 walks in five minor league seasons. He has consistently posted strong OBPs in the minors, so expect that stat to rise for him as the season progresses. His time in the majors represents too small of a sample size to truly judge his effectiveness as an offensive player at this level, though the A's need for him to start producing--he has hit only two home runs--if they wish to remain the in the division race in the long run.

Clay Buchholz--Before being placed on the disabled list on May 14, Buchholz had struggled in his first full season in Boston, compiling a 2-3 record and 5.53 ERA in eight games started. However, his 43-to-20 K/BB ratio says he is pitching better than his record indicates. In fact, minus three ineffective outings--in which he allowed seven runs on eight hits in 3.2 innings in a rough start against the New York Yankees in April, and his two turns in the rotation prior to injury--he has allowed only seven earned runs, combined.

Buchholz's brief time on the DL perhaps will end up as a blessing in disguise for the Red Sox. Unintentionally, the stint will limit the 23-year-old right-hander's innings by default, potentially saving his arm for when the Red Sox need it the most--the postseason. And for a pitcher who has yet to throw more than 150 innings in one year, the unexpected rest in the middle of the season might pay off in the long run. In his absence, Bartolo Colon and Justin Masterson are vying for spots in a depleted starting rotation. Buchholz, who threw a no-hitter last September, is a question mark heading into the second-half, though he should be in the thick of the AL ROY race if Boston is to walk away with an AL East title. The favorite entering spring training, he still has a strong chance of keeping the hardware in Boston (Dustin Pedroia took home ROY honors in '07), despite his early-season struggles.

Joba Chamberlain--Hank Steinbrenner stirred up a frenzy this April with his comments regarding Chamberlain's role with the Yankees. "I want him as a starter and so does everyone else, including him, and that is what we are working toward and we need him there now. There is no question about it, you don't have a guy with a 100-mile-per-hour fastball and keep him as a setup guy. You just don't do that. You have to be an idiot to do that," Steinbrenner told the New York Times. The Yankees' baseball operations staff did not agree with the new Boss' outlook on the matter, however, insisting on keeping the rookie phenom in the bullpen until it was the absolute right time to make the switch.

Weeks later, the right-hander from Nebraska remains in the setup role, offering a valuable link to New York closer Mariano Rivera. He was dominant in his debut at the end of last season, shutting down hitters with ease to push the Yankees into the postseason. There was talk that he would transform into a starter during spring training all winter, but general manager Brian Cashman instead plans to let Chamberlain work his way into a starting role as the season progresses. Although there is no time table for his debut as a starter just yet, it may come soon.

Phil Hughes has been ineffective. To say the least. Ian Kennedy has been a major disappointment as well, causing many baseball people--from scouts to executives in other organizations--to wonder if he ever had as much promise as the Yankees let on. Thus, the Yankees find themselves in the last place in the AL East. Which is why the urge to place Chamberlain in the rotation is perhaps stronger than ever.

Yet Chamberlain remains in the 'pen for the time being. Too add to the drama, he has faced adversity for the first time of his young career, struggling at times earlier this season. He has still been invaluable to New York, however, posting a 2.66 ERA in 18 appearances to consistently help the Yankee hold onto leads late in games.

Update: Following the Yankees' 8-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday, New York manager Joe Girardi announced that the organization will begin grooming Chamberlain as a starter. A move to the rotation will undoubtedly give the hard-throwing youngster a chance to make more of an impact for the Yankees down the stretch, increasing the odds for Chamberlain to take home Rookie of the Year honors in 2008.

Jacoby Ellsbury--Ellsbury made one of the best catches of the season on Monday night, helping teammate and cancer survivor Jon Lester preserve his no-hitter in Boston's 7-0 win over the Kansas City Royals. Excluding that one highlight-reel play, he has "added a new dimension" to the Red Sox lineup--speed. He successfully swiped 25 bags to start his career before being gunned down by Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jason Kendall over the weekend, setting a club record.

The fleet-footed center fielder is producing to the tune of .290/.390/.428, consistently getting on base to set the table for one of the game's most potent offenses. While it is true he has several great hitters batting behind him, it is hard to ignore that he is second in the AL with 38 runs scored--a direct result of his stellar on-base percentage, .390, currently seventh in the league. He is also second in the AL, trailing only Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, with 19 stolen bases. The first Native American of Navajo descent to play in the majors, he collected three hits, including his fourth home run, and scored three runs to lead the Red Sox to a 6-3 victory over the Royals on Wednesday night, providing all the offensive support needed for his new teammate, Colon, who collected his first win in a Boston uniform.

Ian Kennedy--As mentioned above, Kennedy's ineffectiveness this spring has been a real cause for concern for Cashman and the Yankees. He was a polished pitcher coming out of the University of Southern California in 2006, meaning his upside was never really all that great to begin with. In fact, some scouts wonder how much he will improve, if at all. In the minors, he has posted impressive numbers, relying more on control and command than pure stuff.

A finesse pitcher, Kennedy needs to consistently hit his spots to have a chance of succeeding at the highest level, relying on excellent control to remain effective. Even when his command is on, though, he still profiles as more of a back-of-the-rotation starter--certainly not an ace.

Yet the control has not been there for Kennedy, yet, and six weeks into the season he is 0-3 with an 8.48 ERA in seven games started, has walked more than he has struck out (19-to-21 K/BB), and has already been sent down once to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Evan Longoria--Longoria recently inked a long-term deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, who are off to their best start in franchise history, owning the fourth-best record (27-20) in the majors. And while he has had his fair share of struggles at the plate as he adjusts to big-league pitching--..246/ .329/.437--he is a big reason why. A major upgrade defensively at third base for one the majors' most-improved infield defenses, he currently sits in the top five of Baseball Prospectus' range factor and zone ratings at his position, and with only two errors in 102 total chances, his .980 fielding percentage ranks second among American League third baseman.

Longoria has also delivered in several clutch situations at the plate for Tampa Bay, including his two-run, walk-off home run in the Rays' win over the Los Angeles Angels on May 9. Look for him to stay in the thick of the AL ROY race all summer, perhaps helping the Rays remain in postseason contention throughout.

My Prediction--Longoria: Look for him to make the necessary adjustments offensively to make an impact for the Rays this summer.

Radio Appearance May 31: On Saturday, May 31, Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will make an appearance on Sarasota Sunny 1220 talk radio to discuss the Tampa Bay Rays' hot start. Hissey will go into more detail on the AL Rookie of the Year race while offering his take on all of the latest news surrounding the first-place Rays on Sports Café with Sean Duade, beginning at 3:40. Click here to listen live.

To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to Tyler Hissey@gmail.com.

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