As the long, winding road towards the regular season approaches, all 30 Major League Baseball teams are making final decisions that will include some of the top prospects in the game getting a well-deserved spot on the 25-man roster.
One of the biggest moves that was finally announced, though most had suspected this was coming a month ago, was the St. Louis Cardinals naming 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller as the No. 5 starter in the rotation.
Miller was one of three pitchers—Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal were the other two—battling for that last spot. Rosenthal was told on March 7 (h/t HardballTimes.com) he would pitch out of the bullpen when the season started.
As the spring moved on, Miller separated himself from Kelly in two ways. One, Miller just has more talent than Kelly, and he was ready to make a full-time move from Triple-A to the big leagues. Two, Miller had a better spring—his stuff was better and controlled all of his pitches, even though he still struggles to command them in the zone.
Now, with Miller filling out the Cardinals' rotation, the National League Rookie of the Year race is starting to come into focus. Preseason predictions will start trickling out over the next few days, and Rookie of the Year is always one of the most difficult to predict because so much of it depends on playing time.
Those players who start the season in the big leagues are going to have a decided advantage over everyone else. Winning this award is as much about playing time as it is performance.
That is why when you look at the current field in the National League, there are three different tiers to look at when trying to decide which player will have the best debut season.
Here is a look at the current field for the National League Rookie of the Year in light of the news that Miller will start the season with the Cardinals.
|Shelby Miller, SP, St. Louis Cardinals|
|Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves|
|Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego Padres|
What separates these three
As mentioned before, the key to winning Rookie of the Year is having a job. Miller immediately vaults to the top of the list because of his raw stuff, upside and ability to turn a lineup over three times.
It is harder for a starting pitcher to win Rookie of the Year because there are certain stats that (most) voters still look at that might not seem that impressive. It is only when you do some digging that you can really see how good a pitcher was.
For instance, some voters actually think that pitcher wins and losses are a proper way to measure success. Miller and Teheran both play on teams that should score a lot and win a lot of games, but that doesn't really tell us anything about how they pitched.
Innings pitched, strikeouts, FIP and xFIP are far better indicators of what a pitcher did on the mound, and we have seen a slow shift towards those stats among the voting populace.
Miller ranked No. 14 on B/R's Top 100 Prospect List entering 2013. Mike Rosenbaum wrote that the right-hander has an arm that "explodes toward the plate" and is able to "work inside to both right- and left-handed hitters."
His biggest problems right now are commanding his fastball in the zone and finding a more consistent changeup. As long as he keeps the ball down in the zone, which really plagued him last season when he gave up 24 home runs in 136.2 innings at Triple-A, he should be at least a league-average starter this season.
Teheran has had a number of ups and downs in the last two years. He started 2011 as the best right-handed pitching prospect in baseball, but his breaking ball was a point of some concern. He never really found it, making his fastball-changeup combination less dominant as a result.
It also didn't help that Teheran struggled to command his fastball in the zone. He never really ironed out those issues two years ago, lowering his stock a bit heading into 2012. He allowed 190 baserunners in 131 innings pitched at Triple-A.
This spring has been almost the re-birth of Teheran, even though he is just 22 years old. It is hard to put a lot of stock in spring stats, but the Columbian-born righty has given up just seven hits, nine walks and struck out 35 in 26 innings.
More important than that is the way Teheran has looked. His curveball looks like a legitimate weapon for the first time in his career. His fastball is still a plus pitch and he is finally keeping it down in the zone on a regular basis.
Because of his performance, the Braves rewarded Teheran by naming him their No. 5 starter to open the season.
As impressive as this spring has been, we still have to see Teheran actually show what he can do when the games count. But right now he looks like as safe a bet as any rookie to perform this season.
The final favorite is actually someone who has yet to officially earn a starting job. San Diego's Jedd Gyorko seems like a strong candidate to open the season at third base in light of the injury to Chase Headley.
Gyorko has played a lot this spring, appearing in 22 games so far and putting up a .286/.308/.508 slash line. He doesn't have the upside of Miller or Teheran but might end up being better right away because of his approach to hitting.
Despite hitting 30 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season, Gyorko projects to be more of an average hitter with the potential for average power. He controls the strike zone really well, using an easy, controlled swing that doesn't have a lot of torque or extraneous movement.
Even though PetCo Park is where hitters go to die, Gyorko might have the kind of approach and hitting style that will get him noticed in a rookie class that doesn't seem loaded with talent right now.
|Adam Eaton, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks|
|Gerrit Cole, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Cody Asche, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies|
Why these three belong in the conversation
Eaton would have been in the first group—in fact, he was my choice for the award—if he hadn't injured his elbow and will be out for at least 6-8 weeks. That means he won't be back until early May, if the six-week time frame holds up. If it takes eight weeks, he won't be back until the end of the month.
A model of Arizona's new philosophy, Eaton should hit at the top of the lineup upon returning. He has a great approach at the plate, thanks to above-average bat speed and bat control. He is more of a slap hitter, amassing doubles and triples with his plus speed than home runs.
Playing center field, with plus range and an above-average arm, also helps Eaton's case. The value of an up-the-middle player who can hit .280 with a .350 on-base percentage is extremely high.
As long as Eaton returns on time without sustaining another injury that costs him at-bats, he could easily end up in the conversation with Miller and Teheran for Rookie of the Year.
Even though Cole could step into the Pirates' rotation out of spring training and be their best pitcher, the team made the right decision to send him down to Triple-A for the start of the season.
For starters, Cole still has to work on commanding his plus-plus fastball. It doesn't move much, so big league hitters can catch up to it if his changeup and/or slider isn't working. His changeup will end up being his best pitch, if it isn't already.
Really, because he has the kind of body you want from a potential No. 1 starter, Cole should be able to drive the ball into the plate instead of releasing it early and letting hitters get a longer look at it.
Still, given the raw stuff he already has, Cole could come up in May or June and miss a lot of bats before the league is able to adjust to him. It shouldn't take long before the Pirates are giving him a shot in their rotation.
Cody Asche is a prospect flying under the radar right now, but he is here for two very good reasons.
First, Asche is a solid hitter. He has quick hands, bat speed and a little loft to his swing that will allow him to hit for some power. He isn't loaded with offensive upside, but he is a contact hitter who can drive the ball into the gap.
Second, and more importantly, Michael Young will enter the season as the Phillies starting third baseman. This is the same Michael Young who has been a terrible defensive player for his entire career, posted a .312 on-base and .370 slugging percentage and was worth -1.4 Wins Above Replacement (per Fangraphs).
Even Asche, who probably isn't quite ready for the big leagues after just 263 at-bats at Double-A, would be worth more to the Phillies than Young. There is also the great possibility that Young gets hurt, because he is 36 and playing a physically demanding position once again.
Jeff Schuler of the Lehigh Morning Call wrote that the Phillies have been very impressed with Asche this spring, and he could be getting a call sooner rather than later if he keeps it up.
If the Phillies give Asche a shot to grab the third-base job if/when Young loses it, he could be a solid hitting rookie with a good glove at the hot corner.
|THE DARK-HORSE CONTENDERS|
|Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals|
|Travis d'Arnaud, C, New York Mets|
|Tyler Skaggs, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks|
Why these three can sneak up on you
Oscar Taveras is the best pure hitter in the minors right now. He torched Double-A last season as a 20-year-old, hitting .321/.380/.572 in 124 games. His bat control is incredible, as is his plate coverage.
At his peak, Taveras will be one of the best hitters in baseball and an annual MVP candidate. That doesn't mean much for finding his value in 2013, however.
It is a long-shot that Taveras gets enough playing time to make a dent in Rookie of the Year voting, as the Cardinals are loaded in the outfield right now, and he has yet to play a game in Triple-A.
However, when you look at what Carlos Beltran did in the second half—.206/.302/.440—and how frail he has been in recent years, Taveras could be destined for St. Louis quicker than you think. But 2014 will probably be the time when he is guaranteed an everyday job and is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
When Travis d'Arnaud was traded to the New York Mets in the R.A. Dickey deal, the team finally hoped it had found the franchise catcher it has been looking for since Mike Piazza left.
Unsurprisingly, the Mets sent d'Arnaud down to Triple-A for the start of the season. He is coming off a knee injury that limited him to just 67 games last year.
In fact, injuries are the only thing holding d'Arnaud back. If he hadn't gotten hurt last season, Toronto would undoubtedly have called him up as the injuries to that team kept piling up.
In his career, d'Arnaud has played in more than 100 games just twice and only cracked the 70-game barrier three times. The 24-year-old catcher has to prove he can stay healthy before getting an everyday job in Queens.
Skaggs had a chance to win a job out of spring training, but he struggled mightily and finds himself back in Triple-A to start the season. The left-hander gave up 14 hits, 11 earned runs and eight walks in nine innings.
More important than just the bad numbers was the way Skaggs looked. Keith Law of ESPN.com (Insider subscription required) wrote that he saw Skaggs when he was sitting 88-91 after working 92 or better previously.
If the fastball velocity stays down, and the command issues persist, the odds of him making it to the big leagues this season greatly diminish. Since it is too early to be concerned about that, he could emerge from the back of the pack with people doubting him to be the best rookie this season. Again, that assumes he gets called up soon enough to make an impact.
This year's Rookie of the Year field is as wide open as it has been in years. These are nine strong candidates, with a handful of others likely to emerge in the final days of spring training. Not to mention the others who aren't commanding a lot of attention right now.
Miller's move to the back of the Cardinals rotation does make him the early favorite for the award because he appears to be the most big-league ready. His stuff is better than any other pitcher named here with the exception of Cole, and the team seems inclined to give him a real chance to stick.
Being able to miss bats right out of the gate is key for Miller's success, but if he can command the fastball, he could develop into a star this season.
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