June 30 marked the halfway point for the year 2008, and it also marked the halfway point for the 2008 baseball season. First-year players have had three months to make their marks for playoff contenders, and we’ve had time to get a truer read on their abilities. Like last year, we’ll rank the top 20 first-half rookie performers, and highlight 10 names to watch in the second half.
If you were with us this March, you’re familiar with our preseason Top 25 Rookies. The selections of Evan Longoria, Joba Chamberlain, Jay Bruce or Kosuke Fukudome seem obvious, but many other top 25 selections may leave you scratching your head. Cameron Maybin, Colby Rasmus, Steve Pearce, Nate Schierholtz and Gio Gonzalez all have spent the entire season in the minors, while Franklin Morales, Ian Kennedy, Homer Bailey, Brandon Wood and J.R. Towles did not impress in brief big league auditions and are presently working their way back.
A new feature this time, we’re including black ink and gray ink monitors, patterned after the Bill James-inspired model at Baseball-Reference.com, to recognize rookies who rank among the top three in major statistical categories. For rate stats, a player must qualify for batting or ERA title to be recognized.
Black Ink: Player leads all rookies. Gray Ink: Player ranks either second or third among rookies. Click the player names below to get up-to-date stats, but keep in mind the listed stats are through games of June 30 to provide a snapshot.
1. Geovany Soto, c, 25, Cubs
AVG: .284 OBP: .371 SLG: .517 AB: 271 HR: 13 2B/3B: 22/1 SB: 0/0
Black Ink: SO (70). Gray Ink: AVG, OBP, SLG, AB, H (77), 2B, HR, RBIs (47), BB (39), TB (140).
Though he scuffled a bit in June (.250/.327/.420), Soto remains a leading contender for the NL Rookie of the Year award—which would go well with his Pacific Coast League MVP from last season. His case is bolstered by his handling of the pitching staff for the league’s top team and by the fact that he stands to be the starting catcher in the All-Star Game. In addition to his hitting exploits, Soto also has thrown out 13 of 46 (28 percent) of opposing basestealers, the sixth-best rate in the NL.
2. Evan Longoria, 3b, 22, Rays
AVG: .267 OBP: .341 SLG: .523 AB: 262 HR: 15 2B/3B: 20/1 SB: 4/4
Black Ink: HR, SLG. Gray Ink: 2B, RBIs (47), SO (69), TB (137).
Good and only getting better, Longoria stepped up the production in June (.300/.374/.650 in 100 at-bats) and would appear to be an easy choice for AL Rookie of the Year. Already entrenched as the first-place Rays’ (it’s just fun to type) five-hitter, Longoria is rock-solid at the hot corner and has even spent a game at shortstop, his position as a sophomore at Long Beach State.
3. Jair Jurrjens, rhp, 22, Braves
W-L: 8-3 ERA: 2.94 IP: 98 H: 92 SO: 69 BB: 37 HR: 5 G/F: 1.51
Black Ink: W, ERA, HR/9 (0.5). Gray Ink: IP, BB, SO, WHIP (1.32), K/9 (6.3).
Jurrjens (and other inexperienced Atlanta pitchers Jo-Jo Reye, Jorge Campillo and Charlie Morton) has been a revelation for a Braves rotation that has been without John Smoltz and Tom Glavine for long stretches. How’s this for a June performance? 3-0, 1.63 with 18 strikeouts and just seven walks in 27 2/3 innings.
4. Kosuke Fukudome, rf, 31, Cubs
AVG: .296 OBP: .404 SLG: .430 AB: 284 HR: 6 2B/3B: 16/2 SB: 7/10
Black Ink: AVG, OBP, R (55), BB (52). Gray Ink: AB, H (84), SB.
The Cubs leading the NL in on-base percentage? It’s true, and Fukudome is the biggest reason why. And that’s not the only reason that Kosuke was born to be a Cub. Check out his numbers away from Wrigley Field: .218/.331/.296 in 142 at-bats.
5. Joba Chamberlain, rhp, 22, Yankees
W-L: 2-2 ERA: 2.03 IP: 48 2/3 H: 38 SO: 56 BB: 24 HR: 2 G/F: 1.26
Relieving or starting, Chamberlain has excelled in both roles this season. He’s struck out 11.4 per nine innings coming out of the pen and 9.4 when starting—though his walk rate has plenty of room for improvement, seeing as it has hovered around 4.5.
6. Joey Votto, 1b, 24, Reds
AVG: .280 OBP: .347 SLG: .478 AB: 268 HR: 12 2B/3B: 17/0 SB: 4/7
Black Ink: None. Gray Ink: AVG, OBP, SLG, HR.
Votto’s hot start made Scott Hatteberg expendable (well, that and Hatteberg’s miserable start), and the Reds haven’t looked back. The Toronto native slowed down in June (.257/.315/.386)—and even went 1-for-11 in three road games against the Blue Jays last week.
7. Greg Smith, lhp, 24, Athletics
W-L: 4-6 ERA: 3.44 IP: 99 1/3 H: 82 SO: 70 BB: 40 HR: 8 G/F: 0.71
Black Ink: IP, BB, WHIP (1.23). Gray Ink: SO, ERA, K/9 (6.3), HR/9 (0.7).
Only the Mariners have a lower team slugging percentage in the AL than do the A’s. Yes, Oakland has done it with pitching, sporting the league’s top ERA (3.39), and doing it on the strength of two trade acquisitions (Smith, Dana Eveland), a converted reliever (Justin Duchscherer) and a resurgent Rich Harden.
8. Jacoby Ellsbury, cf, 24, Red Sox
AVG: .268 OBP: .344 SLG: .383 AB: 269 HR: 5 2B/3B: 8/4 SB: 34/38
Black Ink: SB, 3B. Gray Ink: R (54).
The AL leader in stolen bases (in less playing time than No. 2 Ichiro Suzuki), Ellsbury, like most rookies here, hit a bump in the road in June (.245/.265/.327), but with the Red Sox’ offense still second in the league in runs scored, Boston can afford to carry his speed and glove for now.
9. David Murphy, of, 26, Rangers
AVG: .270 OBP: .308 SLG: .451 AB: 315 HR: 10 2B/3B: 23/2 SB: 5/7
Black Ink: AB, H (85), 2B, RBIs (52), TB (142). Gray Ink: R (44).
All this—plus Engel Beltre and Kason Gabbard—for two-plus months of Eric Gagne? The Rangers would make that trade again. Last year, the Rangers trotted out Marlon Byrd, Nelson Cruz and Kenny Lofton most frequently as outfielders. This year, they’ve used Murphy, Josh Hamilton, Brandon Boggs and, occasionally, Milton Bradley (the regular DH) the most, and they’ve jumped to the head of the AL in scoring.
10. Armando Galarraga, rhp, 26, Tigers
W-L: 7-2 ERA: 3.40 IP: 82 H: 64 SO: 55 BB: 30 HR: 9 G/F: 1.08
Black Ink: None. Gray Ink: W.
The Tigers owe much of their resurgence in the AL Central to Galarraga, a Rangers cast-off, who has been arguably Detroit’s best starter in the first half.
11. Blake DeWitt, 3b, 22, Dodgers
AVG: .263 OBP: .328 SLG: .388 AB: 232 HR: 5 2B/3B: 10/2 SB: 2/2
The last man standing when injuries struck down third basemen Nomar Garciaparra and Andy LaRoche this spring, DeWitt started hot but has fallen into a rough platoon with LaRoche. Curiously, the young lefthanded batter hasn’t gotten it going against righthanders (.254/.309/.364).
12. John Lannan, lhp, 23, Nationals
W-L: 4-9 ERA: 3.54 IP: 94 H: 94 SO: 56 BB: 29 HR: 12 G/F: 1.85
Black Ink: None. Gray Ink: ERA, WHIP (1.31), BB/9 (2.8), K/BB (1.9).
Lannan announced his arrival with an 11-strikeout game against the Mets on April 17. While he hasn’t reached those heights again, he’s been very steady in providing innings and maintaining a sub-four ERA for one of the league’s worst teams.
13. Ben Francisco, of, 26, Indians
AVG: .286 OBP: .344 SLG: .459 AB: 196 HR: 6 2B/3B: 16/0 SB: 3/6
Last year’s International League batting champion, Francisco has helped paper over the Indians’ punchless corner outfield duo of David Dellucci and Franklin Gutierrez.
14. Nick Blackburn, rhp, 26, Twins
W-L: 6-4 ERA: 4.05 IP: 97 2/3 H: 118 SO: 54 BB: 15 HR: 11 G/F: 1.13
Black Ink: BB/9 (1.4), K/BB (3.6). Gray Ink: W.
Though he still refused to walk anybody, Blackburn gave up seven home runs in June, which was almost double what he had surrendered in April and May combined. To win, he’ll need to put his defense to work behind him, but so far too many balls have been finding holes (.305 average, including .329 to righthanded batters).
15. Jim Johnson, rhp, 25, Orioles
W-L: 2-2 ERA: 1.17 IP: 46 1/3 H: 26 SO: 24 BB: 18 HR: 0 G/F: 1.63
How to get ahead in a major league bullpen: throw strikes and keep the ball in the park. Johnson always has had good arm strength, but after 152 innings at Triple-A produced a 4.03 ERA and way too many baserunners, the Orioles shifted him to the bullpen this season, where he’s thrived. Johnson was worked his way from long reliever to eighth-inning man in front of closer Geroge Sherrill. Also of note: Johnson (Endicott High) and Lannan (Siena, outside of Albany) hail from small baseball programs in New York state.
16. Aaron Laffey, lhp, 23, Indians
W-L: 4-5 ERA: 3.24 IP: 75 H: 73 SO: 32 BB: 20 HR: 6 G/F: 1.45
Laffey was practically invincible in May (3-2, 0.79 in five starts), but in his other two months he’s been quite, um, vincible, posting ERAs of 6.35 and 5.09 in April and June. Still, he limits baserunners and keeps the ball on the ground, and that’s a recipe for stability, if not stardom.
17. Sean Gallagher, rhp, 22, Cubs
W-L: 3-3 ERA: 4.36 IP: 53 2/3 H: 54 SO: 47 BB: 20 HR: 6 G/F: 1.00
Gallagher stepped into Rich Hill’s vacated rotation spot and has helped ensure that the Cubs haven’t lost ground in the NL Central. Along with Soto and Fukudome, the Cubs have gotten more contributions from rookies than any other team—as successful teams often do—mirroring the Red Sox’ fortunes with Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima last season.
18. Justin Masterson, rhp, 23, Red Sox
W-L: 4-1 ERA: 3.75 IP: 48 H: 34 SO: 37 BB: 26 HR: 8 G/F: 1.69
More strikeouts than hits allowed and more groundouts than fly outs are positive signs, but still Masterson has given up an average of one home run per start. With his plus sinker, though, that home run rate should level off over time. Either way, the Red Sox certainly aren’t complaining, seeing as they’ve been without Curt Schilling all season, Daisuke Matsuzaka for a stretch and Clay Buchholz since his May demotion.
19. John Bowker, 1b/rf, 24, Giants
AVG: .278 OBP: .319 SLG: .465 AB: 198 HR: 8 2B/3B: 9/2 SB: 1/1
Unable to wrest the first base job entirely away from Rich Aurilia, Bowker still shares the team lead for home runs with Aaron Rowand. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t considered much of a prospect until last season, when he enjoyed a breakout year with Double-A Connecticut, batting .307/.363/.523.
20. Alexei Ramirez, 2b/cf, 26, White Sox
AVG: .294 OBP: .318 SLG: .439 AB: 187 HR: 5 2B/3B: 12/0 SB: 3/5
It took Ramirez a couple months to win the second base job outright from Juan Uribe, but there’s no turning back now. The Cuban defector doesn’t have the most patient approach, but he makes all kinds of contact and has solid power for a middle infielder. As a bonus, he’s also capable of filling in at shortstop (seven games) and center field (10 games).
C—Geovany Soto, Cubs
1B—Joey Votto, Reds
2B—Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3B—Evan Longoria, Rays
SS—Mike Aviles, Royals
LF—David Murphy, Rangers
CF—Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
RF—Kosuke Fukudome, Cubs
DH—Ben Francisco, Indians
SP—Jair Jurrjens, Braves
SP—Joba Chamberlain, Yankees
SP—Greg Smith, Athletics
SP—Armando Galarraga, Tigers
RP—Jim Johnson, Orioles
Top 10 Rookies To Watch In Second Half
Mike Aviles, ss, Royals
Daric Barton, 1b, Athletics
Jay Bruce, cf, Reds
Clay Buchholz, rhp, Red Sox
Jeff Clement, c, Mariners
Johnny Cueto, rhp, Reds
Chris Davis, 1b, Rangers
Carlos Gonzalez, cf, Athletics
Chase Headley, lf/3b, Padres
Clayton Kershaw, lhp, Dodgers
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