Head of the class: Favorites for Rookie of the Year honors

Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is bearing down on the NL ROY. (AP/Elaine Thompson)

As baseball resumes after the All-Star break, it’s time to start thinking about postseason accolades. There are a host of first-year players making an impact, and the race for Rookie of the Year should heat up as the season goes on.

Atlanta holds the second-best record in the NL and has a trio of rookies that are making an impact. The biggest contribution has come from hurler Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel is tied with Brian Wilson for the league lead in saves with 28. The only rookie to ever notch as many first half saves as Kimbrel was Jonathan Papelbon back in 2006.

Fellow pitcher Brandon Beachy is also putting up respectable numbers for the Braves. Since being called up, Beachy has gone 3-1 in 12 starts, with a 3.21 ERA. He has missed some time on the DL, but has impressed when healthy, striking out 11 in one June outing. Beachy has been a bit of a surprise since most scouting reports expected Julio Teheran to be the young pitcher to be a factor in 2011. So far, he has spent the majority of the year in triple-A Gwinnett making just a few spot starts with Atlanta, while Beachy has been a mainstay in the rotation when not battling injury.

Arguably, the preseason favorite to win the NL award was Freddie Freeman. The Atlanta first baseman struggled early, but has come around recently. He has improved his average to .273 and ranks second in HR for NL rookies with 13. Another knock on Freeman is a rather high strikeout total. The poor start most likely cost him a chance at taking home ROY honors, but should he continue to accumulate homers and RBIs down the stretch, he may reenter the conversation.

Division rival Washington also has a youngster posting power numbers that are difficult to ignore. The Nationals 2B Danny Espinosa leads all NL rookies with 17 HR, which is actually the highest total for anyone at his position. His average is nothing to write home about, but his struggles have come primarily against right-handed pitchers. Espinosa also is quietly stealing some bases, leading NL rookies in this category, as well, with 12. If his current production keeps up, Espinosa may well prove he deserves the comparisons his drawn to players like Dan Uggla (hopefully they were referring to pre-2011.)

Staying in the NL East, the Mets have a rookie starter garnering a lot of attention, too. Since joining the rotation, Dillon Gee is 8-3. He received the win in his first seven decisions. In fact, the Mets won each of the first 10 games Gee started. Lately, he has been a bit more hittable, allowing nine ER in his last two starts, which led to losses in both outings.

A couple of high-profile rookies of note, who have yet to live up to expectations, are showing signs of life. Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman allowed zero runs in six straight July outings prior to the break. Unfortunately, in his first appearance after the break, Chapman gave up an eighth-inning home run to Albert Pujols, earning him a blown save. Philadelphia prospect-extraordinaire Domonic Brown essentially killed his chances of winning the award with an extended stay on the DL to begin the year. After a terrible June where he batted just .165, Brown has come around of late, batting .342 so far in July.

It wouldn't be much of a stretch if Mark Trumbo was named AL ROY. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The AL has no shortage of viable candidates either, starting with the Angels 1B Mark Trumbo. While most of prospect hype in LA has surrounded Mike Trout, it has been Trumbo putting up the numbers. Trumbo led all of minor league baseball with 36 home runs in 2010, and since joining the big-league team, his power numbers have kept on pace. He has 18 HR so far this year, good enough to lead rookies in both leagues.

Teammate Jordan Walden is the AL equivalent to Kimbrel. Walden is fifth in the league with 21 saves. He also is one of only five pitchers to reach 20 saves by the All-Star break of their rookie year. Due to an injury to Mariano Rivera, Walden was named to this year All-Star team, tossing one inning and giving up a run.

A handful of starting pitchers are also making waves in their debut seasons. Ivan Nova, Jeremy Hellickson and Michael Pineda each has tallied eight victories so far this year. Of the three, Pinenda’s high strikeout totals put him just above the others. With 113 Ks, he is the only rookie to crack the top 10 in the category. He has averaged 9 K/IP, which is almost double Nova and Hellickson, who throw at 5.9 and 5.01 clips, respectively. Too bad Pinenda doesn’t have the run support Nova gets, as he has had five starts where he allowed 3 ER or less and received a loss or no decision.

A couple more young pitchers were introduced with mixed results. Kyle Drabek, the cornerstone of the Roy Halladay trade, went just 4-5 with a 5.70 ERA before being demoted back to the minors. Oriole left-hander Zach Britton began the year at 5-1, but has since gone 1-6. Most recently, he yielded seven earned runs while getting only two outs in a start against Boston.

Speaking of Boston, outfielder Josh Reddick has produced some respectable numbers during his increased playing time. Since Carl Crawford landed on the DL, Reddick has been piling up the hits and was batting over .400 for a decent stretch.

Mike Cameron’s release may have landed him a permanent slot with the big league club. Keep an eye on Reddick down the stretch. Even when Crawford returns, he may steal at-bats in RF if J.D. Drew doesn’t break out of his current funk.

If the hardware were given out today, my votes would go to Kimbrel and Trumbo, but a lot can happen down the stretch. Big second halves from players like Eric Hosmer or Dustin Ackley could thrust more names into the discussion, as could the emergence of Desmond Jennings or Dee Gordon.

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