MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Fulmer, Naquin among top AL ROY Award candidates

Kepler, Mazara, Bundy also garner consideration in deep field

Fulmer, Naquin among top AL ROY Award candidates

The competition for the American League Rookie of the Year Award spoiled us last year, because it featured two highly touted June callups who quickly asserted themselves at the game's premier defensive position and got us talking about what a great rivalry, of a sort, the Carlos Correa -Francisco Lindor dynamic would be for years to come.

This year, the discussion is not simplified to a single spot, and it's not loaded with guys who were darlings of the prospect-ranking world, either. The AL field this year is filled with players whose ascensions were more subtle but whose presence has nonetheless been impactful.

Here's my early AL Rookie of the Year Award ballot:

1. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers
Fulmer wasn't the most acclaimed of the young pitchers the Tigers received in their midseason selloff in 2015 (Daniel Norris, acquired in the David Price trade with Toronto, held that standing), but so far he's been the best. Fulmer arrived from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes swap, was given a shot when Shane Greene was injured and has mastered a changeup that was only lightly used in the Minors to help stabilize the starting rotation for a contending Tigers team.

Fulmer, 23, had some hiccups his first few trips to the mound, but dating back to May 15, he's made 15 starts and posted a 1.88 ERA with a .562 OPS against in 96 innings. His stuff isn't flashy but his results are steady and strong. The Tigers believe they can get through the season without having to shut Fulmer down on account of innings, which means he'll get plenty of opportunities to nail down this award in the season's final weeks.

Fulmer's strong start

2. Tyler Naquin, CF, Indians
Rookies, as you can see, are making a major name for themselves in the AL Central race. Just as Fulmer helped settle a Detroit rotation in disarray early in the year, Naquin has been a lifesaver for a Cleveland outfield ravaged by the loss of Michael Brantley and the suspension of Marlon Byrd. And much like Lindor a year ago, Naquin has flashed impressive -- and unexpected -- power at a premium defensive position. The center fielder had a .417 slugging percentage in 339 Minor League games, but his Major League mark has hovered around .600, as he's connected for 13 homers, 12 doubles and five triples. Naquin has also improved his plate discipline.

Naquin, 25, does not qualify for the batting title, but among outfielders with at least 100 plate appearances, his 162 weighted runs created plus mark is second only to that of Mike Trout.

Naquin's two-run moonshot

3. Max Kepler, RF, Twins
Another AL Central arrival who has made waves. Going into the year, you would have thought Byron Buxton would be the outfielder representing Minnesota on a list such as this. But while Buxton's continued lack of production earned him yet another demotion to the Minors last week, Kepler was raking his way to co-AL Player of the Week honors. Back when the Twins signed him, the German-born Kepler's background was primarily as a soccer player. But he's flourished under their tutelage and broken out in a big way at age 23, turning in a .342 on-base percentage and a .526 slugging percentage with 15 homers and 13 doubles.

4. Nomar Mazara, RF, Rangers
Mazara is the only rookie who qualifies for the AL batting title. His early callup probably hurts him in this race, as the league has had time to make adjustments on him and he's still in the process of adjusting back. But what shouldn't be lost in the conversation, no matter how the numbers turn out, is that this 21-year-old sparked Texas in a big way in a time of need in April. When Shin-Soo Choo was hurt and Delino DeShields Jr. was playing his way back to Triple-A, Mazara came up and cranked out a .323/.377/.484 slash line in his first 24 games, impressing the Rangers with his baseball intelligence. He wasn't as highly praised as Joey Gallo in some corners, but he's made a more instant impact in the bigs.

Mazara's two-run home run

5. Dylan Bundy, RHP, Orioles
Mark this down as a speculative spot, because the 23-year-old Bundy's star is finally rising, five years after he was taken fourth overall in the Draft and three years after Tommy John surgery. Baltimore went into the season expecting to limit him to about 70 relief innings, but the O's turned to him in their rotation out of desperation following the All-Star break, and he's since delivered a 3.00 ERA and a .177 average against in five starts. Bundy was particularly magnificent against a tough Texas lineup last week.

Bundy has been bit by six long balls, and we'll see what September holds for him in terms of workload, but he's become an interesting X-factor both in this award race and in the AL East race.

Bundy's one-hit outing

Others of note: Chris Devenski has a similar statistical case as Bundy and has been an important asset to the Astros out of the bullpen and as a spot starter. ... The Rangers' Tony Barnette and the Athletics' Ryan Dull have also both been important bullpen pieces in the AL West. ... The 28-year-old Hyun Soo Kim has been limited to fewer than 60 games because of injury and role, but he's got an OPS north of .800 for an Orioles team that took a chance on him in the South Korean market.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.