Five AL rookies reaching for the sky

Five AL rookies reaching for the sky

Predicting winners of baseball's top individual awards is a dirty job, but everyone has to do it. The process really is very simple: You gather all your tea leaves and sit down in front of your Ouija board -- then go with whatever your gut tells you.

The least exact of these sciences is the Rookie of the Year. It entails forecasting how people will perform in an arena in which they've never been full-timers before -- the very definition of "rookie," or newcomer.

For support of that argument in the American League, you need to glance back at only 2007. Tampa Bay outfielder Delmon Young was a consensus choice to get the hardware, and sure enough performed to standard: He hit .288 and drove in 93 runs while not missing a game.

So did the forecasters nail it? Hardly. The award went to a little guy who had hit .191 in a September 2006 callup, .226 in Spring Training, and .172 into May. But then Dustin Pedroia stirred alive and snatched up Rookie of the Year honors in a runaway over Young, the runner-up.

The projected 2008 ballot is infinitely tougher, because there is no shortage of high-profile candidates preceded by glowing expectations of stardom. Gathering their hype, this could be one of the league's best rookie crops ever.

Predicting the winner? It's tough enough isolating five front-runners. But here goes ...

Evan Longoria, Rays: What? Tabbing someone not even on the season-opening roster? Rather than call the white coats, bear with us. Tampa Bay's controversial and unpopular decision to farm out Longoria may actually work in his favor, giving him more attention when he does join the Rays, which is expected sometime before Mother's Day.

Whatever influenced the club's move, there is no doubt it is committed to him. The Rays shifted Akinori Iwamura to second to make room for Longoria at third base, which still has his name on it.

If manager Joe Maddon and staff just wanted to be convinced that the 22-year-old is ready, that shouldn't take long. Sure, Longoria has only 31 games of Triple-A experience -- last season, after he took Double-A Southern League MVP honors with a .307-21-76 card. But two years ago, he was playing third base for Long Beach State, so you know he moves fast.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: For an official rookie, he sure has a tough act to follow. Ellsbury gave Boston such a September jolt that he went on to accomplish a near impossibility in displacing a veteran (Coco Crisp) in the middle of a World Series.

This energetic, confident 24-year-old has all the tools befitting someone dubbed The Natural. He won't hit for power, but he could contend for a Gold Glove as he robs hits and steals bases. He hit .330 lat season, Double-A through the Majors.

The biggest thing going against Ellsbury is precedent, for whatever that's worth. The Red Sox have never boasted back-to-back rookies of the year.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

Ian Kennedy, Yankees: There is quite an Eastern bloc of worthy rookie pitchers, but this 23-year-old will outshine teammate Joba Chamberlain and Boston's Clay Buchholz, who could be lost in Ellsbury's shadow.

Kennedy is by no means physically imposing, and certainly arrives without the fanfare of Chamberlain or Philip Hughes. But he's got pitching smarts -- his mound degree is from USC -- and what's most impressive is that he doesn't like to spend too much time in any one place. He has stepping-stoned through five rungs in 1 1/2 pro seasons, making no more than 10 starts at any level.

The Yankees' creaking rotation begs for some young blood to lead. Kennedy will answer that call.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox: The Yankees' so-called Joba Rules are nothing compared to the protective measures taken by the Red Sox for this lean 24-year-old's right arm. He pitched a no-hitter on Sept. 1 -- then didn't make his next, and final start, until 18 days later.

We're about to find out whether the reins were worth it, because season-starting injuries to the veterans (Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling) will clear the stage for Buchholz. As much early success as Jon Lester has had, the tipoff to Buchholz's impact may be the fact Boston was far less willing to deal him than the left-hander to Minnesota while the Johan Santana talks were on.

Daric Barton, A's: A guy who has been in a baseball hurry all his life -- he debuted as a pro at 17, explaining how he can be entering his sixth season still four months south of 23 -- can finally slow down. He has arrived.

Barton has never hit up to corner-infielder standards -- though he's still young enough to develop the power -- but he has never not hit, topping .300 everywhere he has been. He is a remarkably disciplined hitter at a young age -- his Minor League totals show 303 walks and 255 strikeouts.

The best thing going for his candidacy is Billy Beane. Oakland has had three Rookies of the Year since he became general manager in 1998. Beane not only recognizes young talent, but also the importance of giving it a chance.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.