Once, Major League rookies were around only to provide relief, comic and otherwise. Seeing them saunter through airports in hazing drag was always good for a laugh. In September, they would give tired veterans a jump on their offseasons. That, except for the occasional blue-chip prospect, was it. Rookies were to be seen, and not heard.
These days, they are seen, and not to be believed.We live, and play ball, in a different world now. First-year players have become integral building blocks for contention. "Green" refers more to the investment in youth than to its inexperience -- investments on which clubs are eager, and willing, to see a return. Everyday rookie regulars are still relatively unique compared to pitchers who, thanks to the deployment of modern bullpens, keep having sudden and amazing success. Rookie relievers benefit from spot duty, which keeps them from overexposure. In the American League this season, no fewer than nine rookie relievers have worked 30-plus innings with ERAs below 3.00. That is pretty amazing, considering a 30-inning workload amounts to full-time duty for today's matchup arms. And it's a good reason why handicapping the field of favorites for this year's American League Rookie of the Year Award is such a daunting undertaking. But when in doubt for any major award, go with the guy who is out there every day (well, every day when he is healthy). So ... THE FAVORITES Evan Longoria, Rays: Before his first big league at-bat, he sparked controversy by being farmed out for the start of the season. Twenty at-bats into his big league life, he signed a six-year, $17.5 million contract. Since, he has hit 22 homers, tops among AL rookies, and driven in 71 runs. Tampa Bay has never had the league's top rookie, even though Rocco Baldelli and Delmon Young, for two, had arguably better rookie seasons. But neither did it in a pennant race. And that counts for a lot. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox: He is the purest definition of "rookie," playing in the middle of the infield for a contender in his first season not only in the Majors, but in organized ball. The 27-year-old Cuban refugee caught fire since dragging a .218 average on May 29; five weeks later he had it above .300, and has kept it there ever since. His 16 homers and 64 RBIs rank high among all AL second basemen. THE CONTENDERS Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: Some may have trouble thinking of him as a rookie, given his impact last September and October. But he is, and besides scoring 80 runs, by mid-June he had smashed the century-old Boston rookie record for stolen bases (he's at 44 and counting). Armando Galarraga, Tigers: There has been no particular reason to keep an eye on the disappointing Tigers, but the 26-year-old Venezuelan right-hander's breakthrough should not be ignored. His 12 wins top Detroit's rotation, in which he also is the only one with a winning record. THE DARK HORSES David Murphy, Rangers: Maybe the best new talent you have never heard of (if you don't live by the Gulf, that is). His 74 RBIs top all AL rookies, and the Texas native with the sweet left-handed stroke has 46 extra-base hits. Joey Ziegler, A's: Or, Brad Devine. Who? Just our way of ensuring that both Brad Ziegler and Joey Devine get their due. The two righties have been a ridiculous force in Oakland's bullpen, combining for an 0.62 ERA and a .178 opponents average in 70 appearances and 86 2/3 innings. Between them, they have faced 321 batters, and neither has allowed a home run. But, alas, setup relievers never win this award. THE FIELD: Jesse Carlson, Blue Jays; Mike Aviles, Royals; Jose Arredondo, Angels; Jim Johnson, Orioles; Glen Perkins, Twins.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.