Fans speak up in first Minors awards

Fans leave little doubt in first-ever TYIMLB awards

Baseball fans have spoken, and while some of the results may be surprising, their voices came through loud and clear.

The inaugural This Year in Minor League Baseball Awards were left to the fans to decide, and when the votes were counted at the end of last week, there was a .400 hitter, an ERA champ and a rookie-ball right-hander among the winners.

The fans showed the Class A Short-Season leagues some love, picking a pair of winners from the Rookie-level circuits. In fact, all of the five winners were from Double-A or below. Each of the five victors also stood in direct contrast to those chosen by MLB.com for the MiLBY Awards in October.

So here's a closer look at who the fans voted in -- and let the debate continue.

Hitter of the Year
The magic of .400 proved too difficult for the voters to ignore as they went with Class A Short-Season sensation Roberto Lopez. The Angels made him a 25th-round selection in June's First-Year Player Draft and the former University of Southern California star made the Pioneer League look like the PAC-10. Lopez garnered 57.5 percent of the votes for his efforts, easily outdistancing Greensboro's Mike Stanton, who accumulated 12.6 percent.

Lopez hit .400 for Orem, romping through the short-season circuit with reckless abandon. He also led the league in RBIs (72) and finished second with 14 homers (teammate Luis Jimenez had 15), nearly capturing the coveted Triple Crown. That would merely have added to an already impressive initial foray into professional ball.

The San Diego native began his career by hitting .436 during a 24-game hitting streak and ultimately hit safely in 60 of 67 contests. Lopez was batting .399 in the season's next-to-last game, but a two-run single in the fifth inning lifted his average to .400. It was at that point that manager Tom Kotchman pulled him from the lineup and sat him for the season finale, leaving his batting average intact.

"I really wanted to get that [.400] mark, but at the same time I tried to keep it in the back of my head and not let it control what I was doing," Lopez told MLB.com. "Toward the end of the season my teammates started giving me a hard time, like 'Hey, are you going to be sitting out the last couple of games?' I just wanted to keep playing. Not many people have reached that mark, so it meant a lot to me. But at the same time, maybe that extra day off cost me the Triple Crown."

Starting Pitcher of the Year
There were so many excellent pitchers to choose from in this category, yet the fans decided overwhelmingly to go with Madison Bumgarner, who dominated the voting just as he dominated South Atlantic League batters. Bumgarner collected 46.3 percent of the vote, capturing the crown ahead of Tim Alderson (20.7 percent), who might join him in the San Francisco rotation one day.

Bumgarner also won Minor League Baseball's Most Spectacular Pitcher Award after leading the Minor Leagues with a 1.46 ERA while pitching Augusta to a Sally League title. He was third in the Minors with 164 strikeouts and tied for fifth with 15 wins. Bumgarner proceeded to go 2-0 in the playoffs, striking out 16 and not allowing an earned run over 14 innings.

All this success came after a shaky beginning to the season that saw Bumgarner, the 10th pick in the 2007 Draft, allow 10 runs in his first three starts.

"It didn't start out too smoothly," said Bumgarner, who also had a 38-inning scoreless streak toward the end of the season. "I couldn't imagine having a better pitching coach [Ross Grimsley]. I learned a lot from him. I don't think I could have had the kind of year I had without him.

"My slider and curve got a lot better. I didn't really have a breaking ball coming into the instructional league last year. It just got better and better [as the year went on]. It just kind of clicked. You just have to have confidence in what you're doing. If you don't believe in yourself, you're not going to be able to get it done."

Closer of the Year
Picking a reliever of the year proved to be the most arduous process for the fans as this vote was the closest of the five. Yet, when all the tallies were counted, it was Chattanooga's Robert Manuel who came out on top, collecting 45.5 percent of the vote to edge Arizona prospect Clay Zavada (30 percent).

Manuel, who had only three saves and was actually a middle reliever, spent the majority of the season in the Double-A Southern League, though he did appear in four games for Sarasota of the Florida State League. He also made a two-inning cameo at Triple-A Louisville. Manuel combined to go 6-3 with a 1.25 ERA in 52 games, striking out 103 while scattering 54 hits and walking 18 in 86 2/3 innings. He held the opposition to a .174 batting average, 10th-best among all Minor League relievers.

Manuel had a 1.40 ERA and three saves (two of which were of the three-inning variety) while striking out 92 in 77 innings for the Lookouts. At no point during the season did his ERA rise above 1.91. He yielded two home runs and allowed 10 inherited runners to score. Manuel was 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA in 13 2/3 Arizona Fall League innings, which was not factored into the voting.

"I like going to the ballpark knowing I could make a difference in a ballgame three or four times a week rather than just once," Manuel said. "And I like the pressure of getting into a game in crucial situations. My out pitch is basically a fastball, but I'm more of a control guy. I don't throw 98 mph. If I try, I lose my control. And I don't have a knockout pitch, so to speak. I pitch effectively, and I think that's my biggest attribute."

Single-Game Performance of the Year
The fans were not biased when it came to the short-season nominees. Not only did Lopez earn his due, the fans' choice for best single-game performance also came from a Rookie-level player, this time in the Appalachian League. Danville's David Francis collected 48.3 percent of the vote after tossing a six-inning no-hitter in his third professional start.

Francis struck out 16 Pulaski Mariners in a July 22 contest, which ultimately ended as a combined seven-inning, no-hitter. The effort was good enough for the fans, who gave Micah Hoffpauir and his four-homer game for the Iowa Cubs 26.5 percent of the vote.

"I was actually happy to have it in the first part of the year. I think it put [me] up there and opened some eyes," Francis said. "I think I surprised some people."

The 6-foot-1 right-hander was a 12th-round pick in June by the Braves out of Walters State (Tenn.) Community College. He debuted with Danville on July 8 and finished 5-3 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 games, including eight starts. The gem against Pulaski put him on a positive path for the remainder of the season.

"I love just worrying about baseball," he said. "I didn't have to deal with schoolwork, I could just wake up and come to the ballpark and play every day. That's my lifelong dream, so hopefully I'll get there."

Team of the Year
The Trenton Thunder have been the kings of the Eastern League for the last two seasons, and in the eyes of the fans, as well. The Yankees' Double-A affiliate garnered 67 percent of the vote in the Team of the Year category, which was the largest percentage of any winner. They also had the largest margin of victory, easily beating Augusta, which captured 20.2 percent of the vote.

In comparison, the Sacramento River Cats, who have won back-to-back Pacific Coast League and Bricktown Showdown titles, managed only 4.6 percent of the vote.

The Thunder, who were crowned the EL's first back-to-back champions in more than a decade, played the season with a roster that was continuously in flux. Players were moving up and down from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre [which, incidentally, won the International League title] seemingly by the moment, yet Trenton won 86 games during the regular season. The Thunder disposed of Portland in the opening round of the playoffs and Akron in the championship for the second consecutive year to capture another crown.

"The whole year it seemed like the other team would score and we'd come back and score more," Trenton second baseman Kevin Russo said. "Or on days we weren't hitting, our pitching would be great. On days our pitching wasn't so good, our hitting would be great. For the most part, it all fell into place."

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