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One year ago today, Dontrelle Willis had a 4.91 ERA in 11
innings. Over in the American League, Angel Berroa was
hitting .246/.313/.366 with two home runs and one stolen base. Despite having
virtually no visibility six weeks into the season, those two players would go
on to win the Rookie of the Year awards in their respective leagues.

So it should come as no surprise that right now, there are no great candidates
for 2004 rookie honors
. Some young players have held their own: Khalil
Greene
has outplayed Kazuo Matsui in the NL, with
Chad Tracy and Jose Castillo also off to
good starts. In the American League, there’s Gerald Laird and
Doug Waechter. In both leagues, there are a bunch of
relievers with 15-20 good innings under their belts: Kevin
Gregg
, Ryan Madson, Akinori Otsuka,
Jason Frasor and Justin Duchscherer.

Other than Greene, the best prospects in baseball haven’t yet had an impact on
the season. Joe Mauer was everyone’s preseason choice for top
rookie in the AL, but he suffered a knee injury in the season’s second game
and has yet to play a third. Jeremy Reed didn’t make the
White Sox out of the spring training, and hasn’t hit for any power at
Triple-A. B.J. Upton has reached Triple-A, but Julio
Lugo
‘s solid performance means that the Devil Rays can take their
time moving Upton to the majors.

Given the caliber of competition, it’s entirely possible that at least one
RotY award winner has yet to make his major league debut. If Willis and Berroa
can win the award based entirely on what they did after mid-May, certainly
other players can. So which prospects currently in the minors are set to make
the leap, and garner award votes come the fall?

  • Zack Greinke, Royals. The Royals have been trying to
    walk the line between letting Greinke’s performance–23/6 K/BB, 2.51 ERA at
    Triple-A–drive his advancement, and managing his 20-year-old right arm–less
    than five innings a start so far. Greinke gets both the scouting and performance
    sides of the aisle excited, and given the Royals’ brutal rotation, it’s likely
    that he’ll be tapped as savior before the All-Star break.

    While it’s harder to manage a young pitcher’s workload in the majors, unless
    Greinke is going to party like it’s 1899 and start every third day, he can’t
    make a difference to the Royals’ 2004 season. Hopefully Tony Pena will manage
    both his arm and everyone’s expectations. It’s the most important job left to
    him this year.

  • Justin Morneau, Twins. I’ve been tempted to start a
    “Free Justin Morneau!” campaign, but given how Erubiel
    Durazo
    and Ramon Castro have handled their
    work-release programs, it might be time to retire the concept.

    Morneau should have been the Twins’ Opening Day DH, and he should have the
    everyday DH job right now. He’s tearing up the International League
    (.360/.420/.647), the same way he tore up the Eastern League in 2003
    (.329/.384/.620). Morneau is a major league hitter whose time is being wasted
    at Triple-A, and the Twins have to recognize that, stop with the ridiculous
    Jose Offerman nonsense and let the masher get on with his
    career. He could pull a Willie McCovey and win the Rookie of
    the Year award in 200 at-bats.

  • Edwin Jackson, Dodgers. Jackson was roundly expected
    to make the Dodger rotation out of spring training, after last September’s
    2-1, 2.45 cup of coffee. He didn’t pitch very well in Florida, though, and
    instead opened the year in Las Vegas. Unlike fellow 20-year-old Greinke,
    Jackson’s performance hasn’t cried out for a call-up: 4.75 ERA, 30/19 K/BB in
    41 2/3 innings. The Dodgers need help in the rotation, however, and Jackson is
    still ahead of Joel Hanrahan (4.21 ERA, slightly better
    peripherals) in their minds. The next time he puts two good starts together,
    his third will probably come in the majors.

  • Alexis Rios, Blue Jays. Rios moved from
    “signability mistake” to “top-15 prospect” in a year’s
    time, making what appeared to be a big leap forward in 2003 and in winter ball
    after the season. He hasn’t sustained his gains in ’04, starting the season
    .235/.269/.366 for Triple-A Syracuse. Most disappointing has been his seven
    walks in 153 at-bats.

    Regardless, he’s likely going to be the majors within a month, as the Blue
    Jays have been playing with somewhere between three and three-and-a-half outfielders all
    year, and they desperately need a right-handed hitter in their lineup. Rios’
    promotion will be the first of many Jays call-ups over the next four months,
    as they begin the transition from the Carlos Delgado era into
    what they hope will be an extended challenge of the AL East’s aging top dogs.

  • Joe Blanton, Athletics. The top prospect from the A’s
    famous 2002 Moneyball draft, Blanton has allowed just one home run in 50 2/3 innings for
    Triple-A Sacramento, posting a 2.66 ERA in the process. The most popular
    scenario has him being promoted in the second half, with Rich
    Harden
    moving to the bullpen to be the strikeout-getting right-hander
    they’ve been missing. I expect something more imaginative, involving a trade
    of Harden, Barry Zito or Blanton himself. Regardless, Blanton
    will be in the majors by August 1, and should, like Zito and Tim
    Hudson
    , be effective immediately.

  • Anastacio Martinez, Red Sox. E-Sheehan (614). Martinez
    was my sleeper pick on this list…great in Florida, coming off a
    nine-strikeouts-in-three-innings game over the weekend, pitching for a team
    that’s been messing around with 17 crappy second left-handers in the bullpen
    in a division filled with targets for a nasty left-hander.

    One problem: he’s not left-handed. I mixed him up with Mike
    Gonzalez
    , who he went back and forth as part of the Lyonpalooza affair last summer. Martinez is more likely to become trade bait than to have an impact on a Red Sox bullpen that’s lousy with good right-handed pitchers.
    Once dealt, I can definitely see him ripping off 140 innings of effective
    relief for less than a million bucks over two-and-a-half years.

    Quite frankly, the Sox could use Gonzalez (0.96 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 18 2/3
    innings for Nashville) back.

  • Dallas McPherson, Angels. Ah, serendipity. If I’d
    completed this article when I’d intended to, McPherson never would have been
    in it. Since then, Troy Glaus has been sidelined with a
    shoulder injury, and surgery will keep him out for somewhere between two
    months and the rest of human existence, opening the door for McPherson to make
    the majors as soon as this summer. This would be an advanced timetable, but
    the Angels have already promoted one hitter directly from
    Double-A–Casey Kotchman–to cover an injury, and they have
    fewer viable options to play third base than they did for first base.

    McPherson, one of three Angels prospects to make our top 20, is raking at
    Arkansas: .298/.371/.504, although his strikeout rate is high enough (38 in
    141 at-bats) to cause concern. The presence of Glaus was expected to force him
    to right field, but now that the Angels have Vladimir
    Guerrero
    and a clipped Glaus, McPherson may reach the majors at the
    hot corner. What he might do with the opportunity is an open question; he
    wasn’t expected to be ready this soon, and his problems making contact could
    be exacerbated in the major leagues. Consider him high-risk/high-reward, and
    watch carefully.

  • David Wright, Mets. Like McPherson, Wright wasn’t
    expected to come this quickly. A combination of his performance
    (.350/.465/.607 for Double-A Binghamton) and Ty Wigginton‘s
    (.213/.244/.350) may change that timetable. For a third baseman, Wright has
    shown a broad base of skills, including 14 stolen bases and defense that,
    while not spectacular, is more than adequate for third base.

    Right now, there’s no talk of promoting Wright. As the Mets come around to the
    idea that they’re not going to win this year, though, they’ll have to be
    tempted to let him start his major league career in a low-pressure
    environment, in the hopes that he can help make it a high-pressure one in
    2005.

Honorable mention goes to the Twins’ Jesse Crain (24/7 K/BB
in 21 IP at Rochester), the Mariners’ Bobby Madritsch (41 K,
41 2/3 IP at Tacoma, waiting for Freddy Garcia trade), the
Cards’ Adam Wainwright (probably behind Dan
Haren
, though), the Devil Rays’ Jonny Gomes
(slugging .740 for Durham) and the Royals’ David DeJesus
(once the Royals see that it’s not about ’04 any longer).