Pineda faces competition

COMMENTARY: Rookie of year race features many candidates after Michael Pineda was Seattle’s early favorite

May 15, 2011 

While it’s become obvious that the Seattle Mariners’ season is going to be as unpredictable as a Brandon League save situation, the one redeeming quality is that it seemed as though talented Michael Pineda was all but certain to win the American League Rookie of the Year.

No rookie in either league had played better than Pineda. He easily won the AL rookie of the month for April, posting a 4-1 record in five starts, with a 2.01 ERA in 31 innings, holding hitters to a .198 batting average.

Now into the month of May, Pineda’s numbers are still fantastic. He’s 4-2 in seven starts with a 2.84 ERA with 45 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 44 innings.

He’s been outstanding. He’s been dominant. He’s been everything the Mariners expected and more. He’s been the best rookie the organization has produced since Felix Hernandez.

But now, he’s got some serious competition.

Let’s be clear, Pineda has done nothing to lose the award. Instead, a few other rookies have stepped forward and shown that they will be candidates for the award.

Pineda and the Mariners got to see one of those candidates up close a few days ago.

Baltimore Orioles left-hander Zach Britton stymied the Mariners on Thursday at Camden Yards, pitching nine shutout innings and allowing three hits while striking out five and walking none.

Shutting down the Mariners isn’t exactly going to be a rare feat this season, but Britton has been outstanding since being called up in early April to replace Brian Matusz, who has a ribcage injury.

In eight starts, he has a 5-2 record with 2.42 ERA. In 52 innings, he’s walked 16 and struck out 29. He’s been outstanding, beating Texas, Boston and Tampa Bay.

Check out this quote from Orioles first baseman Derrek Lee to the Baltimore Sun: “Great composure, along with great stuff. That’s a great combination. His fastball has so much movement on it with good velocity and he located it. He’s fun to watch.”

Sounds like the same things the Mariners say about Pineda.

The Orioles hadn’t planned on bringing their top pitching prospect up until the end of April. He got there early and he’s there to stay.

But Britton and Pineda aren’t the only pitching candidates. Tampa Bay rookie right-hander Jeremy Hellickson is also making a solid early bid.

Hellickson, who made the Rays out of spring training, announced his candidacy by throwing a complete game shutout against the Orioles on Friday.

Hellickson threw 120 pitches, and allowed three hits, struck out three and walked one.

“With a young pitcher like that, to throw a complete-game shutout can really catapult him into the next level,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “That’s the kind of moment right there that can really make Jeremy take off. … Because once you’ve done it, you know you can do it in the future and you know what it feels like to do it.”

Hellickson improved to 4-2 in seven starts with a 2.98 ERA.

He struck out 30 hitters in 45 innings pitched and allowed 18 walks.

How excited are the Rays about Hellickson? He made Matt Garza, the Rays’ No. 2 starter last season, basically expendable, and Tampa Bay traded him to the Chicago Cubs.

While the pitching has been good, and pitchers have won the past two AL Rookie of the Year awards, position players have usually dominated the voting, winning the award 47 times since 1949.

Why? Because they play every day.

The early position candidates haven’t been quite as strong.

The Angels’ rookie trio – catcher Hank Conger, outfielder Peter Bourjos and first baseman Mark Trumbo –have all put up decent numbers.

Conger still splits time at catcher, so he’s not a great candidate.

Trumbo is tied for the team lead with six homers and third in RBI, but he was filling in at first until the return of Kendrys Morales. Now that the Angels confirmed that Morales won’t be back this season, the Angels might make a move for a veteran presence.

Bourjos is one of the fastest players in the AL. He can run down fly balls in the gap and turn a double into a triple in a blink of an eye. But he’s struck out 43 times in 40 games with just 10 walks, and he has only three stolen bases.

Toronto catcher J.P. Arencibia figured to be a favorite before the season. He hit 53 homers in two seasons of Triple-A, but hitting in the big leagues is different and Arencibia is hitting .220 with five homers and 12 RBI for the Blue Jays. His on-base percentage is .270.

But in the past week, a new candidate has announced his presence.

In the span of little over a week, Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer has gone from prospect to savior.

When the Royals decided to call up Hosmer on May 7, it drew a walk-up sales of more than 8,000 fans. The guy was hitting a ridiculous .439 with a .525 on-base percentage and .582 slugging percentage in 26 games with Triple-A Omaha. His debut was the most anticipated for the Royals since Bo Jackson.

So far, Hosmer hasn’t disappointed. He got his first hit in his second game, had two hits and an RBI in his third game.

But it was the Royals’ trip to New York that changed everything. In a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, Hosmer went 4-for-12 with a double, two homers, four RBI and three runs scored.

Hosmer has a good understanding of the strike zone and what he wants to do at the plate. He doesn’t seem overwhelmed by major league pitching. He’s in a lineup that scores runs. And he’s going to play every day.

He may have gotten the latest start of the candidates, but you have to think he’s quickly moving to the head of the pack. Yes, he’s that good.

With it becoming increasingly obvious that the Mariners may struggle as most predicted, cheering for individual achievement for players such as Pineda, Ichiro Suzuki and Hernandez are going to have to suffice.

And while Pineda is one of the favorites to win the rookie award, it’s become clear that he’s going to have plenty of competition for it.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483

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