By Thom Henninger
It’s not too late for a young player to make a case for Rookie of the Year honors. That’s what Philadelphia prospect Ryan Howard did in the second half of the 2005 season. He joined the big league roster for good in July and claimed NL rookie honors by batting .288/.356/.567 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in just 88 games.
If getting off to a solid start after the All-Star Game can stir a second-half push for Rookie of the Year consideration, there are three rookies worth watching down the stretch.
One is Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker, who went 5-for-5 Tuesday night, when the Pirates erupted for nine first-inning runs and held on for an 11-9 victory. He’s been hot since the All-Star break, going 16-for-30 (.533) in seven games, with multiple hits in each of the last six. No major leaguer can top his 16 hits since the break.
Walker arrived in Pittsburgh in the final days of May and hit from the start, collecting multiple hits in six of his first 10 games for the Pirates. The second baseman, a transplanted third baseman who is making a Gordon Beckham-like position change as rookie, has continued to outperform his recent numbers in the high minors. Better strike-zone judgment may lead to more consistent power, and he should have enough pop if he is able to stay at second defensively.
Not far off Walker’s second-half hitting pace is Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, who is 14-for-30 (.467) since the All-Star Game, with five doubles in seven contests. The 20-year-old rookie centers the ball well and hits breaking stuff.
After a solid showing in spring training, Castro went to Double-A Tennessee, where he forced his way into the Chicago lineup by early May. In 26 games against Double-A hurlers, he batted .376/.421/.569 with eight doubles and five triples.
Castro also hit right away for the Cubs before enduring a three-week skid in June. He’s hit safely in 13 of his last 15 games, however, going into Friday afternoon’s showdown with the Cardinals at Wrigley Field. Castro has posted a .373 average in this span. He took over the No. 2 spot in the batting order this week, and is 8-for-19 (.421) with three doubles since the change.
There’s little question the hottest-hitting rookie in July is San Francisco’s Buster Posey. He has pounded the ball consistently all month long, batting .438 and slugging .795 in 19 contests.
No rookie with at least 50 plate appearances this month comes close to those numbers, and Posey also leads his first-year peers in July hits (32), homers (7), runs (17) and RBIs (21). Among all major leaguers, only the Cubs’ Aramis Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees have more July RBIs (24).
It’s been a bumpy, up-and-down ride for the catching prospect, who started 6-for-12 in his first three games with the big league club to close out May and hit safely in his first 10 games in June. Then he endured a 7-for-48 skid (.146) without an extra-base hit over the rest of the month.
It was at the start of July that the Giants dealt Bengie Molina to Texas, allowing Posey to shift from first base to catcher. Defensively, the 23-year-old rookie isn’t nearly as refined as he is with a bat, but he’s certainly felt comfortable at the plate since his move to familiar territory behind it.
For the season, Posey is hitting .353/.386/.559 with eight homers and 31 RBIs in 46 games. With his strong showing this month, Posey might be the favorite for NL rookie honors. . . if not for an early-June callup named Stephen Strasburg.