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Of Ryan and ROY

Less than a week after the disappointing end of another Phillies season, everyone is looking ahead. Phans seem to be thinking of 2006 with a mixture of greedy anticipation at a lineup that could break all kinds of records, and apprehension that the perpetually clueless decision-makers for our star-crossed favorite team could mess it all up through dumb trades and misplaced concerns.

The number one worry might be that the Phillies will still trade slugging first baseman Ryan Howard, who rode a superb September to prominent placement in the NL Rookie of the Year conversation. Whether Howard deserves to win the award is a subject we've taken on before at TGP; for that matter, we've also addressed the question of whether or how the Phils should go about trading him (though the world looked rather different then--specifically, Howard hadn't yet started to distribute home-run souvenirs like a manic politician shaking hands). One guess is that if Howard takes the trophy, he's virtually certain not to be traded; no reigning Rookie of the Year has been dealt the following season in almost 30 years, since the Padres traded relief pitcher Butch Metzger in 1977. For once, the Phillies' near-pathological fear of bad press could help the team avoid a terrible mistake.

So will Howard win?

The four consensus candidates are Howard, Braves outfielder Jeff Francouer, Astros outfielder Willy Taveras, and Rockies third baseman Garrett Atkins. Let's take a look at their numbers, then think about what other factors might come into play:

Garrett Atkins, 3b .285 (149/519) 61 13 89 .347/.426/.773 4.7 21.0
Jeff Francouer, of .300 (77/257) 41 14 45 .336/.549/.885 7.3 21.3
Ryan Howard, 1b .288 (90/312) 52 22 63 .356/.567/.923 6.1 28.6
Willy Taveras, of .291 (172/592) 82 3 29 .325/.341/.666 4.0 11.9

RC/27 is Runs Created per 27 Outs--the idea is how many runs a lineup solely comprised of this player would score in the course of a full game. VORP is Value Over Replacement Player, a concept fully explained here.

The Atkins candidacy is pretty quickly dismissed. A 25 year-old infielder whose numbers are above average for the position he plays but hardly spectacular, Atkins put up a .903 OPS in Coors Field but .649 everywhere else. That's about the difference between Miguel Cabrera and David Bell. Given his age and the Rockies' fairly deep system, it wouldn't be a shock to see Atkins lose his job within a year or two; given what he did at sea level, it wouldn't be a shock to see him in an independent league near you by the end of this decade.

Taveras is the guy who, by sabermetric analysis, shouldn't be in this debate at all. But given his playing style, so well suited to the idiocy of sportswriters, and the mere fact that he was around all season, and even that he was born on Christmas Day 1981 (don't laugh; if he wins, this will be in every article beyond a certain length) it wouldn't surprise me one bit if he wins. The Phillies certainly saw first-hand how devastating he can be: though he hit only 8 singles (no extra base hits, no walks) against them, at least two directly contributed to the game-winning rallies that left the Phils home and the Astros battling Atlanta this week.

What strikes me about Taveras, however, is the fact that as the leadoff hitter for a playoff club, he only scored 82 runs. That's more than a third less than Jimmy Rollins, who for most of this year wasn't exactly an ideal table-setter himself. Like Rollins at his worst--the 2002 and 2003 seasons--Taveras struck out far more often than his meager power totals would suggest: he whiffed 103 times this year, against just 25 walks. And according to The Hardball Times, he averaged just 3.5 pitches seen per plate appearance--way below what you want from the guy who's supposed to clue in the guys following him what the opposing pitcher might be throwing that day.

Taveras's minor-league numbers offer hope that he'll improve his patience and develop into the sort of leadoff hitter he's touted as right now. And his success on the basepaths--34 steals in 45 attempts--indicates offensive value not captured in the numbers presented above. But he too doesn't deserve more than your third-place NL ROY vote.

So that leaves us Francouer and Howard. Primacy vs. recency. All-around game vs. raw power. Et cetera et cetera.

Francouer is four years younger, but there's a decent case to be made that he's probably the lesser player going forward. His poor walk numbers--just 11 in 268 plate appearances with the Braves--are consistent with his minor-league track record, and it seems that as NL pitchers recognized that he would chase bad offerings, they stopped challenging the kid: Francouer's OPS by month went from 1.376 (July) to .878 (August) to .739 (September). He also wasn't the hitter outside Georgia that he was at the Ted: .993 OPS at home, .737 on the road.

The case for Francouer probably rests on three things: his .300 average, his often-spectacular defense (including 13 outfield assists, which I imagine is close to a rookie record), and the fact that he played his best ball just as the Braves made their charge to first place in late July. There might also be some sentiment to give Francouer the award as a recognition of how important all the Braves' rookies were to the team's 11th straight NL East division title, sort of by the same logic that won Kim Basinger the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for "LA Confidential."

And then there's Ryan Howard. If the award were for "Most Valuable Rookie," it would be his to loose: without Howard's efforts in place of the injured Jim Thome, the Phils might have struggled to finish at .500. But is there a case against him? Well, the strikeouts are going to catch some attention: the big guy whiffed 100 times in 345 plate appearances. That's pretty close to a record pace.

I think that's it, though. Howard entered the 2005 season as a man without a position in the big leagues, a smiling refusenik who wanted out of Philadelphia. He ended it, thanks to the fortuitous intersection of talent and opportunity, as the toast of the town. At least some tea-leaf reading has him as a key piece of the Phils' future, a cornerstone while the team tries to sort between Thome, Bobby Abreu and other, older stars. While Francouer has a strong Rookie of the Year case in his own right, as well as the playoff stage on which to further announce his presence, Phils phans can look forward to the prospect of watching the league's best first-year player for hopefully many seasons to come. The Jackie Robinson Award would be the cherry on top, and hopefully just one more anchor keeping Howard in Philly for 2006 and beyond.