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03/26/08 10:00 AM ET

Five NL rookies aiming for the top

Two catchers, two pitchers and an outfielder ready for stardom

Choosing the best candidates for Rookie of the Year this time of year is a lot like choosing playoff teams. What looks like a lock in March may prove to be a mistake by May's end.

It isn't just about gauging a rookie's future performance -- projected playing time is also critical.

Cincinnati outfielder Jay Bruce is considered by some to be the best prospect in baseball, and as such, would seem to be a strong National League Rookie of the Year candidate. And he was -- until the Reds sent him to the Minor Leagues last week.

The Reds have another promising prospect in first baseman Joey Votto, who hit .321 with 17 RBIs following his September callup last season. Votto, however, is currently blocked by Scott Hatteberg.

It should be noted that not making the Opening Day roster isn't necessarily a death blow to Rookie of the Year chances. Remember that 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun didn't join the Brewers until May.

The following five NL rookies figure to not only get appreciable amounts of playing time in 2008, but to play well enough to make the ballot next fall.

1. Kosuke Fukudome, RF, Cubs: The two-time Japanese Central League batting champion and four-time Gold Glove winner takes over as the Cubs' starting right fielder. Fukudome joins a lineup that also includes Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, which means that wherever manager Lou Piniella decides to bat him, the left-handed hitter shouldn't have a lengthy learning curve. Once he gets adjusted to the American game, Fukudome should do what he's always done -- hit for average and play outstanding defense.

2. J.R. Towles, C, Astros: Towles batted .375 with 12 RBIs in a 14-game tryout with Houston last year. In just the sixth game of his Major League career, against St. Louis on Sept. 20, the 24-year-old went 4-for-4 with a franchise-record eight RBIs, the first catcher to drive in eight runs in a game since Pudge Rodriguez did so in 1999. Towles' brief but eye-popping performance convinced management that he is ready to be the everyday catcher, and his performance this spring (.400, 1.155 OPS through March 24) would seem to indicate the Astros made the right decision.

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

3. Hiroki Kuroda, RHP, Dodgers: At 33, Kuroda is the oldest rookie in the bunch. The 10-year veteran of the Japanese League signed a three-year, $35.3 million free-agent contract with Los Angeles during the offseason. He brings four quality pitches, and scouts feel that his repertoire will work very well in the Major Leagues, especially in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.

4. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds: No pitcher caused more of a buzz in the Grapefruit League than Cueto, who wowed both scouts and opposing teams. Cueto's chances of making the rotation were already good through his first four games (13 IP, 12 K, 4 BB, 2.08 ERA), and they improved when manager Dusty Baker decided last week to keep Jeremy Affeldt in the bullpen.

"That's one of the best-looking young pitchers I've seen all spring," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after watching Cueto pitch against Detroit. "That's some of the best crude stuff I've seen all spring. I don't know anything about him, but he's got talent. He's good. He's very impressive."

5. Geovany Soto, C, Cubs: Soto is above average defensively, and his swing produces a lot of line drives to all fields. He batted .325 in 30 Major League games over the last three seasons. The future All-Star must cut down on the strikeouts (14 in 54 at-bats last year), but as the everyday backstop in a Cubs lineup in which he'll likely get plenty of pitches to drive, he should have a fine season.

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