As Major League Baseball teams skew younger and younger and treat older players with increasing suspicion, what will it take for a rookie to break onto a 25-man roster?
Talk about unintended consequences, eh?
This is a game in a state of flux, as was shown this off-season with the miserly approaches made to some big name free agents and in the manner in which some of the game’s biggest markets followed the New York Yankees and served up youth.
The Boston Red Sox bought up 20-year-old rookie Rafael Devers from double-A to solve their third-base woes and the Los Angeles Dodgers called up Cody Bellinger at the end of April, sticking him in left field before moving him to first base.
Next year at this time we’ll be talking about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Anthony Alford. But for now, here are five rookies to keep an eye on in 2018, even if some of them start the season in the minor leagues:
• Ronald Acuna, left-fielder, Atlanta Braves: He’s expected to start the season at triple-A, but Braves special assistant Fred McGriff forecasts a quick promotion for a player who has mastered the game at each minor-league level, and capped off a fine 2017 by becoming the second teenager to be named MVP in the Arizona Fall League.
The Braves have used 21 players in left in the last three seasons and that run will eventually end with Acuna. A key question: Will new Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos try to tamp down Acuna’s service time? Will he be as bold as his peers were with the Los Angeles Dodgers were last season with Bellinger? And will there be pressure on him to throw a bone to Braves fans knowing full well this is a team that is at least a year away?
• J.P. Crawford, shortstop, Philadelphia Phillies: Few players have come into the majors in recent seasons with as many minor-league games and plate appearances. His swing is a work in progress, but through 2,034 minor league at bats Crawford has shown the ability to work the count and posted a .367 OBP with almost as many walks as strikeouts.
The Phillies are two years and a free-agent class away from dominating. Crawford will very much be part of it, despite the fact that the Phillies have cost-effective middle infielders falling out of their pockets. Bonus: J.P.’s father, Larry, was a CFL defensive back who starred with the B.C. Lions and spent his final season with the Toronto Argonauts.
• Ryan McMahon, first base, Colorado Rockies: He’s annoyingly become a more pull-heavy, ground-ball hitter in recent years. Optimists will think it’s because he was attempting to adhere to an organizational mandate to put the ball in play more often, as mandate that has required him to make significant adjustments to his footwork at the plate.
However, the 23-year-old will likely be Mark Reynolds’ replacement on Opening Day and get a chance to replicate Trevor Story’s, er, story. Coors Field to the rescue?
• Shohei Ohtani, pitcher/designated hitter, Los Angeles Angels: It’s a good thing spring training means nothing, because the two-way free-agent’s spring has been a disappointment on the mound and scouts wonder whether he’s seen enough sinking fastballs and curveballs in Japan to prepare him to be a major-league hitter. Part of the concern may be a type of institutional bias – a fear of the ‘outsider’ – but there seem to be real concerns about his hitting mechanics.
There were well-documented, albeit minor, concerns about an elbow ligament injury and now some are wondering if the fact he made just five starts as a pitcher in Japan in 2017 and suffered through an ankle injury is starting to catch up to him. The Angels have asked their players and pitchers to make sacrifices for this guy. It had better work out of the gate.
• Alex Reyes, right-handed pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals: The 23-year-old with the 100 m.p.h. fastball missed last season with Tommy John surgery and will likely break into the majors in May in the bullpen as a natural means of governing his innings.
Whether he has his plus-plus fastball out of the gate (likely) and his plus-plus curve (unlikely), initial indications are he has used the time off to overhaul his training regimen. He’s a good athlete and, in 17.1 innings as a reliever in 2016, he had a 0.52 ERA and better than a two-to-one strikeouts/walks ratio. He’s still one of the three best right-handed prospects in the game. Don’t bet against him having a say in the National League Central race.