All right, we'll let the Major Leagues take the limelight for once.For most clubs, Major League Baseball's Opening Day is Thursday -- the A's and Mariners played in Japan last week -- and before first pitches are thrown across the continent, many more people will toss out their predictions for
All right, we'll let the Major Leagues take the limelight for once.
For most clubs, Major League Baseball's Opening Day is Thursday -- the A's and Mariners played in Japan last week -- and before first pitches are thrown across the continent, many more people will toss out their predictions for the 2019 season. This column could go on and on about how tight the National League East and Central Division races will be or whether Mookie Betts can hold off Mike Trout to win a second straight American League MVP award, but there is one Major League prediction category that fits our interests the best -- Rookie of the Year.
Before baseball players are rookies, they're prospects, and if they're prospects, you've read about them at some point in the Toolshed or elsewhere on MiLB.com. So these award races should be a little clearer than figuring out who will be the AL Wild Card teams come October. Before we get into this year's crop of candidates, let's revisit a 2016 Toolshed on the recipe for Rookies of the Year based on recent history. The following tables have been taken from that story and updated to include the last 20 Rookie of the Year winners (10 from each league) as well as their traditional stats, season debut date, WAR (FanGraphs version), whether their club made the playoffs and their MLB.com overall prospect rank entering their Rookie of the Year season:
Rookies of the Year, 2009-18 (Position Players)
- -- Baseball America rank, all others come from MLB.com
^ -- Ohtani's WAR combines hitting and pitching
Rookies of the Year, 2009-18 (PItchers)
- -- Baseball America rank, all others come from MLB.com
^ -- Ohtani's WAR combines hitting and pitching
Update: That original story pointed out the following: It helps to be highly ranked, it helps to start early, WAR is good for something, making the playoffs can help (but isn't wholly necessary) and position doesn't matter. How do those hold up? Quite well, it seems. Shohei Ohtani's win last year is obviously a unique one for his two-way ability, but it fits most of the parameters here. He was the No. 1 overall prospect entering the season because of his multiple tools he displayed in his first season in Anaheim. He was on the Opening Day roster. His combined fWAR was the highest of any rookie. His club didn't make the playoffs, but that wasn't an issue.
The only alteration might be that Aaron Judge's win in 2017 served a reminder that prospects don't necessarily have to be top-10 material coming into the season. It's tough to remember now, but the 6-foot-7 slugger hadn't hit more than 20 home runs in a Minor League season heading into 2017 and was coming off a 2016 cameo in the bigs in which he struck out 42 times in 95 plate appearances. He was the lowest-ranked position player to win the award since Chris Coghlan opened outside the top 100 in 2009. Breakouts don't just happen in the Minors, and prospects still can grow in exciting new ways at the game's top level.
Keeping all of that recent history in mind, here are the 2019 Rookie of the Year candidates broken down into four categories:
The favorites: If Vladimir Guerrero Jr. wasn't the first thought to come to your head when thinking "2019 Rookie of the Year," then boy, do you have a lot of catching up to do. The Blue Jays third baseman enters 2019 as MLB.com's top overall prospect and has shown he's plenty Major League-ready by hitting .381/.437/.636 with 20 homers in the Minors last season, mostly between Double-A New Hampshire and Triple-A Buffalo. Yes, the 20-year-old is currently injured with a strained oblique. Yes, he'll be back in the International League for a few weeks when healthy (which should be in early April). Yes, his defense needs improvement and will hold back his WAR some. However -- and this can't be stated enough -- Guerrero's offensive profile is that of a generational talent, and if he's up with Toronto by late April as expected, he'll leave a lasting impression that should lead to a new trophy on the mantle come season's end.
The NL race is a bit harder to handicap, but the pick here is No. 4 overall prospect and Nationals outfielder Victor Robles. Following the departure of Bryce Harper, Washington is ready to roll in the outfield with Robles taking over duties in center between 2018 Rookie of the Year candidate Juan Soto and veteran Adam Eaton. Robles already has Major League experience, having played there in 2017 and 2018, so the bright lights and quality of competition won't be anything new. He's also got a true five-tool profile with plus-plus grades on his run, glove and arm tools while he should be above-average offensively. If everything breaks his way -- and he can avoid a freak injury like last year's hyperextended elbow -- he has all the foundational blocks on which to build an award-winning season.
Second tier: Let's first get into what makes the National League such a close race.
Nick Senzel entered the spring with a chance to compete for Cincinnati's Opening Day center-field job, after playing primarily third base in the Minors, but lost out to Scott Schebler. His bat is certainly Major League-ready, and he's got the plus speed and good arm to make center work eventually, if not quickly. With the Reds in a close NL Central race, they should turn to Senzel quickly, and he's got the tools to take off.
Similarly, Pete Alonso's power has the potential to take the Majors by storm whenever he takes over the Mets' first-base job, whether that's right away or deeper into April. However, with so much of his value tied up into that specific tool, any type of wobble could hurt his chances with an inability to make up some of that WAR in baserunning or defense.
Elsewhere in the NL East, the Braves will give their prospects plenty of opportunities to win rotation spots. No. 30 overall prospect Kyle Wright and No. 81 Bryse Wilson won spots out of camp, but expect No. 24 Mike Soroka (once he returns from a shoulder issue) and No. 50 Touki Toussaint to get long looks as well. All four have impressive pitch packages that should work against Major League hitting (if it hasn't already), and whoever separates himself from the pack should be a Rookie of the Year candidate in an attempt to become the first NL pitcher to win the award since deGrom five years ago.
The Padres should boast their own impressive contingent, likely of the position-player variety. (More on their pitchers later.) Fernando Tatis Jr. has the highest ceiling of any prospect not named Vlad, and it could just be a case of when he reaches the Majors that determines his candidacy here. He's got the hit, power, speed and defensive tools at shortstop to be a WAR monster, but he'll need to show it at Triple-A El Paso for the first time first, even if for a brief time. Meanwhile, top-26 overall prospects Luis Urías and Francisco Mejía will open with San Diego, giving them some initial playing-time advantages, but lack the overall packages to stand out alongside Tatis upon his arrival. Sticking in the NL West, Alex Verdugo should finally (finally!) stick as a Major League outfielder with the Dodgers, even if it's as the fourth option to start. He's shown over the past two seasons at Triple-A that his bat has been Major League-ready, and his plus-plus arm could make a few highlight reels. He'll have to find playing time to get himself a real shot at Rookie of the Year, but that's exactly what we said about Cody Bellinger in 2017 as well.
The American League is much more cut and dry. There shouldn't be many players in Guerrero's realm this season. Eloy Jiménez, however, is definitely one of them. The No. 3 overall prospect has plus-plus power and an impressive hit tool after putting together a .337/.384/.577 line and 22 homers at the two upper levels of the White Sox system in 2018. He'll also open in the Majors after signing a six-year contract with two option years last week, meaning his service time won't be a concern. Jimenez isn't expected to be as elite a hitter as Guerrero, but the extra couple weeks of Major League playing time could be a tipping point for voters if they're close come the end of 2019.
If you're looking for a AL pitcher with a chance, seek out Forrest Whitley. The top pitching prospect (No. 7 overall) prospect may have pitched only 26 1/3 innings at Double-A Corpus Christi last season, but the Astros know what they have in the 21-year-old right-hander: a hurler with four plus to plus-plus pitches that could keep batters at any level off balance right now. The fifth spot in the Houston rotation has been a focus all spring, and Whitley could seize it if he dominates the upper Minors to open the spring. He's got the stuff to carve up Major League lineups, and some eye-popping numbers (think Ohtani before his elbow injury) from May on would put him right alongside Guerrero and Jimenez.
Keep these in mind: These will go a little more rapid fire. No. 12 overall prospect Jesus Luzardo would have been firmly in the second tier, likely even ahead of Whitley, if not for a shoulder strain that will keep him out four to six weeks. Shoulder issues are obvious red flags for pitchers, but the A's left-hander looked mighty impressive in the spring, showing Major League-ready stuff. If he can keep this to a minor health blip on the radar, 2019 could very well be his coming-out party at the top level.
No. 34 Chris Paddack and No. 74 Logan Allen have fought for Padres rotation spots this spring. Paddack is the more likely of the two to get one. With his plus fastball, plus-plus change and impressive control, he could take off in the Majors, even after making only seven Double-A starts. However, he's still likely to face an innings limit two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and that could hurt his candidacy. deGrom's 140 1/3 innings are the lowest by a full-time pitcher ROY winner in the past 10 seasons, and that total would represent a 55 percent increase in Paddack's workload from 2018.
No. 10 Brendan Rodgers and No. 38 Austin Riley have Triple-A experience but face internal blocks on the Rockies and Braves infields respectively. They'll have to really hit to break through, and if they carry such hot bats to the Majors, they could get into ROY contention. The Astros have three Top-100 prospects in similar spots in No. 8 Kyle Tucker, No. 44 Yordan Alvarez and No. 62 Josh James. Tucker would probably be a nailed-on Major Leaguer already in another organization but has the power-speed combo to seize any opportunities he eventually gets. James will open the season in the Houston bullpen after a quad injury kept him out of the rotation race. A dominant turn there could thrust him back into the starting five, though he'll need to hold off the ascendant Whitley in such a scenario.
Blue Jays catcher Danny Jansen (No. 65) is expected to be Toronto's everyday backstop right from the get-go. He perhaps lacks the overall package to stand out in this class, but at a time when the offensive threshold behind the plate is so low, his status among fellow catchers could give him a Rookie of the Year boost.
No. 19 Mitch Keller, No. 43 Justus Sheffield, No. 63 Griffin Canning and No. 66 Jonathan Loaisiga will officially open in Triple-A, but shouldn't take long before showing Major League readiness. Loaisiga, in particular, will take over a spot in the Yankees rotation once CC Sabathia is sent to the injured list. Any one of these four will have to solidify their starting spots earlier than June, and that's not necessarily a guarantee, despite their prospect statuses.
No. 33 Alex Reyes won't even open in the St. Louis rotation. He's taking his plus-plus fastball, plus curveball and above-average changeup to the bullpen after injuries have ravaged him in recent seasons. He could absolutely dominate in that role though, so much so that he could be the first reliever to win ROY since Craig Kimbrel in 2011, when bullpen arms took one of the awards in three straight seasons.
Dark horses: No. 11 Bo Bichette has long been Guerrero's bash brother on their way up the Toronto chain, but he's yet to see Triple-A and Freddy Galvis should be a fine seat warmer for him at shortstop until he can force his way north of the border. The Nationals have been aggressive with ready prospects in the past, and they're grooming No. 25 Carter Kieboom to take over second base. The 21-year-old has the good hit tool and promising power to push for his own ascent, even if he was at Class A Advanced Potomac this time last year. The Orioles should have plenty of openings in their outfield for Yusniel Díaz to seize, and if his five tools click on the grass, he could truly become the center of their rebuild with the hardware to back it up.
Looking for this year's Soto or Gary Sánchez? Jo Adell could be the guy. Even though he's expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks with an ankle sprain and a hamstring strain, the No. 14 overall prospect has all the tools to fuel a quick move to Los Angeles when healthy. The Halos need to be in win-now mode, and if their outfield depth takes a hit, don't be surprised to see them turn to the 19-year-old quickly after he rose three levels in 2018.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.