In 2018, we saw the likes of Christian Yelich, Josh Hader and Blake Treinen go from good players to the best in MLB at their respective positions. Looking forward to the 2019 season, we have to wonder who might do the same thing.
Jacob deGrom will understandably get the attention. But one of his New York Mets teammates is poised to join the reigning Cy Young Award winner as a superstar. An NL East rival started Game 1 of a playoff series in 2018. He, too, is primed for even better things.
Khris Davis was once the odd man out in a crowded Milwaukee Brewers outfield. He left and became a star. Another man is well positioned to do the exact same thing in 2019. Meanwhile, one of Davis’ current teammates could well be an MVP candidate when the season is over. These MLB players have already experienced varying degrees of success. As the 2019 season is nearing, they’re all poised to become known around the league.
Mike Foltynewicz, starting pitcher, Atlanta Braves
Foltynewicz had a nice year in 2018 — posting a 2.85 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and a 9.9 K/9 rate. And as good as those numbers are, there’s room to improve. While Foltynewicz has never been a wild pitcher, his control has left something to be desired. But over the final two months, he had a 2.5 BB/9 rate. That’s more than acceptable for anyone, especially a pitcher with his strikeout abilities. It’s also worth noting that he improved his ERA and WHIP, as well as K/9 and H/9 rates in that time. That’s very encouraging. So, as good as Foltynewicz was in 2018, we’re expecting even better things in 2019.
Luke Voit, first baseman, New York Yankees
Towards the end of last year, Aaron Boone and the Yankees finally decided to put Voit at first base. The decision was a good one. Voit hit .333/.405/.689 with 14 home runs in the second half of 2018. It may not be realistic to think that he’ll maintain that pace for the full 2019 season. But remember that Voit bats in one of baseball’s best lineups. Even if he ends up hitting in the bottom part of the order, he’ll still get ample protection and his teammates will give him plenty of chances to pad things like runs scored and RBI. So, we’re not exactly banking on steep regression.
Collin McHugh, starting pitcher, Houston Astros
McHugh was relegated to Houston’s bullpen in 2018. And while he flew relatively under the radar in that role, he excelled. McHugh posted a 1.99 ERA, 0.912 WHIP and an 11.7 K/9 rate. With Charlie Morton gone and Lance McCullers Jr. recovering from Tommy John Surgery, McHugh is back in the Houston rotation. Ordinarily, we might see that and label McHugh as someone who belongs in the bullpen. But he was already a solid starting pitcher moving to the bullpen. He would have started on literally any other team in baseball in 2018. We like him to pick up right where he left off.
Domingo Santana, right fielder, Seattle Mariners
Following the 2016 season, the Brewers sent Khris Davis to the Oakland Athletics. Davis has topped 40 homers in each of the three subsequent seasons. As was the case with Davis in Oakland, Santana has a much clearer path towards playing time in Seattle than he did in Milwaukee. And remember, this guy hit .278/.371/.505 with 30 home runs as a full-time player in 2017. Even better, he’s only 26 now. We’re not necessarily predicting that Santana will join Davis in the 40 home run club in his first year away from the Brewers. But we’re also not exactly racing to bet against it, either.
Zack Wheeler, starting pitcher, New York Mets
In the second half of 2018, Pitcher A had a 1.68 ERA and a 0.813 WHIP. Over the same time, Pitcher B put up a 1.73 ERA and a 0.833 WHIP. Pitcher A was Wheeler. Pitcher B? Jacob deGrom. That’s right. In the second half of the season, Wheeler was on par with — or even better than — his superstar teammate. Because of a multitude of injuries, it felt like we’d never really get to see what Wheeler could do on the mound. But in 2018, he stayed relatively healthy and pitched quite well. With the injuries even further behind him, expect more of the same from Wheeler this year.
Ryan O’Hearn, first baseman, Kansas City Royals
O’Hearn’s power made a strong early impression in Kansas City. He hit 12 home runs in only 149 at-bats with the Royals. That, combined with the 11 he hit in Triple-A Omaha, gave him 23 on the season. Additionally, O’Hearn hit 22 or more home runs in each of the previous three Minor League seasons. Mind you, that power came in his early-20s. The best power seasons for hitters generally come in their mid-late 20s. Fans in Kansas City probably aren’t going to see many wins this year. But the performance of guys like O’Hearn should give the Royals a lot to be exciting about looking towards the future.
Jose Leclerc, closer, Texas Rangers
If one is trying to find a closer who might emerge in a similar way to what Treinen and Edwin Diaz did in 2018, Leclerc is the guy. He finished the year with a 1.56 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and a 13.3 K/9 rate. Additionally, Treinen had a 5.2 H.9 rate while Diaz was at 5.0. But Leclerc’s rate of 3.7 was significantly better than both of those outstanding marks. Late in the year, the Rangers finally made the decision to make him the closer. He’ll carry the job into the 2019 season. Under the bright spotlight of the closer role, we expect to hear a lot from Leclerc this year.
Willy Adames, shortstop, Tampa Bay Rays
Adames was called up in late-May of 2018.While he made a big splash, Adames struggled some in the early part of his rookie year. At the All-Star Break, he was struggling, hitting .216/.263/.341. But in the second half, Adames turned a corner, hitting a cool .305/.383/.435. And in a strange way, that’s more encouraging than if he hadn’t struggled much in the early going. A big part of succeeding in the majors is adjusting. We know that Adames can do that. That gives us great reason for optimism for what Adames will do in his second year.
German Marquez, starting pitcher, Colorado Rockies
Pitching well at Coors Field is a challenge. But two key parts of Marquez’s game give him a chance. One, he stikes hitters out. In 2018, had a 10.6 K/9 rate and a 12.0 K/9 rate in the second half, a time of the year generally favors hitters. Also important is that he doesn’t walk a lot of hitters. A season ago, he had a 2.6 BB/9 rate and a 1.9 BB/9 rate in the second half. A K/BB ratio of better than 6.0 after the All-Star Break? That’ll work anywhere. And it helped Marquez post a 2.61 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP in the second half of the year. That’s quite an encouraging step forward for a man who’s only 24.
Matt Chapman, third baseman, Oakland Athletics
Chapman’s glove is exceptional. That’s known. But while his bat was never a weakness, we saw it become a clear strength towards the end of 2018. In the second half of last season, he hit .309/.371/.591 with 14 home runs. If that kind of production at that plate is maintained, we’re going to think of Chapman much differently. Right now, we think of him as a good hitter with a great glove. But with his defense, if he’s producing at that kind of rate offensively (or really anything close), Chapman will be mentioned along with guys like Mike Trout and Mookie Betts in the MVP discussion at year’s end.