As we look at the rookie class of 2019, we have to wonder which guys are ready make the same impact in MLB that the likes of Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Ronald Acuna Jr., Shohei Ohtani and Juan Soto made in 2017 and 2018.
There is a wealth of candidates this season. Two sons of former MLB stars are poised to make their marks in 2019. The Chicago White Sox will miss the big arm of Michael Kopech this year. But at least two other prized prospects are ready to go on the South Side. The Houston Astros already boast one of baseball’s scariest lineups. But one of their top young stars could make things even better.
These players all figure to be in the discussion for the National League or American League Rookie of the Year Awards.
Alex Verdugo, right fielder, Los Angeles Dodgers
While a crowded outfield situation could limit Verdugo’s opportunities, the Dodgers are a World Series contender. As such, talent should prevail. That bodes well for Verdugo. He hit .329/.391/.472 in Triple-A in 2018. While Verdugo isn’t a classic power hitter (he’s never hit more than 13 home runs in an MiLB season), Los Angeles doesn’t really need that.
The Dodgers have plenty of power elsewhere. What they need is someone who puts the ball in play and gets on base. That’s Verdugo. Because of that, he figures to be a catalyst in one of baseball’s best lineups. That will earn him serious Rookie of the Year consideration.
Eloy Jimenez, left fielder, Chicago White Sox
There are a number of candidates for the AL Rookie of the Year, but Jimenez is one of two preseason favorites. He absolutely dominated the minors in 2018, hitting .337/.384/.577 and 22 home runs in 456 at-bats across two levels. In Triple-A, Jimenez hit .355/.399/.597 with 12 home runs in 228 at-bats.
The bad news is that Jimenez probably won’t make Chicago’s Opening Day roster. The good news is that the dog-and-pony show of him in the minors shouldn’t last much longer. Expect him to be called up in mid-April. When that call finally happens, watch out.
Kyle Wright, starting pitcher, Atlanta Braves
The Braves have two potential Rookie of the Year pitchers. But as good as Mike Soroka is, we’d expect Atlanta to move him along slowly after an injury-riddled 2018. That’s not such a concern with Wright. He has a mid-90s fastball and a good changeup, which is a great start. But Wright also has a plus curveball and slider.
Wright doesn’t have great control yet, which can be a problem. But having four quality pitches will go a long way towards offsetting that. Some pitchers go an entire career without developing four pitches. Wright is arriving to the majors with a four-pitch arsenal. He’s well ahead of the curve.
Kyle Tucker, right fielder, Houston Astros
Tucker absolutely tore up Minor League pitching a season ago. He hit .332/.400/.590 with 24 home runs in 407 at-bats. He also stole 20 bases for good measure. While his MLB cameo didn’t go all that well, the same was true for Judge in 2016. Things worked out okay there.
The primary concern is playing time. With George Springer, Josh Reddick and Michael Brantley, the outfield is a little crowded. But the injury histories of Reddick and Brantley, plus the fact that Tucker can DH, gives us every reason to believe he’ll get plenty of at-bats. With those chances, we expect to see Tucker make quite an impression.
Victor Robles, center fielder, Washington Nationals
Like Verdugo in Los Angeles, Robles has the potential to be a huge part of a strong lineup. He had a .371 OBP in the minors in 2018 and has a career .392 Minor League OBP. Robles also has the speed to steal 20 or more bases. In addition to his offensive prowess, Robles grades out as a top-tier defender. That will only help his chances, especially at a premium position like centerfield. Robles hasn’t going to hit for a great deal of power yet.
But even without the long ball, he’s got the skills to be a plus contributor in pretty much every other area. That makes him a prime candidate to be the NL’s top rookie in 2019.
Jesus Luzardo, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics
First things first, the opportunity to crack Oakland’s pitching staff is there for Luzardo. At this point, we’d say that Mike Fiers is a virtual lock to be in the rotation. Beyond that, it’s wide open. In two Minor League seasons, Luzardo has posted a 2.53 ERA and 1.04 WHIP.
As good as that is, what’s more encouraging is his 5.06 strikeout-to-walk rate. He throws strikes, which is a big deal for such a young pitcher, but also misses bats. When hitters do make contact against Luzardo, he’ll have MLB’s best defensive infield and a park with huge gaps and immense foul territory behind him. Things shape pretty well for Luzardo in 2019.
Peter Alonso, first baseman, New York Mets
Alonso might be the most MLB ready prospect right now, at least of the NL candidates. He hit 36 home runs in the minors a season ago, slashing at .285/.395/.579. Youth could also hurt the chances of other candidates. Teams might be inclined to keep a 20 or 21-year-old in the minors until June, or even later. But for Alonso, who’s 24, that’s not such a concern. The Mets shouldn’t be worried about his contract situation six years from now. So, while there are more highly touted prospects in the NL, Alonso is a big time Rookie of the Year candidate.
Dylan Cease, starting pitcher, Chicago White Sox
The bad news for White Sox fans is they’ll have to wait another year to see Kopech. The good news is that Cease should make his way to Chicago during the season. There’s no doubt that Cease needs to work on his command. But his high-90s fastball and elite curveball will let him get away with sub par command, especially if his changeup is also working. In 2018, he posted a 2.40 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and 11.6 K/9 rate in the minors. He’s going to issue some free passes. But as long as the walk rate doesn’t get too far out of hand, Cease has potential to be a dominant arm as soon as he makes his MLB debut.
Fernando Tatis Jr., shortstop, San Diego Padres
We’d be a little concerned about the fact that Tatis is only 20. But what Soto and Acuna did in their rookie seasons at 19 and 20 shows that prospects being young shouldn’t prohibit teams from calling them up. When they’re ready, they’re ready. Tatis is coming off of a year in which he hit .286/.355/.507 with 16 home runs and 16 stolen bases in the minors. He also grades out as a good defender at shortstop. By all appearances, he’s ready to go. If the Padres give Tatis an early season call-up (which they should) we’d call him the favorite to be the NL’s top rookie.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., third baseman, Toronto Blue Jays
Guerrero completely dominated Minor League pitching a season ago. He hit a cool .381/.437/.636 with 20 home runs in only 357 at-bats. In no way does he belong in the minors, especially when we look at the fact that Toronto’s infield isn’t exactly star-studded.
Given that the Blue Jays don’t figure to contend, we could see them holding Guerrero in the minors until June. They shouldn’t, but as this offseason has taught us, the business of baseball is a weird thing. Quite frankly, Guerrero is a legit candidate even if he is held down until June. If he’s up by mid-April, Guerrero and Jimenez are the two clear favorites.