Top rookies to watch in the 2018 MLB season

The 2017 MLB season was memorable for a number of reasons. At or near the top of the list was the impact that Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger had. The two rookies took the baseball world by storm. With spring training now right around the corner, it’s only fair to wonder. Who might do that in the 2018 MLB season?

Looking at the pool, there are some strong candidates. The Chicago Cubs have dominated baseball in the Windy City over the last three season. But their crosstown rivals have two rookies that we expect will make a huge impact in the 2018 season.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have already great teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians, and New York Yankees. Those teams all have a rookie that we think should be watched closely. Heck, one of them has two such rookies. Of course, no talk of rookies in the 2018 season would be complete without the guy who could be the most unique player MLB has seen in decades.

The pool of first-year players is vast. From that vast pool, these are the rookies that need to be watched during the 2018 MLB season.

Shohei Ohtani, pitcher/outfielder, Los Angeles Angels

In recent years, we’ve seen Japanese pitchers like Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka and Kenta Maeda come to MLB and make a fairly large impact early on. Ohtani posted a 2.52 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and struck out 10.3 hitters per nine innings during his Japanese career. That alone is enough to make us excited to see what he can bring the Halos in 2018.

Of course, we’re also excited to see what he can do at the plate. In Japan, Ohtani hit .286/.358/.500 with 48 home runs in 1,035 at-bats. By comparison, Madison Bumgarner — one of the best hitting pitchers we’ve seen in a while — has a career .185/.232/.322 slash line with 17 home runs in 487 at-bats.

The Angels have a solid outfield Albert Pujols mans the DH position. As such, don’t expect Ohtani to get a full season’s worth of at-bats. But when he does step into the box, it’ll be interesting to see what he can do, much like it will be when he toes the rubber.

Lewis Brinson, centerfielder, Miami Marlins

Not only was Brinson the best player that Miami received when it traded Christian Yelich, but he’s likely the star acquisition of the Marlins’ entire controversial offseason.

We saw him in limited playing time for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017. But Brinson struggled to a .106/.236/.277 line with two homers at the Major League level. The thing is, though, that that came in only 47 at-bats. That works out to about two weeks worth of games, which isn’t much at the MLB level. In AAA, Brinson hit .331/.400/.562 with 13 home runs and 11 steals in 299 at-bats. That’s a much greater sample size. But it’s also small enough to wonder how much better it could have been over 500 a-bats.

Miami is going to be terrible. That’s a given. It would be quite surprising to see the Marlins even get to 70-92. For Miami’s fans, that’s unfortunate. But one of the positives is that it should net Brinson a full season of at-bats.

Gleyber Torres, third baseman, New York Yankees

While Torres has played shortstop throughout his Minor League career, we figure that he’ll play third in the Bronx. New York isn’t exactly looking to trade Didi Gregorius and the hot corner job is there to be had. Torres has been one of the best prospects in baseball in recent seasons. Now is the time to see what he can do in pinstripes.

With a lineup featuring players like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez, Yankees games figure to feature a lot of home runs, walks, and strikeouts. Torres will be a bit of a break from that. In 1,349 MiLB at-bats, he hit .282/.360/.416 with 23 home runs and stole 60 bases. That stat line opens many doors for where Torres might fit in the lineup.

If he’s a table setter, the steals are going to be irrelevant. The Yankees simply aren’t going to risk running into outs on the bases with the power in the middle of the order coming up. But he will score a lot of runs batting that high. Additionally, the power numbers might increase as pitchers will challenge Torres, not wanting to walk him with the thunder coming up. If Torres bats at the bottom of the order, he’ll be a nice lengthening the lineup guy. Then, he may be inclined to run a little more as well. Either way, we like the potential that Torres has heading into 2018.

Ronald Acuna, outfielder, Atlanta Braves

Let’s take a look at what Acuna did in 2017, as a 19-year-old.

In Advanced-A ball, Acuna hit .287/.336/.478 with three homers and 14 steals. In AA, he hit .326/.374/.520 with nine home runs and 19 stolen bases. Finally, he hit .344/.393/.548 with nine homers and 11 steals in AAA. That translates to an impressive stat line of .325/.374/.522, 21 home run, and 44 steals. But better yet, Acuna didn’t simply avoid a drop at each level of the minors, he got better. That’s rare for anyone. For a 19-year-old, it’s essentially unheard of.

At 20, Acuna is young enough that he may not make the Opening Day roster. But realistically speaking, the Braves just don’t have the outfield to justify keeping this kid in the minors for long. We’re not necessarily going to say that Acuna will keep improving his overall stats when he gets to the majors. But he has enough of an overall game for us to think that he’ll make a big impact on the field.

Walker Buehler, pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers

At the Minor League level, he has a career 3.17 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and has struck out 12.6 hitters per nine innings. He has a blazing fastball, backed up with a solid curve and slider. Many relief pitchers have only two good pitches. So, if Buehler is used out of the bullpen, he’ll already be ahead of the curve.

His changeup is also steadily improving. Should that continue, we’d be looking at a guy with one great pitch, two good ones, and another decent one (at worst). That would make him a slam dunk starter. As a right hander, he’d provide balance to a rotation that’s a little left-hand heavy.

The Dodgers have the luxury of being able to use him in either role. But whatever is decided, expect Buehler to be a prominent part of Los Angeles’ pitching plans in 2018.

Eloy Jimenez, outfielder, Chicago White Sox

Since the end of the 2016 season, the White Sox have been steadily rebuilding. We’re not exactly expecting Chicago to be competing for a playoff spot in 2018. But we are expecting to see more of those acquired prospects making an impact at the Major League level. With Yoan Moncada already up, the focus now shifts to Michael Kopech (more on him later) and Jimenez — the White Sox main haul in the Jose Quintana deal.

There’s not a lot left for Jimenez to do at the Minor League level. He hit .329/.369/.532 with 14 home runs in 2016. He backed that up in 2017 with a .312/.379/.568, and added to his power with 19 home runs.

Jimenez is 21, so there isn’t a huge hurry to bring him up. But much like Acuna in Atlanta, the White Sox outfield just doesn’t have the players to justify keeping him down. Financial reasons may force Chicago to wait on activating Jimenez. But at some point in the first half of the season, we expect to see him in the South Siders lineup. Once there, Jimenez is not going anywhere.

J.P. Crawford, shortstop, Philadelphia Phillies

In Crawford, we have something of a unique rookie. Even before spring training has begun, there’s absolutely no reason to think that he won’t start on Opening Day.

Crawford grades as a solid defender at a premium position. That, alone, makes him someone to watch very closely. But Crawford’s bat is also worth mentioning. He hit .243/.351/.405 with 15 home runs while in Triple-A in 2017. If he can bring those numbers to the majors, Crawford will definitely be an above-average hitting shortstop.

When we look at Crawford’s position and the potential of his overall game, he’s definitely a rookie worthy of our attention in 2017.

Alex Verdugo, outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers just missed winning the World Series in 2017, and it would surprise absolutely nobody if they won it all in 2018. One problem that Los Angeles had was that it was a bit too dependent on the home run ball. With that in mind, Verdugo can provide something of a different look in the lineup.

Verdugo has some pop. But his Minor League career has shown that he fits into the “good hitter who can occasionally take you deep” mold. Verdugo has a .305/.362/.438 career slash line in the minors and hit .314/.389/.436 in AAA in 2017. Also, while he’s never topped 13 home runs in a single Minor League season, Verdugo has struck out only 200 times in 1,612 MiLB at-bats. By contrast, Cody Bellinger struck out 146 times in only 480 at-bats for the Dodgers in 2016.

It’s important to have guys like Bellinger, who can change a game with one swing. But it’s also important to have guys like Verdugo. While maybe not as spectacular, they will be more solid. With that in mind, we expect to see a lot of Verdugo in the Los Angeles outfield in 2018.

Forrest Whitley, pitcher, Houston Astros

Whitley is similar to the aforementioned Buehler in that we’re not sure if he’ll be a starter or reliever. But either way, he should spend much of 2018 with he Astros. If that does happen, he’ll make Houston’s pitching better.

Whitley pitched in three separate levels on Minor League ball in 2017, posting a 2.83 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. If we’re being really picky, we could point out that the WHIP is a touch high for a 20-year-old vying for a roster spot on the reigning World Series champions. But we can’t say that without mentioning that it was 1.36 in Single-A, 1.18 in Advanced-A, and 0.82 in AA. He got better as the season progressed and as he climbed the ladder.

His control got much better as the season progressed. But if he’s struggling with his secondary pitches in spring training, he can start in the bullpen while refining those. As soon as those pitches are ready, though, he can join the starting rotation. That would put two of Lance McCullers Jr., Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, and Collin McHugh in the bullpen. Either way, Whitley’s presence will go a long way in solidifying the bullpen, which was really the only weakness of 2017’s championship squad.

Ryan McMahon, first baseman, Colorado Rockies

In truth, McMahon can play first, second, or third base. But with DJ LeMahieu at second and Nolan Arenado at third, first base is where McMahon will likely see the most playing time.

Minor League pitchers are certainly hoping that McMahon gets the call. He hit .355/.403/.583 with 20 home runs between AA and AAA in 2017. Mind you, he did all of that without the benefit of Coors Field. Imagine how good this guy will be once he steps into that hitter’s paradise.

With McMahon essentially already Major League ready and Brendan Rodgers not that far behind him, the future is quite bright in Colorado.

Victor Robles, outfielder, Washington Nationals

Like Verdugo, Robles certainly has pop. But also like Verdugo with Los Angeles, Robles’ value to Washington will come more from the fact that his game is a little different than the rest of the guys on his team.

Robles hit .300/.382/.493 in the minors in 2017, hitting 10 home runs. He also stole 27 bases, although much like Torres with the Yankees, that will be largely kept in check if he’s hitting in front of Bryce Harper.

Robles certainly can compete for the NL Rookie of the Year. But in terms of potential numbers, we like some of the other players on this list a little more. But Robles plays for a team that’s won back-to-back National League East crowns. So, even if he’s not winning the Rookie of the Year, he’ll be a rookie playing in some meaningful games down the stretch.

Brent Honeywell, pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays

Honeywell posted a 3.49 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with 172 strikeouts in 136.2 innings between AA and AAA a season ago. The numbers are certainly good, even if they’re not quite as eye-popping as some of the other pitchers that we’ve gone over.

Where Honeywell really gets our attention is with what he throws. He features five pitches, which is rare enough. Making matters even better is that one of those pitches is a screwball, something Major League hitters just don’t see a lot of. The pitchers that do throw screwballs usually don’t back them up with a fastball that can touch 95.

We’re certainly looking forward to seeing what kind of impact he’ll make at the Major League level.

Scott Kingery, second baseman, Philadelphia Phillies

We’ve already looked at Philadelphia’s shortstop of the future. Now, we look at the keystone.

Unlike Crawford, Kingery isn’t quite assured of a spot on the Opening Day roster. But he’s coming off a season in which he hit .304/.359/.530 with 26 home runs and 29 steals. Even better, he did that between AA and AAA, so he’s not just dominating the lower levels of the minors.

César Hernández is not a bad player by any means. We certainly can see him holding Kingery off through spring training and the early season. But Kingery has just shown too much promise to be kept down in the minors for a long time. If he stays healthy, he’ll be up with the Phillies before July 4. Once he’s up, don’t expect him to go anywhere.

Francisco Mejia, catcher, Cleveland Indians

Catching is still, by and large, a defensive position. There are exceptions now and throughout MLB history. But for the most part, the offense you get from the backstop is a bonus. Mejia is the kind of player who can provide that bonus and then some.

He hit .297/.346/.490 in the minors a season ago, adding 14 home runs and even seven steals. Additionally, while his overall fielding still needs some work, Mejia has a rocket arm behind the dish. So, we’re going to be really intrigued when the Indians face the league’s best base stealers.

Good, young catchers are always exciting. We’re especially excited to see what kind of an impact Mejia can make on one of baseball’s best teams.

A.J. Puk, pitcher, Oakland Athletics

If you’re in a fantasy dynasty league or a regular league with a deep bench, do yourself a favor and give Puk a close look.

Puk finished 2017 with a 4.03 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and 184 strikeouts in 125 innings. The strikeout total is staggering. Even still, you can certainly look at those numbers and say that they can be a lot be a lot better. And you’d be right. But consider that he put up those numbers working primarily as a starter, with only a fastball and slider that can really be depended on. Imagine how good Puk can be when his curveball and changeup are developed.

Now, just for fun, let’s say that that won’t happen. That would leave Puk essentially as a pitcher with a strong fastball and slider, but little else. That sounds like a bad thing. But that’s essentially the exact kind of pitcher that Andrew Miller is. Like Miller, Puk is also six-foot-seven. We’re not saying that Puk will be that good. But even if starting doesn’t work out, he does have essentially all of the chops needed to be an elite reliever. All things considered, that’s not a bad fallback option.

Willie Calhoun, outfielder, Texas Rangers

If you’re thinking about placing a friendly wager for American League Rookie of the Year, you can do a lot worse than Calhoun.

Barring an absolutely disastrous spring, we’re expecting to see him in the Texas outfield on opening day. So, the playing time will be there. It’s hard to predict numbers but based on 2017, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Calhoun hit 31 home runs in the minors a season ago, and backed it up with a .300/.355/.572 slash line. Even better is that he had only 61 strikeouts in 482 at-bats. So, this isn’t exactly a power hungry prospect with big holes in the swing. Calhoun is just a good hitter.

Remembering that, as well as the fact that Globe Life Park in Arlington is a great place to hit, and we’re pretty intrigued to see what Calhoun can do in 2018.

Nick Senzel, third baseman, Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati’s defense could be something of a puzzle in 2018. Senzel should end up as Cincinnati’s third baseman. That said, we could justify him playing somewhere else on the diamond as other battles fall into place. But one way or another, Senzel has to be in the majors in 2018.

He hit .321/.391/.514 in 2017, adding 14 home runs and 14 steals. Quite frankly, the Reds are just not a good enough team to keep him in the minors beyond maybe the early portions of the 2018 season. It’s also worth mentioning that he grades out as a plus defender, although that could change if he moves away from the hot corner.

Senzel definitely belongs in the majors. And when we factor in how hitter-friendly The Great American Ballpark is, Senzel will be primed to put up some solid numbers once he gets to the show.

Michael Kopech, pitcher, Chicago White Sox

Remember everything that we already said about Puk. Kopech is, more or less, the right-handed equivalent of that. He has an even better fastball than Puk and backs it up with a solid slider. His change needs to be developed a little more and we certainly wouldn’t mind seeing a curve added to the repertoire. But as things presently stand, he’s got more than enough to at least make it as a Major League reliever.

Kopech posted a 2.88 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in 2017, backing it up with 172 strikeouts in only 134.1 innings. He did walk 4.4 hitters per nine. While that’s a big total, he got significantly better in that regard as the season went along, dropping to a respectable 2.8 per nine in the second half.

We should absolutely expect to see Kopech with the White Sox in 2018. Really, we should expect to see that sooner rather than later.