It’s been an extraordinary time for young players in Major League Baseball the past several years. The old guard of David Ortiz and Derek Jeter, among others, has passed on the torch to a collection of meteoric young talent including the likes of Mike Trout, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Kris Bryant, to name a few.
Last season was aptly titled “The Year of the Rookie” and inspired this author to peek into the outlook for a handful of those players heading into their sophomore season. You can read the American League edition here and the National League edition here.
I’m going to steal from last year’s post to remind you that, per MLB’s rules, a player remains a rookie until they exceed 130 plate appearances as a position player, 50 innings pitched as a pitcher, or 45 days active on a 25-man roster. Time spent on the disabled list or when rosters expand in September do not count towards these days.
Without further ado, let’s chat about some AL sophomores.
Gary Sanchez, C — New York Yankees
There are major league debuts, and then there are historic anecdotes. What Sanchez did in two months with the Yankees last season would be the latter. In just 229 plate appearances, the slugger posted a .299/.376/.657 slash line with a 171 wRC+ and 20 home runs. While the 60 home run pace may be unrealistic this coming year, the power displayed within the .358 ISO he posted was very present. The dude simply can hit.
Sanchez is slated to begin the year occupying the No. 2 spot for the Yankees and will be a key cog in their lineup. There’s some concern about how the 24-year-old will hold up over the course of an entire big league season. The simple wear and tear of catching being one part with the other being his strikeout rate of 25 percent in last year’s sample. Especially since we are likely to see last year’s 10.5 percent walk rate drop some as major league pitchers get familiar with the slugger. The slash line may not be as impressive over a full season, but there are plenty of reasons to expect big things from the catcher going forward.
Tyler Naquin, OF — Cleveland Indians
The Indians center fielder presents an interesting case in 2017. He had a great offensive performance posting a .296/.372/.514 slash line with a 135 wRC+ and showed unexpected power with 14 home runs in 365 plate appearances. But he accomplished all that with an unsustainable .411 BABIP and a 30.7 percent strikeout rate. The BABIP will certainly come down some, which is fine. Hitting .300 is a lot more difficult than it used to be, after all. But the spike in strikeouts from his minor league years is concerning.
The left-hander was used primarily in a platoon role last year, but figures to play a full-time role this year. He actually fared well against same-handed pitching in the small sample and can be trusted to hold his own going forward. The former first round pick should build off the Indians’ World Series run as he enters his age-26 season. It’s possible Naquin has double-digit steals in him and given his tools, a season with ten-plus steals and home runs would look very nice. Cutting down on the strikeouts could be a key success factor in the coming year.
Tim Anderson, SS — Chicago White Sox
Chicago saw their first-round pick in the 2013 draft debut this past summer. With a game based on speed and defence and enough of a hit tool to get by, Anderson posted a .283/.306/.432 slash line in 431 plate appearances. His 95 wRC+ was below average for the position, but with solid defence and plus speed, that package can create a lengthy major league career. The 23-year-old only stole ten bases in the majors this past season but managed to swipe 49 in 2015 at Double-A.
The White Sox certainly believe Anderson has room to blossom as they rewarded him with a new six-year contact worth $25 million. This types of deals are relatively low-risk for the club and offer players the ability to focus more on developing their game instead of securing their new contract. On paper that’s the case, anyways. Still, there’s a good chance the security helps the right-hander as he establishes his place on the next good White Sox team. Finding a way to get on-base more often will make up for a potential decline in batting average as the league adjusts to Anderson.
Alex Bregman, 3B — Houston Astros
As hard as it is for any player to go through a 2-for-38 slump, the start of one’s career is as inopportune a time as any. Still, Bregman finished the season strong and over 217 plate appearances in the majors he authored a .264/.313/.478 slash line. His 112 wRC+ last year is a strong starting point for the well-rounded hitter. Most reports out there consider him to show polish beyond his years. With the pressure to perform as a top prospect, the slump could’ve sunk Bregman’s season. But it didn’t. That says a lot more about his maturation process than any cliche could.
The second overall pick in the 2015 draft comes loaded with pedigree and barely had time to unpack a suitcase at three of the four minor league levels he’s visited. He has a home in Minute Maid Park for 2017 and is slated to hit in the No. 2 hole for the Astros. Though the presence of Carlos Correa will keep Bregman out of his natural shortstop position, this five-tool stud has plenty of success awaiting him.
Michael Fulmer, SP — Detroit Tigers
What’s one way to keep a competitive window open? Trading an expiring contract for an impact player, which is exactly what Detroit did when they sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets at the 2015 trade deadline. Fulmer started 26 games for the Tigers in 2016 and posted an 11-6 record with a 3.06 ERA and a 3.76 FIP. In 159 innings pitched he posted 7.47 strikeouts and 2.38 walks per nine innings. The right-hander was named the American League Rookie of the Year, beating out Sanchez’ historic season.
The development of Fulmer’s changeup played a large role in his success, mixing it with a very good fastball and slider. He may have had some BABIP luck last year and his FIP suggests a worse performance than his ERA, but there’s reason to believe he could be even better in 2017. The challenge will be the grinding march towards 200 innings. Once Fulmer added the changeup to his arsenal in a more prominent way, things began to take off last year. And this time around he’ll have a whole season of it.
Edwin Diaz, RP — Seattle Mariners
Less than a year ago the right-hander was starting games at the Double-A level. A few months later he was debuting in the big leagues as a reliever. Now, he finds himself on the shortlist of top closers in the American League, if not all of baseball. It’s been a whirlwind for Diaz but he remained steady and was a key cog in the second half for the M’s. Combining an otherworldly 15.33 strikeout-per-nine with a 2.61 walks-per nine over 51 and 1/3 big league innings, Diaz managed a 1.9 fWAR season. His 2.04 FIP suggests his 2.79 ERA was better than it appeared.
While he was used aggressively last year, and may have shown some wear towards the end of the season, Diaz is positioned well for success. Combining a whiff-generating slider with a 97 mile-per-hour fastball is his recipe for success — and it works great — but Diaz found himself with a .337 BABIP and 14.7 percent home run rate. Improving in those two areas certainly could push the right-hander into the very elite. With a little experience and confidence in his back pocket, that shouldn’t be a problem.