2023 MLB Futures Game: The players from the past who inspired baseball’s burgeoning stars

Jordan Lawlar, Spencer Jones, Jackson Merrill and other prospects reflect on their first favorite MLB stars

SEATTLE — Baseball’s top prospects haven’t played competitive games in the majors yet. For many of them, Saturday’s Futures Game in Seattle — a 5-0 win for the National League — marked their first time following in the footsteps of their childhood heroes. But for these up-and-coming stars, childhood wasn’t that long ago. The vast majority of the roster was born this millennium, with seven players born in 2003 and two born in 2004.

Jordan Lawlar, the Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop prospect, was born in 2002. Asked to name his first favorite baseball player, he didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, it’s easy,” he said. “It has to be Derek Jeter. He’s always been my guy.”

Well aware that he didn’t witness the beginning of Jeter’s career live, Lawlar is nonetheless inspired by Jeter’s poise, “how he carried himself” as a major-league baseball player — a dream that is rapidly approaching reality for most of the young men in the Futures Game clubhouses.

“He’s done everything right on and off the field,” Lawlar said. “And obviously, his play on the field speaks for itself.”

The stars of the Futures Game weren’t always looking for role models. They were once just fans. Sem Robberse, a Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect who grew up in the Netherlands, also said Jeter was the first name that came to mind because Jeter was one of the only names that carried weight in Europe when he was a kid.

“From abroad, from Europe, it was like the Yankees are the most popular team, probably,” Robberse said. “So Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez were the ones that were known over there.”

Spencer Jones, a 6-foot-6 Yankees outfield prospect, latched onto Adrian Gonzalez while growing up in the San Diego area — “Big, left-handed power bat, local guy, producing every day? He was my guy growing up. I loved him.” — while the Baltimore Orioles’ Heston Kjerstad, an outfielder from Texas, adopted Rafael Palmeiro before he started forming memories.

“That was probably like the OG,” Kjerstad said. “I probably don’t even remember liking him, but that’s what I’ve been told from my parents.”

These guys were not normal consumers of baseball for long, though.

“There were multiple big leaguers I’d watch — I’ve watched a lot of Ken Griffey Jr,” Kjerstad said, adding that he hopes to introduce himself to Griffey this weekend. “He’s an impressive player all the way around — defensively, offensively, once-in-a-lifetime talent.”

Coming of age in the YouTube era, these players spent time not just admiring but also meticulously emulating the stars of their youth. Kjerstad said he started picking apart swings from video compilations, looking at how hitters loaded up to swing and how they held their hands.

“I couldn’t even tell you all the guys I’ve tried to analyze or all the guys I’ve maybe tried to steal a little bit from,” he said.

Once Robberse found his home on the mound, he started digging into active aces for inspiration.

“When I started going toward pitching,” he said, “it was more like finding who was the best and picking certain things they were doing well — Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, and then my dad would be like, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, all those guys.”

While there are certainly players who wear their influences on their sleeves — or reflect them with their movements — most of the strivers at the highest levels of baseball success are grabbing elements from all over the place, seeking the perfect combination that works for them.

“People have been hitting well for 120 years — nothing is really that original,” said Tampa Bay Rays corner infield prospect Kyle Manzardo, whose first favorite player was Miguel Cabrera. “You see different things that different guys do, and you try to replicate them.”

Jones, the super-tall Yankees slugger destined to hear a lot of Aaron Judge comparisons, has a very exclusive pool of applicable forebears.

“It’s always been difficult to find guys because there’s just not many people my size running around and doing things,” Jones said, citing Judge’s athletic prowess on defense and Shohei Ohtani’s “beautiful” left-handed swing.

“It’s easy to appreciate Ohtani,” he said. “He’s an unbelievable athlete, unbelievably nice guy, goes out there and does everything the right way.”

Others are learning directly from former favorites turned organizational teammates. San Diego Padres shortstop prospect Jackson Merrill grew up a Boston Red Sox fan, naming Dustin Pedroia as his childhood favorite. He was 5 years old when Pedroia won AL MVP in 2008 and 10 when the Red Sox claimed the 2013 World Series.

“He’s just gritty,” Merrill said. “He loves going to the field, he loves playing, he loves working hard, and that’s kind of what I like to do.”

A partial generation later, Merrill appreciated Xander Bogaerts’ game from afar until it was suddenly right in front of him.

“Xander was actually one of my favorite players, too, being in Boston. But now that he’s [with the Padres], I got to watch him take some ground balls at short in spring training,” he said. “I felt like my defense improved, honestly, just by being there.”

No one, though, got a closer look than Jackson Holliday, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 MLB Draft who will likely be the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball by next spring. Son of longtime St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies slugger Matt Holliday, the young Orioles shortstop prospect watched many of his idols, such as Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado, up close as a kid.

His first favorite player is sort of a moot point — he calls him Dad — but if you want to feel doubly old, Holliday cites Trea Turner as one of his guiding lights.

“Stealing bases and being able to impact the game with just speed is something important. It’s valuable to be able to hit a ground ball and be able to beat it out,” he said. “Trea Turner and [Ronald] Acuña Jr. and guys like that who are unbelievably fast — that’s something that I would like to keep doing and get better at.”