Baseball is becoming a young man’s game. Now more than ever, young players are coming up to the majors and dominating immediately.
You don’t have to look hard to find evidence of this. The winners of last year’s MVP award, Mike Trout and Kris Bryant, are both 24 years old. Their competition for that honor including players like Mookie Betts, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager. None of those players are older than 25.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly difficult to predict all those guys would blossom into future stars. Anyone who has followed prospect lists or played in fantasy leagues were well aware of Bryant and Seager months before they stepped foot on a major league field. You knew they were going to mash from the moment they got the call.
We here at The Stew welcome a challenge. Either that, or we just want to make things harder on ourselves. What you’ll find below is a list of 10 mostly young players we think are in store for a breakout in 2017. This isn’t a new concept. Many analysts, including ESPN’s Keith Law, have been putting together similar lists for years now.
To differentiate ourselves, our list was made with the following rules in mind:
No elite prospects! Everyone knows about Byron Buxton and has heard his name for years. If the former No. 1 overall prospect puts up a strong year in 2017 will you really be surprised? You won’t find him or players like Yoan Moncada below.
They haven’t already experienced a breakout. For the purpose of this exercise, we tried to pick players who have never had an fWAR above 2.0 in a single season. That takes a promising guy like Joe Ross out of the running.
If we’re going to fail miserably at this exercise, we might as well try to be bold. Without further ado, here are the 10 MLB players we think are headed for a breakout in 2017:
EDUARDO RODRIGUEZ, SP, BOSTON RED SOX
Since he’s a promising young player on the Red Sox, Rodriguez is probably the best-known player featured on our list. While his 4.71 ERA from last year doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, take a closer look at how he arrived at that number. Over his first six starts, he was horrendous, posting an 8.59 ERA. The Red Sox believed he was tipping his pitches, and after a brief stop in the minors, Rodriguez returned with a vengeance. Over his final 14 starts, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA, averaging over a strikeout per inning. With David Price sidelined, Rodriguez should open the year as Boston’s fifth starter. If he pitches like he did in the second half, he won’t be the one leaving the rotation when Price is ready to return.
TOM MURPHY, C, COLORADO ROCKIES
Murphy is set to open the year on the disabled list due to a fractured forearm, so we’re already off to a bad start. But once he returns, he could be an offensive force for Colorado. In a 21-game audition last year, Murphy blasted five home runs and displayed an acceptable amount of patience. His high strikeout rates in the minors don’t bode well for his future batting averages, but perhaps some of that will be offset by playing half his games in Coors Field. Rockies hitters have led the league in BABIP at home the past three seasons, so while Murphy’s .350 figure from 2016 might be high, some of it could stick due to his favorable home park.
ROBERT GSELLMAN, SP, NEW YORK METS
Gsellman turned in a strong debut, posting a 2.42 ERA for the Mets over 44 2/3 innings last season. Despite that, there are reasons to be skeptical. Gsellman was never listed on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list, and few players actually see their strikeout rate rise upon reaching the majors. But last year’s dominance might stick for the 23-year-old. The Mets have done a great job developing young pitchers lately (as long as they can stay healthy), and pitching coach Dan Warthen deserves credit for that. Warthen has taught a number of the Mets pitchers the “Warthen slider,” and it’s helped all of them take their game to the next level. There’s already evidence Gsellman started throwing the pitch last year, and that’s enough to make us believe he can carry over his success into 2017.
RYON HEALY, 3B, OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Like Gsellman, Healy was almost too good last season to make this list. Over 283 plate appearances, the 24-year-old hit an excellent .305/.337/.524, with 13 home runs. But, also like Gsellman, there’s reason to doubt those numbers. Healy was never considered an elite prospect by any of the major publications. No one thought he would thrive upon reaching the majors. So, what changed? Healy altered his swing, lowering his hands and focusing on keeping his bat in the zone longer. The result was added power. After hitting 10 home runs in 2015, Healy smashed 27 over three levels in 2016. There’s still some work to be done. Healy doesn’t walk much, and his 21.2 percent strikeout rate should lead to a lower batting average, but he could give the A’s above-average offensive production at third base. That’s a big win considering where Healy was a year ago.
IVAN NOVA, SP, PITTSBURGH PIRATES
OK, fine, we broke one our rules. Nova has put up a couple successful seasons throughout his career. He’s topped 2.0 fWAR three separate times. But it’s not like he was ever a superstar, and injuries made him an afterthought until late last year. Nova, like so many other pitchers, really benefitted from going to Pittsburgh and working with pitching coach Ray Searage. With the Pirates, Nova posted a 3.06 ERA over 64 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate improved and he issued just three walks in 11 starts. Some of that improvement came from Nova cutting down on his four-seam fastball usage. The pitch has produced a -29.7 value of his career, making it easily his worst offering. Expecting Nova to repeat what he did in the second half might be optimistic, but it’s tough to bet against Searage’s track record.
AUSTIN HEDGES, C, SAN DIEGO PADRES
Hedges peaked at No. 27 on Baseball America’s top-100 prospect list back in 2014, making him our highest ranked prospect on this list. That ranking was based solely on his defensive skills. Hedges hit just .224 in 2013 and .225 in 2014 at Double-A. Yeah, the defense is that good. But his bat finally showed signs of life last year. Hedges absolutely mashed in Triple-A hitting .326/.353/.597, with 21 home runs. Admittedly, El Paso is a strong offensive environment, but Hedges also made changes to his swing that may have contributed to his success. His hands are much lower, and he’s adopted a more pronounced leg kick. Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs detailed the results of those changes, and supplied visual evidence of Hedges’ altered hitting mechanics. The defense is good enough to carry him, so Hedges only has to hit a little bit in order to become a standout player. If he can somehow manage a .250 average with decent power, the Padres will have themselves another solid building block.
CODY REED, SP, CINCINNATI REDS
Reed’s brief major-league debut didn’t go as expected. The 23-year-old lefty posted an awful 7.36 ERA over 47 2/3 innings. But look a little closer and there were plenty of promising signs. His 18.7 strikeout rate was encouraging, and his walk rate was acceptable. He even kept the ball on the ground, posting a 51.9 ground ball rate. So, what was the problem? The long ball killed Reed. He gave up an incredible 12 home runs in those innings. His HR/FB rate was an astounding 27.9 percent. That’s not sustainable. For comparison, Jaime Garcia led all pitchers with a 20.2 HR/FB rate last year. Unless Reed is truly the most homer-prone pitcher of all-time, that figure is going to drop. Everything else about his profile says he has the ability to be a mid-rotation starter.
ERIC THAMES, 1B/OF, MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Perhaps our bias is showing. We want Thames to be successful because his story is exceptional. After a failed stint in the majors, Thames went to Korea, posted Ruthian numbers and then decided it was time to give MLB another shot. Seriously, though, check out Thames’ line in the Korea league. He hit, and this is not a typo, .347/.448/.714, with 126 home runs over 397 games. The offensive environment in the KBO is insane, so don’t expect Thames to suddenly become the best hitter in the majors. He’s always had good power, though, and a YouTube video of all his 2015 home runs reveals he can absolutely crush mistakes. He may strike out a ton and hit for a low average, but he’s also a candidate to put up 30 home runs.
JHAREL COTTON, SP, OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Cotton isn’t a hard-thrower, but he succeeds based on a strong fastball/changeup combination. Plenty of pitchers have utilized that same approach to dominate the minors, only to struggle upon reaching the majors. However, it was Cotton’s cutter that stood out once he reached the majors. Cotton’s changeup, while excellent, doesn’t induce a ton of whiffs. His cutter more than made up for it. His whiff rate with the pitch was somehow double the average cutter. That likely won’t continue, but it doesn’t have to in order for him to be successful. The fact that Cotton has a third pitch in his back pocket that he can use to get whiffs is huge. It should help Cotton succeed where so many others with his skill set have failed in the past.
MITCH HANIGER, OF, SEATTLE MARINERS
You may not have heard about Haniger until right now, and that’s fine. The 26-year-old was never a prospect, and didn’t have a standout season in the minors until last year, when many thought he was too old for his level. Haniger’s offensive turnaround was fueled by, you guessed it, a change to his swing. Nick Piecoro of azcentral.com detailed those changes in his essay for the Baseball Prospectus Annual. His outburst was enough to draw the eye of Jerry Dipoto, who called Haniger a “critical element” to the Jean Segura trade. Haniger may have been an afterthought in that deal to the general public, but he’s rewarded Dipoto by hitting .389/.436/.653 this spring. He should open the season as the primary starter in right, and should benefit from hitting behind Seattle’s tremendous trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.
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