10 MLB Prospects with Best Rookie of the Year Odds for 2014
Major League Baseball’s awards week begins Monday with the highly anticipated announcement of the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year winners in each league.
In the National League, it’s a two-horse race between phenoms Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, with 15-game winner Shelby Miller the inevitable third-place finisher.
There was greater parity among rookies’ performances in the American League, as Wil Myers ultimately pulled away from the pack over the final month of the season. That’s not to discount the success of Jose Iglesias and Chris Archer, though, who both held their own and played a major role in their respective team’s postseason berth.
But as we celebrate the seasons had by the game’s premier young players, it’s only appropriate to look toward the future of the game.
Here are 10 prospects with the best chances of winning the 2014 Rookie of the Year award.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Oscar Taveras was widely regarded as the top offensive prospect headed into the 2013 season as well as one expected to make an immediate impact upon arriving in the major leagues.
In 2012, Taveras—who was promoted directly from Low- to Double-A—destroyed Texas League pitching to the tune of a .321/.380/.572 batting line with 67 extra-base hits (23 home runs), 94 RBI and a 56/42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 127 games. It also marked the third consecutive season in which the left-handed hitting outfielder posted a .300-plus batting average.
Sadly, Taveras’ highly anticipated 2013 season didn’t unfold as expected. Opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, the 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May that led to two separate stints on the disabled list and ultimately season-ending surgery. Overall, Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBI at Memphis but was limited to only 46 games.
The surgery went well, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, though Taveras was restricted to a walking boot for the following eight weeks. Don’t worry, though; he’s expected to be healthy by spring training.
Taveras simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it and he can barrel it effortlessly. And while his approach may be challenged more at the major league level, Taveras should always make enough contact to negate any strikeout-related concerns.
Taveras is expected to be ready for spring training in 2014, and he could potentially contend for a spot in the Opening Day outfield depending on how Carlos Beltran's free agency plays out during the offseason. I still consider him the best pure hitter in the minor leagues because, well, he is—even when on the disabled list.
Expect him to make up for lost time next season with a monster rookie campaign.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Rakuten Golden Eagles (Japan)
Only 25 years old, Tanaka had a historic season pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, registering a 24-0 record and 1.24 ERA during the regular season. The right-hander also carried a 30-game unbeaten streak, dating back to his final start of last year in the postseason.
Tanaka’s ridiculous streak came to an end last Saturday when the Golden Eagles’ ace was saddled with his first loss in over a year. Starting Game 6 of the NPB title series, he threw 160 pitches in a 4-2 complete-game loss to the Yomiuri Giants. However, he did return to the mound on Sunday to pick up the save in the series-deciding Game 7.
At 6’2”, 200 pounds, Tanaka typically throws his fastball in the low 90s but can reach back for 95-96 mph when necessary. That being said, there is some concern as to how the pitch will translate in the major leagues given his lack of natural downhill plane toward the plate.
His primary secondary offering is a splitter that is flat-out nasty and features a devastating late tumbling action that causes it to drop off the table and draw ugly swings from opposing hitters. Tanaka’s slider represents a second-plus offering that is thrown in the mid-80s with tight spin and sharp break. The right-hander also throws a decent curveball, though it pales in comparison to both the slider and splitter.
With so many teams reportedly interested in landing the 25-year-old, it’s a safe bet that he’ll pitch in the major leagues next season. I don’t know if a Darvish-like impact should be expected, but Tanaka’s stuff will definitely play against big league hitters.
Nick Castellanos, OF, Detroit Tigers
A lanky right-handed hitter, Nick Castellanos has always stood out for his pure bat-to-ball ability and excellent barrel control. However, his overaggressive approach and penchant for expanding the strike zone was exposed last year following a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie.
Despite posting a .678 OPS in 79 games last year for Erie, the Tigers aggressively promoted Castellanos to Triple-A Toledo to begin the 2013 season. Overall, he made significant adjustments at the plate, demonstrating a more advanced approach that led to more walks and fewer strikeouts.
While he had shown plenty of gap power in the past, the 21-year-old developed more consistent over-the-fence pop this past season. His defense is another story—he moved from third base to the outfield a little over a year ago—as both his reads and routes can be rough. Still, the bat was enough to get him the major leagues for the final month of the regular season.
It didn’t take long for Castellanos to get his feet wet, as the 21-year-old made his big league debut as a pinch hitter later that day against the Indians.
Castellanos received his first start on September 7 against the Royals and picked up the first hit and run scored of his career as part of a 1-for-2 effort. He ultimately appeared in 11 games over the final month of the season, collecting five singles in 18 at-bats.
Though Castellanos isn’t guaranteed to take over as the Tigers’ everyday left fielder, he is expected to contend for the spot next spring.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
There may not be a more exciting player in the game than Billy Hamilton.
Billy Hamilton took baseball by storm after reaching the major leagues as a September call-up, going 4-for-4 in stolen base attempts before and scoring three runs as a pinch runner before logging his first career at-bat.
The Reds gave Hamilton three starts over the final month of the season to see what he could do, and the 23-year-old responded favorably by batting .500 (7-for-14) with four runs scored, two doubles and six stolen bases in those games.
In addition to setting a professional record with 155 bases in 132 games across two minor league levels in 2012, Hamilton also made significant strides at the dish, batting .311/.410/.420 with 112 runs scored, 159 hits and a 113/86 K/BB ratio.
Promoted to Triple-A Louisville for the 2013 season, Hamilton regressed across the board as he struggled to showcase the bat-to-ball and on-base skills that made him so effective the previous year. In 123 games before his call-up he batted only .256/.308/.343 with a 102/38 K/BB ratio but still managed to notch 75 stolen bases (in 90 attempts).
While Hamilton’s game-changing speed is an obvious asset at any level, the development of his hit tool remains a legitimate concern.
As a switch-hitter, Hamilton has quick wrists from both sides of the plate that allow him to generate above-average bat speed and be short to the ball. However, his overall inconsistency is worrisome; Hamilton struggles to keep his weight back and will lunge at too many offerings within the strike zone.
It also prevents him from turning on quality velocity on the inner-half of the plate. And though he controls the zone relatively well, he also makes far too much weak contact for someone who projects as a dynamic leadoff hitter.
While Hamilton flashed his enormous potential over the final month of the regular season, the Reds desperately need him to be something more than a reserve player. The combination of his elite speed and on-field aggressiveness gives him the potential to impact a game in a variety of ways.
Hamtilon’s impact speed already has him pegged as an early favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year award. Plus, if he can establish himself as an everyday player during the 2014 season, there’s reason to believe that the Reds will feature one of the better offenses in the game.
Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals
Selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Wong moved at a level-per-year pace through the Cardinals’ system and impressed at each stop with his all-around consistency.
After a slightly disappointing 2012 campaign at Double-A, the 23-year-old put everything together this past season at Triple-A Memphis, batting .303/.369/.466 with 39 extra-base hits (10 home runs), 20 stolen bases and a 60/41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 107 games.
As a result of his success in the Pacific Coast League, the Cardinals promoted Wong to the major leagues in the middle of August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. Wong struggled to make the most of his limited playing time and batted only .153/.194/.169 in 62 plate appearances spanning 32 games.
With an above-average glove and potential plus hit tool, Wong is ready for an everyday gig in the major leagues. The Cardinals envisioned him as their future second baseman when they nabbed him in the 2010 draft. However, the emergence of Matt Carpenter at the keystone this season ultimately delayed his arrival in the major leagues and has raised questions about his future role in the organization.
However, the Cardinals know how to manage their talent. And if they believe Wong can serve as the starting second baseman next season, expect the organization to create a spot for him in the everyday lineup.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Archie Bradley had an impressive full-season debut in 2012, but he struggled to repeat his delivery and saw his control suffer as a result. This season, however, the 21-year-old has taken an unquantifiable step forward and now ranks as the game’s top pitching prospect.
Promoted to Double-A Mobile after five lights-out starts in the California League, Bradley and his lethal plus-plus fastball-curveball combination didn't skip a beat at the more advanced level. His command regressed a bit over the second half of the season, but that didn’t prevent the right-hander from dominating older and more advanced hitters in the Southern League.
With his across-the-board improvement this past season against advanced competition, Bradley has quickly emerged as one the top pitching prospects in baseball. Beyond his athleticism and durable frame, the right-hander’s stuff is ridiculously good, and it is highlighted by arguably the best fastball-curveball combination in the minor leagues.
But what I love about Bradley—and what makes him so difficult to barrel—is his ability to throw everything on a steep, downhill plane. Since the start of the 2012 season, he’s allowed just 12 home runs in 288 innings across three full-season levels.
Xander Bogaerts, SS-3B, Boston Red Sox
Regarded as Boston’s top prospect for the last two seasons, Bogaerts was promoted to the major leagues in late August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. While the recently turned 21-year-old’s playing time was limited, he still impressed by batting .250/.320/.364 in 18 games and playing both positions on the left side of the infield.
Given Bogaerts’ enormous upside and ability to make a game-changing impact at the plate, the Red Sox decided to include him on their ALDS roster. The youngster failed to log an at-bat in the series despite appearing in two games off the bench but played a significant role in Games 3 and 4 by scoring three runs and coaxing walks in his only two plate appearances.
In the ALCS against the Tigers, Bogaerts hit his way into the lineup as the starting third baseman with Will Middlebrooks struggling to produce and ultimately batted .500 with three doubles, three walks and four runs scored in six at-bats.
He didn’t fare as well against the Cardinals’ red-hot pitching in the World Series, though, going 5-for-21 (.238) with a triple and eight strikeouts in six games.
After his performance this October, there’s no doubt that Xander Bogaerts is ready to take over as Boston’s shortstop in 2014.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners
Selected by the Mariners in the supplemental first round of the 2010 draft, Walker has everything you want in a future ace. At 6’4”, 210 pounds, the right-hander is an outstanding athlete with a fluid delivery, quick arm and exceptional stuff.
After a strong showing at Low-A Clinton in 2011, the Mariners aggressively bumped Walker to Double-A—bypassing the High-A level—to begin the following season. As expected, the then-19-year-old showed flashes of brilliance but struggled with his command and execution. However, the lessons he learned last year as a younger player at an advanced level were crucial to his overall development.
Assigned back to Double-A Jackson to begin the 2013 season, Walker has quickly evolved into the pitcher everyone knew he’d become. Through his first 14 starts, the right-hander registered a 2.46 ERA and .195 BAA with 96/30 K/BB in 84 innings and ultimately forced a promotion to Triple-A. And in his first three starts at the new level, the 21-year-old allowed one earned run while striking out 16 batters in 16 innings.
Given his success and overall maturation from a thrower to a pitcher this season, the Mariners rewarded Walker with a promotion to the major leagues in late August. The right-hander responded favorably to the challenge, posting a 3.60 ERA and 12-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15 innings spanning three starts.
Although Walker was impressive in the major leagues to finish the season, he’s still young and raw in terms of commanding and executing his full arsenal. Regardless of whether or not he breaks camp in the Mariners’ rotation, Walker is likely to spend a majority of the 2014 season in the major leagues.
Eddie Butler, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Eddie Butler is my sleeper candidate to win the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year.
It was a remarkable full-season debut for the 22-year-old, who posted gaudy numbers across three levels. After dominant showings with Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto, the Rockies promoted Butler to Double-A Tulsa in early August. The right-hander responded by putting together arguably his best month of the 2013 season, with a 0.73 ERA and 22 strikeouts over five starts.
Butler’s overwhelming success this season can be attributed to vastly underrated pitchability and an arsenal comprised of three potential plus offerings. The right-hander’s fastball sits in the mid- to upper 90s with exceptional sink and fade to the arm side, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss wipeout slider in the upper 80s. Lastly, Butler has a disgusting changeup in the same velocity range that dives off the table and evades barrels.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that opposing hitters batted a paltry .180 in 149 innings against him this season across three levels.
Butler has made it clear that he won't need much more time in the minor leagues. He has pure stuff capable of baffling hitters at the highest level, and he should have a chance to do just that for a solid chunk of the 2014 season.
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
George Springer turned in an outstanding full-season debut last year, posting a .910 OPS with 24 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 127 games across two levels. However, due to his high strikeout rate and struggle to control the strike zone, many expected him to take a step back in 2013 against advanced competition.
That’s been anything but the case this season, as the 24-year-old has significantly improved his stock with a ridiculously good campaign at Double-A and Triple-A—arguably the best among all prospects.
After achieving the first 30-30 season in the minor leagues since Grant Desme in 2009, Springer made a valiant run at joining the exclusive 40-40 club. However, he ultimately came up just short, as he finished the year with a .303/.411/.600 batting line, 106 runs scored, 68 extra-base hits (37 home runs), 108 RBI and 45 stolen bases.
While it’s doubtful that Springer will begin the 2014 season in the major leagues, his combination of power and speed gives him the potential to make a monster impact once he finally arrives.