'Buy or Sell' with MLB's Top Early Rookie Performances of 2014
There's nothing quite like April in Major League Baseball. Truth, for now, is in the eye of the beholder and mind of the believer. That's especially true when it comes to rookie performers who qualified for 25-man rosters out of spring training.
Without a track record of major league performance to fall back on, fans, broadcasters and analysts have a very small sample size to use when dissecting young players. Although minor league numbers and prospect rankings can be instructive in determining true value in each respective rookie class, day-to-day results have a way of fooling observers.
The season is young, but a slew of rookies have burst onto the scene across the sport. While no one can take away game-changing plays, impact innings or dazzling efforts posted thus far, we can project forward to separate these players.
Which rookies should you buy into performing well all summer? Which will soon become footnotes over the course of a long season?
Here's how the top performers in the current rookie class stand up in Bleacher Report's "buy or sell" exercise.
Statistics—valid through the end of play April 15—courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Roster projections via MLB Depth Charts.
Buy: Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals
2014 Stats: 13 IP, 0.69 ERA, 2.82 FIP, 13/3 SO/BB
On Tuesday night—on the path to his first victory in the majors—Yordano Ventura fired a 97 mph fastball past Houston Astros slugger Chris Carter. The scenario—young, power pitcher overpowering a free-swinging hitter with strikeout issues—wasn't particularly remarkable.
When digging deeper, the seemingly innocuous scenario told a much bigger story. The strikeout, one of seven on the night for Ventura, doubled as the last out of the sixth inning. Not only does this special rookie posses a remarkable fastball and dominating stuff, but he can retain it through the late stages of games.
After a great spring training (2.70 ERA, 8.9 SO/9) propelled Ventura onto Kansas City's Opening Day roster, it was easy to wonder if the performance would translate early in 2014. Thus far, the 22-year-old has been even better in the regular season
In a year where young pitchers are making weekly visits to Dr. James Andrews, appreciate Ventura while he's healthy and pitching at an elite level.
Sell: Yangervis Solarte, IF, New York Yankees
2014 Stats: .357/.413/.500, 156 OPS+
Over the first two-plus weeks of the 2014 season, the rise of Yangervis Solarte has been a pleasant surprise for a New York Yankees team that neglected to find suitable infield depth in the midst of a $503 million spending spree during the offseason. After an eye-opening spring training (1.061 OPS), the 26-year-old switch-hitter has burst on the scene to become a fixture in New York's lineup.
After eight years of anonymity in the minor leagues, it's hard not to root for Solarte to become an entrenched figure in New York's short-term plans. It's also hard to believe that scenario could actually come to fruition.
Prior to the start of spring training, Solarte was the classic Quadruple-A player: good enough to be a professional, but not talented enough to stick in the majors. Across 2,804 minor league plate appearances, he logged a .733 OPS.
Expect the Yankees to ride the hot hand for as long as they can, but don't forecast an AL All-Star nod for Solarte this summer.
Buy: Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
2014 Stats: .241/.354/.556, 148 OPS+
Jose Abreu's early season success shouldn't come as a big surprise to the Chicago White Sox. After all, the team paid him $68 million to make the jump from Cuba to the south side of Chicago and first base at U.S. Cellular Field.
Due to a combination of power, plate discipline, bat speed and the ability to use the entire field, Abreu has crushed American League pitching in April and raised eyebrows around the sport. As every day passes, a question emerges: Can he continue to make $68 million look like a bargain?
The answer, of course, is rooted in Abreu's ability to adjust when pitchers and scouting reports get a full read on his strengths and weaknesses. Talent plays a role, but work ethic could be an even bigger key for the newest Chicago star. According to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, the 27-year-old slugger is ready to take on the challenge.
"I don't know how they're going to prepare differently for me," Abreu said. "All I know is I'll be ready for whatever comes."
Sell: Brandon Hicks, 2B, San Francisco Giants
2014 Stats: .318/.516/.545, 201 OPS+
Prior to Opening Day, Brandon Hicks owned a .133/.204/.289 slash line in 55 career games across three big league seasons. Due to injuries in the San Francisco Giants infield, the former journeyman has found a niche at second base and raked in early April.
Much like Solarte's rise in New York, this story is better than the actual player. At the age of 28, Hicks isn't a prospect or in San Francisco for the long term. Instead, he's a hot hand and good enough to help the Giants until a better option emerges.
If there's one thing he can provide in a short-term role, it's pop. The former Atlanta Braves, Oakland Athletics and New York Mets utility infielder owns 91 career home runs in the minors. In a perfect world, the Giants may have found a long-term utility infielder capable of playing multiple positions and hitting the occasional home run off the bench.
Buy: Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees
2014 Stats: 14 IP, 3.21 ERA, 2.63 FIP, 18/1 SO/BB
At the risk of hyperbole, don't be surprised if Masahiro Tanaka competes for an AL Cy Young nod en route to an AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2014. Much like his fellow countryman and teammate Ichiro Suzuki, Tanaka has shown rare ability from the moment he stepped onto a major league field.
When projecting forward, forget the good ERA and excellent FIP. Instead, focus on the strikeout-to-walk ratio that suggests a dominant pitcher in total control of the game. Thus far, Tanaka has been victimized by a pair of home runs and suspect defense in the Yankees infield. When those issues are rectified, scoreless innings should pile up in the Bronx.
Time will tell if Tanaka was worth the $175 million outlay and investment that the Yankees agreed to pay to bring him to America. For now, he's a rookie worth watching and a potential star in 2014 and beyond.
Sell: Roenis Elias, SP, Seattle Mariners
2014 Stats: 16.2 IP, 2.16 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 10/6 SO/BB
Baseball is a uniquely unpredictable game, especially when it comes to projecting success or failure of young players rising through the minor leagues. Case in point: Seattle Mariners southpaw Roenis Elias.
In 2011, Elias posted a 4.28 ERA in rookie league and Single-A ball. During that summer, he didn't even post a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. At the age of 22, he was far from finished as a major league prospect, but don't expect to scour prospect handbooks to find his name and a glowing review.
Three years later, the now-25-year-old has made three starts for a Mariners team attempting to piece together a season as a surprise contender. With Taijuan Walker—a legitimate, difference-making prospect—on the shelf with a shoulder injury and Hisashi Iwakuma out with a finger injury, the Mariners needed reinforcements to step in behind Felix Hernandez in the starting rotation.
Thus far, Elias has done just that. Still, unless he vastly improves a mediocre strikeout-to-walk ratio, it's hard to imagine the success will continue throughout the season. Seattle may have found an arm capable of providing depth, but a top-of-the-rotation arm isn't emerging at Safeco Field.
Agree? Disagree? Which early season rookie performance has impressed you the most?
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