Ranking the 15 Most Exciting MLB Rookies to Watch in 2016

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistMarch 22, 2016

Ranking the 15 Most Exciting MLB Rookies to Watch in 2016

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    Few things get baseball fans more excited than the prospect of, well, prospects.

    Last season gave us Kris Bryant. Carlos Correa. Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano and Noah Syndergaard. Two years ago, it was Jose Abreu, Dellin Betances, Jacob deGrom and Masahiro Tanaka. Three years ago? Try Chris Archer, Nolan Arenado, Jose Fernandez, Shelby Miller and Wil Myers.

    Year after year, Major League Baseball is flooded with rookies, and the 2016 season will be no different.

    Hundreds of rookies will take the field this season, some more notable and talented than others. Take 2015, for example, when 254 players with rookie eligibility appeared in at least one game. Yet there are only a handful that stand out as truly exciting players.

    In order to whittle down such a huge field of candidates, we're going to limit our selections here to players who are either expected to start the season in the majors or have an estimated time of arrival right around the All-Star break. Past performance, potential and available playing time were taken into account as well.

    Keep in mind that this is not a ranking of baseball's best prospects. I cannot emphasize that enough. These rankings are truly subjective, as the list of rookies we're most excited to watch in 2016 could be completely different from your list. There are no right or wrong answers here.

    So take a deep breath, count to three, and let's take a look at the 15 rookies we can't wait to see do their thing.

15. Hector Olivera, 3B/LF, Atlanta Braves

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    Were it not for an impressive showing this spring, Hector Olivera wouldn't have made the cut, much less been considered for this list. After all, 30-year-old players aren't exactly full of exciting upside, and when that player is a 30-year-old rookie, well, there's little reason to pay attention.

    But we can't ignore the fact that he's reached base safely in all but one of the 16 exhibition games he's played, nor can we dismiss his 20 hits, second to only Colorado's Nolan Arenado.

    As we looked at earlier this week, his play thus far can be attributed not only to his natural ability and solid approach at the plate, but that he's finally comfortable, having his family with him and, as a result, finding it easier to adjust to life in the United States.

    While it's going to be a long season in Atlanta as the Braves continue to rebuild, Olivera looks like he'll be one of the team's few bright spots.

14. Socrates Brito, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    He's been overshadowed by Yasmany Tomas, but Socrates Brito has played his way into a competition for the starting left field job in Arizona this spring—and the toolsy prospect might just come out of camp with the gig.

    Brito, 23, hit .300 (147-for-490) with 41 extra-base hits (nine home runs), 57 RBI, 70 runs scored and 20 stolen bases in 129 games at Double-A in 2015 and was impressive down the stretch for the Diamondbacks, hitting .303 with three doubles, a triple and .778 OPS over 18 September games.

    He's continued that hot hitting this spring, going 14-for-37 (.378 BA), garnering praise from ESPN baseball analyst Aaron Boone.

    “I think he has all the makings to be a really good player, like a rookie of the year-caliber player if he gets that opportunity,” Boone said while a guest on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM’s Doug and Wolf. “I really think the light went on for him in the second half of the season. He played in the Futures Game and he really tore it up in the second half of the season.”

    The only thing standing between Brito and a higher spot on our list is the question of just how much playing time he's going to get.

13. Orlando Arcia, SS, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Despite hitting only .211 (4-for-19) with a .632 OPS in nine spring training games and finding himself among the first group of players assigned to minor league camp, Milwaukee's top prospect Orlando Arcia made a strong impression before departing.

    "Orlando showed us why we're so excited about him," Brewers manager Craig Counsell told Todd Rosiak and Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "He was flawless defensively. His home run came off an elite major league reliever (Colorado's Jake McGee). I was very pleased."

    After hitting .300 with 52 extra-base hits (eight home runs), 25 stolen bases and a .807 OPS over 129 games at Double-A as a 20-year-old—one of the youngest players at the level—he'll look to build on that success at Triple-A before joining the Brewers at some point around midseason.

    While his glove is ahead of his bat, Arcia has all the tools to become a perennial All-Star, Gold Glove defender and cornerstone for the next era of Brewers baseball.

12. Blake Snell, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    If you're looking for eye-popping minor league numbers, look no further.

    Blake Snell was about as good as a pitcher could be across three minor league levels in 2015, going a combined 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in only 134 innings of work, starting the year off with a ridiculous 49-inning scoreless streak for good measure.

    The 23-year-old southpaw had a rough go of things this spring, allowing three earned runs in his first outing and allowing seven baserunners over his next 3.2 frames (four hits, three walks), but he left camp having made a believer out of Rays manager Kevin Cash and the batters he faced.

    “There’s not a pitch that he throws that is not a high-quality pitch, but then you do take into consideration every hitter walks back and is like, ‘Man, it gets on you quick.’ It should, because it’s 95,” Cash told the Tampa Tribune's Roger Mooney, “but that extra element right as it’s crossing the strike zone, a lot of guys have commented on.”

    Snell still has some command issues to iron out, evidenced by his five spring walks and 4.5 BB/9 over parts of five minor league seasons, but it's only a matter of time before his impressive arsenal becomes a fixture in Tampa Bay's rotation.

12. J.P. Crawford, SS, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    In the midst of a rebuilding process, there's no reason for Philadelphia to start the service-time clock on its best prospects, including shortstop J.P. Crawford. But the Phillies aren't going to be able to keep the 21-year-old, who will start the season at Triple-A, out of the majors all season.

    "If it happens, it happens," Crawford told MLB.com's Todd Zolecki of a potential promotion. "I'm not really going to think about that. But if I do, I do. If I don't, I don't."

    He shows an advanced approach at the plate for a player of any age, especially one as young as he is, walking more often (63) than he struck out (54) last season and sitting with nearly identical totals (160 walks, 163 strikeouts) over his three-year career.

    Once the All-Star break passes, Crawford figures to take over from Freddie Galvis as the team's everyday shortstop, flashing the above-average defense and athleticism that makes him one of baseball's most impressive—and exciting—prospects.

11. Joey Gallo, 3B/OF, Texas Rangers

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    We know all about Joey Gallo's otherworldly power, how the ball explodes off his bat when he gets ahold of one—and on any other team, the 22-year-old would likely be a fixture in the major leagues already.

    But his path to regular playing time in Texas is blocked by Adrian Beltre at third base, Prince Fielder at designated hitter and an outfield that remains crowded even with Josh Hamilton set to begin the season on the disabled list.

    It's why, despite hitting .286 with a team-leading three home runs this spring, Gallo finds himself back in minor league camp, destined to start the season back at Triple-A. It's also why we can't completely discount the possibility that Texas dangles him as trade bait.

    Gallo's power is too impressive to keep down on the farm for long. Whether it's in Arlington or elsewhere, he's going to wind up back in the big leagues at some point in 2016, launching balls into the night.

10. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals

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    While Trea Turner has hit well as he's moved quickly through the minor leagues, owning a career .322/.384/.454 triple-slash line across parts of two seasons, it's clear that the 22-year-old's bat isn't quite ready for a daily dose of major league pitching.

    He's hit only .233 (7-for-40) in 18 exhibition games this spring, and mustered only a .225 batting average in 27 games down the stretch for Washington last season. But he's hit at every minor league level he's played, so there's reason to believe that his bat will come around sooner rather than later.

    Even if his bat remains a work in progress, Turner's above-average defense and plus-plus speed on the basepaths make him an upgrade over the Nationals' current shortstop options, Danny Espinosa and Stephen Drew.

    Turner will start the season at Triple-A, but it'd be shocking if he wasn't promoted as soon as the Nationals ensure they can delay his eventual free agency by a year.

9. Kenta Maeda, RHP, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Kenta Maeda's arrival in Los Angeles wasn't met with quite the level of excitement that Masahiro Tanaka's was two years ago in New York, but the 27-year-old has been as good as advertised this spring.

    Signed to an incentive-laden eight-year deal that could be worth as much as $106.2 million, Maeda has looked good this spring, allowing only two earned runs over 13.2 innings of work, walking three and striking out 13.

    With the Dodgers rotation in shambles due to injury—Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all expected to start the season on the disabled list—Maeda becomes even more important to the defending National League West champions than he was before.

    While Maeda has had success this spring and over eight seasons with the Hiroshima Carp in the Japan Central League (2.39 ERA, 1.05 WHIP), he's more of a finesse pitcher than a thrower, with a fastball that sits in the low 90s.

    That said, he's got a chance to be something special for the Dodgers, as you certainly don't need to be a flamethrower to have success in the big leagues.

8. Jose Berrios, RHP, Minnesota Twins

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    Minnesota's second first-round pick in the 2012 draft (Byron Buxton was the first, taken second overall), Jose Berrios has been nothing but impressive as he's worked his way through the team's minor league system.

    Over parts of four seasons, the 21-year-old has pitched to a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, posting excellent walk (2.5 BB/9) and strikeout (9.5 K/9) rates along the way. With three plus offerings in his repertoire, including a mid-90s fastball and filthy curveball, Berrios is almost major league ready.

    But he's not quite there yet. While he scattered two hits and struck out three over 4.1 scoreless innings of work this spring, he also issued three free passes.

    “We don’t have any negative feelings about what he did, and we’re not disappointed,” Twins assistant general manager Rob Antony told Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “I will tell you in his minor league outing he didn’t have very good command of the fastball. That’s going to be something he’s going to need to do. He needs to be able to keep his fastball down in the zone.”

    With a crowded rotation, there was little chance of Berrios breaking camp with the Twins, no matter how well he pitched. But he's got such tremendous upside that it's going to be nearly impossible for the club to keep him down on the farm for long.

    When he does finally arrive, Berrios has a chance to emerge as the ace of a rotation that is filled with No. 3 starters.

7. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies

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    Trevor Story has played his way onto Colorado's Opening Day roster this spring, replacing the indefinitely suspended Jose Reyes as the team's starting shortstop. In 13 games, Story has hit .313 with a team-high four home runs and 10 RBI, providing solid defense at a premium position.

    "He's showing everybody just how talented he is," Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich told the Denver Post's Patrick Saunders, "the type of talent that we've seen out of him for many years." 

    Story, 23, hit a combined .279 with 70 extra-base hits (20 home runs), 80 RBI and an .863 OPS in 2015 while swiping 22 bases in 25 attempts between Double-A and Triple-A. In fact, his numbers at both levels were nearly identical.

    He's got the combination of power and speed that teams covet—and that could put up some truly impressive numbers during the regular season, especially with Story playing half his games at the hitter's paradise known as Coors Field.

    Adding a potentially dynamic player like that to a lineup that already features standouts like Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez should have Rockies fans incredibly excited—and pitching staffs in the National League dreading their trips to Colorado even more than they already do.

6. Tyler Glasnow, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    The higher the level of competition Tyler Glasnow faced in 2015, the better he seemed to get:

    • Low-A: 2 GS, 3.38 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 5.1 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 6 K
    • Double-A: 12 GS, 2.43 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 63 IP, 41 H, 19 BB, 82 K
    • Triple-A: 8 GS, 2.20 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 41 IP, 33 H, 22 BB, 48 K

    Really, the only noticeable difference was that he struggled with his command against Triple-A bats, and it was again an issue this spring, as he issued three free passes over 1.2 innings of work in the only exhibition game action he saw.

    But that hasn't diminished Pittbsurgh's opinion of the 22-year-old, who general manager Neal Huntington expects to help the Pirates in the big leagues at some point this season (as he does for fellow top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon).

    "You see Tyler, you see the incredible stuff and what he can become," Huntington told Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "but there's also some things for him to work on as well."

    A midseason promotion seems likely for Glasnow, who figures to slot into the team's rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano, giving the Pirates three potentially dominant starters for a second-half playoff push.

5. Steven Matz, LHP, New York Mets

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    Were it not for a torn lat muscle that sidelined Steven Matz for nearly two months of the regular season, the southpaw wouldn't be eligible for this list. But he is, and the 24-year-old enters 2016 as the rare rookie with postseason experience.

    But it's what he did during the regular season that's really exciting. He'd go 4-0 in six starts, pitching to an impressive 2.27 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 34 strikeouts over 35.2 innings of work. While nobody expects Matz to go undefeated in 2016, he could put up some truly impressive numbers over a season's worth of starts.

    Those numbers could be good enough to make him a serious contender for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, as former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola, the team's Triple-A pitching coach, explained to Newsday's Marc Carig earlier in spring training.

    So long as he can stay healthy—Matz has never thrown more than 140 innings in a single season and dealt with a litany of injuries—you have to like his chances of making Viola look good for making such a prediction.

4. A.J. Reed, 1B, Houston Astros

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Like Chicago's Kris Bryant before him, Houston's A.J. Reed put the baseball world on notice in his first full professional season. The 22-year-old was named Houston's minor league player of the year in 2015 after hitting .340 and leading all minor leaguers with 34 home runs, 127 RBI and 320 total bases across two minor league levels.

    It's why many believed he was the favorite to break camp as the Astros starting first baseman this spring. And while that seems unlikely—Reed has shown a lack of plate discipline (one walk and 10 strikeouts) while hitting a pedestrian .250/.273/.406 over 17 games.

    As Jose de Jesus Ortiz reports for the Houston Chronicle, multiple scouts believe he needs a "bit more time" in the minors to hone his approach, especially against left-handed pitching. Still, it's only a matter of time before Reed and his prodigious power make their way to Minute Maid Park.

    The thought of a lineup featuring George Springer, Carlos Correa, Reed, Evan Gattis and Colby Rasmus—in order—is enough to give American League pitchers nightmares.

3. Lucas Giolito, SP, Washington Nationals

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    With only eight starts above High-A, Lucas Giolito isn't quite ready to join Washington's rotation. But baseball's top pitching prospect isn't far off from making his MLB debut, either. 

    "If he's not up by June, something would have to go wrong," one scout remarked to ESPN's Jayson Stark. "You know what [Noah] Syndergaard and [Steven] Matz did for the Mets when they came up? This guy is in that same category."

    Armed with four legitimate major league pitches, including a fastball he can dial up to 98 mph and a nasty, strikeout-inducing curveball, it's hard to argue with that assessment of the 21-year-old's potential impact.

    Whether the Nationals stick him in their rotation or opt to limit his workload by using him as a reliever is largely irrelevant.

    Giolito's arrival is only going to improve Washington's chances of reclaiming the National League East crown from the New York Mets, and it wouldn't shock anyone if he finished the year in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race.

2. Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Nobody would blame you for jumping off the Byron Buxton bandwagon, considering how much time he's missed over the past three years with a slew of injuries and underwhelming 2015 MLB debut, when he hit .209 with a .576 OPS over 46 games with Minnesota.

    But you'll be sorry you did. For all the tools that make Buxton, 22, one of baseball's top prospects—the athleticism, the plus-plus speed, the Gold Glove-caliber defense in center field, the developing power—it's all still there.

    “He has the ability to do anything you can ask of a baseball player on the field,” Minnesota first baseman Joe Mauer told USA Today's Gabe Lacques. “When you draw up a center fielder, you draw up a guy like that.”

    Even if Buxton's bat takes awhile to catch up to the rest of his game, it's exciting to think about what he could do over the course of a full season. Healthy and assured of regular playing time, he's going to get a chance to do just that.

1. Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    What, you were expecting someone else to occupy the top spot on our list?

    There was really no other choice as baseball's most exciting rookie than Los Angeles' Corey Seager, the National League's answer to Houston's Carlos Correa.

    If you somehow weren't impressed by Seager's play down the stretch for the Dodgers last season, consider this: If we project Seager's numbers over a full 162-game season, he'd have hit .337 with 78 extra-base hits (24 home runs), 102 RBI, 102 runs scored, 12 stolen bases and a .986 OPS.

    That's MVP-caliber production. And while it's completely unfair to expect the 21-year-old to deliver that sort of rookie campaign, we can't completely rule it out, either. With a seemingly unlimited ceiling, Seager could not only find himself named the NL Rookie of the Year, but in the running for an MVP Award as well.

    Unless otherwise noted, all spring training statistics courtesy of MLB.com and are current through March 21. All other statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. All contract information courtesy of Cot's Contracts (via Baseball Prospectus).

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR.