MLB Players Who Will Blossom into Superstars in 2017
Major League Baseball isn't hurting for superstar players, but more of those never hurt anyone.
Now that the 2017 season has arrived, it's as good a time as any to become familiar with baseball's next wave of superstars.
This is a discussion that could be expanded to include dozens of names, but the focus in this space will be on 10 players in particular. They don't have too much in common except:
- Star Status: They're already stars to one degree or another.
- Superstar Potential: They have remaining upside that they're ready to tap into.
The list includes seven hitters and three pitchers and shall proceed in no particular order except one that makes narrative sense—don't worry, you'll figure it out.
Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs
If Kyle Schwarber is indeed going to become a superstar, he's going to be a one-dimensional superstar.
The Chicago Cubs drafted Schwarber as a catcher but have rightfully recognized he's not Willson Contreras' equal behind the dish. However, he likely won't be much of a corner outfielder, either.
But the bat? Oh, the bat will play, all right.
Schwarber debuted as one of the best rookie hitters of 2015. And though he missed almost the entire 2016 season after suffering a torn ACL, his triumphant return in the World Series added to a postseason track record that includes a 1.178 OPS and five home runs.
At the root of Schwarber's excellence are two key abilities: his eye and a swing built for power. He's walked in 13.3 percent of his MLB plate appearances and has barreled balls—a Statcast specialty that looks for ideal combinations of launch angle and exit velocity—at a higher rate than even Kris Bryant. Assuming he can stay healthy, these abilities should push Schwarber into the inner circle of baseball's top hitters.
Not to be overlooked elsewhere on the Cubs, however, is the fella who makes his living at shortstop...
Addison Russell, Chicago Cubs
While Schwarber spends 2017 emerging as one of the NL's best hitters, Addison Russell should emerge as one of the league's best players, period.
He certainly doesn't need to get any better with the leather. Russell has been an electrifying defender since making his major league debut in 2015 and was arguably the best shortstop in baseball last season. He racked up as many defensive runs saved as Gold Glove winner Brandon Crawford.
Russell's bat has lagged behind, producing just a .718 OPS in two seasons. But not for long.
Russell did improve from 2015 to 2016, raising his OPS by 42 points. And he really took off after July last year, posting a .751 OPS and hitting 13 of his 21 home runs. He earned the extra power by elevating his fly-ball rate to 42.9 percent and letting his raw pop do the rest.
The 23-year-old picked up where he left off this spring, posting a 1.177 OPS and hitting six home run. Thus, he's making it all too easy to envision him as a slick-fielding shortstop with 25- or even 30-homer power.
Of course, he won't be the only NL shortstop rising to prominence in 2017...
Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
How good can Trea Turner be in his first full season with the Washington Nationals? Perhaps even MVP good.
"Trea Turner, to me, is not only going to be the MVP, but it’s going to be an easy choice for an MVP season," ESPN analyst Eduardo Perez said on SiriusXM radio last week, via Scott Allen of the Washington Post.
Hyperbolic? Maybe. But all the same, this sentiment does get at how talented the 23-year-old is.
Turner is in the running (sorry, not sorry) for the title of the fastest man in baseball, and he put his speed to use in stealing 33 bases in only 73 games last season. He could easily top 50 steals in a full season.
Turner also defies the notion that speedy guys are supposed to hit the ball on the ground and leg out hits. He showed with his .567 slugging percentage and 13 homers last season that he's out to drive the ball.
Turner looks like a young Hanley Ramirez to these extents, but there could be a major difference between the two. Although Turner hasn't been regarded as a great defender, it won't take much for him to be better than a young Ramirez, who was a terrible defensive shortstop.
Meanwhile in the American League, another 2016 breakout star will continue to make waves...
Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
Gary Sanchez saw Turner's 73 games to finish second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and raised him 53 games to do the same in the AL voting.
Sanchez surpassed even the highest expectations built up by his long-running status as a top prospect. He had a 1.032 OPS and hit 20 home runs, tying the major league record for fastest ever to the latter mark.
The power with which Sanchez did this is legit. He barreled the ball as frequently as Mark Trumbo and more frequently than David Ortiz. If that kind of power is valuable anywhere, it's extremely valuable at catcher.
To boot, the New York Yankees won't have to live with subpar defense in order to keep Sanchez's power in the lineup. He nabbed 41 percent of would-be thieves last season with throws that measured out as elite.
"He changes games with his arm," Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said, according to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post. "There aren't many holes in his game."
Be warned, though: Sanchez won't be the only new superstar in the AL East this season...
Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
It's easy to root for Marcus Stroman. His 5'8" frame gives him an underdog vibe that he's embraced. And when he pitches, he manages to be both a nasty competitor and a charismatic entertainer.
So, it was a disappointment when the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander finished his first full season as a starter in 2016 with just a 4.37 ERA. Hidden within that performance, however, was Stroman's awakening as an ace.
The 25-year-old turned a corner in July and posted a rock-solid 3.42 ERA in 16 starts. In these, he had a 4.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio while inducing ground balls on 61.5 percent of the balls in play off him.
Perhaps the biggest difference was how Stroman relied less on his sinker and more on his entire arsenal. And what an arsenal it is. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs wrote in 2015, each of Stroman's many offerings compares favorably to some of the best pitches in the sport.
In short, this is a guy with nasty stuff and good command who figured out how to best combine these two abilities last season. His next step in 2017 should be filled with dominance.
But also keep an eye on...
Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox
Unlike in past seasons, Jose Quintana should have everyone's attention in 2017.
The Chicago White Sox aren't going anywhere, but Quintana likely will be. He's next in line to be traded in a rebuild that's already seen Chris Sale and Adam Eaton shipped out. And when he'll be traded really does seem to be a matter of "when" and not "if."
Quintana himself doesn't need to do much else to warrant the attention. He's averaged a 3.35 ERA and 204 innings over the last four seasons, establishing himself one of the best pitchers in baseball.
However, he could get better anyway.
There used to be some mystery about what made Quintana so effective, but new research from Baseball Prospectus reveals he's one of the best in the business at disguising his pitches. With his average fastball velocity on the rise, he's positioned to become both deceptive and nasty in 2017.
For the White Sox, this will mean a valuable piece of trade bait. For whoever acquires Quintana, it will mean a legit ace to put to work on a big stage.
Speaking of legit aces on big stages...
Carlos Martinez, St. Louis Cardinals
The thought running through your head right now may be that recency bias is a hell of a drug.
Carlos Martinez was indeed impressive in his 2017 debut Sunday night. He shut down the defending champion Chicago Cubs through seven and a third, whiffing 10. It was easy to see an ace while watching him work.
But the St. Louis Cardinals right-hander loomed large on the radar even before Sunday night. He put up a 3.02 ERA in 375 innings across 2015 and 2016 and often teased even larger potential.
Martinez certainly has great stuff. He's one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball, and he packs a sick changeup and slider as well. This stuff has made him one of the toughest pitchers in baseball to hit.
The only thing Martinez has lacked is consistent command. But he made small yet significant strides in that department late in 2016 and opened 2017 by walking zero members of baseball's most disciplined offense.
As much as Martinez looks like a keeper on the mound, there's one guy in the NL Central who figures to make life tough for him...
Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
Although Starling Marte has been underrated for years, his profile did get a boost with his first All-Star selection last year. Now he's in for another boost in 2017.
After spending his first five seasons in left field, Marte will now be roaming center field for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's a big assignment by default, and he's filling big shoes previously worn by Andrew McCutchen.
Marte can handle it. He was a two-time Gold Glover with outstanding metrics as a left fielder. That speaks to speed and arm strength that will fit A-OK in center field.
Offensively, the Pirates would surely be just fine if Marte carried over the .818 OPS and 47 stolen bases that he posted in 2016. But they think he can do something else, too.
"I think there's more power there," manager Clint Hurdle said, according to Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Some added power would help. Some slug. Your OPS is in the air."
Marte can handle this, too. The raw pop is there, and he did hit fewer balls on the ground in the second half of 2016. That trajectory can take him to more power in 2017, which would complete his superstar ensemble.
There are similar things to say about a player in the NL East...
Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
There are hitters who hit the ball over the defense and hitters who hit the ball through the defense.
Christian Yelich has been the latter for most of his four-year career. The Miami Marlins outfielder is a .293 career hitter who's only occasionally dabbled in power. And for an obvious reason: He's one of the most extreme ground-ball hitters in the sport.
Things are beginning to change, however. After totaling only 20 homers in his first three seasons, Yelich cranked 21 in 2016. This was partially him showing off his surprising raw power, as he hit fly balls and line drives harder on average than Chris Davis and Jose Bautista.
But it was more so adding some loft to his swing. He posted easily a career low ground-ball percentage, and his GB% was lower in the second half than in the first. Like with Marte, that's a trajectory that can take Yelich's power to even higher heights.
Also like Marte, Yelich is a Gold Glove left fielder who will be playing in center field this year. He likely doesn't have Marte's upside at the position, but the move should only help raise his profile.
And yet there's a bigger beast in the NL East...
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman is a seven-year veteran and a two-time All-Star. But he's also still only 27 and ready to become one of the premier first basemen in baseball.
Well, OK. He already sort of did in 2016. He finished the year with a .968 OPS, 34 home runs and more wins above replacement than any other first baseman.
But what's amazing in retrospect is that Freeman didn't get going until June. He had a .757 OPS through the first two months and then a 1.068 OPS the rest of the way. All thanks to a subtle change in his routine.
"[I] changed my batting practice in June by trying to hit line drives to the shortstop, and it turned my whole season around," he said, according to MLB.com's Mike Petriello.
Freeman already had a good eye and a quick, powerful swing. What that change did was unlock his full power potential. He hit only 30.2 percent of his batted balls on the ground after June, effectively allowing him to blast hard contact all over the yard.
If four months of that could make him the best first baseman in baseball, it should be fun to watch him do the same thing over a full six months.