10 Young MLB Players on the Verge of Becoming Superstars in 2019

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 6, 2019

10 Young MLB Players on the Verge of Becoming Superstars in 2019

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Each MLB season brings a new wave of young players who establish themselves as stars.

    2018 was no exception, with Christian Yelich, Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Javier Baez, Jose Berrios and Andrew Benintendi all taking their games to a higher plane.

    Who will make the leap in 2019?

    Ahead is a look at 10 up-and-comers on the verge of becoming superstars in 2019.

    The only stipulations for inclusion were that a player must have already made his MLB debut, and he must be under age 27 on Opening Day.

    Let's get to it.

Honorable Mentions

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    Josh James
    Josh JamesTim Warner/Getty Images

    Hitters

    C Danny Jansen, TOR—23 years old

    Jansen posted an .863 OPS with 21 doubles and 12 home runs at Triple-A last season, and he then held his own over a 31-game audition in the second half. With a clear path to the starting job, he could immediately emerge as one of the best offensive catchers in baseball.

    CF Ketel Marte, ARI—25 years old

    Marte ended the 2018 season with a bang, hitting .301 with a .935 OPS in September. The D-backs saw enough to give him a five-year, $24 million extension last March, and a breakout season could make that contract look like a stroke of genius.

    2B/SS Luis Urias, SD—21 years old

    Urias is a .306/.397/.405 hitter over five minor league seasons, and all signs point to him breaking camp with a starting job. He has a chance to be a perennial .300 hitter and a catalyst atop the lineup for a Padres team on the rise. He isn't a bad dark-horse pick for NL Rookie of the Year.

    OF Alex Verdugo, LAD—22 years old

    Verdugo has nothing left to prove in the minors after hitting .329/.391/.472 with 29 extra-base hits in 91 games at Triple-A last season. With Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp out of the picture, he should finally get an extended look in the majors. He'll never be a prolific power hitter, but he could be Nick Markakis 2.0.

                       

    Pitchers

    RHP Jack Flaherty, STL—23 years old

    Before running out of gas a bit in September, Flaherty was 8-6 with a 2.87 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and a .193 opponents' batting average over his first 22 starts. A full season of that level of production would make him the ace of the St. Louis staff and a Cy Young contender.

    RHP Tyler Glasnow, TB—25 years old

    Glasnow was a top-25 prospect in baseball three years running from 2015-17, according to Baseball America. The big 6'8" righty was never able to rein in his command during his time in Pittsburgh, but he appeared to turn a corner after he was traded to Tampa Bay. After posting a 4.20 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 64 strikeouts in 55.2 innings with the Rays, he may finally be ready to live up to the hype.

    RHP Josh James, HOU—26 years old

    James used an upper 90s fastball to rack up an eye-popping 171 strikeouts in 114.1 innings in the minors before showing enough in 23 major league innings to earn a spot on the Astros' postseason roster. With Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton reaching free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. out for the season, he appears to have a clear path to a rotation job heading into the 2019 season.

    RHP Touki Toussaint, ATL—22 years old

    A wave of impressive young pitching talent is set to descend on Atlanta, and Toussaint has a bit of a head start on that group after posting a 4.03 ERA and 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 29 major league innings last season. He has the best pure stuff of any of the team's talented young arms and should get a long look for the No. 5 starter job this spring. Even if he winds up in the bullpen, he has the electric stuff to be a star.

    RHP Trevor Williams, PIT—26 years old

    Williams quietly finished seventh in the NL with a 3.11 ERA last season, and despite his middling strikeout totals (126 K, 6.6 K/9), his peripheral numbers paint a promising picture. Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer will headline the staff, but Williams might be the X-factor in the Pittsburgh rotation.

SS Willy Adames, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 23

    2018 Stats: 109 OPS+, .278/.348/.406, 17 XBH (10 HR), 34 RBI, 43 R

    WAR: 2.0

    It was all the way back at the 2014 trade deadline when the Tampa Bay Rays dealt ace David Price to the Detroit Tigers for Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin and a little-known shortstop prospect named Willy Adames.

    While the other players in that deal have since moved on, Adames has a chance to be a cornerstone for a franchise that has had far more success developing pitchers than position players over the years.

    Adames made his MLB debut May 22 last season and landed with a thud. When July ended, he was hitting just .200/.256/.296 with five extra-base hits in 125 plate appearances.

    Luckily, the Rays were patient, and he rewarded them with a big step forward.

    Including his 2-for-4 showing with a home run on Aug. 1, he hit .329/.406/.480 with five doubles, seven home runs and 25 RBI in 198 plate appearances over his final 51 games.

    A big step forward could be coming from a player who began the 2018 season as the No. 19 prospect in the sport, according to Baseball America.

CF Harrison Bader, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 24

    2018 Stats: 112 OPS+, .264/.334/.422, 34 XBH (12 HR), 37 RBI, 61 R, 15 SB

    WAR: 3.8

    Harrison Bader will win multiple Gold Glove Awards before his career is over.

    Despite bouncing between center field and right field in a semi-regular role as a rookie last season, he still finished fourth among all outfielders with 19 DRS.

    His glove alone could make him the next Kevin Kiermaier, Kevin Pillar or Ender Inciarte—cornerstone players who provide the bulk of their value with their outfield defense.

    However, he also has the tools to be an impact offensive player.

    He hit .283/.347/.469 with 18 doubles, 20 home runs and 15 steals at Triple-A during his last full season in the minors. With good contact skills, plus speed and sneaky raw power, he can serve as a catalyst or a run producer.

    With the everyday center field job in his pocket, Bader could be a five-WAR player in 2019 thanks to his impressive array of skills on both sides of the ball.

RHP Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians

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    Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 23

    2018 Stats: 96 ERA+, 11-5, 4.55 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 23 BB, 118 K, 114.2 IP

    WAR: 1.1

    In his first full pro season in 2017, Shane Bieber went 10-5 with a 2.86 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 162 strikeouts in 173.1 innings over three minor league levels, closing out the year at Double-A. That was enough to vault him to the No. 5 spot on the organization's prospect list, according to Baseball America.

    A dominant start to the 2018 season in the minorshe posted a 1.47 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and a 77-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 79.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A—paved the way for his MLB debut on May 31.

    Bieber was something of an afterthought as the No. 5 starter in a stacked rotation, and his rookie numbers don't exactly jump off the page.

    However, a closer look at his peripherals provides plenty of reason for optimism.

    His 3.23 FIP and an absurdly high .356 BABIP speak to a pitcher who's due for positive regression after some bad luck as a rookie.

    He also finished 10th among all pitchers who threw at least 100 innings with a 5.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, showing the combination of command and swing-and-miss stuff needed to be a top-tier starter.

    The Indians don't need him to be anything but a serviceable No. 5 starter. He has a chance to be much, much more.

RHP Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Opening Day Age: 23

    2018 Stats: 148 ERA+, 8-5, 2.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 37 BB, 151 K, 137.1 IP

    WAR: 3.4

    Walker Buehler might already be one of the best pitchers in baseball.

    Now it's just a matter of putting together a bigger body of work to prove that's the case.

    The right-hander took the ball for Game 163 last season and pitched the Los Angeles Dodgers to an NL West title, allowing just one hit over 6.2 scoreless innings.

    That capped off a brilliant final month that saw the Vanderbilt product post a 1.62 ERA, 0.77 WHIP and a .137 opponents' batting average with 45 strikeouts in 39 innings.

    With his electric five-pitch repertoire and Tommy John surgery well in the rearview mirror, it might not be long before he overtakes Clayton Kershaw as the staff ace.

    If that's the case, the 23 teams that passed on him in the 2015 draft because he was headed for Tommy John surgery will be kicking themselves for the next decade.

RHP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds

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    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 26

    2018 Stats: 98 ERA+, 10-12, 4.30 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 49 BB, 165 K, 169.2 IP

    WAR: 1.6

    Luis Castillo was a popular breakout candidate at this time a year ago after he posted a 3.12 ERA and 1.08 WHIP with 98 strikeouts in 89.1 innings as a rookie.

    Instead, he stumbled to a 7.85 ERA in six starts, and he was still sporting an unsightly 5.49 ERA when the All-Star break rolled around.

    However, he came out the other side as a different pitcher:

    • 1st Half: 103.1 IP, 5.49 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 3.0 BB/9, 8.4 K/9
    • 2nd Half: 66.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 1.9 BB/9, 9.4 K/9

    That excellent second half included a virtually untouchable September where he posted a 1.09 ERA over 33 innings and limited opponents to a .172 batting average.

    So here we are again, labeling him as a breakout star to watch.

    If he can consistently pitch at a high level alongside new additions Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray, the Cincinnati Reds could have a formidable rotation.

RF David Dahl, Colorado Rockies

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Opening Day Age: 25

    2018 Stats: 119 OPS+, .273/.325/.534, 30 XBH (16 HR), 48 RBI, 31 R

    WAR: 0.6

    It looked like David Dahl was destined for big things when he hit .315/.359/.500 with 23 extra-base hits in 237 plate appearances as a rookie in 2016.

    Unfortunately, he suffered a stress fracture to one of his ribs during spring training the following year and then developed back spasms during the subsequent rehab, which eventually ended his season without a single game played at the MLB level.

    He earned a quick call-up after starting the 2018 season in the minors, only to have the injury bug rear its ugly head once again when he missed 54 games with a broken foot.

    However, he returned with a vengeance Aug. 5 and helped propel the Colorado Rockies to a wild-card spot. After shaking off the rust, he was one of the most productive hitters in baseball over the season's final month, posting a .985 OPS with nine home runs and 27 RBI in 24 games.

    The everyday right field job is his, and the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 draft has the offensive upside to join Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story in leading a potent offensive attack.

RHP German Marquez, Colorado Rockies

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 24

    2018 Stats: 124 ERA+, 14-11, 3.77 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 57 BB, 230 K, 196.0 IP

    WAR: 5.3

    On the surface, Kyle Freeland was the breakout star of the Colorado Rockies starting rotation in 2018.

    The left-hander finished among the NL leaders in wins (17, fourth), ERA (2.85, fifth), ERA+ (164, fourth), innings pitched (202.1, fifth) and WAR (8.2, fourth).

    However, a closer look at the peripherals shows fellow 2018 standout German Marquez is the better bet to lead the staff:

    Marquez also finished fourth in the NL with 230 strikeouts, backing his mid-90s fastball with a lethal curveball (19.8% usage, 111 K, .151 BAA, .126 ISO) and an equally effective slider (18.7% Usage, 61 K, .177 BAA, .102 ISO).

    His offensive skills were the cherry on top, as he went 18-for-60 with one home run and five RBI to win Silver Slugger honors.

    Marquez went to the Rockies as a throw-in piece in the deal that sent outfielder Corey Dickerson to the Tampa Bay Rays for reliever Jake McGee before the 2016 season. Now he's the reason that trade has a chance to go down as one of the best in franchise history.

SS Adalberto Mondesi, Kansas City Royals

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 23

    2018 Stats: 117 OPS+, .276/.306/.498, 30 XBH (14 HR), 37 RBI, 47 R, 32 SB

    WAR: 3.2

    Adalberto Mondesi was pushed aggressively through the Kansas City Royals system, and that was the big reason for his early struggles in the majors.

    After he hit a punchless .181/.226/.271 with eight extra-base hits over his first 209 MLB plate appearances, he was sent to Triple-A to open the 2018 season.

    He didn't join the MLB roster until June 17, and he hit just .232/.254/.377 over his first 20 games, but as the season progressed, things clicked.

    It all culminated in a huge September in which the former top prospect posted an .886 OPS with five doubles, eight home runs and 14 steals in 26 games.

    Always viewed as an advanced defender, he also graded out extremely well in his first extended action at shortstop (518.2 innings, 3 DRS, 10.1 UZR/150) after playing primarily second base in his prior MLB action.

    At the very least, he's an above-average defender and a threat for 50 steals over a full campaign.

    However, if his late-season power surge is legit, he could be a star in the making.

RHP Nick Pivetta, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 26

    2018 Stats: 87 ERA+, 7-14, 4.77 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 51 BB, 188 K, 164.0 IP

    WAR: 2.3

    There are some striking similarities between Nick Pivetta's 2018 season and the campaign Arizona Diamondbacks left-hander Robbie Ray put together the year before he broke out.

    Observe:

    • Ray (2016): 174.1 IP, 4.90 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 1.47 WHIP, 218 K, 11.3 K/9
    • Pivetta (2018): 164.0 IP, 4.77 ERA, 3.80 FIP, 1.31 WHIP, 188 K, 10.3 K/9

    Ray followed up that 2016 performance by going 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 218 strikeouts in 162 innings to finish seventh in NL Cy Young voting.

    Both pitchers feature the same mid-90s fastball, curveball, slider and occasional changeup repertoire.

    An improved curveball was largely to thank for the step forward that Pivetta took in 2018:

    • 2017 CB: 15.3% Usage, .274 BAA, .179 ISO, 12.0% Whiff
    • 2018 CB: 21.8% Usage, .208 BAA, .081 ISO, 15.8% Whiff

    Similar progress with his own curveball played a major role in Ray's breakthrough, so that's another strong parallel to draw between the two.

    Could Pivetta be headed for a similar breakout?

CF Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

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    Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    Opening Day Age: 21

    2018 Stats: 134 OPS+, .288/.348/.525, 7 XBH (3 HR), 10 RBI, 8 R

    WAR: 0.4

    How good can Victor Robles be?

    MLB.com recently ranked him as the No. 4 prospect in baseball and wrote: "Robles' speed and defense give him an inherently high floor as a big leaguer, while his ceiling of a top-of-the-order center fielder who hits for both average and power could make him a perennial All-Star."

    A gruesome elbow injury cost him three months last season. Otherwise, he likely would have been the one who got the call to fill the void in the Washington Nationals outfield rather than 2018 breakout star Juan Soto.

    Now it's Robles' turn to take the league by storm.

    Even if his offensive game is slow to develop, he's a Gold Glove-caliber defender in center field and his 75-grade speed gives the Nationals another nightmare on the basepaths to join Trea Turner.

    If he breaks camp with the starting center field job and stays healthy, a 15-homer, 40-steal season with a solid batting average and stellar defense would go a long way in helping to replace Bryce Harper.

              

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.