Predicting MLB's Top Rookie Stars at Each Position for 2019
Major League Baseball is in a golden age of rookies.
It began in earnest when Mike Trout and Bryce Harper broke through in 2012. Since then, the likes of Jacob deGrom, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuna Jr. have also found stardom immediately upon arriving in The Show.
We're here to predict which rookies will follow those fine examples at each position in 2019. We were looking for prospects who are not only ready for major league stardom right now but who also figure to get ample playing time this season.
Every position gets one player apiece, save for outfielders (one for each spot) and starting pitchers (one left-hander and one right-hander).
Catcher: Danny Jansen, Toronto Blue Jays
Though he's not the Toronto Blue Jays' most well-known prospect, Danny Jansen has a leg up on the lot of them in one regard: He already has a major league job in hand.
"That's an easy answer," said Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo, according to Don Brennan of the Toronto Sun. "Jansen is going to do most of the catching."
In the wake of the January trade that sent veteran backstop Russell Martin to the Los Angeles Dodgers, the job is Jansen's partially by default. Yet the 23-year-old has little left to prove in the minors, where he established himself as one of baseball's top catcher prospects over six seasons.
Baseball America went so far as to rank Jansen as the No. 42 prospect in MLB, remarking that he has the potential to be a "high on-base percentage catcher." His .396 career OBP at Triple-A backs that up, as does the .347 OBP he put up in a 31-game cup of coffee with Toronto in 2018.
Yet Jansen's power potential shouldn't be underestimated. He clubbed 15 total home runs in 2018, wherein he displayed an impressive knack for getting the ball airborne. Any more of that, and he can join the rarefied air of 20-homer catchers in 2019.
Honorable Mention: Francisco Mejia, San Diego Padres
First Base: Pete Alonso, New York Mets
Who's the best hitter in the Grapefruit League right now? According to Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora, it's "probably" Pete Alonso.
Through 12 games with the New York Mets, Alonso is batting .371/.421/.743 with three homers that have tended to be of the booming variety.
So it goes for Alonso. The 24-year-old started hitting right away after the Mets took him out of Florida in the second round of the 2016 draft, and he reached another level with a .975 OPS and 36 homers at Double-A and Triple-A in 2018. He tacked on six more long balls in the Arizona Fall League.
The typical word of warning with slugging prospects is that they strike out a lot. But while he's not exactly the next coming of Tony Gwynn, Alonso's whiff rate is manageable. He struck out in 22.2 percent of his plate appearances in 2018, and he has only six strikeouts this spring.
The bigger concern is Alonso's defense, but it didn't loom large enough for Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus to keep him out of their top 50 prospects. Frankly, the only thing keeping him from a major league job is obligatory gamesmanship with his service time.
Honorable Mention: Nate Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
Second Base: Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
As prospects go, Brandon Lowe isn't exactly a household name. Only Baseball America has him ranked as a top-100 prospect, and he barely made the cut at No. 93.
From looking at what he's done over the last year or so, he deserves better.
Lowe, who is not related to first base prospect Nate Lowe, was a pretty good hitter in his first two minor league seasons in 2016 and 2017. He morphed into something else entirely in his third with a .949 OPS, 22 homers and 31 doubles at Double-A and Triple-A. He mustered a solid .774 OPS with six more homers in 43 games with the Rays.
The 24-year-old has kept right on raking into the spring. Through 10 games with the Tampa Bay Rays, he boasts a 1.362 OPS and eight extra-base hits.
At 5'10", 185 pounds, Lowe doesn't have a slugger's build, but he nonetheless has a penchant for hard contact. With solid tools across the board elsewhere, he can be something like a left-handed-hitting Brian Dozier.
All Lowe needs is a chance to prove it. With Matt Duffy once again feeling the bite of the injury bug, such a chance is staring Lowe right in the face on the eve of the regular season.
Honorable Mention: Luis Urias, San Diego Padres
Third Base: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
Granted, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. isn't perfect. He's not as lean or athletic as his Hall of Fame father. Indeed, it's hard not to wonder if there's a correlation between this and the injuries he's suffered, including the strained oblique that will sideline him into April.
But at least he can hit. Goodness, can he ever hit.
Despite playing in 2018 as a 19-year-old, Guerrero slashed .381/.437/.636 with 50 extra-base hits (including 20 homers) across four minor league levels. According to MLB.com's Jim Callis, the Montreal native possesses both the best hit tool and the best power tool of any prospect.
The simpler way to put it is that Guerrero is a generational hitting talent. He should start hitting in the majors as soon as he gets the call.
That was going to be in mid-April one way or another. The difference now is that he'll join the Blue Jays when he's healthy, not because he's "ready" after a game of service-time manipulation.
Honorable Mention: Ke'Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
Shortstop: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
Meanwhile in San Diego, another ultratalented son of a famous father is inching closer to major league stardom.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is generally considered the best prospect in MLB after Guerrero. One notable expert who begs to differ is ESPN.com's Keith Law, who has Tatis ranked No. 1.
Tatis, whose old man played 11 seasons in the majors, isn't on the same level as Guerrero where purely hitting matters are concerned. He has some swing-and-miss in his offensive profile, which showed in the form of a 27.7 percent strikeout rate at Double-A in 2018.
Still, that didn't stop the 20-year-old from putting up an .862 OPS and 16 homers. Nor is it keeping him from a 1.127 OPS and two homers in nine games with the Padres this spring. Though things are liable to change as he grows into his 6'3" frame, for now Tatis is also a good athlete who runs and fields his position well.
Tatis needs some exposure to Triple-A before he makes the leap to the big leagues. But if all goes well, he'll spend more than half the season in San Diego alongside Manny Machado, who's already agreed to move back to third base.
Honorable Mention: Bo Bichette, Toronto Blue Jays
Outfielders: Eloy Jimenez, Victor Robles and Alex Verdugo
Left Field: Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
The book on Eloy Jimenez's hitting talent at MLB.com can be summarized like so: "like Giancarlo Stanton, except better."
Though it's produced "only" 41 homers over the last two minor league seasons, Jimenez's power is mighty enough in its raw form to damage light poles. Yet the 22-year-old is also a high-quality hitter. He struck out only 69 times in 108 minor league games in 2018, and he hit .337 overall.
The catch is that the 6'4", 205-pounder is very much a lumbering type who will probably be a designated hitter in a couple of years. In the meantime, however, he'll provide the Chicago White Sox with plenty of power out of left field—as soon as they're done manipulating his service time, of course.
Center Field: Victor Robles, Washington Nationals
Unlike Jimenez, Victor Robles doesn't need to wait for a job. The Washington Nationals have him slotted as their everyday center fielder for 2019.
At the least, Robles figures to be a sight to behold on defense, where he boasts elite speed and arm strength. But he's no slouch in the batter's box either. He has solid power, not to mention a far more advanced approach than most 21-year-olds.
Robles put up an .874 OPS in 21 games with the Nationals in 2018, and he has a .972 OPS this spring. If he stays on this track, he'll be a National League Rookie of the Year favorite.
Right Field: Alex Verdugo, Los Angeles Dodgers
The caveat here is that Alex Verdugo doesn't project to be a regular so much as just another cog in Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts' unpredictable lineups.
Still, this will be the 22-year-old's best chance yet at major league stardom, and he should be ready for it. He has one of the best hit tools of any prospect, and one need not look far to find evidence of it. Verdugo is a .321 career hitter at Triple-A.
Also, keep an eye on Verdugo's arm. It's more than good enough for right field.
Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros
Yusniel Diaz, Baltimore Orioles
Starting Pitchers: Jesus Luzardo and Forrest Whitley
Left-Hander: Jesus Luzardo, Oakland Athletics
The Oakland Athletics don't have an ace...yet. Jesus Luzardo can change that in a hurry once he lands on the A's major league roster, which could be for the proper start of their season on March 28.
"He could be a front-of-the-rotation guy for a long time," veteran catcher Nick Hundley said, per MLB.com's Jane Lee.
The 21-year-old comes with a full complement of pitches, including a mid-90s heater and a devastating changeup. Perhaps just as importantly, he knows where his pitches are going better than most hurlers his age. He's walked 2.1 batters per nine innings in two minor league seasons.
Luzardo's skills have also translated to a 2.53 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors as well as 15 punchouts in 9.2 spring innings. It all points toward him being ready for The Show.
Right-Hander: Forrest Whitley, Houston Astros
Elsewhere in the American League West, Forrest Whitley is standing by to fill some of the space vacated by Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. in the Houston Astros rotation.
Because of a 50-game suspension and an oblique strain, Whitley only made eight starts at Double-A in 2018. Between that and the fact he's only 21, the Astros have good excuses to keep him in the minors for the start of the 2019 season.
Yet Whitley boasts a promising arsenal that contains a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a slider, curveball, cutter and changeup that all rate as above-average or better. Though it's not on Luzardo's level, his control is also solid.
Hence how Whitley has posted a 3.28 ERA and 13.3 strikeouts per nine innings in the minors, and hence why it shouldn't be long before he takes his dominant act to the majors.
Kyle Wright, Atlanta Braves
Mitch Keller, Pittsburgh Pirates
Justus Sheffield, Seattle Mariners
Closer: Durbin Feltman, Boston Red Sox
They've already lost Joe Kelly to free agency, and Craig Kimbrel will presumably be next. Yet the Red Sox have been in no hurry to bring in late-inning relievers from outside the organization.
This isn't necessarily because they know they have Durbin Feltman. Then again, maybe it is?
The Red Sox drafted the right-hander in the third round last season, but he wasn't an ordinary draft prospect even then. He was a record-setting closer at TCU, and he came to the pros with the goods to move quickly toward the majors.
One of those goods is a fastball that's been clocked as high as 99 mph. Another is a wipeout slider that sits in the mid-80s. Still another is control that most relief prospects can't match. Durbin walked only six batters in 24.1 innings as a junior at TCU and five in 23.1 innings upon beginning his minor league career.
Though Durbin, 21, only made it as far as High-A last year, there isn't much standing between him and major league-readiness. And once he inevitably joins the Red Sox, there won't be much standing between him and the closer shoes formerly worn by Kimbrel.
Honorable Mention: Ty Buttrey, Los Angeles Angels