Once the regular season starts, there are 750 players on major league rosters, not counting guys on the injured list or the four Dodgers en route at any given time from Triple-A Oklahoma City to Los Angeles. You can’t talk about all of them!
But here’s a list of 30 players, one from each team, whom we should spend more time talking about in 2019. It’s a mix of stars we should appreciate more, veterans who don’t get enough praise and up-and-coming stars to watch — plus some players I just like.
Let’s put it this way: The Red Sox are talking a lot about Eduardo Rodriguez. When I was at Red Sox camp last week, Alex Cora raved about Rodriguez. The lefty, who turns 26 in April, is working on a new slider that Chris Sale taught him, and the pitch has impressed teammates and the coaching staff so far. Rodriguez is already one of the hardest-throwing lefty starters, and he owns one of the best changeups. He’s also healthy and in better shape than he was last season, when he was coming off knee surgery.
“They want him to be great,” Cora said of Rodriguez’s teammates. “They see it. At one point in their careers, Sale and [David] Price were that guy. They’re hard on him because they know how talented he is. Sometimes he gets caught up on who he wants to be. He wants to be Chris one day and Rick [Porcello] the next day and David the next outing. We want him to be Eduardo.”
Rodriguez was 13-5 with a 3.82 ERA last season, fanning 146 batters in 129⅔ innings. The feeling from Red Sox camp is that he’s ready to — cliché alert! — take it to the next level.
A reminder that player development can take many paths. Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2008 but became a late bloomer who didn’t have a breakout season until 2017 after a trade to the Yankees. He just signed a seven-year, $70 million extension, and that should be a bargain for the Yankees if Hicks plays like he has the past two seasons, when he averaged 4.3 WAR. He’ll probably transition out of center field after a few seasons since he’s already 29, but his on-base ability — he had the fifth-highest walk rate in the majors in 2018 — and power (27 home runs) make him an underrated offensive asset.
Snell’s fastball averages 96.5 mph. His curveball, honed through the years, reached new levels of dominance in 2018, as batters hit .126 against it with a 64.1 percent strikeout rate. His slider? Batters hit .096 against that wipeout pitch. Oh, he also throws a changeup. Here’s Mookie Betts on why Snell is so tough: “He’s so tall that he has a high release and I’m assuming a bunch of spin. You always have to sit on the fastball because he throws so hard. But he throws two, three, four pitches for strikes, and then he’ll throw something that looks like a strike and isn’t. That’s why he won the Cy Young.” Snell told me this spring that he has bigger goals than one Cy Young Award. Don’t dismiss his chances of winning another one.
Toronto Blue Jays
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette are the jewels of the Toronto farm system and understandably are receiving a lot of hype, but the third son of a former All-Star is an intriguing prospect as well. After hitting .252/.388/.499 with 26 home runs, 100 walks and 20 steals at Double-A, Biggio posted a .405 OBP in the Arizona Fall League. The left-handed batter is a second baseman by trade, but the Jays are grooming him into a Ben Zobrist type, playing him at third and in the outfield. He needs to cut down on the strikeouts, but he’s one of my favorite sleeper minor leaguers.
OK, it’s the Orioles, so we admittedly had to dig a little here. The Orioles claimed Nunez off waivers from the Rangers in May, and he hit .275/.336/.445 in 60 games, earning the starting third-base job for 2019. He hit 32 home runs for Triple-A Nashville while in the A’s organization in 2017, so there’s some power potential. He’s young enough — 25 in April — that he’s still growing as a hitter.
Remember Vinnie Pestano? Had a couple of good relief seasons for the Indians in 2011 and 2012. Last pitched in the majors in 2015. Well, the Indians traded Pestano to the Angels for Clevinger. The Angels got 21 innings from Pestano. The Indians acquired a starter who had a completely under-the-radar 5.2-WAR season last year, throwing 200 innings and holding batters to a .223 average. He doesn’t get attention in Cleveland’s star-studded rotation … but he’ll get some with another big season.
I mean, I need only to post this video to explain why we should be talking more about the wonderful, astonishing Astudillo. But I’ll also point out that he almost never strikes out — just three times in 97 plate appearances with the Twins:
Willians Astudillo may have broken every single one of baseball’s unwritten rules on one home run 🤣 pic.twitter.com/LD6e73C1Eh
— ESPN (@espn) January 9, 2019
Let’s not assume Cabrera is done as an elite hitter just yet. He was hitting .299/.395/.448 last year before a ruptured biceps ended his season. He played through a back problem in 2017, but when he was last healthy in 2016, he hit .316 with 38 home runs. He turns 36 in April. If I had to project, I might guess we would see more of what he did last year — good average and OBP — but the 30-homer seasons are in the past.
Chicago White Sox
Well … the White Sox didn’t sign Manny Machado, Michael Kopech is out for the season, Yoan Moncada struck out 217 times, and they’re coming off 100 losses. Jimenez is Keith Law’s No. 5 overall prospect and could give Vlad Jr. a run for Rookie of the Year honors.
He’s a popular fantasy pick after hitting 14 home runs and swiping 32 bases in just 75 games and hitting a surprising .276/.306/.498. Prorate those numbers over 150 games, and he’s a potential 25-homer/50-steal guy, something only seven players have accomplished: Hanley Ramirez, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson (twice), Eric Davis (twice), Ryne Sandberg, Joe Morgan (twice) and Cesar Cedeno (twice). That would make Mondesi one of the most exciting players in the league. Still, there’s a wide variance of outcomes here, as his pitch selection leaves something to be desired (11 walks and 77 strikeouts), and Statcast data suggest his quality of contact was nowhere near as good as his slugging percentage indicated.
On the star-studded Astros roster, it was easy to overlook Cole, but he had his best season after coming over from the Pirates (15-5, 2.88 ERA, 276 strikeouts), and as he heads into free agency, a similar season will establish him as a legit ace who will cash in next offseason.
This is confirmation that Chapman’s seventh-place finish in the MVP voting was not a fluke. He is absolutely a supreme defender at the hot corner — his 29 defensive runs saved led all players — and he bashed 72 extra-base hits, including a .309/.371/.591 line in the second half. If he does that for a full season, he’ll finish higher than seventh in the MVP voting.
Haniger is our classic underrated player. He’s good at everything — he has some pop, gets on base, is a good defender in right field, has a good arm and plays on a team likely going nowhere. There’s a reason he’s the one asset Jerry Dipoto did not trade, though contending teams will surely be making calls this summer if the Mariners fall out of the race.
Simmons is the most gifted defensive shortstop since Ozzie Smith — maybe even better — yet he has never made an All-Star team. Baseball-Reference credits him with 13.3 WAR the past two seasons, seventh among position players. FanGraphs isn’t quite as high but still has him at 10.6 WAR, 12th among position players. This guy is one of the best players in the game, but how often do you hear that? So let’s amend an often said statement: If only the Angels could build a playoff team around Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons …
Let’s see, lowest batting average allowed in 2018 (minimum 20 innings): Jose Leclerc, .126.
Lowest slugging percentage allowed: Jose Leclerc, .194.
Highest strikeout rate: Josh Hader, but Leclerc ranked eighth (38.1 percent)
Leclerc throws 95 mph, and his out pitch is a splitter/slider — Statcast records it as a slider, others as a splitter. Whatever it is, hitters don’t touch it. It could make Leclerc the game’s next great reliever.
He’s kind of a throwback player, if you want to consider the 1980s and early 1990s a throwback era. Inciarte is an elite defender who has won three straight Gold Gloves in center field, and he slashes the ball around at the plate instead of trying to loft everything and striking out a million times. I could do with a few more Inciarte types.
I know Vladdy Jr. is the shiny new toy, but Soto is only a few months older and already has posted a .406 OBP and .517 slugging percentage in the majors as a 19-year-old rookie. This kid is going to be a generational hitter. Put it this way: The Nationals don’t need Bryce Harper. They have someone better.
At this point, Pivetta is more a guy we could end up talking about than somebody we should be talking about, considering he’s coming off a 7-14, 4.77 season. The number that pops out, however: 188 strikeouts in 164 innings. Among pitchers with at least 150 innings, he ranked 16th in the majors in strikeout rate at 27.1 percent, just behind Mike Foltynewicz and one spot ahead of teammate Aaron Nola. He has a plus fastball (94.8 mph), and his curveball and slider produced good results. His two-seamer, however, was a terrible pitch for him (.379/.471/.569 in 68 PAs ending with the pitch).
Anyway, quick study. What are Pivetta’s breakout chances? I looked at all pitchers since 2000 with at least a 23 percent strikeout rate, 150 innings and an ERA over 4.50. How did they do the following season? Leaving off the five guys who did it in 2018, the other 23 collectively were noticeably better the next season:
Year 1: 3,991⅓ innings, 4.83 ERA
Year 2: 3,481⅔ innings, 3.92 ERA
It’s interesting that there are multiple repeat offenders on the list. Ricky Nolasco and Bud Norris never did put it all together. Francisco Liriano had some bad years, then a good stretch with the Pirates, then another bad year. There’s no guarantee that Pivetta is ready to break out in 2019. One success story for Phillies fans to dream about: Trevor Bauer improved from a 4.55 ERA in 2015 to 2.21 last season.
Nimmo is coming off a .404 OBP. Put him in the leadoff spot, play him every day, and let him score 100 runs.
As with the Orioles, you have to use a little imagination here. The Marlins have several interesting young starters, including Smith, Pablo Lopez and Victor Alcantara. Smith was having a solid rookie campaign until he went down for the season in June with a lat injury. He fanned 88 in 77⅓ innings, held batters to a .220 average and is a lefty with a decent enough fastball (92.8 mph). He’s a little old to be viewed as a pitcher with big upside (he’s 27), but he could surprise.
Most expect the reigning MVP to see a decline in his numbers, primarily because his second half was so insane — .367/.449/.770, 21 home runs in August and September — that it would seem impossible to do that again. You also could point out that his average launch angle remained unchanged from 2017, at 4.7 degrees (very low for a power hitter), yet he doubled his home runs from 18 to 36. But when you dig into the Statcast data, Yelich’s results were pretty legit. His wOBA was .422 compared to an expected wOBA based on quality of contact of .410, so there wasn’t a lot of luck involved. He’s a good hitter in his prime who moved to a better park. He’s going to mash again.
Maybe he’ll even do this again:
Remember him? After winning MVP honors in 2016, Bryant fell from 39 home runs to 29 in 2017 (though he still finished seventh in the MVP voting). He was off to a great start last year (OPS over 1.000 through May 22) before shoulder issues wrecked the rest of his season. Bryant heard the critics. “This game is all about, ‘What have you done for me lately?'” Bryant told ESPN.com’s Jesse Rogers the other day. “And boy, did I get to experience that last year. That’s all I have to say about that.” He added this, however: “And I’m like, ‘All right, I’m motivated. Keep ’em coming. Bring it.'”
Flaherty’s rookie season got lost in the hype of the other rookie stars, but the Cardinals righty averaged 10.8 K’s per nine innings, and batters hit just .199 off him. His slider is a thing of beauty, and batters don’t seem to pick up his four-seam fastball very well. He mixes in enough curveballs to keep lefties off balance. I think he has ace potential.
After a cancer scare in 2017, Taillon finally had his first full season in the majors, and it was a good one, as he went 14-10 with a 3.20 ERA in 32 starts and 191 innings. A strong final two months suggest he might do even better in 2019, fronting what could be an underrated Pirates rotation.
He made the All-Star team, so it’s not like he was completely unrecognized, but players on small-market, last-place teams don’t tend to get a lot of national publicity. After hitting .283/.366/.526 with 34 home runs and 104 RBIs in 143 games, Suarez proved he’s a foundation piece for the Reds.
In Game 163 to determine the NL West title, Buehler held the Rockies to one hit and no runs in 6⅔ innings. In his World Series start against the Red Sox, he allowed two hits in seven scoreless innings. Hello, baseball world. Buehler’s pure stuff and deep arsenal of pitches suggest that Cy Young Awards are in his future — maybe even the immediate future. The only thing that might hold him back from Cy Young contention this year is an innings limit. He threw 153 last season (plus 23 in the postseason), and the Dodgers might not want to ramp up their young right-hander to 190 or 200 just yet.
On June 24, Marquez was 5-8 with a 5.53 ERA. Then he suddenly figured things out — an improved curveball to go with his heater and slider was a big key — and in his final 17 starts, he went 9-3 with a 2.47 ERA, 146 strikeouts and 22 walks in 113 innings. That’s a 33.3 percent strikeout rate and 5.0 percent walk rate.
Nick Gerli of pitcherlist.com found just five pitchers since 2014 with half-seasons with an ERA, FIP and xFIP all below 2.50 as well as a 25 percent SO-BB rate. These are the elite of the elite: Clayton Kershaw (three times), Corey Kluber (twice), Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard and Jose Fernandez. Those guys didn’t have to pitch half of their games in Coors Field. Without the emergence of Marquez and Kyle Freeland in 2018, do the Rockies re-sign Nolan Arenado? Probably not. Those two gave Arenado a reason to stay and believe in the Rockies’ future.
David Peralta hit 30 home runs last year? Did you know he hit 30 home runs? Peralta has two seasons remaining until free agency, but he’s 31, and given the Diamondbacks’ offseason churn, he could be prime in-season trade bait for a team that needs an outfielder. We mean you, Cleveland.
Smith has gone from the Royals to the Brewers to the Giants and missed 2017 with Tommy John surgery, but he has become one of the better lefty relievers in the game and is coming off a season in which he fanned 71 in 53 innings. He’s a pending free agent, so like Peralta, he’s prime trade bait if the Giants don’t contend for the playoffs.
San Diego Padres
He sometimes gets lost in the Padres’ deep list of prospects, but Paddack is one of my favorite minor league pitchers. Stolen from the Marlins for Fernando Rodney, he missed 2017 with Tommy John surgery but returned last year to post a 2.10 ERA between high-A and Double-A, with a ridiculous 120-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He throws 95 with a devastating changeup, and if his curveball can develop into a solid third pitch, he looks like a potential top-of-the-rotation arm.