The Biggest Emerging MLB Star at Every Position Entering 2017
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Starring Trea Turner, and more!Patrick Smith/Getty Images
From Mike Trout to Miguel Cabrera to Clayton Kershaw and many more, Major League Baseball isn’t hurting for established stars. And the ranks are swelling every year.
Which poses the question: Who’s next?
We have a few ideas, and we’re going to act on them by rounding up the biggest emerging stars at each position for 2017. The following ground rules apply:
- Skipping Designated Hitter: Only half the league uses the DH, and not every team in that half has a full-time DH—much less a young full-time DH.
- No All-Stars: Because players who have been All-Stars are already stars.
- No Award Winners: Rookies of the Year and MVPs are also already stars.
- Emphasis on “Emerging”: We want to keep the focus on players whose major league careers are in their infancy, so we’re drawing a line at 300 games played for position players and 75 appearances for pitchers.
- Prospects Are Allowed, On One Condition: Players who still have their rookie eligibility are fair game, but they must already have major league experience.
Otherwise, all we’re doing is sizing up each player’s present ability and whatever upside they’re ready to tap into.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
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There are some exciting up-and-comers at catcher, but they’re all squatting in Gary Sanchez’s shadow.
It wasn’t long ago that Sanchez was in prospect purgatory. He went from being a regular in top-100 rankings to off the board entirely in 2015. He then re-established himself in 2016 and finally got his big break with the New York Yankees last August.
What followed was a 1.052 OPS and 20 home runs in only 52 games. Not enough to win the American League Rookie of the Year over Michael Fulmer, but a hell of a statement all the same.
As seen in his 24.9 strikeout percentage, there’s a swing-and-miss element in Sanchez’s bat that’s a threat to slow his progress. But he showed a good eye in walking in 10.5 percent of his plate appearances last year. And while it’s a fair guess that he won’t stay on a 60-homer pace in 2017, his power is legit.
Although the 24-year-old only hit about half his batted balls in the air last season, he didn’t miss what he did get airborne. He averaged 97.8 miles per hour in average exit velocity on his fly balls and line drives, sandwiching him in between Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton.
Sanchez is also useful on defense, where he used his upper-tier throwing strength to nab 41 percent of base stealers in 2016. Take that ability and combine it with his power, and you get a catcher who looks like a young Johnny Bench.
Others: Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, J.T Realmuto, Austin Hedges
First Base: Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates
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With Greg Bird’s 2015 breakthrough still within memory, this slide should arguably be dedicated to another Yankee.
Instead, let’s focus on a player who didn’t miss 2016 recovering from major shoulder surgery: Josh Bell.
Bell has had his ups and downs since the Pittsburgh Pirates took him in the second round of the 2011 draft. But it was always believed he would hit, and that belief finally came to fruition in the majors last year.
Bell made his major league debut in July and announced his presence with a booming grand slam in just his second at-bat. He went on to hit a solid .273 with a .775 OPS in 45 games.
Even beyond the fact he’s currently recovering from a minor knee surgery, Bell’s outlook for 2017 does come with some red flags. The pop he showed with that grand slam doesn’t show up consistently, so it’s best not to mistake him for a slugger. He’s also a work in progress on defense.
Bell is going to hit, though. MLB.com, which rates the switch-hitter as the sport’s No. 27 prospect, gives him a 60-grade hit tool. He showed why in the majors last year, drawing more walks (21) than strikeouts (19) and wearing out the opposite field.
The 24-year-old likely won’t realize all his upside in 2017. But if nothing else, a regular .300 hitter at the not-so-hot corner should begin to emerge.
Others: Greg Bird, Tommy Joseph, Yulieski Gurriel
Second Base: Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs
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Second basemen might have had their best season ever in 2016. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t happen without a lot of superstar help, and Javier Baez isn’t even there yet.
He’s another former top prospect whose development has seen its highs and lows. He notably went into 2014 as an elite prospect, got a reality check in the majors and only appeared in 28 games with the Chicago Cubs in 2015.
Last year was a different story, however.
Baez, 24, played in 142 games and was a solid all-around contributor with 3.4 wins above replacement. That had much to do with him cutting way down on his strikeouts and producing solid offense with a .737 OPS, 14 home runs and 12 stolen bases. As long as he stays on that trajectory, more offense is in order for 2017.
Where Baez can really shine is on defense, where his world-class hands, quick-twitch athleticism and strong arm allowed him to tally 11 defensive runs saved last year.
“He’s just exceptional, man,” teammate Ben Zobrist told ESPN.com’s Bradford Doolittle last October, adding: “There are few guys in the league who are as athletic and quick and dazzling as he really is in the field.”
The one negative takeaway from Baez’s 2016 is that he didn’t quite separate himself from his up-and-down past. On a given night, he would either look like the best player on the field or be completely invisible.
There’s nonetheless superstar ability within Baez, and he’s more ready than ever to realize it.
Others: Devon Travis, Ryan Schimpf, Jose Peraza
Shortstop: Trea Turner, Washington Nationals
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Patrick Smith/Getty Images
With Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor and Xander Bogaerts leading a new golden age at the position, these are also good times for shortstops.
Trea Turner may not prove to be better than all of them. But if nothing else, he could destroy any of them in a footrace.
Even before Turner debuted in 2015 and settled in with the Washington Nationals in 2016, he was known for his speed. He finally put it on full display last year, swiping 33 bases in only 73 games with the big club.
“It’s almost like he’s running on air,” Elliott Avent, Turner’s coach at North Carolina State, told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post last fall. “His gait, his stride is just so effortless.”
Turner, 23, also proved with his .342 average and .937 OPS last year that he can hit a bit. The bad news is that he’s too aggressive to pad his on-base percentage with walks. The good news is that he’s no slap hitter.
It’s no accident that Turner clubbed 13 home runs last year. He doesn’t subscribe to the Willie Mays Hayes notion of hitting the ball on the ground and letting his speed do the rest. His mindset is to step in the box and drive the ball.
The question Turner needs to answer is whether he can hold his own on defense. But regardless, he has offensive potential that few others at the position can match.
Others: Trevor Story, Dansby Swanson, Tim Anderson, Orlando Arcia
Third Base: Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
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How about we switch things up and talk about a player who’s been careening toward superstardom?
The Houston Astros surely had that in mind when they took Alex Bregman with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft. He then set about torching the minor leagues, making it to the top of ESPN’s prospect rankings as a shortstop by last summer.
“He might be peak Dustin Pedroia with the bat, but on the other side of the bag. That’s a superstar,” wrote Keith Law.
With Carlos Correa set at shortstop, Bregman debuted at third base late last July. He struggled initially but recovered to hit .313 with a .931 OPS and eight homers in his final 39 games.
The 22-year-old hit a total of 28 home runs across three levels last season. He did that not so much with booming power but with a swing made for power hitting. He doesn’t waste time with ground balls and has a preference for his pull side that should play well at Minute Maid Park.
Elsewhere, defensive tools that made Bregman a solid shortstop worked well at third base, where he tallied five defensive runs saved. With solid speed also among his tools, the sophomore has quite the high ceiling.
“Expectations are high,” Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow told Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “This is a guy that was in college two years ago, and he’s penciled into our everyday lineup right now. It’s a hard transition to make. But if anybody can make it, I think Alex can.”
Others: Miguel Sano, Maikel Franco, Ryon Healy
Left Field: Andrew Benintendi, Boston Red Sox
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Given Kyle Schwarber’s tremendous offensive upside, it’s very tempting to give him the floor.
But if it’s all-around upside we’re talking about, the left field spotlight belongs to Andrew Benintendi.
Right now, you can find Benintendi atop prospect lists at MLB.com, ESPN and Baseball America. Before that, you could see the Boston Red Sox picking him at No. 7 in the 2015 draft and then in the majors making an impressive debut last season.
Benintendi got in 34 regular season games with the Red Sox and hit .295 with an .835 OPS. That was him showing off what Baseball America rates as a 70-grade hit tool, complete with a strong eye for the zone and a sweet left-handed stroke.
The 22-year-old put other tools on display as well. He put his above-average speed to use on the bases and on the field, where he made one of the best catches of the season. He could be a halfway-decent center fielder with athleticism like his, so more excellence in left is very much doable.
Despite being listed at just 5’10” and 170 pounds, Benintendi also has solid power potential. He flashed decent pop in 2016 and is now equipped for even more after packing on some muscle over the winter.
“He looks like freakin’ Marty McFly, to tell you the truth,” Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis told ESPN’s Scott Lauber. “He’s not a big guy, but the ball jumps off his bat—easily. And that’s what I like.”
Others: Kyle Schwarber, Michael Conforto, Nomar Mazara, David Dahl, Randal Grichuk
Center Field: Keon Broxton, Milwaukee Brewers
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The most well known breakout candidate in center field is Byron Buxton, who finally looked like a former No. 1 prospect when he went on a tear last September.
But since September baseball isn’t the best proving ground, let’s give the floor to Keon Broxton.
Now with the Milwaukee Brewers, the 26-year-old began his pro career as a third-round pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2009. He didn’t exactly become a non-prospect after that, but he made it into Baseball America’s rankings of the organization’s top 10 prospects only once.
The last report on him in 2012 concluded: “He is a hard worker with good makeup and has consistently ranked as the most athletic player in the system, but he’s still a long way from proving he can be a big league regular.”
Well, Broxton looked like a heck of a lot more than just a major league regular when he was last on the field. He finished 2016 with a .294 average, .937 OPS, nine homers and 16 stolen bases in his final 46 games.
Broxton’s athleticism was obviously a factor, but what really drove his production was a change in his hitting mechanics. While he continued to swing and miss with a 32.5 K%, he also worked a 14.8 BB% and placed alongside Miguel Cabrera and Nelson Cruz in exit velocity.
Throw in some strong defense, and Broxton begins to look like a breakout player who can do it all.
Others: Byron Buxton, Manny Margot, Albert Almora, Tyler Naquin
Right Field: Hunter Renfroe, San Diego Padres
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Aaron Judge, who has the ability to turn baseballs into mush, is another Yankee who deserves a shoutout.
But if anyone wants a guy who’s basically Judge minus the red flags, there’s Hunter Renfroe.
The San Diego Padres grabbed Renfroe with the No. 13 pick in the 2013 draft. His power was his calling card at the time and remains as such today. It’s a tool that gets a 70 grade from Baseball America, and even that seems conservative after what he did in 2016.
Renfroe began the year by slugging 30 home runs in 113 games for Triple-A El Paso and finished it with four more in 11 games for the Padres at the end of the year. One of them landed atop the Western Metal Supply Company building beyond the left field wall at Petco Park.
That’s the kind of raw power Renfroe is working with, and one thing that’s changed for the better recently is where he can apply it. He used to have pull power only. He expanded it to the right of center in 2016.
And where Judge is still working to fix a swing-and-miss problem, Renfroe put up a non-terrible 20.4 K% in the minors last year before whiffing only five times in 36 major league plate appearances.
The 25-year-old also has the goods to be a quality defender in right field. He has solid speed for a guy listed at 6’1″ and 220 pounds, as well as 70-grade arm strength.
Others: Stephen Piscotty, Max Kepler, Aaron Judge, Jorge Soler, Mitch Haniger
Starting Pitcher: Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays
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So many great young starting pitchers in baseball today, and here there’s space for only one of them.
Marcus Stroman, come on down.
Although Stroman has been a breakout candidate in each of the last two springs, things haven’t gone his way. He missed almost all of 2015 recovering from a torn ACL and put up just a 4.37 ERA in his first full season in 2016. Goes to show how easily the best laid plans of mice and baseball prognosticators go awry.
Yet the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander is still only 25. And when looked at from alternative perspectives, his 2016 wasn’t actually that bad. There’s one metric that paints him as one of the season’s elite pitchers, and he began to look the part down the stretch.
Starting in July, Stroman shifted his position on the rubber and mixed up his pitch selection. This allowed him to make the most of his strong command and arsenal of electric pitches, as he enjoyed well-rounded dominance with a 3.42 ERA with a 4.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 61.5 ground-ball percentage in 16 starts.
Other young starters to watch include Carlos Rodon, Jon Gray and Lance McCullers. With excellent stuff of their own and some success in their recent track records, any one of them may be just as worthy of the spotlight as Stroman.
But, hey. When a guy picks another guy to win a Cy Young, said guy must stick to his guns.
Others: Carlos Rodon, Jon Gray, Lance McCullers, Steven Matz, Blake Snell, Jameson Taillon, Vince Velasquez, Julio Urias, Tyler Glasnow, Lucas Giolito, Jose De Leon
Relief Pitcher: Edwin Diaz, Seattle Mariners
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The Seattle Mariners were developing Edwin Diaz as a starter after taking him in the third round of the 2012 draft. New general manager Jerry Dipoto decided to change that last summer.
Not long after, Diaz started making Dipoto look like a genius.
The 22-year-old right-hander appeared in 49 games with the Mariners and put up a 2.79 ERA with a rate of 15.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Only Dellin Betances struck batters out at a higher rate.
It helps that Diaz has an electric fastball that averaged 97.3 mph and hit triple digits two dozen times. But his money pitch is his slider, which works in the mid-to-high 80s with devastating movement.
“They’re missing it,” manager Scott Servais told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times. “It’s hard. It’s late. When you throw that hard at 97-98 mph, guys have to cheat for the fastball. And when the breaking ball is coming out of the same window with the late depth at 87-88, it’s really good.”
That’s an understatement. Diaz’s slider collected more whiffs per swing last season than every slider except the ones thrown by Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson. It’s an elite pitch.
It was all enough to make Diaz something of a cult hero late in the 2016 season. With him now entering his first full year as Seattle’s closer, it shouldn’t be long before he has more than just a cult following.
Others: Matt Bush, Chris Devenski, Ryan Dull, Derek Law, Matt Strahm
Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com (including WAR), FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant and MLBFarm.com.