One fun aspect of any baseball season is watching players be introduced to the majors. Some will compete for Rookie of the Year, while others will struggle as they get their feet wet and acclimate to the speed of the game.
Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez had no such problem last season as he took the majors by storm, hitting 20 homers and knocking in 42 runs with a .299 batting average and 1.032 OPS in just 229 plate appearances. Sanchez was soundly beaten in American League ROY voting by Tigers righthander Michael Fulmer, likely penalized by voters for not coming up until early August.
Which rookies will shine in 2017?
You can start with Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi. We asked executives, coaches, managers, and scouts around baseball for their rookies to watch, and many had Benintendi at the top of their list.
“The one thing we’re all wondering about is his power and where he can go with it,” said one AL scout. “He’s a plus defender, a decent arm, a good contact hitter who has power to the gaps, but as he gets stronger and his body fills out, we might see some unexpected power emerge. We certainly saw that with Mookie Betts. This kid could emerge similarly.”
And that would be music to the Red Sox’ ears. One major reason they did not seek a full-time replacement for David Ortiz is because they believe Benintendi is going to make up some of the offensive void.
Benintendi hit .295 in 105 major league at-bats in 2016. The Red Sox preferred to deal Yoan Moncada in the offseason instead of Benintendi. Now the question is, can he live up to the hype?
Benintendi seems to be on the path taken by Jacoby Ellsbury, Betts, and Dustin Pedroia when they were at a similar stage. What the Sox and Benintendi don’t want is a repeat of the struggles Jackie Bradley Jr. endured in his first full season in the majors (.198 average). But the Red Sox think Benintendi is too polished for that to happen.
Here are a dozen other rookies to watch, according to our baseball people:
1. Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees — He needs to cut down on his swing. At 6 feet 7 inches, he has a long swing, something a lot of tall sluggers have struggled with early in their careers, including Dave Winfield and Mark McGwire. Judge’s foray into the majors last year (.179 average, 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats) was far different than Sanchez’s, but the Yankees are committing to Judge at least for the start of the season.
2. Moncada, 2B, White Sox — The feeling is Moncada will start at Triple A and be in Chicago by the summer. He was injured in the Arizona Fall League, and that slowed his offseason development. The Red Sox brought up Moncada in September to be their everyday third baseman, only to watch him get overwhelmed. Our group, for the most part, sees Moncada as a “can’t-miss” player and eventual All-Star. The White Sox envision him as a second baseman.
3. Dansby Swanson, SS, Braves — Swanson, like Benintendi, had an impressive debut in 2016, hitting .302 in 38 games. He’s still eligible for ROY honors in the National League and our group believes the former No. 1 overall draft pick has a great chance to contend. “Looks like he belongs with no fear of the stage he’s on,” said one NL executive.
4. Alex Reyes, RHP, Cardinals — When he went 2-0 with a 2.20 ERA in five starts late last season, all of baseball was impressed that the Cardinals had found another gem. Reyes’s season didn’t begin until May because of a 50-game suspension for a marijuana violation.
5. Manuel Margot, CF, Padres — Some executives, Yankees GM Brian Cashman among them, have said they think Margot, who was part of the Craig Kimbrel deal with the Red Sox, has a chance to be a star in the big leagues. Margot hit .304 with 30 steals at Triple A El Paso last season and played a great center field. “Like any young player, he needs big league reps. Smooth in so many ways and also rough in others, but the upside is undeniable,” said an NL scout.
6. Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves — Albies, 20, is working his way back from a fractured elbow. A double play combo of Swanson and Albies is evoking memories of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, as a keystone combo that could be together for a long time.
7. Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates — Everyone seems to like the switch-hitting Bell, who had knee surgery last week and is likely to miss all of spring training. Bell managed a .775 OPS in 152 plate appearances with the Pirates last season, hitting all three of his homers from the left side.
8. Trey Mancini, 1B/DH, Orioles — Scouts are intrigued by his righthanded power and he showed it in limited time at Camden Yards last season. The Orioles re-signed Mark Trumbo, but GM Dan Duquette believes Mancini will be a factor at some point this season.
9. Lucas Giolito, RHP, White Sox — Giolito, acquired in the Adam Eaton deal, will get every opportunity to make the rotation. The tall righty has had some command issues because of mechanical problems in repeating his delivery, but he’s now got a great teacher in White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper, so we should see a better pitcher.
10. Tyler Glasnow, RHP, Pirates — Another hard thrower with command issues, but once those are corrected Glasnow has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation type, according to scouts whose expertise is in pitching. It may not happen this season, but our group thinks Glasnow will eventually get there.
11. Yulieski Gurriel, 3B, Astros — OK, he’s 32. But this will be the Cuban’s first full season in the majors after signing a $47.5 million contract last July. Gurriel hit .262 with three homers in 36 games with Houston, so he has shown promise of being an impact player.
12. Jharel Cotton, RHP, Athletics — Our group really likes this kid, who was acquired from the Dodgers in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick deal last July. Cotton, 25, features a changeup among his four pitches. In five starts for the A’s last year he had a 2.15 ERA and walked only four in 29⅓ innings. “He’s a pitcher,” said one evaluator. “He’s not a thrower. So there’s a lot to work with there.”
Pena is a blaster from our past
We’ve reported on Bronson Arroyo’s quest to return to the majors after a two-year absence because of elbow and shoulder problems. Arroyo is expected to sign with the Reds soon. But what about the guy the Red Sox got from Cincinnati in exchange for Arroyo in 2006? Remember Wily Mo Pena?
Pena, 35, hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, but according to several reports he signed a minor league deal with the Indians. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Pena was recommended by new Tribe slugger Edwin Encarnacion, a fellow Dominican and friend of Pena’s.
Pena has hit some of the longest home runs in major league history. He’s 6-3 and weighs about 260 pounds, and he’ll get a shot at making the major league roster. The Indians also signed Chris Colabello, so they will have some power in their spring training lineups.
Starting in 2012, Pena spent four seasons playing in Japan. He took last season off but played winter ball in the Dominican.
In 2001, the Yankees traded Pena to the Reds for fellow prospects Michael Coleman and Drew Henson. Five years later, former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky traded Pena to the Red Sox for Arroyo and cash. It turned out to be a major coup for the Reds, who over eight years watched Arroyo perform as one of the league’s most durable and consistent starters.
Then-Red Sox GM Theo Epstein traded Pena to the Nationals after just a year and a half, and Pena hit just 17 more homers in the big leagues before leaving for Japan.
Nearly 11 years after they were traded for one another, Arroyo and Pena are giving it one more shot in the majors.
It may be a long shot for both, but after all these years, they hang around for the love of the game.
Apropos of nothing
1. I have received a lot of correspondence from fans who don’t want the Pawtucket Red Sox to move from McCoy Stadium. A recent feasibility study gives rise to the probability that the team will move to a new Pawtucket location. But some fans feel strongly that McCoy is the minor league version of Fenway Park, and they’d prefer the PawSox to renovate McCoy. According to the feasibility study, a renovation would cost about $68 million and a new stadium about $78 million. It looks as if a new facility may win out.
2. What a mess the St. Louis/Houston cybercrime turned out to be. The Astros were awarded the Cardinals’ top two draft picks in 2017 and $2 million in punishment handed down by commissioner Rob Manfred. Former Cardinals executive Chris Correa is serving a 46-month prison sentence in the hacking scandal, but he recently said in a statement that the Astros hacked the Cardinals data in 2011 and that Houston benefited from that information for a three-year period. MLB said it would be willing to meet with Correa regarding those allegations.
3. Some Red Sox personnel think Brandon Workman could be an interesting pitcher to watch in camp. Workman hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 following Tommy John surgery. He had a strong rookie season in 2013, making seven scoreless postseason appearances during the Sox’ championship run.
4. The Royals could be a surprise team in the AL. They have hungry players in free-agents-to-be Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer. Lefty Danny Duffy was given a five-year extension and will be counted on to front a rotation that tragically lost Yordano Ventura. They’ve added breakout candidate Jorge Soler and power-hitting Brandon Moss. The feeling is the Royals will re-sign at least one of their key hitters, likely Hosmer. If they’re out of the hunt at the trade deadline, however, look for a major fire sale.
Updates on nine
1. Jung Ho Kang, INF, Pirates — Kang has turned out to be a PR nightmare for the Pirates. He picked up his third DUI arrest in South Korea in December and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and has a sexual assault case pending in Chicago. Kang has performed on the field, but off the field it has been an entirely different story. The Pirates expect Kang in training camp, but MLB has yet to weigh in on his situation.
2. Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox — White Sox GM Rick Hahn has held his ground on what he needs in return for Quintana in a deal. Hahn is under no pressure to trade the All-Star now and could hold on to him until the trade deadline, when teams feel more urgency to make a deal. But Hahn will move Quintana sooner if he gets a package similar to what he got for Chris Sale. Prospect-rich organizations such as the Astros, Braves, Dodgers, Rangers, Phillies, Yankees, and Brewers are possible destinations. The Astros, who now have two extra high draft picks to add to their farm system (as a result of the Cardinals’ hacking punishment), are seen as the front-runners.
3. Jason Hammel, RHP, free agent — He’s the best available starting pitcher on the market, and Kansas City could use him, but Hammel believes he should receive at least a three-year deal following a 15-win season, even though the market hasn’t supported that. The Royals are also looking at Doug Fister, who would come cheaper. Hammel had a one-year offer from Seattle with an option for $10 million very early in free agency, but that appears to be off the table.
4. Josh Hamilton, OF/1B/DH, Rangers — Hamilton, 35, will get a look in camp. According to one major league source, his success will depend on how much his balky knees affect his swing. “Listen, Hamilton’s one of those guys who can roll out of bed after five years and hit a double off the fence, but if his knees don’t allow him to get any power behind that swing, that will be the key issue,” said an AL assistant GM. Injuries have taken a toll on Hamilton, once a five-tool player and one of the best players in the game. The Rangers are hoping he can be at least a platoon player and productive bat in the middle of the order.
5. Ellis Burks, special assistant, Giants — Burks joined the Giants this offseason after being a special assistant with the Rockies. He’ll be a guest instructor in spring training. Burks had great success as a player with San Francisco, and Giants GM Bobby Evans was a Red Sox front office intern when Burks played for the Red Sox in 1989.
6. Shane Victorino, OF, free agent — Victorino was planning to get back into baseball on a minor league deal, but the 36-year-old had to put those plans on hold after having minor surgery to remove a cyst under his arm.
7. Chris Carter, 1B/DH, free agent — Some people around the league thought the Rays would take a shot on Carter, but they opted to re-sign Logan Morrison, who had a .733 OPS last season. It’s strange that there hasn’t been much interest in Carter, who led the NL with 41 homers last season. The Rangers could be an option, but they still seem to be leaning toward Mike Napoli.
8. Michael Bourn, OF, free agent — It’s possible Bourn could return to the Orioles, who are looking for a lefthanded hitter, preferably an outfielder.
9. Joe Blanton, RHP, free agent — Week after week we wonder how this guy remains available after making 75 appearances for the Dodgers last year. One NL executive feels asking for multiple years has turned a number of teams off, but Blanton is expected to accept something soon.
From the Bill Chuck files — “The last Red Sox DH with more than 300 at-bats in a season not named David Ortiz was Reggie Jefferson, who went 156 for 489 (.319) in 1997.” . . . Also, “Last season, five players had fewer than 100 hits and 25-plus homers: Giancarlo Stanton (99 hits, 27 HRs), Jedd Gyorko (97 hits, 30 HRs), Brandon Moss (93 hits, 28 HRs), Yasmani Grandal (89 hits, 27 HRs), and Ryan Howard (65 hits, 25 HRs).” . . . Happy birthday, Vic Correll (71) and Lee Thomas (81).
Just winning, baby
The Yankees have made only one playoff trip — a wild-card loss in 2015 — in the last four seasons, but still, no one can call them losers. New York will try to extend its streak of winning seasons to 25 in 2017, the second-longest streak in baseball history, behind only the Yankees’ 39-year reign from 1926-64. Joe Girardi, the third manager during the current streak, will try to keep it going this season.