When Baseball America, MLB.com and other digital and print media released their top prospects to watch this season, the majority of the talk centered around the Red Sox’ Andrew Benintendi and the Yankees’ Gleyber Torres. Not too much thought was given to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who made his MLB debut in 2016. Now, all eyes are on Judge, who is the top rookie slugger in all of baseball.
You be the Judge
Not only is Judge leading the Major Leagues in home runs with 18, as of this writing, but he also leads the American League in runs scored. Though he hit some long home runs last year, Judge looks like a completely different player at the plate in 2017. Most fans and pundits expected him to hit for a low average with plenty of strikeouts.
While his 64 strikeouts are the eighth-highest in the AL, Judge is hitting .324, good for sixth in the league. His 32 walks have helped him to compile a .429 on-base percentage (third in the AL) and his .681 slugging percentage adds up to a 1.110 OPS (the latter two numbers are second only to Mike Trout in the AL). He’s also been successful in five of seven steal attempts.
If the AL Rookie of the Year Award was given in June, Judge would walk- or slug- away with it (he’s already been named the AL Rookie of the Month in both April and May). And, while most of the focus has been on his tremendous power and his TV-damaging BP home runs, Judge has also been above-par defensively. He covers plenty of ground with his long legs and has stretched out his 6’7″ frame to make some spectacular diving catches. In fact, his 2.06 Range Factor is fourth-best among outfielders. Judge has also shown off a strong right arm and has not been tested by many baserunners.
Benintendi also broke in last season and has all the makings of a superb hitter. The Ohio native got off to a torrid start in April – .333/.392/.478 before a miserable May drove his numbers down. Overall, he’s hitting .269 with seven HRs and 30 RBI and has nearly matched his 2016 totals in 105 fewer at-bats. There’s no question that Benintendi will be a star in the league for many years to come.
The Rest of the Best
Mitch Haniger’s‘ rookie season with the Mariners remains on hold as he recovers from an oblique injury. At the time of the injury, he was hitting .342 with four home runs and 16 RBI. Out since April 26, Haniger began a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Hopefully, the Mariners will soon be able to see if his performance in April was the real deal or a mirage.
The former 38th overall pick in the 2012 draft had a less-than-stellar debut (.713 OPS, high K rate) with Arizona last season. The Diamondbacks had acquired him from Milwaukee in 2014. He showed off the power that Seattle wanted to add to their lineup. He then became a Mariner during this past offseason along with Jean Segura and Zac Curtis, who were also acquired from Arizona for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker.
Haniger’s teammate Ben Gamel (10th round draft pick by the Yankees in 2010) has also been a pleasant surprise. With much of his playing time due to injuries to Haniger and others, Gamel has made the most of it. In 35 games played, Gamel has 42 hits (.323), 21 runs scored and 16 RBI. And, though he doesn’t hit for power, he currently has a pair of home runs and has legged out seven doubles and two triples for a .454 slugging percentage.
Strikeouts are the big drawback in Gamel’s game; he’s been rung up on strikes 40 times in 130 at-bats. His future is most likely as a fourth outfielder, but he’ll continue to see at-bats if he can come close to the .397 average he currently has when he puts balls in play (baBIP).
With a slow start by Mark Trumbo and a still-struggling Manny Machado trying to fight his way out of a season-long slump, the Orioles’ Trey Mancini has been a big addition to the lineup. Mancini, an eighth-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2013, has hit seven home runs, eight doubles, and driven in 25 runs.
With Chris Davis anchored at first base, Mancini has played both left and right field as well as handling some time at DH. His overall split of .294/.338/.507 has forced manager Buck Showalter to find a spot for him in the lineup. Like a lot of rookies, Mancini needs to cut down on his number of K’s.
With the Royals’ Winter acquisition of Jorge Soler from the Cubs, Jorge Bonifacio didn’t expect to see too much playing time with Kansas City. The native of the Dominican Republic hit his first Major League home run and had his first RBI in just his second game played. He went deep another six times in May and drove in 14 runs in 27 games.
Bonifacio’s playing time should be steady for the foreseeable future with the recent demotion of Soler to the minor leaguers. Other current AL rookies to watch in the second half are Cleveland’s Bradley Zimmer, the Yankees’ Jordan Montgomery, the A’s Jharel Cotton and the Astros’ Yuli Gurriel.
The Senior Circuit Freshmen
It shouldn’t be a shock if Cody Bellinger‘s name sounds familiar. After all, he’s the son of former Yankees utility player Clay Bellinger. But, while his Dad didn’t make it to the Major Leagues until he was 30, Cody is a 21-year old rookie for the LA Dodgers.
Age isn’t the only difference between father and son. While Papa Bellinger compiled a .193 average in parts of four seasons, Cody has been raking in his rookie year. The former fourth-round draft pick is hitting .250 with 12 home runs and 31 RBI (his 12 home runs match Clay’s career total).
Bellinger got off to a red hot start in Triple-A (.343/.429/.627 5 HR 15 RBI) and got the call to the Majors on April 25. Every rookie goes through a tough stretch and Bellinger is in the middle of one at the moment. He’s managed just nine hits in his last 53 at-bats, which has dropped his .300 batting average by 50 points. Despite the slump, Bellinger has maintained a .321 on-base percentage and is slugging at .554.
The Padres are looking for some offense from anyone and everyone and first-year outfielder Hunter Renfroe has provided some. The 25-year old was the 13th overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft and got his first look at the Majors last season when he drove in 14 runs in 11 games.
This season, Renfroe has hit just .232, but has 13 home runs and 12 doubles. The Mississippi State product is another prospect who needs to cut down on his K’s (62) and draw more walks (17). The right-handed hitter also needs to adjust to right-handed pitching, against whom his OPS is nearly 400 points lower than it is against lefties.
The Pirates’ Josh Bell, not to be confused with former Orioles’ prospect Josh Bell, has helped replace some of the offense lost due to the 80-game PED suspension of Starling Marte. The first baseman has 11 HR, 25 RBI, and 28 runs scored. The native of Texas has benefitted from the 45 games he appeared in for the Pirates last year.
Bell has shown a pretty good eye at the plate – 22 walks and 47 strikeouts in 218 plate appearances – but the switch-hitter has struggled mightily against left-handers (.683 OPS vs .766 OPS from the left side).
The Arms Have It
While this year’s crop of AL rookie hitters is stronger than the NL group, the NL has gotten better performances from their first-year pitchers. Chief among them is Cincinnati reliever, Wandy Peralta, who was signed by the Reds back in 2009.
The 25-year old left-hander bounced back and forth between starting and relieving before going back to the pen this year. It’s made a huge difference for Peralta, who had an awful September 2016 call-up. Working strictly from the pen, his fastball has been consistently in the mid-90s and he has hit 97 MPH on the radar gun.
Peralta has averaged 10.4 K/9 IP and has an outstanding 0.95 WHIP, with just 15 hits allowed in 24.1 innings pitched. He’s been especially lethal against left-handed hitters, who are batting just .162 against him. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Peralta could one day become the Reds’ closer.
Freeland, the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, is a 6’3″ left-hander. In 11 starts this season, he has put together a 3.53 ERA and a 1.382 WHIP. Freeland needs to improve on his 5.5 K/4.4 BB/9 IP and must be tougher on left-handers, who are hitting over .300 against him.
Senzatela’s 3.56 ERA is almost identical to Freeland’s but he owns a much better WHIP (1.159) because of the difference in frequency of issuing free passes. The 22-year old right-hander has allowed 2.2 BB/9 IP and given up less than a hit per inning. Senzatela has won eight of his first 10 decisions and entered Wednesday leading the NL in victories.
His numbers are made more impressive by the fact his home games are in hitter-friendly Coors Field (he’s compiled a 139 ERA+). Senzatela was named the NL’s Rookie Pitcher of the Month for April.
Marquez, another 22-year old righty, has been on a roller coaster this season. In five starts, he’s allowed four earned runs in 30.2 innings pitched (1.17 ERA). In his other three starts, Marquez has been hammered for 19 earned runs in 15 innings (11.40 ERA). Marquez was in the running for the May Rookie Pitcher of the Month after he compiled a 4-1, 2.64 ERA record in five starts.
Marquez’ 3 BB/9 IP and 8.7 K/9 IP are both pretty good numbers, but he has allowed more hits than innings pitched. Earlier in the year, he appeared in three games, two of which were starts for Triple-A Albuquerque. Marquez struck out 18 hitters in 10 innings and did not issue a walk. It’s that kind of dominance that Colorado hopes to see in the Major Leagues.
There you have it. When it comes to the talent of rookies, don’t rush to “Judgment”.