It is fairly common for today’s major baseball publications and analytically driven websites to employ one or more prospects experts, which generates significant excitement when prospects reach the majors. With the amount of baseball data available (much of it free), fans can really dive deeply into their own team’s prospect rankings and farm systems.
With more excitement for younger players, the Rookie of the Year races become more compelling as fans can root for “their guys,” who may have just come onto the scene at the Major League level but whom they have followed for years.
Handicapping the 2017 American League Cy Young race includes players from likely contenders as well as potential basement-dwellers. While MVP candidates generally come from playoff-bound teams, the Rookie of the Year voting historically has been less driven by team success. Here’s a list of players to keep an eye on entering April.
Team: Red Sox
Boston drafted Benintendi with the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, and to date, he has certainly lived up to his pedigree and lofty draft status. He ascended quickly through the minors, splitting time between High and Double A in 2016 before being called up to the show on August 2nd.
Benintendi has to be the favorite to win the 2017 AL RoY Award, considering he’s the best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, Keith Law, and Chris Mitchell’s KATOH rankings. Baseball Prospectus has him ranked as the best prospect in the American League, where he sits behind only the Cardinals’ Alex Reyes and Braves’ Dansby Swanson as the third-ranked prospect in baseball.
His numbers didn’t tail off as he went through Boston’s farm system; he posted an ISO greater than .200 at every minor-league level. Over his two months in Boston, the left-handed Benintendi demonstrated his polish at the plate with a .295 batting average. With above-average speed, above-average power, and above-average defensive potential in one of Boston’s corner spots, he should be a great addition for a competitive Boston team. Add to it that he’s only 22 years old, and a Rookie of the Year performance can can propel Benintendi onto the national stage very quickly.
Aaron Judge played in 27 games for the Yankees last season, but despite striking out in over 44 percent of his plate appearances, he has the upside to propel him into the AL RoY conversation. Listed at 6’7”, Judge could have some of the best raw power in the game. Jeff Sullivan wrote about him earlier this week and compared his power to that of Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Gallo.
Judge is listed as the Yankees’ starting right fielder, which would be a welcome stable change in a corner slot that last year was a revolving door in the Bronx. Judge’s success will be determined by his plate discipline and ability to lay off pitches out of the zone. If he can harness his power and generate a double-digit walk rate as he showed in the minors, he can post a 20-homer season and generate a respectable OBP. FanGraph’s steamer projection is the most bullish on his average, projecting a .248/.324/.446 slash line. With some batted-ball luck — and he does hit the ball hard — you can squint and see a .270 hitter, which with his power could be enough for the RoY.
Position: Starting Pitcher
Jharel Cotton is a 25-year-old righty whom the Dodgers took in the 20th round of the 2012 draft. Unlike Benintendi, he does not come from high prospect stock, but nevertheless will be a mainstay in Oakland’s rotation. Like Michael Fulmer, Jharel Cotton is looking to ride a plus changeup to major league success. Last season, Cotton relied on his four-seam fastball and changeup over 70 percent of the time. His changeup generated a near-18 percent swinging strike rate, about four percentage points higher than league average for the same pitch.
In five starts last season, Cotton limited his walks and allowed a .185 batting average against. He is slated as the No. 4 starter in Oakland and is a non-prospect rookie worth watching.
Position: Starting Pitcher
Team: White Sox
Whether the Nationals sold high or low on Giolito will be a debate throughout his career. The story of Giolito is fairly well known. An electric high school arm, Washington drafted him in the first round back in 2012 despite knowing he’d need Tommy John Surgery.
A true power pitcher who supplements a 95-mph (and often higher) four-seamer with a curveball and changeup, Giolito has the ability to be lights-out for the Sox. He is projected for a modest 64 innings, but if Chicago ends up trading Carlos Quintana or one of the other four starters goes down, he’s next in line to pick up the slack. The White Sox are not likely to be contenders, so there’s a chance we see a decent amount of innings out of Giolito.
Others of note
Yoan Moncada ranked as one of the top prospect in baseball in 2016, but a brief stint at the Major League level exposed his strikeout problems (he went down on strikes in 12 of his 20 plate appearances over eight games in Boston). He is not slated to begin the season in Chicago, as the White Sox will start him in the minors.
Brent Honeywell will be entering his age-22 season this year and has ascended to the Double-A level with the Tampa Bay Rays. He probably will be eligible for rookie status in 2018 as well, but he could get the call mid-year.
Yet another outfielder on the list, Bradley Zimmer is currently an outfielder-in-waiting for a Cleveland team that has injured All-Star Michael Brantley slated for left, Tyler Naquin in center, and Lonnie Chisenhall in right. Zimmer comes with prospect pedigree (the Indians took him with the 21st overall pick in the draft in 2014). Injuries will play a part in his being called up to the majors, but he probably needs another season in the minors regardless.