2016 was one of the more memorable rookie classes in recent memory. For the National League, the finalists for the Rookie of the Year award consisted of a young shortstop from Los Angeles who carried a Dodgers offense all the way to the NLCS, a Japanese import that assisted the Dodgers to the NLCS, and a talented middle infielder/outfielder who led off for the NL East winning Washington Nationals. On the otherside of the page in the American League, the rookie class was headlined by a Tiger who roared through the American League in his first year of big league ball, an all around athletic center fielder for the American League champion Cleveland Indians, and a power hitting catcher from the Bronx who set a new rookie record for recording 20 HR's in just 52 games. That sounds pretty hard to beat right? Believe it or not, 2017 has even more talent to unfold.
Like I did earlier, I will be stating who I believe will rise above their expectations in their 1st year in the Majors. Between the National League and American League I am going to select 3 rookies from each league who I believe will have the most impact to their respective teams and have their own breakout year.
Oakland A's - 3B Ryon Healy
Healy, 25, got a good taste of the Major League level last season. Through 72 games, Healy posted a .305/.337/.524 slash line along with 13 HR's and 37 RBI's. Healy was drafted by the A's in the 3rd round of the 2013 draft. After exhibiting flashes of surreal power in the minors, Healy got the call up and gave A's fans a glimpse of a hopeful future. With his massive 6'5 frame, Healy is only projected to be an average third baseman at best. His absolute strength is his all around skill level with the bat. Healy's best ability is to use power to all parts of the field, and being more than just a power hitter. He struck out only 22% of the time last season in just under 300 at bats. If he is able to keep his strikeout rate around there for a full season of 550-600 at bats, there is a very good chance Healy can be a consistent .290-.300 hitter. Healy, barring injury, will be the A's opening day third baseman. He will most likely slot behind Khris Davis in the batting order and provide production while attempting to be a future cornerstone of the A's franchise.
Benintendi arrived late on the scene last season as the Red Sox were making a postseason push down the stretch. In just 34 games, Benintendi hit .295 with 2 HR's and 14 RBI's. Benintendi impressed the Red Sox so much that he was added on to their postseason roster. The 22 year old outfielder clubbed a home run and hit .333 in the ALDS against the Indians. After the Red Sox last World Series title in 2013, they fell to the bottom of the AL East in 2014, which allowed them to draft Benintendi 7th overall in the 2015 draft. After playing 2 years at Arkansas, Benintendi was on the fast track to the Majors as soon as he got drafted. He demonstrated a quick bat with a very good knowledge of the strike zone and played a good center field. Andrew is projected to left field for the Red Sox next season and hit towards the bottom of the order. With Benintendi, Bradley Jr, and Betts left-to-right, the Red Sox have one of the most talented and youthful outfields in the game today. Surrounded by great hitters like Betts, Bogaerts, and Pedroia, Benintendi should be seeing a lot of good pitches in 2017. 9/10 he'll be making those mistakes count.
When you're acquired for one of the best pitchers in baseball, you have a lot of people to prove wrong, and that's what Yoan Moncada is looking to achieve in 2017. As I stated, Moncada along with 3 other prospects were acquired by the White Sox for ace Chris Sale back in mid December. Moncada, 21, has been ranked the #1 prospect in all of baseball since the start of 2016 season. Moncada defected from Cuba in February of 2015. He was signed by Boston for $31.5M, which broke the record by far for the most money given to an amateur international player. Moncada had his ups and downs with Boston through his minor league seasons in 2015 & 2016. He was called up at the beginning of September for the Red Sox, but was later on not added to the playoff roster after the regular season ended. In just 19 at bats, Moncada hit .211 with 1 RBI. The White Sox look to continue their full blown rebuild and are currently looking for a position on the diamond for Moncada. Todd Frazier currently occupies third base as Brett Laurie occupies second. Rumors are the Sox intend on converting Moncada into his original position at second base. I do not predict Moncada to be on the Sox opening day roster, but I do anticipate him to be called up sometime in May and make an immediate impact from there. His short, quick swing from both sides of the plate make him fascinating to watch. His overall athleticism and versatility just add on to his impressive qualities as a ball player. If all goes on track, Moncada will be a superstar in no time.
With the Padres going from acquiring all stars that did not pan out, to the Drew Pomeranz scandal, this franchise has been a complete mess these past few seasons. Thanks to their 2013 1st round draft choice Hunter Renfroe, the Padres are looking to change their misfortunes in 2017 and beyond. Renfroe, 24, was only called up for 11 games at the end of September last season. He could not have performed better. Renfroe hit .371 with 4 HR's and 14 RBI's with an OPS over 1.100. As small as a sample size as this is, San Diego will take any promising hope at this point. Refroe swings a powerful bat that has the ability to be used for all fields. Even in Petco Park, Renfroe can make it look like a bandbox. He will most likely be the Padres #3 or #4 hitter come Opening Day 2017. With little to no support around him, Renfroe may be pitched more cautisouly if he gets off to a hot start, but make no mistake, this kid can hit.
St. Louis manages to find a way to produce great pitching from their minor league system year after year. They may have struck gold with Dominican born right hander Alex Reyes. Reyes, 22, defected from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 2012 when he agreed to a 950,000 dollar contract with the Cardinals. 5 years later, he is regarded as the top pitching prospect in the Cardinals system, and one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Reyes was called up at the beginning of last August to fill a gaping need in the Cards starting rotation due to injury. Not only did Reyes do a good job filling the spot, he excelled in it. Over 12 games, (5 of which he started) Reyes went 4-1 with a scarce 1.57 ERA. He averaged 97 MPH on his fastball and has a K/9 rate over 10.00. Reyes is projected to take the spot of Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright in the near future as Wainwright should be heading towards the end of his career. Along with Reyes, the Cards will have Wainwright, Martinez, Leake, Wacha, and Reyes as their starting 5 to open 2017. As long as Reyes can stay healthy, he has the acumen and the repertoire to become very successful. Not only for the rookie of the year, but the Cy Young as well.
2017 PROJECTIONS: 32 GM's STARTED: 16-9 2.85 ERA 213 K's
Atlanta Braves - SS Dansby Swanson
The hometown kid. Also known as Dansby Swanson, has already gone through a lot in his brief MLB career. Shortly after he was drafted 1st overall by the Diamondbacks in 2015, a line drive hit his face in rookie ball and it required Dansby to miss all of this rookie league season. A few months later, Swanson was traded to the Braves in the infamous Shelby Miller trade. If Swanson plays up to his first overall pick capabilities, that trade can go down as one of the most lob sided trades in MLB history. In just 38 games last season, Swanson hit .302/.361/.442 with 3 HR's and 17 RBI's. Swanson is now the cornerstone of a Braves franchise that is in the middle of a rebuilding stage. With his quick bat and his fantastic glove skills, Swanson can grow to be a generational shortstop that we all remember for many years to come. Swanson will most likely hit 2nd behind Mallex Smith in the Braves order in 2017. With Freeman & Kemp hitting behind Swanson, he should be able to score close to 80-85 runs and become an excellent 2 hole hitter.
With the Pirates finishing under .500 for the first time since 2012, you would expect changes to either improve their team inside of a top heavy NL Central, or decide to re-tool and build for the future. The Pirates present and future solely relies on one man's shoulders: Andrew McCutchen.
McCutchen, 29, is a 5 time all star, 3 time silver slugger, 1 time gold glove winner and the recipient of the Most Valuable Player award in 2013 as he was the heart of a Pirates team that broke a 29 year postseason drought. McCutchen or "Cutch" became a sports icon in Pittsburgh after the Pirates miraculous 2013 season. Cutch set himself along side great current Pittsburgh athletes like Sydney Crosby and Ben Roethlisberger. He has hit 20 or more HR's in each of the past 6 seasons and drove in at least 75 or more RBI's over the past 6 seasons as well. From 2012-2015, McCutchen was considered a top 5 talent in all of baseball. He was elected an all star each season, won a batting title every season except for 1 and was top 5 in MVP voting every season. When McCutchen was drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft, he wasn't drafted due too a great physical acumen. What got him drafted was his hard work and perseverance that has led him to being the face of a franchise. In a blue collar to white collar city like Pittsburgh, it's that type of work effort that embodies a city. The type of player and person that McCutchen is personifies an entire city. Even through all of the on and off the field love from the city of Pittsburgh, will that be enough to keep Cutch in the steel city?
Andrew McCutchen has arguably been the heart and soul of the Pittsburgh Pirates since his rookie season in 2009.
McCutchen battled against himself all of 2016 and found himself hitting a career low in batting average (.256), career high in strikeouts (143), career lows in on base percentage (.336), slugging percentage (.430) and OPS (.776). His career averages dropped significantly. McCutchen went from an elite player, to barely above league average in the matter of one season. The results showed as Pittsburgh went from a 98 win team in 2015 to a 78 win team in 2016. Now, I'm not saying McCutchen was the sole reason for the Pirates decline. Gerrit Cole and others in the Pirates pitching staff were injured all year, the loss of Neil Walker to the Mets hurt their offensive production and their offensive regulars battled injuries or had career lows themselves. Still, when you're viewed at the face of the franchise like McCutchen is, you claim the most praise but also receive the most blame if a team underperforms like the Pirates did. With the Cubs coming off as World Champions and the Cardinals in the middle of contending, it's time for Pirates GM Neil Huntington to start making some very tough decisions on what to do with his team's future. In my opinion, the Pirates NEED to keep Andrew McCutchen. Here's why:
He's only 29 years of age. "Experts" around baseball like to claim that when an above average all around player like McCutchen has a career low year, it is usually a sign of a player declining. McCutchen still hit 24 HR's and drove in 79 RBI's and provided solid defense in center field. He is still signed through 2017 & 2018, with an option for 2019 on a very club friendly contract ($14M in '17, $14.5M in '18). Although the Pirates did have a down year with a down year from McCutchen, they are getting a fully healthy season from Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova was brought back on a 3 year deal and the Pirates still have a top 3 outfield in the game with Marte, McCutchen and Polanco left-to-right. McCutchen has also been a great mentor for younger ballplayers like Marte, Polanco, Bell, Hansen, etc... A veteran all star presence on a younger team is needed. Especially if they're anticipated to be in contention.
Starling Marte (left), Andrew McCutchen (middle), and Gregory Polanco (right) make up one of baseball's best outfields.
I really do not expect the Pirates to add on to their roster even if they do keep McCutchen. Rumors have been very hot surrounding White Sox left hander Jose Quintana coming to Pittsburgh, but those rumors have yet to intensify up to this moment. With Pittsburgh being such a small market team, I don't see them going after even a great pitcher like Quintana who does have a club friendly contract. They would still need to dump salary and they're confident that their younger starters in Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl will turn into excellent young starters that they would have for 4-6 years of control, while paying as little as they can for them.
If the Pirates do indeed keep Andrew McCutchen, it signals contending time. With the type of talent that Pittsburgh currently has on their roster, Huntington and company would be ridiculous to blow anything up. There is no reason to jump the gun on an elite player having one off year. Keep in mind, even the elite players like McCutchen are human and make mistakes too.
Tim Raines is possibly one of if not the most overshadowed players in baseball history. Many people agree that Raines is indeed the second best lead off hitter of all time only to the great Rickey Henderson. How can the alleged second greatest lead off hitter in the history of baseball, not be in the Hall of Fame already? 2017 will mark Raines 9th year of eligibility on the ballot. It has been a long ride for Tim as he has gone from 24% in his first year of eligibility in 2008 to 69% in his seventh year of eligibility in 2016. (75% needed to be elected into the HOF) 2017 should and will be the year Tim Raines gets inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. If you still don't believe me just yet, let's dive into the numbers to back up Mr. Raines candidacy.
Tim Raines played a long and very productive 23 year career (1979-2002). 13 of those seasons with the Montreal Expos, 5 with the Chicago White Sox, 3 with the New York Yankees and 1 with the Oakland A's, Baltimore Orioles and Florida Marlins. Raines retired as a career .294/.385/.425 hitter who provided excellent speed, plate discipline and contact from the lead off position. He walked 1,330 time in his career, compared to just 966 strikeouts, an overwhelming amount of discipline and contact that is not seen in today's game. Raines was also a 7x all star with the Montreal Expos (1981-1987) and was arguably the greatest position player in Expos history. Raines is the Expos all time franchise leader in runs (947), singles (1,163), triples (83), walks (793), stolen bases (635) and times on base (2,440). His number 30 was also retired by the Montreal Expos in 2004.
Raines (left) experienced the most successful parts of his career with the Montreal Expos.
Raines reaked havoc on the base paths for parts of 4 decades. He finished his career with 808 stolen bases, which ranks 5th all time. Raines also led the National League 4 straight years in stolen bases from (1981-1985). Not only could Raines steal bases at an impressive rate, he could do it with amazing success as well. Raines career 84.7% success rate when stealing bases is the 8th highest all time when attempting to steal at least 100 bases. He would put the stolen base to work as he led the league twice in runs scored. Tim also stole 70 bases 6 times in his career. The only player to top that is Rickey Henderson as he did it 7 times in his career. If you haven't already caught on by now, Raines was a very fast man. The second fastest of his generation only to Rickey Henderson himself.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Raines resumè is his peak. A peak, is defined as a 5-7 year gap where a particular player was at the top of his game during his career. The top of Raines game, is when he was elected an all star 7 years in a row (81'-87'). Raines put on a clinic all throughout baseball and really put the Expos on the map as a legitimate baseball team. Raines led the N.L. in hits (1,772) and triples (63), he was second in runs (719) and steals (504), third in on base percentage (.396) and doubles (296), and fifth in batting average (.310). Raines average 162 game peak during that time would average out to a .310/.396/.448 slash line, along with averaging 195 hits, 116 runs and 82 stolen bases over the full course of a season.
Raines was also a 3 time World Series champion. 2 with the New York Yankees (1996 & 1998) and 1 with the Chicago White Sox as their first base coach in 2005. Although Raines did not receive any major awards like the MVP or rookie of the year, Raines deserves the biggest award of all: his own plaque in Cooperstown.
Raines (left) won a World Series in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox as their first base coach.
Do you think Tim Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame? Leave your comments and thoughts below, or make sure to follow me and message me your thoughts on my Twitter @real_rob2017!