A key part of any baseball season is watching rookies who just burst on the scene and put up amazing stats in their first tastes of MLB action. We saw it last year with Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman and eventual NL Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger, not to mention New York Yankees star Aaron Judge setting a record with 52 homers by a rookie. Exciting as established veterans are, up-and-coming players are even more so.
This year’s class of prospects is remarkably deep. Teams are moving away from spending money on big name free agents to build up their minor league systems and are instead investing in their young talent, which is great for baseball. The defending World Series champion Houston Astros are a prime example of this, with more than half the team’s lineup being homegrown talent that came up through the system.
Just which prospects will be the best, in the long run, is another conversation entirely but regarding some who will debut this season and immediately produce, these five set themselves apart from the rest of the pack.
5 Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
The son of a Hall of Fame outfielder, Guerrero has worked his way up to being MLB's No. 3 prospect before the age of 20. He spent last year at two levels of A-ball and posted a phenomenal line of .323/.425/.485 with 13 home runs and 76 RBI. Guerrero also had 28 doubles and only struck out 62 times in 527 plate appearances in 119 games, and that plate discipline should only get better.
In terms of when he debuts, well, that depends on the Blue Jays. Third base is currently occupied by reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, whose contract expires at the end of the season. It should also be noted that Guerrero has yet to play a single game at Double or Triple-A, and definitely needs more seasoning in the minors. After all, he did just turn 19 nearly two weeks ago.
But suppose Toronto struggles again and Donaldson is traded to restock the farm system. If Guerrero keeps playing at the same pace as he did last season and is putting up similar stats, then there is little reason to believe he won't be called up to the majors. His ceiling is high as can be and in a tough AL East, the Blue Jays could use him sooner rather than later.
4 Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees
The Yankees have a ridiculous amount of depth and talent in their minor league system, but no prospect seems to draw more excitement than Torres. The 21-year-old was acquired from the Chicago Cubs as part of the Aroldis Chapman trade in 2016 and is now ranked by MLB as the No. 5 overall prospect.
Just when Torres will debut in the Bronx is tricky. He hit .287 with seven homers and 34 RBI across Double and Triple-A last year, but was limited to 55 games after injuring his non-throwing elbow while sliding into home plate. He underwent Tommy John surgery and took part in Spring Training this year, but noticeably struggled and hit just .219 in 19 games.
There are also questions about where the Yankees will use Torres. He is a natural shortstop but has also seen time at second and third base, with the Yankees primarily using him at the former position this spring. That said, what does New York do? Didi Gregorius has shortstop locked down for this year, and Brandon Drury was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks to man the hot corner. Tyler Wade and Neil Walker appear to have second base locked down and third base prospect Miguel Andujar is also in the picture.
Regardless of which position he plays, Torres is considered one of the best for a reason. If the Yankees need help at a certain position and Torres is deemed capable of helping, count on him to debut in New York to great fanfare and continue performing at a high level in MLB.
3 Austin Hays, Baltimore Orioles
MLB ranks Hays as its No. 23 prospect, and he may be one of the most underrated young talents in baseball. The 22-year-old outfielder split 2017 between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, batting an impressive .329 with 32 home runs and 95 RBI. Hays also had eight outfield assists, splitting his time evenly between center and right. Sure enough, his success in the minors resulted in his being called up to the MLB roster in September, and he hit .217 with a home run and eight RBI in 20 games.
Hays definitely needs more time in the minors to up his walk rate and cut down on his strikeouts, but his isolated power is ridiculous kinds of good. He posted an ISO of .264 in Bowie and though a .345 BABIP had something to do with that, Hays' power potential is real.
Hays is also in a position to be called back up to MLB this year and take over a regular spot in the lineup. Baltimore is headed for a rebuild, which means center fielder Adam Jones and his expiring contract could be traded. Taking over in right is also an option if both Joey Rickard and Colby Rasmus struggle.
2 Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox
Kopech is ranked the No. 10 prospect by MLB and that seems low given what he can do on the mound. This righty from Texas was only 9-8 in 25 starts across Double and Triple-A last year but posted a 2.88 ERA while striking out 172 hitters in just 134.1 innings. Granted, only three starts were at Triple-A and towards the end of the season, but that doesn't take away from Kopech's potential.
Kopech is very much a two-pitch pitcher but is working on a changeup to complement his fastball and slider, according to Paul Sullivan of The Chicago Tribune. Mastering such a pitch is essential for a fly ball pitcher like Kopech but what's interesting is that despite posting a fly ball rate of 43.9% at Double-A last year, Kopech himself only allowed six home runs.
Either way, once his changeup is mastered or if he continues to dominate in the minors in 2018, count on Kopech to be called up to help a shaky White Sox pitching staff.
1 Ronald Acuña, Atlanta Braves
Honestly, is there anything Ronald Acuña can't do? The Braves' top prospect would be ranked No. 1 overall by MLB if not for two-way Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani, and the numbers show exactly why.
Acuña played at three minor league levels last year; High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He posted an excellent slash line of .325/.374/.522 with 21 homers, 82 RBI, and 44 stolen bases. Now, did I mention Acuña did all of that at just 19 years of age?
He turned 20 in December and continued his strong start to his MLB career with an even stronger Spring Training. Acuña hit .432 with four home runs and 11 RBI in 16 games before being sent to minor league camp, but it's clear that was just a procedural move on Atlanta's end. For the sake of delaying his service time clock, he'll spend a week or two in the minors before being called up and taking over as the starting right fielder at SunTrust Park.
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