Every year, MLB enjoys the fruits of the labor of a class of first-time players, rookies that are playing in the big leagues for their first time ever. Putting everything out there and on the line, teams reap the benefits of players who are green and full of spunk, not understanding quite yet what it takes to stay at the big-league level.
For the 2019 season, Pete Alonso of the New York Mets, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, both of the Toronto Blue Jays, Keston Hiura of the Milwaukee Brewers, and Yordan Alvarez of the Houston Astros all helped lead the crop of youngsters into the big leagues with major seasons. With Alonso setting the record for the most home runs in one season by a rookie, both Guerrero Jr. and Bichette helped continue the bloodlines of their fathers that made the sport of baseball what it was 20+ years ago, Hiura showed why he was easily regarded as the best hitter in the 2017 first-year players draft, and Alvarez absolutely put the notion of him being a rookie to bed with his onslaught of home runs and absolute bombs, some of which still have not yet landed.
Each team and position was impacted by a rookie in 2019, and for better or for worse, these players got to shine on the big stage in front of tens of thousands of fans (unless you played for the Baltimore Orioles or Miami Marlins).
Here are the rookies that put up the best seasons at their respective positions this past season. Note, both the National and American Leagues are grouped together for this listing.
C – Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
No, not that Will Smith.
While playing for this California franchise has put Smith in the spotlight, it is not because of his on-screen talents (which remain to be seen). It is his talent on the baseball diamond, specifically behind the plate and at the dish, that made people realize that the Dodgers are just totally and always unfair.
With Smith up in the majors and teaming up with Austin Barnes as the team’s focal backstops, the question becomes what this team will do with their top minor league prospect, which just happens to be a catcher as well, Keibert Ruiz. But enough of what the Dodgers have in terms of their future – let us focus on the present.
Besides his namesake, Smith’s performance as a rookie was bar none at the catcher position, especially having put up the numbers that he did across only 54 games and 46 starts.
A .253/.337/.571 split for the rookie is quite impressive, having put up a 1.63 WAR season in only 170 at-bats. His 15 home runs and 42 runs driven in helped cement his status at the plate (his homer and slugging percentage numbers led all rookies), but his defensive numbers are just as solid too.
Allowing only two passed balls and earning regular above-average pitch framing grades, the Dodgers have yet another stud catcher on their hands, which seems unfair for a team rich with weapons but a dreary postseason history in the 2000s to show for it. Smith should remain this team’s backstop for the next 10+ years, and his time to take over as the main starter should begin as soon as next year.
1B – Pete Alonso, New York Mets
Anything that is said here has already been said – his offensive prowess, combined with his cool attitude and clutch genes has made Alonso an absolute find for the Mets on their quest to be able to field a playoff-worthy squad yet again.
The 64th overall selection in 2016 out of the University of Florida, the right-handed slugger has five more seasons under team control or arbitration eligibility, giving the Mets a huge opportunity to take advantage of with Alonso being cost-controlled for the foreseeable future. But with seasons that end with 53 long balls and 120 RBIs, his price will for sure rise to its highest value as his career progresses.
While he was viewed as one of the team’s better prospects, Alonso’s ascension to the big leagues has absolutely set the league ablaze, especially during a team that has seen the ball become juiced. The status of the baseball should not take away from Alonso’s 5.01 WAR season, one in which that almost saw him lead this team to the postseason on his bat alone.
While the slugger did strike out quite a bit (30.6% of at-bats), his power numbers can easily explain that and cover those strikeout numbers up for good. With the Mets posting their first winning campaign in three seasons, the type of pressure on the shoulders of the Polar Bear will only grow by the day, but with his broad shoulders, he looks built for the New York spotlight for the long haul.
2B – Keston Hiura, Milwaukee Brewers
Continuing the run of NL rookies representing for the rookie class, Hiura’s bat was a huge factor in the Milwaukee Brewers’ return to the postseason, albeit a short-lived return. While his glove and fielding abilities must improve to make him a better two-way player, his bat plays well above his age and pay grade, which is exactly what made the Brewers interested in him back in 2017.
19 dingers, 49 driven in, 95 hits across only 314 at-bats and a .303 average are not numbers to scoff at, especially coming for a rookie who was thrust into a starting role almost immediately once he was promoted to the big leagues. With the struggles of Travis Shaw at the offensive end, Hiura was given the reins and a baptism by fire, and he responded admirably.
A hamstring injury helped slow down his hot start at the plate, and when he returned, he was a bit cooler at the plate. Eventually returning to the player that he was when the season started, Hiura’s status within the Brewers’ organization is very important and he should become one of the pillars of the franchise for many seasons to come, provided his glove catches up with his bat in terms of regular, consistent performance.
SS – Fernando Tatis Jr. (San Diego Padres) & Bo Bichette (Toronto Blue Jays)
Both Fernando Tatis Jr. and Bichette have strong histories with the game of baseball, as both of their fathers were well-known MLBers in their times. While both players are not quite on their predecessors’ levels yet, they both showed out in 2019 and made everyone believers going into 2020.
For the San Diego Padres shortstop, Tatis Jr. is a phenomenal piece to combine with Manny Machado on the Friars’ left side of the infield. Both young with slick infielding skills and a quick bat, Tatis Jr. was one of this generation’s uber-prospects, and his projected career has started out as well as many expected it to.
For Bichette, teaming with another player who just so happens to have some baseball in his blood in Guerrero Jr., his role as the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop of both now and the future is working just fine right now. Teaming up to create one of the league’s best young infield pairs, Bichette is in a perfect situation north of the border in the AL East.
While consistently shadowed by the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and with the Tampa Bay Rays having joined the postseason party along with the Yanks this season, the Blue Jays have a ways to go to make their foray back into the postseason. But behind the likes of Bichette, Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio, they will be just fine.
The advantage between the two goes to Tatis Jr., simply based on his larger piece of work in the majors in 2019. Having almost double the at-bats that Bichette had last season, Tatis Jr. has to get away from the injury bug that shut down his 2019 season early to become a superstar overnight – so no sleeping on him, alright?
3B – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
As previously mentioned, Guerrero’s impact on the Blue Jays has been an absolutely awesome first step in this team getting back to contention. One of most heralded players to be followed throughout his journey through the minor leagues, Guerrero Jr.’s ascension to the big leagues has been a swift one, but who can blame the team for pushing him to the front of the line?
118 starts, 124 games played, 126 hits, 15 dingers, a nice 69 runs driven in, only 91 strikeouts, a .272 average, .772 on-base plus slugging percentage and a 2.06 WAR, all in his first season – the rest of the league better watch out, Vlad Jr. has arrived.
While still on a team that has growing pains to withstand and a young roster that is a few pieces away from contention, Guerrero Jr. has it in his blood and his genes, literally, to help this team out and help drag them out from the basement of the AL. It will not happen overnight, but the type of impact that he has already had on this team has reverberated throughout the league, and will only grow in size as his legend follows suit.
Coming in second was Tommy Edman of the St. Louis Cardinals, who became a utility power hitter for this team something that you would not guess just by looking at the kid. Capable of making plays at second and third base, as well as in all three outfield positions, speaks to the versatility that Edman displayed in 2019.
OF – Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates
Legitimately the lone bright spot for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019, Bryan Reynolds almost became the first rookie ever in the history of the MLB to win a batting title in his first professional season. While a .314 average is absolutely nothing to frown at, Reynolds was thrust into the spotlight for this team, especially when their goals for the season became dreams right around the month of May.
Finishing in the top ten in both batting average and doubles in the MLB in his first season, Reynolds’ impact was felt defensively as well, as he suited up and played well in all three outfield slots. While it is hard for a rookie to put together a good season for a piss-poor team, Reynolds managed to do that – and then some.
The Pirates, who have done stupid things before, including very recently in their acquisition of Chris Archer, would be very, very smart to hold onto Reynolds for a very long time. However, as both Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows can attest to, those things sometimes just do not happen as they should.
The 59th selection in the 2016 draft, Reynolds has until his age-29 season under team control, which honestly would be surprising if he was to make that mark still donning the Pirates’ black and gold colors. Nonetheless, he showed that his bat and glove are here to stay for a while in the MLB.
OF – Victor Robles, Washington Nationals
Being overshadowed can make any player unhappy, but with the type of season that the Washingon Nationals have had, they have gotten pretty accustomed to it. That same outlook goes with Victor Robles, who has put together an excellent rookie campaign while being overshadowed by fellow youngster Juan Soto in their outfield.
Having played in damn near every single game for the Nats this season, Robles has shown up exactly as the player he was pegged to be, although injuries in both 2017 and 2018 slowed his ascent. 2019 has been the year for him to break out, and he has done more than just make himself a household name.
A .258 average speaks to his plate discipline, his power numbers and clutch factor have both been big-time factors for this team in their trip to the World Series, and Robles’ is one of the quieter players on this team, which really does help tie a bow on the type of player he is so far in his young career.
OF – Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
31 long balls, 79 home runs and a super-high ceiling – Eloy Jimenez is the real deal, and he could not be on a better team to utilize his talents. The Chicago White Sox, who have been marred in mediocrity for too many years, finally have a positional player that can be a franchise cornerstone for many years to come.
The prized acquisition in the Jose Quintana deal with the Chicago Cubs, Jimenez is under contract through 2024 with two club options that can extend his deal all the way out to 2026. Only owed $43 million over the six years of his deal that was signed in March of 2019, Jimenez’s value will only increase while the White Sox get one of the better deals in the league.
Having ranked in the top-30 players of hard-hit rate and average exit velocity of fly balls, Jimenez is a great right-handed power hitter who has all the tools (besides speed it looks like) to become the next best player for the White Sox. On a path to make it back to the playoffs in the next season or three, the White Sox will need Jimenez to continue on the path that he is as the team looks to build around their prized acquisition.
Oh, and he is only 22 – he will become the best deal (money wise) in the MLB in 2020.
DH – Yordan Alvarez, Houston Astros
Whatever the Houston Astros are doing in their farm system in terms of player development, other teams would be smart to replicate it. Alvarez is another testament to the franchise’s great farm system and player development focus.
83 starts, 87 total games played and 313 at-bats have yielded a whopping 27 dingers and 78 runs driven in, meaning that he has hit a home run in 8.6 percent of his at-bats, a crazy number. While defensively limited but has seen time in left field, Alvarez is this team’s starting designated hitter and should remain in that role for the foreseeable future.
While having a rookie dominate in the power-hitting category is not such a surprising aspect, what is surprising is how small of a window he was able to produce those numbers in, showing that Astros fans are in for a treat for the longevity of Alvarez’s career.
SP – Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves
Moving to the first pitcher on this list, Mike Soroka was looking like a shoo-in NL Rookie of the Year award winner before Alonso decided to come along and put an end to that. While Soroka’s 2018 season was cut short due to injury, his rookie status remained and he was able to piece together one of the best rookie seasons for a starting pitcher in a very long time.
Garnering serious NL Cy Young award votes, Soroka’s chances are slim to none in this category as well, especially with how both Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, Jacob deGrom of the Mets and Max Scherzer of the Nats pitched. But for the Braves, their sights on making the World Series looks to be very bright, even if they do still keep falling short.
Soroka’s sophomore campaign will firmly entrench him as the team’s stud ace hurler, and rightfully so. 13-4, 2.68 ERA, 41 walks, and a 5.68 WAR all across 29 starts are remarkable for this hurler, and the Braves have yet again used their homegrown drafting talents to draft a stud pitcher who has big-time comparisons looming large for him if he keeps this up.
SP – Dakota Hudson, St. Louis Cardinals
Making the move from the bullpen to the starting rotation is never an easy transition, but Dakota Hudson’s transformation into one of the league’s best young hurlers is exactly what the St. Louis Cardinals needed. With Carlos Martinez still needing to have a solid, determined role on the team’s staff, having Hudson be able to team with Jack Flaherty makes it a ton easier moving forward.
All the 25-year-old first-round pick did in 2019 was make 32 starts, produce a 16-7 record with 136 strikeouts. Although he did lead the league in walks with 86, Hudson’s command improved as he got more comfortable in the rotation, which is a great sign for a Cardinals team that looks to be one or two hitters away from making a serious postseason run.
SP – John Means, Baltimore Orioles
What probably was the only bright spot on the dreadful Baltimore Orioles team in 2019, starter John Means was a great choice to be the squad’s lone All-Star game representative. The 11th-round selection out of West Virginia added an uptick in his fastball speed to his repertoire in 2019, helping the Orioles win at least a few games this year.
A 12-11 record is nothing to write home about, but with the roster that was behind him every fifth day, winning 12 games should be considered a successful season for Means. His win total (12) and ERA (3.60) ended up being fourth-best in terms of all rookie starters, so Baltimore looks to have a stud to build around for their future in their rotation.
SP – Sandy Alcantara, Miami Marlins
Similar to the Orioles, the Miami Marlins had little go their way this season, unless tanking and not winning was all a part of the plan (which it totally could be). The sparkling jewel that came back in the Marcell Ozuna trade, Alcantara’s nasty stuff that he showed in front of like 10 fans during home games must have garnered enough attention, as he made his first career All-Star appearance.
Ranked up with both Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber with having thrown two complete-game shutouts, Alcantara’s 3.88 ERA was good enough for seventh-best among rookies that pitched at least 100 innings.
For Alcantara’s sake, here is to hoping that the team chooses to hold onto him for the long haul before they decide to trade him. But don’t hold your breath.
SP – Chris Paddack, San Diego Padres
On a Friars team that underperformed, Chris Paddack put together a season that resembles one of an ace in the making. Jumping from Double-A to the team’s Opening Day roster is a very tough accomplishment, but Paddack did it – and was successful at it too.
While going through the normal rookie-year ups and downs, Paddack showed out at times for this team, especially when he first was with the team, pitching to a 1.93 ERA across his first nine starts. Although he did fall back to earth soon after, Paddack has the stuff that projects him to be this franchise’s ace of the future, and by future, I mean 2020.
9-7, 3.33, 153 K’s and 140.2 innings pitched are all good takeaways for the eighth-round pick from 2015, who is being groomed to be the team’s ace that they so badly need.
RP – Nick Anderson, Tampa Bay Rays
A part of an under-the-radar midseason trade between the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays, Nick Anderson quietly became one of the best rookies out of the pen in 2019. Of course, the Marlins lost this deal, but what else is expected as the outcome when they are involved?
Striking out 41 of the 78 batters that he faced once he joined the Rays, Anderson used his experience of three seasons pitching in Independent ball to make his huge impression on the MLB. Drafted all the way back in 2012 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Anderson has finally made to the big stage, and his pitching helped the Rays make it to the AL playoffs this season.
RP – Zack Littell, Minnesota Twins
The final arm on this list, Zack Littell’s career with the Minnesota Twins has been anything but newsworthy, which may be perfect for the kind of impact he had on this team. Having only pitched in 29 games afforded fans a small window to see the kind of impact that Littell had on the game, but that small impression was all he needed.
29 games, 37 IP and a 6-0 record are what Littell has to show for 2019 – 2.68 ERA, 32 strikeouts against 9 walks, 11 earned runs and 34 hits all contributed to his undefeated season for the Twins. With this team being built on cheaper investments and younger players, Littell fits into the team’s profile perfectly and should be called up from the minors to join their Opening Day roster in 2020.