It’s a quiet morning on the transactional front, so we’ll take a slightly tangential approach to start off the day. The beginning of the season always brings plenty of surprising, short-sample results, and this year is no different.
But this year’s crop of high-performing, debut position players is particularly interesting, as none were considered blue-chip prospects or came with much hype — at least, prior to strong results in camp this spring. While they’ll all unquestionably regress, they’ve also shown enough already to at least begin modifying their clubs’ thinking about how roster decisions will play out the rest of the way.
Each of these four players ranks within the top forty position players in baseball by measure of fWAR; none had suited up for big league action prior to 2016:
- Jeremy Hazelbaker, OF, Cardinals: Sure, he had nice numbers last year at Triple-A. But Hazelbaker is closer to his 29th birthday than his 28th, and only made it onto the active roster due to injuries. Nevertheless, he’s off to a .526/.522/1.053 start and has also contributed two steals — that coming on the heels of a highly productive Spring Training. The St. Louis outfield mix remains fluid, but Hazelbaker could play himself into a significant role since he hits from the left side, unlike presumed regulars Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty — as well as last year’s surprising breakout veteran minor leaguer, Tommy Pham. And it doesn’t hurt that Hazelbaker is capable of playing center.
- Joey Rickard, OF, Orioles: Baltimore added uncertain-but-intriguing outfielders via free agency and the Rule 5 draft over the winter, and the Rule 5 Rickard has seen the lion’s share of time while $7MM man Hyun Soo Kim largely rides the pine. Hardly easing into things the way most such players do, Rickard has already racked up a .409/.400/.636 slash in 25 plate appearances. He’s done that with more pop and less walks than he’s shown in the minors, and there’s obviously some correction to come, but at a minimum Rickard is showing the kind of usefulness that could make him an easy keeper for the O’s.
- Trevor Story, SS, Rockies: Stepping in for Jose Reyes while his domestic violence investigation is sorted out, Story has inspired a steady barrage of puns by swatting seven home runs in his first six major league games. Of course, he’s also swinging and missing quite a bit and has only managed two other hits (both singles) and one walk in his 28 plate appearances thus far. Looking forward, the job is probably Story’s to lose at this point, but he’ll need to improve his plate discipline as his 53.8% HR/FB rate (!) comes back down to earth.
- Tyler White, 1B, Astros: While Story’s tale is easier to tell, White’s hot start is arguably more impressive, as he’s not showing much vulnerability to the strikeout and is hitting everything in sight. White is slashing .545/.577/.1.091, which is obviously unsustainable, but his results generally reflect the intriguing blend of plate discipline, contact, and pop that he’s shown in the minors. He might eventually be pushed for playing time by the remaining options in the Houston system, but White has bought himself some rope to work with in his first seven games.
To make things interesting, chime in below with your prediction as to which of these players is most likely to reward those fans who are buying into their early-year excitement. Considering playing time opportunities, prior track record, performance to date, age, and other factors, which is the best bet to be a productive big leaguer for years to come?
(Poll link for mobile app users. Author’s notes: Do we really think anyone will keep up this rate of play? No! Is it too soon to tell who can nevertheless be productive in the long haul? Yes! That’s why we’re doing the poll now, when it’s interesting to see what people think and to discuss it, before a lengthier sample lets the stats largely tell the story by themselves. )