Heading into the 2013 season, Wil Myers was one of the early favorites to win the American League Rookie of the Year award. And with roughly a month left in the regular season, it's seemingly his to lose.
On the other hand, the Rookie of the Year race in the National League has been a surprise. A two-man battle is raging between 21-year-old phenom Jose Fernandez, arguably the game's best young pitcher, and 22-year-old Yasiel Puig, arguably the game's most polarizing and divisive player.
And now, over the final two months of the season, baseball fans will get to enjoy a preview of the future as more prospects are recalled from the minor leagues when the active roster expands from 25 to 40 players on September 1. Most of these players won't reach 50 innings pitched or 130 at-bats—the threshold that determines rookie status—and will therefore be in the mix next year for their league’s respective Rookie of the Year.
Since it’s never too early to look toward next season, here are five prospects from each league who will contend for a Rookie of the Year award in 2014.
Robert Stephenson, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
Robert Stephenson was dominant at Low-A Daytona to begin the season, posting a 2.57 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 77 innings. The Reds promoted him in mid-July to High-A Bakersfield, where he dominated to the tune of a 3.05 ERA with a 22/2 K/BB ratio over four starts.
The 20-year-old’s brief but impressive showing in the hitter-friendly California League earned the right-hander another promotion—this time to Double-A Pensacola. Even though he’s now the second-youngest pitcher at the Double-A level, Stephenson has held his own with a 3.45 ERA through three starts. Tuesday's outing was rough, however.
At the time of Stephenson’s promotion to Double-A, general manager Walt Jocketty mentioned they “wanted to fast track him this year,” according to John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Assuming he'll open the 2014 season back at the level, the right-hander could get to the majors in a hurry with a strong first half. With a fastball that sits in the upper 90s and frequently bumps triple digits, as well as a pair of promising secondary pitches, Stephenson has the stuff of a front-line starter—stuff that could get him to The Show next year.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
At this time last year, we were already discussing the likelihood of Oscar Taveras taking home NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2013. Sadly, we'll have to wait until next season.
The 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May. It bothered him throughout the season and led to two separate stints on the disabled list.
There was a glimmer of hope in mid-August when reports had Taveras nearing a rehab assignment, fueling the belief that the outfielder could still receive a September call-up. Unfortunately, it was announced a few days later that he needed season-ending surgery. The surgery went well, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but Taveras will be forced to wear a boot for the next eight weeks.
Taveras is expected to be ready for spring training in 2014, and he could potentially content for a spot in the Opening Day outfield depending on how Carlos Beltran's free agency unfolds during the offseason. I still consider him the best pure hitter in the minor leagues because, well, he is—even when confined to a walking boot.
Let me put it this way: He’s the type of hitter who will make up for lost time next season with a monster rookie campaign.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Archie Bradley had an impressive full-season debut in 2012, but he struggled to repeat his delivery and saw his control suffer as a result. This season, however, the 21-year-old has taken an unquantifiable step forward and now ranks as the game’s top pitching prospect.
Promoted to Double-A Mobile after five lights-out starts in the California League, Bradley and his lethal plus-plus fastball-curveball combination didn't skip a beat at the more advanced level. His command has regressed a bit over the second half of the season—he’s issued 31 free passes in his last 59.1 innings—but that hasn't prevented the right-hander from dominating older and more advanced hitters in the Southern League
If the Diamondbacks work their way back into playoff contention, Bradley could be promoted for the final month of the season. However, considering he’s already amassed 147 innings, a midseason debut in 2014 is more likely.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
After a sluggish start to the season at High-A Daytona, Javier Baez eventually caught fire and received a well-deserved promotion to Double-A Tennessee in late June. Since then, the 20-year-old has been one of the hottest and most productive hitters in the minor leagues, with a .996 OPS and 18 home runs over his last 49 games.
While his plate discipline and pitch recognition are both still raw and in need of further refinement in the minor leagues, Baez has the raw ability to post an .800-plus OPS in The Show right now. He’s a streaky player who’s going to endure his share of struggles, but his .922 OPS, 35 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 125 games this season suggest he may not be in the minor leagues for long next year.
The Cubs have no need to rush Baez to the majors, but there will come a point next season when a call-up represents the next necessary challenge in his overall development.
Eddie Butler, RHP, Colorado Rockies
Eddie Butler is my wild-card candidate to win the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year.
It’s been a remarkable full-season debut for the 22-year-old, who’s now thriving at his third level of the year. After dominant showings with Low-A Asheville and High-A Modesto, the Rockies promoted Butler to Double-A Tulsa in early August. The right-hander responded by putting together arguably his best month of the 2013 season, with a 0.73 ERA and 22 strikeouts over five starts.
Butler’s overwhelming success this season can be attributed to vastly underrated pitchability and an arsenal comprised of three potential plus offerings. The right-hander’s fastball sits in the mid- to upper 90s with exceptional sink and fade to the arm side, and he complements it with a swing-and-miss wipeout slider in the upper 80s. Lastly, Butler has a disgusting changeup in the same velocity range that dives off the table and evades barrels.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that opposing hitters are batting a paltry .180 against him this season across three levels.
Butler has made it clear that he won't need much more time in the minor leagues. He has pure stuff capable of baffling hitters at the highest level, and he should have a chance to do just that for a solid chunk of the 2014 season.
Xander Bogaerts, SS-3B, Boston Red Sox
After beginning the season back at Double-A Portland, Xander Bogaerts initially struggled following a promotion to Pawtucket in mid-June, batting .242/.319/.435 with 15 strikeouts in 16 games at the more advanced level. However, the 20-year-old settled in shortly thereafter and went on to post a .948 OPS with seven doubles and four home runs in 26 July games.
Beyond the impressive stats, Bogaerts demonstrated the ability to make noticeable adjustments at the plate. He worked deeper counts and consistently used the entire field rather than selling out for power.
Everyone knew a Bogaerts call-up was imminent when the Red Sox dealt infielder Jose Iglesias to the Tigers at the trade deadline, so it wasn't surprising when the organization decided to promote him to the major leagues at the beginning of last week.
Bogaerts has appeared in six games with the Red Sox, but only three have been as a starter, and he’s made only 12 plate appearances. At that rate, it’s doubtful he'll lose rookie eligibility for the 2014 season, which makes him the early favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year award.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners have announced that Taijuan Walker will be promoted to the major leagues to start against the Astros on Friday. It’s a fitting end to what has been a breakthrough season for Walker, who turned 21 on August 13.
After going through an up-and-down 2012 season as a 19-year-old in Double-A, Walker has made strides this year in terms of his ability to execute and repeat pitches. While his pure stuff ranks among the best young arms in the game, a more consistent approach has led to his success at both minor league stops this season.
Walker will now have the opportunity to show what he’s all about against big league hitters. While there’s plenty to be excited about regarding his first taste of the major leagues, try not to get too wrapped up in the results if things don't go swimmingly for the right-hander. Regardless, the fact that the Mariners are willing to promote Walker suggests he could be in the mix for a spot in next year’s Opening Day rotation.
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
George Springer turned in an outstanding full-season debut last year, posting a .910 OPS with 24 home runs and 30 stolen bases in 127 games across two levels. However, due to his high strikeout rate and struggle to control the strike zone, many expected him to take a step back in 2013 against advanced competition.
That’s been anything but the case this season, as the 23-year-old has significantly improved his stock with a ridiculously good campaign at Double-A and Triple-A—arguably the best among all prospects.
Having already achieved the first 30-30 season in the minor leagues since 2009 (Grant Desme), Springer now has his sights set on joining the very exclusive 40-40 club. At the time this article was published, the outfielder had 37 home runs and 43 stolen bases. With five games remaining in the regular season for Triple-A Oklahoma City, he'll need to catch fire to accomplish the feat.
The Astros have already said Springer will finish the season in the minor leagues, according to Brian McTaggart of MLBlogs.com, but it’s difficult to argue he’s not worthy of a September call-up. Either way, Springer’s combination of power and speed makes him a strong candidate to content for the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year award.
Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins
No prospect in the game has as much power as Miguel Sano. However, there were serious questions about his hit tool heading into the 2013 season.
Sano wasted no time silencing his doubters by posting a 1.079 OPS with 16 home runs in 56 games for High-A Fort Myers in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. The organization subsequently promoted the 20-year-old to Double-A New Britain. While he’s continued to showcase robust power with 17 home runs in 63 games at the new level, his improved plate discipline and selectivity haven't translated as hoped.
Likely ticketed to begin the 2014 season back at Double-A, Sano has the potential to reach the major leagues quickly if he gets off to a hot start. Sano may not be the most polished prospect on this list, but his power is a game-changing tool that will help him make an immediate impact at the highest level.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Kansas City Royals
Expected to move quickly in his first full professional season, Kyle Zimmer was sporting a 6.01 ERA with High-A Wilmington at the end of June. Even though he figured things out shortly thereafter and subsequently dominated at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, it was still an unexpectedly rough start for the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft.
However, the right-hander pitched better than his ugly ERA—which was also inflated due to the combination of a .307 BABIP and 0.91 HR/9 rate—suggests. He posted a 3.07 FIP (4.32 ERA) with a 140/36 K/BB ratio in 108.1 innings.
Zimmer has the potential to be a high-end No. 2 starter with four impressive offerings, above-average command and knowledge of how to attack hitters and exploit weaknesses. The only thing that could prevent him from making an impact in the major leagues next season is an injury.