4 MLB Rookies Who Will Have to Perform Like Veterans in Pennant Races
The 2013 playoff races were defined by strong rookie performances.
There was Michael Wacha, who went from first-round draft pick in 2012 to No. 2 starter for the St. Louis Cardinals down the stretch and well into the postseason. Gerrit Cole and Sonny Gray had similar impacts on their respective teams, as both right-handers reached the major leagues in the middle of the season and ultimately shined in their first tastes of playoff baseball.
Meanwhile, Billy Hamilton literally stole the show on the other side of the ball. The infamous speedster was called up in September and blew past all reasonable expectations by batting .368 with nine runs and 13 stolen bases over 13 games.
This season, there should be just as many, if not more, big-name prospects who influence their team’s quest for a playoff berth.
With that being said, here are four prospects who could impact the 2014 MLB postseason races.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
2014 Stats: .224/.263/.297, 8 XBH (2 HR), 14 RBI, 9 BB, 27 K (52 G)
Taveras was the main reason St. Louis felt comfortable dealing Allen Craig, one of the more accomplished run producers over the last two years, to the Boston Red Sox at the trade deadline. Craig had been stealing playing time in right field from Taveras prior to the trade, but neither player was producing in the shared role.
In trading Craig, however, the Cardinals officially turned over the position to Taveras, who has been considered the team’s long-term answer at the position for several years.
While the 22-year-old is yet to catch fire and realize his potential at the highest level, he has picked up the pace offensively since the trade, batting .246/.300/.338 with four extra-base hits and eight RBI over 70 plate appearances. He’s fared considerably better as of late, with hits in six of his last seven games and a .375 batting average during that span.
The reason Taveras’ batting average sits at just .224 this season stems from his lack of multihit games. Specifically, Taveras has collected two or more hits just four times in 52 games since his call-up, compared to 29 games with exactly one knock.
The Cardinals haven’t had a month with a positive run differential since May, when they outscored their opponents 113-106, but they are swinging the bat markedly better this month, with the second-highest team batting average (.273) in the NL and third-highest OPS (.739).
However, Cardinals right fielders are collectively batting .223/.271/.314 through 520 plate appearances this season, and their .585 OPS is the lowest of any position on the team. Needless to say, the Cardinals offense still has room for improvement.
Call it a gut feeling, but if Oscar Taveras goes off down the stretch, so will the Cardinals.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
2014 Stats: .244/.311/.354, 41 R, 15 XBH (6 HR), 30 RBI, 12 SB, 25 BB, 47 K (62 G)
Gregory Polanco was a revelation when the Pirates called him up on June 10.
After opening his career with an 11-game hitting streak, the 22-year-old outfielder proceeded to hit .260/.352/.346 with five extra-base hits, 23 runs and six stolen bases over his first 32 games in the major leagues.
But Polanco has cooled off during the second half, batting just .227/.266/.361 over 30 games, and he’s slumped especially hard as of late, with a .037 average (1-for-27) and eight strikeouts over his last seven games.
While part of his second-half struggles can be attributed to bad luck (.240 BABIP), Polanco is also having his weaknesses exploited by pitchers he’s facing for a second time. Still, the fact that Polanco has posted an overall strikeout-to-walk ratio of 47-25 suggests that the rookie’s average will improve moving forward.
Beyond that, Polanco essentially has been useless against same-side pitching in the major leagues, evidenced by his .156/.193/.234 batting line (.427 OPS) and 18-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 84 plate appearances. He’s put up big numbers versus righties, though, with a .771 OPS and 29-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 192 plate appearances.
After finishing July with a 15-11 record, the Pirates are just 9-11 in 20 games this month, a product of losing seven of their last 10 games. However, the team still has a 21.8 percent chance of making the playoffs in spite of a 65-62 overall record, per Baseball Prospectus (via MLB.com).
Of Pittsburgh’s 65 wins, 35 have come with Polanco in the lineup. During those contests, he’s batting .293/.381/.436 with 32 runs and 23 RBI. If that doesn’t scream catalyst, I don’t know what does.
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals
2014 Stats: 10-9, 145.2 IP, 3.40 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, .243 BAA, 53 BB, 125 K (25 G/24 GS)
For the second straight year, Yordano Ventura is primed to impact the American League playoff races.
Called up on Sept. 17 of last year with a playoff berth on the line, Ventura posted a 3.52 ERA with 11 strikeouts in 15.1 innings over three starts for the Royals. The 23-year-old rookie’s performance, along with his strong showing during spring training, helped him secure a spot in the Royals’ 2014 Opening Day starting rotation.
Though the flame-throwing right-hander has impressed in his first full major league season, his success has varied from start to start.
As you can see, the long ball has plagued Ventura in the months in which he’s struggled this season. Luckily, the quality of his pure stuff makes him difficult to barrel even when his command is off, which is why he’s generally been able to work deep into games.
That being said, Ventura has walked two more batters per nine innings since the All-Star break (4.7 BB/9) than he did during the first half (2.7 BB/9). While it’s obviously a concerning trend and one to keep an eye on moving forward, it shouldn’t come as a surprise given Ventura’s career-high workload of 145.2 innings.
The Royals (70-56) have vaulted into first place over the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central behind a 23-10 second-half record, and they currently have a 73.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, per Baseball Prospectus (via MLB.com).
While James Shields and Danny Duffy have been outstanding following the All-Star break, posting a combined 2.18 ERA over 91 innings (14 starts), Ventura is the key to the Royals locking down their first postseason berth since 1985.
Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
2014 Stats: 7-5, 92 IP, 4.11 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, .255 BAA, 21 BB, 73 K (20 G/15 GS)
The Toronto Blue Jays (65-63) lost for the seventh time in their last 10 games on Friday, as Drew Smyly and the Tampa Bay Rays shut them out, 8-0. With the loss, the Blue Jays are now nine games back of the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East, and they trail the Seattle Mariners by 4.5 games in the wild-card race.
Toronto’s pitchers collectively are having their worst month of the season, ranking 14th in the AL in ERA (5.10 ERA) and 13th in WHIP (1.42 WHIP). They also have the fewest strikeouts (129) of any team in the league. A major reason the Blue Jays staff has struggled as of late is because rookie Marcus Stroman, who is having an impressive season overall, has been lit up in three of his last four starts.
Between June and July, Stroman’s first two months as a full-time starter in the major leagues, he was 5-2 with a 2.18 ERA and 57-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 62 innings (10 starts). In July specifically, the right-hander posted a 1.71 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 31.2 innings while holding opposing hitters to a .193/.246/.246 batting line.
However, the 23-year-old’s success hasn’t carried over into August. Stroman gave up six runs (five earned) on 10 hits and three walks over five innings on Friday, raising his August ERA to 8.66 over 17.2 innings (four starts).
Meanwhile, opposing hitters are batting .338 against him during that span. And if you were to remove his Aug. 9, nine-inning gem against the Tigers from the equation, Stroman’s ERA would sit at an even more dismal 15.59.
Since joining Toronto’s rotation, Stroman has turned in strong outings against AL contenders, including the Royals (6 IP, 5 H, ER, 6 K), New York Yankees (8 IP, 3 H, ER, 7 K), Oakland A’s (7 IP, 3 H, 7 K) and Tigers (9 IP, 4 H, 2 ER). However, the Blue Jays are just 7-8 in Stroman’s starts, with five of those losses coming in the only games in which he failed to complete six innings.
If the Blue Jays are going to remain in the playoff race down the stretch, they’ll need Stroman to get back on track and ideally return to his June/July form.