What makes a sound Rookie of the Year candidate? Generally speaking, it’s when a positive near-term outlook meets a clear path to regular playing time.
Customarily, we don’t talk about near-term value all that much when the topic is prospects, but the RoY is of course handed out based on rookie-season value, not future outlook. So it needs to be a prospect who’s not in need of a greal deal of on-the-job development -- i.e., he should be ready to contribute right away as opposed to being a project of sorts.
This season in the AL, Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi certainly meets that preliminary criteria, and in the NL it’s shortstop Dansby Swanson of the Braves who looks like the frontrunner going in. On that front, it’s worth noting that in all of us went with Benintendi and Swanson in their respective leagues ...
So, yes, heavy favorites indeed. But what about the aspirational others? There’s a great deal of uncertainty with this particular award, as young players can be volatile in terms of performance outputs, and playing time is often a fluid situation, especially for contenders like Benintendi’s Red Sox.
With that in mind, which other rookies might surprise and give Beni-Swan some competition for the RoY hardware? Consider what follows to be a partial listing. Oh, and a reminder: This isn’t a list of top prospects. Rather this is a list of viable Rookie of the Year candidates. Those aren’t necessarily the same things. Anyhow, onward ...
Jharel Cotton, RP, Athletics - The 25-year-old right-hander came over last year as part of the Rich Hill-Josh Reddick swap with the Dodgers. He posted strong K rates coming up through the minors, and he has a full repertoire, including a mid-90s fastball. He also has a spot in the rotation in Oakland, and that spot should be secure even after Sonny Gray returns from his lat injury.
Jose De Leon, SP, Rays - De Leon, whom the Rays acquired from the Dodgers in the Logan Forsythe trade, figures to be a permanent part of the TB rotation at some point. He won’t start the season with the big-league club, but if injury or ineffectiveness strikes the rotation (and it probably will), then he’s probably the first in line.
Yulieski Gurriel, 1B, Astros - Yes, he’s 32, so his long- and even mid-term outlook aren’t certain. He’s going to be the Astros’ starting first baseman, however, and he’ll be given every chance to keep the role. Gurriel didn’t produce in his 36-game look last season, but he was rushed to the majors after signing as an international free agent. His track record in Cuba suggests better days ahead, for now.
Aaron Judge, OF, Yankees - Judge recently claimed the Yanks’ starting job in right field. He’s a hulking power prospect who lit it up in spring training and has a strong minor-league track record. He’s also about to turn 25, which means he’s at an age that lends itself to near-term success. As a power-first player, he also figures to put up the kinds of conspicuous numbers that voters will like.
Yoan Moncada, 2B, White Sox - Moncada, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, will begin the season in the minors. However, the Sox recently cut bait on Brett Lawrie, so Moncada has a pretty clear path to the second base job in Chicago. He punished the ball during camp, and it won’t be surprised if the White Sox summon him even before the super-two deadline passes.
Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates - Bell barely retained his rookie status last season, and this year he’ll open the season as the Pirates’ starting first baseman. The 24-year-old switch-hitter has long been a regular on overall top-100 prospect lists, and in 2016 he put up a solid 107 OPS+ during his 45-game stint in Pittsburgh. His strong mix of skills with the bat and regular playing time should yield strong rookie numbers.
Robert Gsellman, SP, Mets - Gsellman will open the year as the Mets’ fifth starter thanks to the injury to Steven Matz. While that doesn’t suggest season-long stability, injuries are going to happen, especially given the history of some of the Mets’ core starting pitchers. Don’t be surprised if Gsellman is trotted out for 20-plus starts this season. He’s got the velocity and the sinker-slider-changeup combo to put up the numbers. Of course, he’ll need to miss bats in order to keep the ball away from the utterly miserable Mets team defense.
Manuel Margot, CF, Padres - Margot will be the starting center fielder in San Diego, and the 22-year-old brings to that role a plus glove and plenty of other tools. He’ll make some highlight plays, put up strong gap-power numbers, and -- provided he gets on base -- be a high-volume base-stealer. That broad range of skills could win him some votes.
Hunter Renfroe, RF, Padres - Other than in terms of height, Renfroe is sort of the NL version of Judge above -- a right fielder in his mid-20s with plenty of power from the right side. Renfroe slugged .494 coming up through the system and last season slugged 30 homers at the Triple-A level (albeit at hitter-friendly El Paso). Petco will surely take a bite out of his homer totals, but he’s going to produce in context. Last season with the Pads, he homered four times in 11 games.