Sports have been defined and changed by rookies over the last year; Aaron Judge took Major League Baseball by storm with 500-foot home runs and his own cheering section in Yankee freaking Stadium, guys like Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell are defining the future of the NBA, and Juju Smith-Schuster is already crushing opponents like he’s a 10-year veteran Steeler. They’re showing us that certain traditions will certainly be carried on, and that innovation in sports is on the way.
Perhaps no sport offers a tougher encore spot than professional baseball going into the 2018. Judge led the American League in home runs, and his National League counterpart Cody Bellinger joined in the launch angle obsession of 2017 to pop 39 of his own. The process of even arriving to be a rookie is more drawn out and perhaps difficult in baseball than in any other sport, and the crop of 2018 is full of guys who have put in the work and are ready to melt faces. Here are some of the top names to look for in 2018.
Tyler O’Neill OF St. Louis Cardinals
The son of a former champion bodybuilder, O’Neill has shown more than enough strength at the plate during his years in the minors. He hit a home run off Clayton Kershaw in Spring Training last year that would make a nun swoon, and has been a general nuisance to minor league pitchers, as long as a grizzly bear can be called a nuisance.
His trade to St. Louis last year shocked Seattle Mariners fans who anxiously awaited his MLB debut, which has been delayed due to concerns of his consistency at the plate. He ended 2017 in AAA with 31 bombs and 95 RBI, and a slightly above-Mendoza average of .246. If he can start out strong in 2018 and keep that average high, he’ll likely make his debut as a Cardinal this season. The Cardinals seem to have been stockpiling outfielders and bats over the last year or so, and O’Neill is a weapon proving more and more worthy of MLB attention and action.
Shohei Ohtani P/DH Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
In case you’ve been on an internet fast for the last six months or so or just don’t follow baseball, Shohei Ohtani is a big deal. Considered to be the “Babe Ruth of Japan”, Ohtani, if successful, could revolutionize professional baseball. While all eyes in the United States and Japan will be on him, none will be fixed more closely than those of the Cincinnati Reds, who just this year drafted Hunter Greene, another pitcher/hitter prospect.
If Ohtani lives up to even a portion of the hype surrounding him, he’ll win the AL Rookie of the Year award. If he lives up to all of the hype, baseball could see a complete change in the way pitchers are viewed, and a whole slew of a different kind of player will emerge.
Alex Verdugo OF Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have been a Rookie of the Year factory over the last few years, pumping out Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger to win the award the last two seasons, with a viable candidate in Joc Pederson a year before that. The next in a line of powerful Dodgers prospects is Alex Verdugo, who saw some action in 15 games near the end of last season. The Dodgers have an interesting outfield situation going into 2018; Andrew Toles, who missed nearly all of last season with a torn ACL, but will likely be back to the starting lineup in 2018. They brought back Matt Kemp via trade, and will have Joc Pederson in center field.
With Adrian Gonzales gone via trade to Atlanta, oft-platooned Bellinger will have the everyday spot at first base, opening up a fourth outfield spot for somebody like Verdugo. If Pederson struggles with average like he did in 2017, Verdugo could then see starting time in the outfield. This is essentially the main roadblock to Verdugo showing off his skillset: playing time. If he can get on the field, he could prove to be a more-than-effective player and be a strong cog in the Dodgers’ ROY machine.
Gleyber Torres SS New York Yankees
The heir-apparent to your (overrated) highness Derek Jeter, (real) Yankees fans have been anticipating Torres’ arrival in the Majors as much as the Steinbrenners have been anticipating Bryce Harper to hit the free agent market. Torres is a solid prospect out of Venezuela, and lost almost all of 2017 to Tommy John surgery. With Starlin Castro gone in the trade for Kevin Durant Giancarlo Stanton, the shortstop position is his to take.
Torres will have a great opportunity to play for a winning team right out of the gate of his career, despite the big shoes he has to fill at the shortstop position. With the AL ROY mojo already working in New York, Torres could make a splash in 2018.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 3B Toronto Blue Jays
Vlad Jr. is apparently just as good at hitting bad pitches as Vlad Sr., making this an entertaining prospect. He has played third throughout his minor league career, but his size and build have made him more of a first base or outfield prospect, particularly with Josh Donaldson posting up in the hot corner for Toronto.
As Jose Bautista continues to decline in his career, Vlad Jr. could be the new source of power for the Blue Jays, who certainly want to hop right back into contention in the uber-competitive AL East.