- Tristan H. Cockcroft, Fantasy
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Quick trivia: Name the highest-ranked rookie hitter on our Player Rater.
It's not so easy, is it?
The answer is Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder A.J. Pollock, who places only 53rd among hitters, 79th overall. Beyond him, only Evan Gattis (89th) also ranks among the top 130 hitters -- that number important because it represents the traditional cutoff for "starter" status in standard ESPN leagues (10 teams times 13 hitting spots).
Yes, this year's rookie hitter crop, so far, has proved weak. For some historical perspective, consider that no rookie this year has hit more than seven home runs (Gattis), stolen more than five bases (Pollock) or batted higher than .271 in the requisite plate appearances for the batting title (Jedd Gyorko). Gattis is on a 35-homer pace, but he's the only one pacing higher than either 25 home runs, 25 steals or a .300 batting average, and his pace might slow by lost at-bats after the healthy return of Jason Heyward. We haven't seen a baseball season in which a rookie failed to bat a qualified .300-plus, hit 25-plus homers or stole 25-plus bases since 1967 two years before baseball lowered the mound to counteract the game's extreme pitching leaning.
In the American League, the rookie class is especially weak. There's no greater evidence than April's choice for rookie of the month: Justin Grimm took those honors despite making just three starts, only two of them quality starts; and two of his three starts came against the AL's lowest-scoring April team (Seattle Mariners).
Contrasting this year's freshman class to last season's, fantasy owners might be puzzled. How could we have, in a year, gone from witnessing arguably the greatest rookie campaign in history (Mike Trout, whose 10.9 WAR was a rookie record), as well as the greatest season by a teenager (Bryce Harper, whose 5.2 WAR was a record by a teenager) to a year in which practically no rookie matters?
Simple: Let's not forget that last year, the freshman class wasn't looking all that much better on this date. Trout and Harper had been recalled on April 28 -- they had played just 10 days -- and no rookie had greater than five home runs, four stolen bases or a .291 qualified batting average. Andrelton Simmons, Yasmani Grandal, Anthony Rizzo and Manny Machado had not yet been recalled.
In other words, this pattern of slow-starting rookies is nothing new, mostly fueled by big league teams' tendencies to suppress prospects' service time. Service time -- that pertaining to players' future arbitration and free-agent eligibility -- is a frequently asked question for this reason; let's explain how this works:
• A prospect becomes eligible for free agency only after six full seasons in the major leagues, and he receives credit for a full season only if he spends fewer than 20 days in the minor leagues if he's on his team's 40-man roster (for example, Anthony Rendon has spent the entire year on the Washington Nationals' 40-man roster) or fewer than 12 days in the minors if he's not (Wil Myers, for example, is not on the Tampa Bay Rays'). (That per the Tampa Bay Times and Washington Post.)
• A prospect becomes eligible for arbitration either after three full seasons in the major leagues or if he's part of a group called "Super Two." To paraphrase the Major League Baseball rules for "Super Two" status, these are players with at least two but less than three years of big league service who rank among the top 22 percent in total service time in that group.
As you can see in that Post link, Rendon had spent the requisite 20 days in the minors at the time of his April 21 promotion, meaning that even had he remained with the Nationals beyond Ryan Zimmerman's activation from the disabled list, he wouldn't have been eligible for free agency until after 2019. For another example, Nolan Arenado won't be eligible for free agency until after 2019 because the Colorado Rockies waited until April 28 -- past the 20-day minimum -- to promote him. Late April, depending when Opening Day is, represents this important deadline.
The arbitration deadline, however, is variable by player rather than by the scheduling of Opening Day. Although there is no firm date, many teams believe that the beginning of June -- roughly June 1 -- is a "safe" point for players avoiding "Super Two" status.
That in mind, let's get to today's bold prediction: Wil Myers not only will be a member of the Rays come the first week of June but will finish the season as the American League's rookie home run champion and rookie of the year. (As an aside, I'll admit that my late-April promotion prediction on the Fantasy Focus podcast was premature; I believed his free agency, rather than his arbitration, clock was more important to the Rays.)
Although Myers' 2013 stats for Triple-A (.274/.368/.416 triple-slash rates, 3 HR in 29 G) might not be eye-popping, forgive him two things: First, he's adjusting to a new organization, and second, he had been dealing with a wrist injury at the start of the season and a foot injury as a result of a foul ball on April 18. More relevant is Myers' career Triple-A stat line: 128 games (May 16, 2012, through today), .297/.376/.523 triple-slash, 27 home runs (one per 18.6 at-bats), 10.7 percent walk rate, 24.1 percent strikeout rate.
Myers' propensity for strikeouts -- he has 25 whiffs in his past 69 plate appearances -- might make him a batting average/slumps risk as he adapts to the big leagues, but there are few prospects with his raw power potential. Even if he's a mere .260 hitter, he's capable of 20 home runs in the season's final four months, and that'd be well worthy of rookie of the year votes, even if it's not a freshman year on Trout's or Harper's level. Available in 85.3 percent of ESPN leagues, Myers is well worth stashing if you have an open bench spot.
That's not to say none of the rookies currently in the majors warrants attention. After all, rookies such as Wilin Rosario and Todd Frazier hadn't yet captured regular opportunities by this stage of 2012. Might there be a member of this rookie class due for an uptick in value in the coming weeks? (Let's stress up front that these aren't all the meaningful rookies, just the most interesting right now.)
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
Promoted 10 days ago, coincidentally the same date on the calendar that Trout and Harper were in 2012, Arenado has already proved his worth in fantasy leagues, hitting three home runs in his first eight big league games. Arenado isn't a prospect on Trout's or Harper's level, having failed to crack Keith Law's top 100 in the preseason, but he's capable of making a run at the top-10 third basemen. Certainly he's in the conversation as a National League Rookie of the Year candidate; although remember that the NL boasts a rich crop of rookie pitchers.
Arenado's strength is his contact ability. He had a career 10.2 percent strikeout rate in the minors (9.1 percent in high Class A in 2010, 10.1 percent in Double-A in 2011 and 12.0 percent in Triple-A to begin this year) and was a .299 hitter there who never hit lower than .285 in any single season (2012, Double-A). Thus far, he has only three whiffs in 36 plate appearances (8.3 percent). A hitter who can put the ball into play that frequently is a plus at Colorado's Coors Field; consider that, in 30 individual player seasons in Colorado Rockies history (only batting-title-eligible hitters) of less than a 12.5 percent strikeout rate, 19 times those hitters batted at least .300.
Projection going forward: .285 AVG, 13 HRs, 58 RBIs.
How about Arcia as a sneaky candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors? The 21-year-old has improved his performance as he has advanced by level; he had an .826 OPS in high Class A, .955 OPS in Double-A and 1.201 OPS in Triple-A -- although the latter came in a minuscule sample of 10 games to begin this year. Still, Arcia has considerable power potential, evidenced by his .223 isolated power in his minor league career, and now he has a big league job in which to exercise it.
There are only two drawbacks to Arcia's fantasy prospects for 2013: One is Target Field, which isn't a good ballpark for left-handed power; the other is the bevy of right-field alternatives on the Twins' roster, including Chris Parmelee and Ryan Doumit. Still, Arcia appears to be here to stay, and he's a smart, speculative pickup in mixed leagues of 12 teams or greater or in AL-only formats.
Projection going forward: .265 AVG, 12 HRs, 39 RBIs.
Jedd Gyorko, 2B/3B, San Diego Padres
He's not lighting the fantasy world ablaze but has nevertheless settled in as a serviceable middle infielder even in 10-team mixed leagues. If you drafted him as anything more, it was a mistake, likely fueled by his Pacific Coast League-inflated .328/.380/.588 triple-slash line last year. Gyorko looks like a good-not-great option in terms of batting average and home runs; his .271 and 15 paces in those categories look about right.
Projection going forward: .265 AVG, 14 HRs, 58 RBIs.
Ozuna's recent promotion might seem surprising, in that he got the call ahead of spring sensation and higher-regarded prospect Christian Yelich, until you consider that Yelich debuted for Double-A Jacksonville on April 20, the same day as Ozuna, and got off to the slower start of the two. Ozuna does have gaudy minor league power numbers, having hit at least 22 home runs in each of the past three seasons, but he's more of a batting-average liability than the aforementioned Arcia.
Projection going forward: .245 AVG, 16 HRs, 47 RBIs.
Adams has returned from his oblique injury, but he faces the same obstacle he did before landing on the disabled list: He has Allen Craig ahead of him on the depth chart at first base. Perhaps no other prospect possesses Adams' combination of batting average and home run upside; he was a lifetime .318/.364/.563 hitter who averaged 36 home runs per 162 games played in the minors. The DL stint was effectively a setback, but the Cardinals can't keep Adams' bat buried on the bench if he hits in part-time action. Craig is capable of manning right field, should Carlos Beltran miss any time, and Craig has a history of injuries himself.
Projection going forward: .285 AVG, 11 HRs, 37 RBIs.
TOP 150 HITTERS
Note: Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 150 hitters are ranked for their expected performance from this point forward, not for statistics that have already been accrued. For position-specific rankings, see the "Pos Rnk" column; these rankings can also be seen split up by position.
Tristan H. Cockcroft offers up his hitter rankings and looks at the rather unimpressive crop of rookie hitters so far, but says the bigger bats are still on the way.