What a difference a year makes. Just ask Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers. At this time last year, both were highly regarded prospects who were well known within baseball circles, but both probably could have walked down most streets without being recognized.
Not anymore. After setting rookie home run records, leading their teams to the postseason, and then winning the American and National League Rookie of the Year awards respectively, both vaulted to the top of baseball’s hierarchy.
It’s amazing to think about just how quickly everything changed for them. Judge had actually debuted with the Yankees in 2016, but struggled during the season’s final two months. The Yankees stuck with him going into his age-25 season, but there were legitimate questions whether he’d ever be able to hit MLB pitching. Those were smoothed over in April, when Judged launched 10 homers in his first 22 games. The homers kept coming from there.
As for Bellinger, he’d yet to receive a call up from the Dodgers. In fact, with the team’s first base and outfield positions filled going into the season, there was no guarantee his opportunity would even come in 2017. Then injuries started hitting the Dodgers. Then Bellinger came up hitting upon his promotion on April 20 and never stopped, cementing his spot in the middle of LA’s order.
Needless to say, when opportunity arose, both players stole the spotlight. Now we’re going to spotlight four up-and-coming hitters who will enter 2018 in a similar position, and could make similar jumps into the mainstream if given the opportunity.
Greg Bird, New York Yankees
A loaded Yankees lineup that already boasted Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius is about to become even more fearsome in 2018. The addition of Giancarlo Stanton is the headliner, but he’s not the only big bat about to become a regular part of New York’s lineup. Greg Bird, who was limited to just 62 games between the regular and postseason last year due to injury, is primed to be their next offensive sensation.
We did get a taste of his power during his limited appearances in 2017. Bird hit six of his nine home runs over the final two weeks of the regular season, while posting a strong .891 OPS over the last 29 games. He stayed hot in the postseason, launching three more home runs. That included a solo shot in the Yankees pivotal 1-0 win in ALDS Game 3 against Cleveland.
Now 25, only health seems to be standing in Bird’s way of truly breaking out. He should get a ton of at-bats in a loaded lineup, and his left-handed power will play very well with the short porch at Yankee Stadium. He might not lead the team in homers, but he’ll be closer than you think.
Dominic Smith, New York Mets
Like Judge with the Yankees in 2016, Smith didn’t do much to give the Mets confidence he’s ready to be an everyday player. In 183 plate appearances last season, he hit a miserable .198 with nine homers and six doubles. That led general manager Sandy Alderson to put Smith on notice. Alderson has since added some serious competition for at-bats with the signings of Adrian Gonzalez, Jay Bruce and even Todd Frazier.
If the Gonzalez signing especially was designed to be a motivational ploy, it’s apparently working. Smith has reportedly made notable changes to his diet and conditioning. It’s also worth noting that Smith has been slow to adjust each time he’s been promoted in the minor leagues, but has eventually hit well everywhere he’s played. Still just 23, he has plenty of time to continue his development and make those necessary adjustments at the MLB level.
Honestly, his success could hinge more on the Mets being willing to be patient with him. If they are, they might reap some nice rewards.
David Dahl, Colorado Rockies
The only person with worse health luck than Bird might be Rockies outfielder David Dahl. After missing significant time in the minor leagues with several ailments, including a lacerated spleen suffered in an outfield collision, the Rockies former No. 1 prospect seemed poised to be a key contributor in 2017.
That was, until he suffered a stress reaction in one of his ribs during spring training. His season ended up a complete loss.
The string of injuries doesn’t leave much room for optimism that Dahl can hold up for 162 games. If he does though, plenty of opportunity will be awaiting him with Carlos Gonzalez out of the mix. At this point, only Charlie Blackmon is locked into an everyday outfield role, meaning Dahl could initially start regularly against right-handers.
Dahl was impressive when he debuted for the Rockies in 2016, slashing .315/.359/.500 with seven homers in his 63 games. He wouldn’t have to be that good to earn more opportunity, but we wouldn’t be surprised if he was much better with sustained health. He’s still only 23 years old. Oh, and he would be playing at Coors Field. These are two huge positives for an undeniably talented player.
Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs
But Happ played in 115 games and hit 24 home runs last season, you might be saying. You’d be right on both accounts, but Happ’s solid rookie season got lost in the shuffle. Even playing for the Cubs, he’s yet to gain much notoriety. But we’re mainly putting him here because it’s possible he’ll get even better after spending most of 2017 in on-the-job training mode.
“This kid is already a productive big-league player and he hasn’t, necessarily, started to scratch the surface of what he can be with some refinement,” team president Theo Epstein said of Happ following the season.
Those comments indicate the Cubs believe the best is yet to come for Happ. The biggest hurdle Happ must overcome is his propensity to strikeout. He went down on strikes 129 times in 413 plate appearances as a rookie. The switch-hitting star could produce massive numbers if he cuts down on the whiffs though. Considering he can play pretty much anywhere on the field, he’ll always be in the mix for at-bats.
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