As the calendar prepares to turn from March to April, and each of the 30 MLB teams begins to head home to prepare for Opening Day, there’s a great deal of optimism surrounding the season ahead. Every team is in first place, and every player has the potential to be an All-Star. For fans looking for the next thing, we take a look at 10 MLB players on the rise in 2017.
(In alphabetical order)
Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs
2016 Key stats: .277/.308/.455, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 14 R
Dexter Fowler, last year’s leadoff hitter and center fielder for the World Series champion Chicago Cubs is now a St. Louis Cardinal. While he probably won’t wind up hitting at the top of the lineup, Almora could get most of the playing time in center this season thanks to his outstanding defensive play.
A potential Gold Glover, Almora was often used as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner in limited duty last season. He hit .277/.308/.455 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 117 plate appearances across 47 games, and everyday playing time should help improve his patience at the plate. Almora struck out 20 times and drew only five walks last year.
Andrew Benintendi, LF, Boston Red Sox
2016 Key stats: .295/.359/.476, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 16 R, 1 SB
Unlike Byron Buxton, Benintendi showed no issues at the plate in his first big league action. In a 34-game debut last season, the left-handed hitter collected 14 extra-base hits and pushed his way into the lineup for the postseason. Benintendi was 3-for-9 with a home run and two RBIs in the ALDS.
The favorite to win the AL Rookie of the Year Award this season, Benintendi is expected to be a major contributor for the Red Sox in 2017 – especially since Boston must replace recently retired slugger David Ortiz in the middle of the lineup.
Greg Bird, 1B, New York Yankees
Did not play in 2016
2015 Key stats: .261/.343/.529, 11 HR, 31 RBI, 26 R
It’s been quite a while since the Yankees had such a young group of talented players, and there’s renewed optimism in the Bronx with sluggers like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge already in the majors, and top prospect Gleyber Torres on the way. Also, after exploding onto the scene in 2015, then missing all of ‘16 due to injury, first baseman Bird is ready to make a big impression this year.
Bird hasn’t shown any signs of rust this spring, and hit .447/.527/1.085 with seven home runs in his first 20 Grapefruit League games. A left-handed hitter with huge power, Bird is an ideal fit in Yankee Stadium. He’ll also get an opportunity to shine with the retirement of veteran first baseman Mark Teixeira.
Dylan Bundy, SP, Baltimore Orioles
2016 Key stats: 10-6, 4.02 ERA, 36 G, 14 GS, 109.2 IP, 104 K, 42 BB
Bundy has spent the last half-decade as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He made his big league debut in 2012, but battled injuries that cost him all of ‘13 and most of ‘14 and ‘15. Out of minor league options heading into last season, the Orioles were forced to keep Bundy on the major league roster, and manager Buck Showalter pitched the right-hander in low-leverage relief situations until he was needed in the starting rotation.
Bundy pitched well in the bullpen. In 38 innings across 22 games, he posted a 3.08 ERA. The 24-year-old had a much higher 4.52 ERA as a starter, though he did strike hitters out at a higher rate and allowed a lower batting average when pitching out of the rotation. Most importantly, Bundy pitched a total of 109.2 innings without any major injury scares – a great sign since he’ll begin the 2017 season as a starter.
Byron Buxton, CF, Minnesota Twins
2016 Key stats: .225/.284/.430, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 44 R, 10 SB
If there’s one player in baseball with a toolbox similar to Mike Trout, it’s Buxton. A legitimate five-tool player, Buxton has terrific raw power, is one of the fastest players in baseball and is already one of the top defensive center fielders in the American League. Unfortunately, Buxton has looked much more like Trout did in a 40-game audition as a 19-year-old in 2011 than the reigning AL MVP.
But, the fact that Trout looked lost in his first big league action is a reason not to dismiss Buxton’s performance through his first 138 games. The 23-year-old has struck out way too much in his young career, more than one-third (34.5 percent of AB) of the time. He also has just 29 walks in 469 career plate appearances (6.2 percent) spread across the 2015 and ‘16 seasons. But, Buxton’s September gave fans an indication of the player he can become.
Following a call up from Triple-A on Sept. 1, Buxton hit .287/.357/.653 with nine home runs, six doubles, two triples and 22 RBIs in 29 games. Strikeouts were still an issue (38 in 113 plate appearances), but walks were up (8.8 percent), which is a good sign moving forward. Of course, it was Buxton’s power surge and improved contact rate at the plate that have fans excited he can finally reach his sky-high potential in 2017 and beyond.
Jon Gray, SP, Colorado Rockies
2016 Key stats: 10-10, 4.61 ERA, 29 GS, 168.0 IP, 185 K, 59 BB
Pitching has been an issue for the Colorado Rockies since the franchise’s inception. However, Gray has the stuff to be an ace anywhere – even when pitching in the thin air of Coors Field. That’s good because Gray will need to carry the Colorado pitching staff if Rockies hope to challenge for a wild card spot this year.
Gray posted a 4.61 ERA last season, but had a 3.60 FIP, which indicates he pitched better than his ERA would indicate. Given the tendency for the ball to jump in Denver, missing bats is important. A hard thrower with swing-and-miss stuff, Gray fanned 185 hitters and allowed 153 hits in 168 innings.
James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
2016 Key stats: 6-7, 3.79 ERA, 20 GS, 121.0 IP, 117 K, 24 BB
Paxton is a southpaw who made a big jump last season thanks to his fastball. Paxton also has top-of-the-rotation stuff that should prove valuable as the Mariners take aim at a spot in the postseason.
Paxton rarely walks hitters. He posted a 4.7 percent walk rate in 2016. However, Paxton also doesn’t miss bats as often (he allowed a .275 batting average and recorded 22.3 percent strikeout rate) as others and he has yet to stay healthy enough to complete a full big league season. But Paxton’s breakthrough potential is one of the reasons why many baseball analysts are bullish on Seattle in 2017.
Robbie Ray, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2016 Key stats: 8-15, 4.90 ERA, 32 GS, 174.1 IP, 218 K, 71 BB
The Rockies are a trendy pick to be a wild card contender this season, as the Arizona Diamondbacks were a season ago. Of course, the D-Backs fell well short of expectations in large part because of a pitching staff that posted the highest ERA in the majors.
However, if there was a bright spot, it was Ray. Though his ERA (4.90) wasn’t pretty, Ray struck out 28.1 percent of the hitters he faced last season. He is prone to wildness at times, however, and walked 71 hitters in 174.1 innings. If Ray gets his command under control, he could help Arizona become a surprise team in the AL West this season.
Kyle Schwarber, OF/C, Chicago Cubs
Played only two regular season games in 2016
2015 Key stats: .246/.355/.487, 16 HR, 43 RBI, 52 R, 3 SB
Following a solid 69-game rookie campaign in 2015, which included 16 home runs, Schwarber entered ‘16 as one of the top breakout candidates in the game. Unfortunately, an early April knee injury cost him the rest of the regular season.
Impressively, Schwarber rehabbed well enough to play in five games in the World Series, and hit .412/.500/.471 in 20 plate appearances as a DH and pinch-hitter. Now fully healthy, Schwarber is expected to see the majority of his playing time in left field, though he is a third option for the club at catcher. He’s also one of the top leadoff options for manager Joe Maddon – a rare role for someone that can hit with such power and isn’t a burner on the base paths.
Dansby Swanson, SS, Atlanta Braves
2016 Key stats: .302/.361/.442, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 20 R, 3 SB
Though the Arizona Diamondbacks made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, shortstop Swanson is well on his way to becoming the face of the Atlanta Braves. A Georgia native, Swanson was traded to his hometown team in December 2015 and made his big league debut last season.
The 23-year-old appeared in 38 games, and barely held on to his rookie status, making him one of the favorites for the NL Rookie of the Year Award this season. Though it will be tough to repeat his .302 batting average, Swanson showed he has the skill to become a key piece of the lineup for the rebuilding Braves. He collected 11 extra-base hits in 145 plate appearances, including three home runs, and also stole three bases.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.