I'm the new guy. You can call me Nate. Or to completely destroy a bad Dad joke, call me whatever you want, just don't call me late to dinner. (I promise I'll keep those to a minimum...) Anyway, I'll be a new contributor to the Sport City Chefs to bring all the sweet sweet baseball topics you can handle!
To kick us off and celebrate the dawn of a new baseball season, and to keep in theme with the "new guy" trend, here's a list of 5 Rookies to Watch in 2021:
1) Randy Arozarena
First up, we've got Randy Arozarena. A Cuban national originally signed out of the Mexican League by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016, Arozarena got his first cup of coffee in the Majors in 2019, filling in for an injured Jose Martinez. After posting some promising .300/.391/.500 slash line with a 136 OPS+ in 19 games with the Cardinals, Arozarena found himself as part of a trade package that sent him to Tamp
a (along with Jose Martinez) in exchange for two prospects and compensation draft picks. In truncated 2020, Arozarena featured in 23 games for the Tampa Ray Rays, slashing an eye-popping .281/.382/.641, with 7 HRs, 11 RBI and a 182 OPS+ in only 64 ABs. His tear continued into the postseason where he set an MLB record with 64 total bases and tied a record set by David Freese with 11 postseason extra base hits.
Arozarena's Spring Training stats were a little disappointing when compared to his 2020 regular season and postseason accomplishments (.237/.256/.289 with 1 BB and 11 Ks in 38 ABs), but all signs point to Arozarena being the early favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year in 2021.
2) Ke'Bryan Hayes
Now that we've covered the AL favorite, let's turn to the early favorite in the Senior Circuit: Pittsburgh Pirates 3B, Ke'Bryan Hayes. The son of former Major Leaguer Charlie Hayes, Ke'Bryan was the 32nd overall pick in the 2015 First Year Player Draft. Since his selection, Hayes has steadily worked his way through the Buccos system, slashing a respectable .308/.408/.346 in his first year as a professional player and a .279/.354/.399 across his minor league career. But the real reason for hype surrounding Ke'Bryan Hayes is what he's done since joining the Pirates Major League roster. After making his Major League debut on September 1, 2020, Hayes quickly became the player to watch on the Pirates roster, putting up a .376/.442/..682 slash line, a 199 OPS+ (!!!!!!!), 5 HRs and 11 RBIs in just 85 ABs. This spring, Hayes picked up right where he left off, absolutely tearing through Grapefruit League (well, at least the teams located in and around the Western Coast of FL given the bubbles), hitting .431/.463/.745 with 2 HRs and 9 RBIs in 51 ABs.
In a season where there's not much to get excited about as a Pirate fan, Ke'Bryan Hayes is worth tuning in on a nightly basis in 2021 and for the near future. (Or until the Pirates trade him in 2024 before he reaches arbitration eligibility...)
3) Ryan Mountcastle
OK...first a confession on this one. I am and always will be a die hard O's fan, so you knew I was going to sneak at least one Baltimore Orioles into this post. You might also be surprised I'm going with Ryan Mountcastle over former NCAA Golden Spikes Winner and 2019 #1 overall pick, Adley Rutschman, but there's a very good reason for that. Ryan Mountcastle is going to be an every day player on Opening Day (whether that's at LF, RF, 1B or DH will depend on overall health of other players), while Adley is starting the year in minors before hopefully making his debut this summer.
Another standout from the 2015 draft class, Mountcastle was taken 3 spots after Ke'Bryan Hayes at 35th overall. Since then, all he's done is hit at every level. From 2015-2019, Mountcastle bashed his way through the Orioles' minor league, slashing .295/.328/.471 with 70 HRs and 274 RBI. He would start 2020 at the Orioles alternate camp site before finally making it impossible to keep him off the roster and bursting onto the scene with a .333/.386/.492 slash line, 140 OPS+, 5 HRs and 23 RBI in 126 ABs. The concern with Mountcastle, who was drafted out of Paul J. Hagerty HS in Ovideo, FL as a SS, was whether he'd ever develop enough defensively to be an MLB regular. After moving around the diamond, getting time a SS, 3B, 1B and OF, Mountcastle looks to have found a home as the Orioles everyday LF. While the O's may struggle to reach the 70-win mark in 2021, look for Ryan Mountcastle to provide an exciting middle of the order bat alongside Anthony Santander and Trey Mancini.
4) Bobby Witt, Jr.
Every year since 2015 (2020, as with all things, being the exception) has seen a player win Rookie of the Year who was not on an MLB roster on Opening Day. So, while Arozarena, Hayes and Mountcastle are all breaking camp with their respective teams, these next two players will start in the minors, but expect to see them on a Major League diamond sooner rather than later.
Since we briefly mentioned the #1 overall pick from the 2019, let's turn to the #2 overall pick, Bobby Witt Jr. Another son of a former Major League (Bobby Witt Sr. was a 1st round selection of the Texas Rangers and teammate of Nolan Ryan), Bobby Witt Jr. is almost guaranteed to make his debut this summer, if not by late April/early May. Since 2020 shutdown the minors entirely, the first real professional glimpse anyone got at Bobby Witt Jr. was during the 2021 Cactus League. To call his spring numbers impressive might be selling him short. In just 38 ABs, Witt Jr. slashed .289/.325/.526 with 3 HRs and 7 RBIs. His spring was so impressive, the Kansas City Royals seriously considered slotting him into their lineup as the Opening Day SS/DH. He may start the year in the minors, but he will be terrorizing the AL Central very soon.
5) Wander Franco
We wrap up our 2021 Rookies to Watch List with the consensus #1 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, Major League Baseball, and Baseball Prospectus. Signed as an amateur free agent by the Rays in 2017, Franco has been tearing the cover off the baseball in the low minors. In 2 seasons as a professional player, he's slashed .336/.405/.523 with 20 HRs and 110 RBIs across low A and high A ball. Wander Franco may be the furthest away from the Majors of any prospect on this list, but he's coming. Also, he does this to baseballs:
So folks, those are my 5 rookies to watch in 2021. Let me know who you think I missed or if you think I'm crazy for including someone on this list. Also, make sure you tune into the Sport City Chefs Baseball on Thursdays at 9:00 ET/8:00 CT all season long! To borrow a quote from former Oriole Adam Jones, "stay hungry."