Many of the prospects lists coming into this season had five names at the top, then a gap to the next tier of young players. The top five generally included Bobby Witt, Jr., Adley Rutschman, Julio Rodríguez, Spencer Torkelson, and Riley Greene. These were the “future of the franchise” type players that fans in Kansas City, Baltimore, Seattle, and Detroit could dream on. These are also the type of players that teams often keep down in the minor leagues at the beginning of the season to delay their free agency by a year.
One of the new additions to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLB and the MLB Players Association is an incentive for teams to promote their top young players to their Opening Day roster, rather than play roster shenanigans by keeping them down in the minors for a few weeks to gain that extra year of service time. If a club has a player finish in the top three in Rookie of the Year voting, the team receives an extra draft pick only if that player was on the Opening Day roster. Players who finish in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting receive a year of service time even if they don’t start the season on the Opening Day roster, so the new rule encourages teams with very good young players to start the season with those players in the major leagues.
With this rule in place, the Mariners, Royals, and Tigers started the year with their top rookies on the Opening Day roster—Julio Rodríguez, Bobby Witt, Jr., and Spencer Torkelson, respectively. The Orioles might have had Adley Rutschman on their Opening Day roster if not for a triceps strain he suffered in early March. The same is true of Detroit’s Riley Greene, who suffered a foot fracture before the season started.
Heading into Opening Day, Bobby Witt, Jr. was the favorite to win the AL ROY Award, with Spencer Torkelson second and Julio Rodriguez third. Then, Cleveland outfielder Steven Kwan exploded upon the scene with 10 hits and seven runs scored in his first five games and he was suddenly included in the top five by the oddsmakers. Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña jumped into the fray a couple weeks later after hitting an extra-innings walk-off homer on April 24.
Meanwhile, Julio Rodríguez was off to a brutally slow start. In his first 12 games, he hit .136/.208/.159 and struck out 22 times in 48 plate appearances, including three games with a hat trick (three strikeouts in a game) and one golden sombrero (four strikeouts in a game). Upon closer inspection by Justin Choi of FanGraphs, it was clear that Rodríguez had, at the very least, received some poor luck on called third strikes by umpires.
By the time Rutschman made his major league debut on May 21, Jeremy Peña was having the best season of the AL Rookie of the Year contenders. He was strong defensively and well above average on offense. He continued to hit well over the next six weeks. At the end of the day on July 5, he was hitting .276/.327/.482, which gave him a 131 wRC+ (meaning he was 31 percent better on offense than the league average player after league and ballpark effects were accounted). He wasn’t the favorite to win the AL ROY Award, but he was very much in the conversation along with Rodríguez and Witt, Jr.
Peña has come crashing back to earth since then, with a .214/.235/.321 batting line (54 wRC+) from July 6 through September 3. He’s walking a little less often, his strikeout rate has gone up a bit, his BABIP has dropped from .321 through July 5 to .269 since, and he has a lower Hard-Hit percentage and Barrel Rate than he had before. Where once Peña was among the favorites with the oddsmakers to snag the AL ROY trophy, he has since fallen out of contention.
Steven Kwan also slowed way down following his torrid initial foray in the bigs. After banging out 10 hits in his first five games, Kwan went 19-for-105 with very little power over his next 30 games, hitting .181/.263/.248 from April 13 through May 29 (49 wRC+). He’s regained his footing since then and has been a comfortably above-average hitter since the end of May (.314/.378/.406, 127 wRC+). It hasn’t been enough to move him up to the Rodríguez/Rutschman tier of AL rookies, but it’s still a fine debut season overall and we have a month of games left.
Bobby Witt, Jr. is having a very impressive rookie season . . . for fantasy baseball. With 20 homers and 26 steals, he has the power/speed combination that every fantasy baseball manager is looking for. In the real world, his .288 OBP and less-than-stellar defense have cut into his value. FanGraphs has him worth right around 2 WAR, which is fifth among AL rookies, while Baseball-Reference dings him harder for his defense and has him with 0.6 WAR. For what it’s worth, Statcast has Witt near the bottom of the list among shortstops, with -7 Outs Above Average.
Spencer Torkelson looked good for a couple weeks, hitting.231/.362/.478 through the first game of a double-header on April 23, but then went 4-for-50 with no extra-base hits, no RBI, and 21 strikeouts over his next 16 games. The Tigers stuck with him until the All-Star break, then finally sent him down to AAA. He was recalled on September 2 but is no longer in the AL Rookie of the Year discussion.
Out in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Julio Rodríguez improved after his rough first few weeks and his hot bat has stayed hot over the last four-plus months. Since April 22, he’s hit .279/.338/.504 (143 wRC+). He became the odds-on favorite for AL Rookie of the Year in the middle of June and had yet to relinquish that spot as the calendar flipped to September.
Like Rodríguez, Rutschman also took some time to acclimate to the big leagues, as he hit .176/.256/.257 in his first 20 games (that’s a well below average 49 wRC+). Something clicked around the middle of June. Over the last 11 weeks, he’s hit .271/.386/.495 (153 wRC+) and helped the Baltimore Orioles stay in the conversation for an AL wild card spot.
A longshot who has come on strong recently is Seattle Mariners pitcher George Kirby, who was recently named AL Rookie of the Month after going 4-0 with a 2.15 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 29.3 innings in August. Kirby had a 3.46 ERA in May and a 4.67 ERA in June before coming into his own in July and August (combined 2.17 ERA in nine starts).
Kirby and Rodríguez have been key factors in the Mariners currently holding one of the three AL wild card spots as the franchise looks to end their long playoff drought. The Mariners haven’t made the postseason since 2001, which is the longest stretch of postseasonless play of any team in the four major American sports leagues.
Rutschman has been a key factor for the Orioles, who are still chasing the third AL wild card spot and striving to make the playoffs after losing 110 games last season. It would be a remarkable achievement if the group makes the postseason. Rodríguez is the favorite for AL Rookie of the Year, but Rutschman has been nearly as good by some measures and in 32 fewer games played so far. He has an argument. Either way, it should be a fun final month in the American League.
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Louis DeTitto is a Philadelphia-based security management expert and sports fan.