When the Houston Astros selected Alex Bregman with the second overall pick in the 2015 Draft, the club knew it was getting a potential generational talent capable of racing through the Minors and helping the big league team in short order.
That's precisely what Bregman has proved to be in his first full pro season, and it's the reason he was our choice as this year's MLBPipeline.com Hitter of the Year. The award is given annually to the top hitting and pitching prospect in baseball. Nominees are determined and voted on by the MLBPipeline.com staff. Players must have spent at least half the season in the Minor Leagues to be considered.
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Bregman posted remarkable numbers in the Minors this season, batting .306/.406/.580 with 44 extra-base hits, 20 home runs and 61 RBIs, with more walks (47) than strikeouts (38) in 80 games between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Fresno. He became the first position player from the 2015 Draft to reach the Major Leagues when he debuted for Houston on July 25, while his contributions since then on both sides of the ball have helped to keep the Astros in the playoff race.
"That's one of the goals that I set out at the beginning of the year is to get up here and try and help win games and get up here quick," Bregman said. "It was definitely really cool to be the first."
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Signed for $5.9 million, Bregman made an immediate impact during his pro debut with strong performances at the Class A and Class A Advanced levels, prompting the Astros to assign him to Double-A Corpus Christi to begin 2016. The 22-year-old shortstop, ranked No. 22 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list at the time, responded to the challenge by hitting .297 with 14 home runs in 62 games, and he was leading the Texas League in on-base percentage (.415) and slugging (.559) when he was promoted to Triple-A in late June.
Bregman continued to rake at the Minors' highest level, where he hit five home runs in his first eight games and ultimately batted .333/.373/.641 across 18 contests. He also starred as the starting third baseman for U.S. squad in the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Petco Park, collecting hits in his first three at-bats and finishing a home run short of completing the cycle. Shortly thereafter, Bregman was named MLBPipeline.com's new No. 1 overall prospect at a midseason re-rank.
Bregman returned to the Pacific Coast League after the All-Star break in order to get more reps at the hot corner, and it was at that position where he started in his Major League debut in Houston on July 25. All it took was a couple plays early in the game for the slick-fielding Bregman to prove capable at the position, and he's continued to make strides defensively despite the inherent challenges of learning a new position on the fly in the big leagues.
"It's tough. I mean, playing at third is a whole different ballgame really," said Bregman about the transition to third base from shortstop. "The ball gets on you a lot quicker, but a lot of guys helped smooth the transition and our coaches and players have helped."
Bregman's acclimation process at the plate didn't go as smoothly, however, as he began his big league career by going 2-for-38 (.053 average) in his first 10 games, with 10 strikeouts and just one run scored in that span.
"Everybody up here is good," said Bregman when asked about the difficulties he faced upon reaching the big leagues. "You've just got to believe you belong first off, and you've got to go out there and do it and just not worry about anything. Really, I think the biggest thing is just playing your game and doing what you do."
Bregman emerged from the slump the next day with a 3-for-5 performance that included his first double and RBI. More importantly, it began a torrid month-long stretch at the plate for the young right-handed batter.
Bregman has been one of top hitters in the American League since Aug. 6, batting .328/.375/.608 with 41 hits across 29 games. Entering Wednesday, he ranked among the top two rookies in the circuit in that span with his 27 runs scored (first), 27 RBIs (first), 10 doubles (tied-second), seven home runs (second) and .983 OPS (second). Overall, Bregman has produced a .264/.320/.479 batting line in 39 big league games.
"Honestly, my swing kind of got away from me maybe the last week in Triple-A or so," said the New Mexico native. "I was like 0-for-11 before I got called up and I had to make a change to get back to what I was doing early in the season. It was just my hand path that had changed, and once we got that going, it's been a lot better.
"I'm definitely not satisfied," Bregman added, "and I always want to do better and learn more and get better."
During his hot streak, Bregman has paced Houston to 17 wins in its past 29 contests and, in the process, improved the club's chances of reaching the postseason in 2016. Entering Wednesday's contest against Cleveland, the Astros faced a 1 1/2-game deficit in the AL Wild Card race.
"You want to play for a team that's winning and a team that's good, and getting any opportunity to help us is awesome," Bregman said. "Being able to compete and try and win games is the coolest feeling."
While it would be fitting to see Bregman conclude his impressive rookie campaign on a national stage this October, it's hard to believe that the 2016 season will be his only postseason opportunity. With his tremendous all-around skills, off-the-charts makeup and immense upside, Bregman could help make the Astros contenders for many years to come.
Other candidates for Hitter of the Year included Rockies outfielder David Dahl and Phillies outfielder Dylan Cozens. Dahl batted .314/.394/.569 with 18 homers and 17 steals in 92 Minor League games (mostly in Double-A), and has posted similar numbers in Colorado, where he's hitting .323/.371/.529 with six homers and five steals in 41 contests. He tied a Major League record by hitting safely in his first 17 games at that level.
From a pure statistical standpoint, Cozens had a better year than any Minor Leaguer. The Double-A Eastern League MVP batted .276/.350/.591 and led the Minors in homers (40), RBI (125), total bases (308) and extra-base hits (81); ranked second in runs (106) and slugging; and threw in 21 steals in 22 attempts for good measure.