8 under-the-radar rookies grabbing our attention

April 24th, 2019

You’ve heard a lot about Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr., and justifiably so. Both of them have greatness written all over them. You may have been tracking Victor Robles and Eloy Jimenez before they made their Major League debuts, and like the rest of us, you’ll be thrilled when the Blue Jays call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Just when you think baseball can’t have another rookie class as good as last season’s, or the season before that, another wave of talent arrives. Here’s the best part: A whole bunch of less heralded rookies are making their presence felt, too.

If you’re taking a second and third look at the standings, if the Rays are better than you thought they’d be, if you're wondering why the Mariners, Padres, D-backs and Mets are off to strong starts, this is a good place to start.

While it’s way too early to start fussing over a Rookie of the Year ballot, here are eight unheralded youngsters we’ve already fallen in love with:

1) Brandon Brennan, Mariners, RHP (11 games, 1.29 ERA, 0.786 WHIP): Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto and his analytics staff took this 27-year-old from the Rockies in the Rule 5 Draft last December because they correctly identified his changeup as a potentially dominant weapon. He’s throwing it almost half the time and using it to set up his 95-mph fastball to give manager Scott Servais a reliable late-inning addition to his bullpen.

2) Brandon Lowe, Rays, 2B (.280 BA, 6 HR, 5 2B, .919 OPS): The Rays were so impressed with him during a 43-game debut last summer that they signed him to a contract extension that could be worth up to $49 million over the next eight seasons. He has been everything they hoped for, and while he could end up moving around the diamond in a Ben Zobrist-type super-utility role, he has spent most of 2019 as Tampa Bay’s everyday second baseman.

3) Chris Paddack, Padres, RHP (2.25 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 9.5 K/9): The Padres have more pitching depth than any team in the Majors and weren’t even certain this 23-year-old right-hander would make the club out of Spring Training; he took the decision out of their hands with his performance. His fastball sits at 94 mph, and his changeup is a thing of beauty. Paddack has allowed more than one earned run once in four starts.

4) Alex Verdugo, Dodgers, OF (.346 BA, 3 HR, 1.005 OPS): The Dodgers face a familiar problem with a top prospect -- playing time. That’s the problem Cody Bellinger encountered two years ago, and as problems go, it’s one every organization would love to have. Verdugo is as polished as any 22-year-old.

5) Yoan Lopez, D-backs, RHP (12 games, 0.96 ERA, 0.964 WHIP): His fastball sits consistently at 96 mph and is made even better by a hard slider that is also a quality pitch. Lopez has been effective enough that manager Torey Lovullo has shifted him from a middle-inning role at the beginning of the season to the seventh and eighth innings in five of his last six appearances. He’s finally living up to the promise that earned him a $8.27 million bonus from Arizona after he defected from Cuba in 2015.

6) Christian Walker, D-backs, 1B (.329 BA, 7 HR, 1.077 OPS): Staying in Arizona … Walker was once a top prospect with the Orioles, before the D-backs got him off waivers from the Reds in March 2017. He turned 28 last month, so he doesn’t really qualify as a kid anymore, but he maintains his rookie status despite debuting all the way back in 2014 with Baltimore. When Paul Goldschmidt was traded to the Cardinals, he finally had an opportunity to play and has made the most of his chance. The numbers thus far suggest that he’s for real.

7) John Means, Orioles, LHP (6 games, 1.72 ERA): This is an evaluation season for Baltimore’s new brain trust, and they appear to have found a keeper in this 25-year-old, who was an 11th-round Draft pick in 2014 out of West Virginia and possesses a solid fastball-changeup combination. Whether his long-term future is as a starter or reliever remains to be seen.

8) Willians Astudillo, Twins, C (.295 BA, 2 HR, .835 OPS): We do not leave instant cult heroes off these lists, it’s right there in the regulations. This 27-year-old is one of the most unique players in the Majors. We’re not sure of his position -- he has played five already this year -- but one strikeout in 48 plate appearances (and one walk) get your attention. At 5-foot-9 and listed at 225, he has that everyman quality we all love.