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The most-anticipated debuts in MLB history

@mattkellyMLB
April 26, 2019

Baseball has seen its share of players who have been hyped before they ever played a game in the Major Leagues. Some were the subject of fascination from the moment they were drafted or signed. Others developed into big names through their performance in the Minors. Then there are the

Baseball has seen its share of players who have been hyped before they ever played a game in the Major Leagues.

Some were the subject of fascination from the moment they were drafted or signed. Others developed into big names through their performance in the Minors. Then there are the international players who starred as professionals in another country before making the jump to MLB.

Whatever their backstory, these hot prospects caused fans to wait for their debuts with bated breath. Here’s a look back at the most-anticipated debuts in big league history.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays -- April 26, 2019

Few prospects have performed better or generated more hype in the Minor Leagues than Guerrero, who also carries on his shoulders the expectations of being a Hall of Famer’s son. But the 20-year-old hardly seemed fazed by the immense pressure when he took the field against the A’s at Rogers Centre. Not known for his defense at third base, Guerrero made a couple of smooth plays in the field. He started 0-for-3 at the plate -- despite a couple of deep fly balls -- but came through with an opposite-field double in the top of the ninth that set up teammate Brandon Drury’s walk-off two-run homer.

Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves -- April 25, 2018

Acuna was MLB’s second-ranked prospect behind Ohtani, but his arrival came with just as much excitement from Atlanta fans who had seen the 20-year-old tear up Minor League pitching. The five-tool prospect began the season with Triple-A Gwinnett before getting his callup for a road game in Cincinnati, where he singled, showed off his blazing speed going from first to third and scored the tying run in a 5-4 Braves win.

Shohei Ohtani, Angels -- March 29, 2018

Ohtani was perhaps the story of the 2018 regular season thanks to his incredible two-way athletic ability. As someone who could reach triple digits off a pitching mound and hit majestic homers at the plate -- on top of the mystery of climbing up the ranks in Japan, where American fans only heard of his prowess second-hand -- it was hard to create a more compelling narrative. Ohtani singled in his first Major League at-bat on Opening Day and then struck out six in his first MLB start two days later before going on to capture American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Kris Bryant, Cubs -- April 17, 2015

Bryant had put up a 1.036 OPS with Triple-A Iowa in 2014, but the Cubs began ’15 with Mike Olt as their starting third baseman. Bryant got off to another hot start that spring with Iowa, and when Olt suffered a hairline fracture in his hand, it was Bryant’s time. The Las Vegas native went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts while debuting in front of the Wrigley faithful, but he finished the year with 26 homers and 99 RBIs in a Rookie of the Year campaign. With Bryant in the heart of the lineup, the Cubs made their first trip to the NLCS in 12 years and then captured their first World Series title in 108 years the following autumn.

Bryce Harper, Nationals -- April 28, 2012

A Sports Illustrated cover story, tales of 500-foot home runs and comparisons to the great Mickey Mantle. Those were the kinds of things accompanying Harper on his way to Dodger Stadium, where he made his debut at just 19 years of age about a year and a half after the Nationals selected him with the No. 1 overall pick. Harper hit a standup double to the wall in the top of the seventh and also made an impressive throw home to show off his tools, and then captured Rookie of the Year honors with one of the best teenage seasons in history.

Yu Darvish, Rangers -- April 9, 2012

The Rangers bid more than $1 million just to land exclusive negotiating rights with Darvish before signing the Japanese phenom to a six-year, $60 million deal. Darvish had already shown in the World Baseball Classic that he could compete at the highest level, and though his debut against Seattle was rocky (5 ER, 4 BB over 5 2/3 IP), the righty quickly proved his talent by finishing the 2012 season with 221 strikeouts.

Aroldis Chapman, Reds -- Aug. 31, 2010

Chapman’s entry to the Majors centered on one thing: The radar gun. The lefty defected from Cuba with dreams of showcasing his triple-digit fastball on the game’s biggest stage, and he did that immediately by hitting 102 mph during a clean inning against the Padres to a standing ovation in Cincinnati. The “Cuban Missile” hit 103.9 mph the following night, and a velocity legend was off and running.

Stephen Strasburg, Nationals -- June 9, 2010

Strasburg still has a claim toward the most-hyped prospect of modern times. The righty’s Minor League starts were receiving as much fanfare as Major League action. His blazing triple-digit fastball worked their way up the ranks, further stoking the hype from his time at San Diego State University, where he was labeled by some as the best amateur pitcher ever. It’s extraordinary to think that Strasburg was once a non-prospect with a high-80s fastball as a high schooler, especially after he struck out 14 Pirates hitters -- including the last seven batters he faced -- in one of the most electric debuts of all time.

Jason Heyward, Braves -- April 5, 2010

How’s this for a debut? Heyward began the Braves’ home opener by catching a ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron, and then he homered off Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano in his first big league at-bat as Atlanta routed Chicago. Heyward, an Atlanta-area native, was already a sensation before he stepped in at the plate. With one swing, he quickly proved that he belonged.

David Price, Rays -- Sept. 14, 2008

The Rays were already on their way to a rather surprising AL East division title when they announced that Price, their No. 1 overall Draft pick from the year prior, was ready to make his big league debut. That debut came at none other than old Yankee Stadium, where the lefty impressed with 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball on three hits while striking out four. He went on to pick up a win and a save in the ALCS against the defending World Series champion Red Sox at just 23 years of age.

Daisuke Matsuzaka, Red Sox -- April 5, 2007

Matsuzaka, the MVP of each of the first two World Baseball Classics with Team Japan, set off one of the most intense bidding wars in baseball history that ended with the Red Sox as the winners -- first after bidding more than $51 million to earn negotiating rights and then signing the pitcher to a six-year, $52 million contract. His first big league start against Kansas City included 10 strikeouts, and he finished his first campaign with 15 wins and a 4.40 ERA before helping Boston win its second World Series title in four years.

Mark Prior, Cubs -- May 22, 2002

Though injuries would eventually become the story of Prior’s career, there’s no denying how talented he was while winning three separate player of the year awards at USC and inspiring the Cubs to take him with the No. 2 overall pick. Prior needed just nine Minor League starts (51 innings) before debuting with Chicago against Pittsburgh, striking out 10 Pirates hitters while allowing two runs over six innings in front of a pumped-up crowd at Wrigley Field.

Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners -- April 2, 2001

Ichiro’s exploits in Japan certainly spoke volumes: Three Pacific League MVP Awards, seven batting titles and seven Gold Glove Awards, along with numerous other accolades. But Ichiro still had skeptics to overcome -- including his own manager, Lou Piniella, as the first Japanese position player to play overseas in America. Well, that skepticism didn't last long, as Ichiro's rookie campaign -- which netted him the 2001 AL MVP -- ranks among the absolute best in Major League history. It all began April 2 against the A's at Safeco Field, where Ichiro went 2-for-5 in a 5-4 Mariners win.

Andruw Jones, Braves -- Aug. 15, 1996

Atlanta was well on the way toward defending its World Series title with a seven-game lead in the NL East when it called up its 19-year-old center fielder. General manager John Schuerholz actually traded outfielder Mark Whiten to Seattle in part to make room for the game’s top prospect, who had hit .339 with 34 home runs across three levels in the Minors over the summer of 1996. Jones got a hit while batting second between Marquis Grissom and Chipper Jones in his debut at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, and later that fall he became the youngest player to homer in a World Series.

Alex Rodriguez, Mariners -- July 8, 1994

A-Rod might have been the most complete prospect of the modern era, mixing Major League-ready talent at the plate with speed on the bases and athleticism at shortstop. His first MLB game came at Fenway Park, a place where he would become notorious in later days as a Yankees star. While he went 0-for-3 in that game, Rodriguez became one of the American League’s best players by 1996, when he finished runner-up in league MVP voting.

Jim Abbott, Angels -- April 8, 1989

Interest in Abbott’s debut centered around more than just his talent, since Abbott was born without the use of a right hand. He was the top collegiate pitcher at Michigan and had pitched Team USA to a gold medal in the 1988 Olympics before signing with the Angels for $200,000, and then he bypassed the Minors altogether to become just the 17th player in the Draft era to make his professional debut in the Major Leagues. Abbott took the loss after allowing six runs (three earned) to the Mariners in that debut, but he finished the year third in Rookie of the Year voting after compiling a 3.92 ERA over 29 starts.

Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners -- April 3, 1989

Griffey might be the other contender, alongside A-Rod, for the best prospect to come along before Guerrero. Expectations were sky-high after the son of an All-Star outfielder -- who grew up in the clubhouses of the Big Red Machine -- was taken No. 1 overall by Seattle in the 1987 MLB Draft, and he was the youngest position player to debut in over a decade when he took the field against the defending AL champion A’s on Opening Day in Oakland. Griffey doubled off Dave Stewart in his first big league at-bat, and he went on to finish third in AL Rookie of the Year voting after hitting 16 homers and driving in 61.

Gregg Jefferies, Mets -- Sept. 6, 1987

Former Mets manager Davey Johnson once stated that Jefferies could hit .300 standing on his head, and those were the expectations for the California native after the Mets drafted him 20th overall in 1985. Jefferies was the first two-time winner of Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award and graced the publication’s cover five times before he reached the big leagues, thanks in large part to his .353/.401/.549 slash line across Class A and Double-A in 1986. The Mets brought Jefferies up from Double-A just 36 days after his 20th birthday, but he found the majority of his success -- including two All-Star seasons -- later on with the Cardinals and Phillies.

Bo Jackson, Royals -- Sept. 2, 1986

Jackson ranks among the greatest athletes in professional sports, period, and he initially spurned the Yankees after they drafted him in 1982 to play football and baseball at Auburn University. Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as the nation’s best collegiate player on the gridiron and then refused to play for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers because he felt they tried to derail his baseball career. The Royals seized the opportunity and drafted him in the fourth round of the 1986 Draft, and he honored his commitment to Kansas City by suiting up for the club that summer. Jackson got his first hit off 41-year-old White Sox pitcher Steve Carlton, the future Hall of Famer who was nearing the end of his career. Jackson went on to play both baseball and football professionally, of course, and became one of the most famous athletes in the history of North American sports.

Dwight Gooden, Mets -- April 7, 1984

Gooden needed less than two seasons in the Minors before the Mets felt he and his unbelievable stuff were ready for big league hitters. “Doc” climbed the mound at the Astrodome for his debut at just 19 years and 143 days of age and let his high-90s fastball and world-class curveball go to work, striking out five Houston hitter over five one-run innings. His rookie campaign only got better from there, of course, as Gooden finished the year with 17 wins and a freshman-record 276 strikeouts.

Darryl Strawberry, Mets -- May 6, 1983

Mets fans hoped that Strawberry, the No. 1 overall pick of the 1980 Draft from Crenshaw High in Los Angeles, would help lift their team out of the NL doldrums -- and Strawberry’s debut did indeed ignite a slow turnaround in Queens. ‘Straw’ was 21 when he debuted at Shea Stadium and drew two walks and scored a run in New York’s 13-inning win over the Reds. He went on to win NL Rookie of the Year honors with a 26-homer campaign before blossoming into one of the league’s most fearsome sluggers of the decade.

David Clyde, Rangers -- June 27, 1973

Clyde’s high school record in the suburbs of Houston was about as sterling as it could be, as the lefty went 18-0 with five no-hitters during his senior year. That prompted the 100-loss Rangers to take Clyde with the top overall pick in the 1973 Draft, just ahead of Robin Yount and Dave Winfield, and then call him straight up to the Majors at age 18. Clyde requested uniform number 32 in honor of Sandy Koufax and received an encouraging telegram from the legendary ace, and all that hype was enough to pack in 32,000 fans at Arlington Stadium. That’s where the comparisons to Koufax would end, however, as Clyde pitched in parts of just five Major League seasons and finished 18-33 with a career 4.63 ERA.

Willie Mays, Giants -- May 25, 1951

Mays’ .477 average led all Triple-A hitters by nearly 100 points when the fifth-place Giants announced that they were calling their prodigious center fielder up to the big league club. Mays’ arrival attracted hordes of African-American fans who didn’t typically attend games at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, and his pregame practice session drew plenty of eyes -- both for his prowess in the cage and his grace tracking down fly balls in the outfield. Giants manager Leo Durocher put Mays right in the third spot in his batting order, but the “Say Hey Kid” would go hitless in his first 12 at-bats before homering off the great Warren Spahn to get his incredible career off and running.

Mickey Mantle, Yankees -- April 17, 1951

When it comes to mythical, sent-from-the-heavens baseball prodigies, the conversation must begin with Mantle. Born the son of a miner in Oklahoma, Mantle rose from obscurity to become the natural heir to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio in the eyes of Yankees fans thanks to his preternatural speed and, of course, his neck-craning, tape-measure home runs. Mantle nearly quit baseball in 1951 after suffering through a slump, but a stern discussion with his father, Mutt, inspired Mantle to go on an absolute tear with Triple-A Kansas City, finishing his tenure there with a .361 average and 11 home runs in 166 at-bats. The Commerce Comet debuted with a ton of fanfare against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium and batted third between fellow legends Phil Rizzuto and DiMaggio. He hit an RBI single and came around to score in the bottom of the sixth, and one of baseball’s most revered careers was underway.

Satchel Paige, Indians -- Aug. 3, 1948

Paige’s stardom was already well established in the Negro Leagues, of course, but he had to wait more than two decades before he could display his talent in the Majors. Paige was arguably the most famous pitcher in America when Indians owner Bill Veeck signed him at age 41 to help his club capture a pennant, and the legend proved that age was just a number by going 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA down the stretch. Paige’s big league debut brought in 72,000 fans to set an attendance record for a night game, and he survived a pair of runs allowed in the first to lead Cleveland to a 5-3 win over the St. Louis Browns.

Jackie Robinson, Dodgers -- April 15, 1947

The atmosphere surrounding Robinson’s debut was wholly unlike that of any other player on this list, of course, as he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier. The significance of those circumstances made Robinson’s debut one of the most famous days in modern American history, let alone baseball’s, and it opened the door for thousands of African-American players, including Paige, to follow in his footsteps. Robinson reached on a throwing error in the seventh and came around to score in his first game at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, but he would have to endure much more vocal abuse once he and his Dodgers teammates hit the road. Robinson persevered anyway, capturing MLB’s first Rookie of the Year Award and compiling a Hall of Fame career. MLB now honors Robinson's debut with league-wide celebrations every April 15.

Bob Feller, Indians -- July 19, 1936

Feller’s friends in Van Meter, Iowa, were working summer jobs before their senior years of high school when the 17-year-old came on in the eighth inning of the Indians’ 9-5 loss to the Senators in Washington, D.C. His MLB debut included a strikeout, of course, as he worked around a pair of walks for a clean frame, but he really got people’s attention in his first big league start one month later. That’s when “Rapid Robert” struck out 15 Browns hitters and began his tenure as baseball’s most dominant strikeout ace.

Joe DiMaggio, Yankees -- May 3, 1936

DiMaggio, like Mantle, came from humble beginnings and was the son of Italian immigrants in the San Francisco area. Baseball was a way for DiMaggio to escape his father’s profession as a fisherman, and he used that motivation to make a name for himself in the Pacific Coast League, compiling a 61-game hit steak (foreshadowing the future) with the San Francisco Seals. A career-threatening knee injury for DiMaggio didn’t dissuade Yankees scout Bill Essick from signing the kid to a $50,000 contract and he debuted ahead of Lou Gehrig in the Yankees’ lineup at 21 years of age. The rest was history.

Rube Marquard, Giants -- Sept. 25, 1908

We’re stretching our collective memory here, but Marquard deserves mention after an auction for his services caused a bidding war between 10 Major League clubs -- with the Giants coming out on top at $11,000 -- an enormous sum for the time period. That earned Marquard the distinction of “the $11,000 beauty,” and Giants manager John McGraw put him right into the middle of a pennant race, with his debut coming just two days after Fred Merkle’s famous miscue against the Cubs. Marquard might not have been ready for the moment, as he allowed five runs in five innings, but under the tutelage of baseball legend Christy Mathewson he turned things around to become a Hall of Fame pitcher.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.