Many things will be different about the 2020 baseball season, including the race for the Rookie of the Year Award. In fact, the term “race” is probably more appropriate this year since the 60-game sample size leaves little margin for error.
In a standard 162-game season, a prospect wouldn’t necessarily have to crack the Opening Day roster to vie for the award. Yordan Alvarez, last year’s American League ROY, didn’t debut until June 9 and played in 87 games, or 54% of the season (the equivalent of 32 games in 2020).
Given the length of the year, it seems likely the 2020 Rookie of the Year Award winners will either be on the Opening Day roster, or called up shortly thereafter. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the leading candidates:
Gavin Lux, SS/2B, Dodgers No. 1/MLB No. 2: Lux reported a few days late to Summer Camp, but all indications are that he’s healthy and will be ready to go. Assuming that’s the case, he’s the clear front-runner in the National League. The 22-year-old absolutely raked in the Minors last season, hitting .347 with 26 homers over 113 games, including a ridiculous 50-game on-base streak. After tearing up the Minors, Lux was promoted to Los Angeles, where he hit .240 with a .705 OPS over 23 games and played his way onto the postseason roster. The second baseman has the ability to hit for average and power and is also a plus runner with the potential to swipe 15-20 bases a year. With an advanced approach at the plate, as well as the ability to leg out infield hits, it’s hard to envision Lux going into a prolonged slump, something that will have even more importance in a condensed season.
Carter Kieboom, 3B, Nationals No. 1/MLB No. 21: Opportunity and performance are the two obvious requirements to winning this award, and Kieboom already has the first box checked. Nationals manager Dave Martinez recently named Kieboom the team’s starting third baseman. The 22-year-old struggled in his brief taste of the Majors last season and hit .128 over 11 games. In 109 games with Triple-A Fresno, Kieboom hit .303/.409/.493 and many expect that success to carry over once he adjusts more to Major League pitching. However, there are some questions about Kieboom's defense because he has limited experience at third base. While questions about his ability to handle the hot corner are fair, if Kieboom hits, the Nationals will find a way to keep his bat in the lineup.
Luis Robert, OF, White Sox No. 1/MLB No. 3: Few players can match Robert’s ceiling, which is why the White Sox gave him a $26 million signing bonus (and paid nearly as much in penalty tax) in 2017 and then inked him to a six-year, $50 million deal earlier this year. Robert has yet to make his Major League debut, but the five-tool player has very few weaknesses in his game and is coming off a ridiculous 2019 season. The 22-year-old hit .328 with 32 homers and 36 stolen bases over 122 games and became the youngest 30-30 player in the Minor Leagues since 1999. While we’ve yet to see Robert face Major League pitching, there’s little doubt he’ll be able to perform. The only question may be how long it takes him to adjust. Robert got off to a fast start last season, hitting .453 in April, and if he sprints out of the gate again, it may not take him very long to wrap up the AL ROY.
Brendan McKay, LHP/DH, Rays No. 2/MLB No. 15: McKay is certainly one of the more intriguing names on this list because of his two-way ability. McKay’s Rookie of the Year Award candidacy hinges on how the Rays decide to use him. The 24-year-old primarily served as a pitcher last year, pitching to a 5.14 ERA over 49 innings (13 games, 11 starts), and he went 2-for-10 at the plate. While those numbers don’t jump off the page, McKay held opponents scoreless in three of his final five outings, has thrown strikes at every level and most importantly, has big league experience. In a year in which players will be asked to adjust to various new rules and routines, the fact that McKay has experience against Major League competition could give him an advantage.
PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Dustin May, RHP, Dodgers No. 2/MLB No. 23: David Price’s decision not to play in 2020 could open the door for May to take on an increased role. The 22-year-old got a taste of the Majors last year and fared well, posting a 3.63 ERA with 32 strikeouts over 34 2/3 innings. With a mid-to-upper 90s fastball, a low-90s cutter and a curveball, May not only has an impressive arsenal of pitches, but also boasts plus command. If he pitches well, and the Dodgers are in contention as expected, May will pitch in some high-leverage contests, and performing well in those moments always carries weight when it comes to voting for awards.
Mitch Keller, RHP, Pirates No. 1/MLB No. 39: While Keller struggled in the big leagues in 2019, going 1-5 with a 7.13 ERA, 65 strikeouts and 16 walks over 48 innings, there’s no question he has the stuff necessary to succeed. Keller, a second-round pick from the 2014 Draft, has a fastball that sits in the mid 90s and an above-average curveball to pair with a slider and changeup. Keller has struggled with command over the past couple seasons but seemed to be figuring it out toward the end of 2019. The right-hander will have an opportunity to contribute right away as he’s expected to begin the season in the Pirates’ rotation. If Keller can hone his command, then he could be in the ROY conversation late in the season.
Dylan Carlson, OF, Cardinals No. 1/MLB No. 17: Is Carlson capable of producing enough to win this award? Yes, of course. However, it’s not certain he’ll be on the Opening Day roster, and that’s likely going to be very important in 2020. While I expect Carlson to debut this season, especially with expanded rosters, the “when” may determine his award viability. The 21-year-old set a career high with 26 homers in 2019 and carried that success into Spring Training, where he went 10-for-32 with a .905 OPS. Spring Training stats aren’t indicative of Major League success, but Carlson was able to put his tools on display and make a strong impression.
Jesús Luzardo, LHP, A’s No. 1/MLB No. 12: While A’s fans and prospect aficionados had been aware of Luzardo for quite some time, the 22-year-old introduced himself to the baseball world with three scoreless innings in last year’s American League Wild Card game. Luzardo recently tested positive for coronavirus and there’s no telling how much time he may miss. If the lefty is able to return soon and begin the year in the rotation, he’s already shown he can have success against Major League hitters. Pitching exclusively out of the bullpen, Luzardo racked up 16 strikeouts and yielded two runs over 12 innings while showcasing an upper-90s fastball and one of the best changeups among prospects. If Luzardo is unable to start the season on time, there’s still every expectation he’ll be a key contributor to a club projected to contend for a title, but a lack of innings may hamper his ability to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
Sean Murphy, C, A’s No. 2/MLB No. 33: While Murphy may be known for his defense and his incredibly strong arm, he’s far from a defense-only catcher. The 2016 third-round pick also has solid power and slugged .566 in 20 games last season. The delayed start to the 2020 season also gives Murphy additional recovery time after undergoing offseason knee surgery. Murphy is healthy and was on the field in Spring Training, but extra rest for a catcher’s knees is always welcomed. The A’s have two players on this list and it’s conceivable Luzardo and Murphy both play big roles on a team making a postseason push. If that’s the case, the duo may end up stealing some votes from each other (this could get really complicated if A.J. Puk also throws well), but in that scenario A’s fans will probably be more focused on playing deep into October.
Evan White, 1B, Mariners No. 4/MLB No. 56: Opportunity gives White a slight nod over Jo Adell (Angels) in this spot as the 24-year-old Mariners prospect is expected to crack the Opening Day roster. White is widely regarded as the best defensive first base prospect in baseball and is also an advanced hitter. White has hit .296 in his career since the Mariners selected him in the first round of the 2017 Draft and hit a career-high 18 homers last season. White has yet to make his debut, but the Mariners are certainly confident in his abilities as evidenced by the six-year contract they gave him last November.
Additional names to watch
Jo Adell (OF, Angels), Joey Bart (C, Giants), Sam Hilliard (OF, Rockies), Nico Hoerner (SS/2B/OF, Cubs), Nate Pearson (RHP, Blue Jays), Nick Solak (2B/3B/OF, Rangers)