By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
The Washington Nationals have won the National League East three of the past four seasons, running away with the division early on last year. They are poised to make another run in 2018 and are backed by a strong farm system, but they aren’t the only team in their division with players ready to break out.
The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves are hoping to be near the end of their rebuilds, and the New York Mets are looking to stay healthy and return to the form that saw them in the World Series just three years ago. Here’s a look at one player from each team set to make an impact this season.
Victor Robles, Outfielder, Washington Nationals
Ranked as the No. 3 prospect in baseball by MLB.com, Robles got some experience in 13 games with the Nationals last year and even got a taste of postseason baseball with two appearances in the Divisional Series. Since signing out of the Dominican Republic in ‘13, Robles, now 20 years old, has improved at every level of the Minor Leagues. The outfielder’s power has been improving, and he hit a career-high 10 homers with an impressive .300/.382/.493 slash line in 114 games between Class A Advanced and Double A last year.
Robles’ power is coming along, but it’s the speed that elevates him to the top of the prospect field. He has shown off his wheels with 110 steals in 332 career Minor League games, and even boasts a .304 batting average over that span. Robles is off to a nice start this Spring and has also flashed the leather in the outfield with some highlight-reel grabs. He hasn’t had time at Triple-A yet and the Nats might want to start him there rather than leave him on the big league bench to start the season. With Bryce Harper in right field and Adam Eaton in left, Robles’ likely destination in Washington will be center field — but not if Michael A. Taylor has anything to say. Taylor is coming off a breakout year of his own (19 HRs, 17 SBs, .271 AVG), and it’s very likely that the starting job will be his to begin the year. It’s likely only a matter of time, however, that Robles takes a spot in the outfield. Whether it‘s due to an injury or he just forces his way up with his performance, expect to see the Nationals’ top prospect in the Majors for good at some point this summer.
Sandy Alcantara, Pitcher, Miami Marlins
The Marlins are making no bones about their rebuild, but the new front office in Miami — contrary to popular belief — isn’t just giving away talent. Alcantara was the key return from the St. Louis Cardinals in the Marcell Ozuna trade, and the Marlins are hoping the fire-baller is more than just a hard-throwing reliever. Alcantara was a starter in the Minors for the Cardinals and had mixed results in his first stint in Double-A last year with a 4.31 ERA in 22 starts (25 games) and a 3.88 BB/9. While the control has been an issue, St. Louis liked his arm enough to give him a look in the bullpen late last year, and his 8 1/3 innings were somewhat predictable, as he struck out 10, walked six and gave up two homers.
Now in Miami, Alcantara is focusing on starting and is battling for one of the final three rotation spots this spring. He’s impressed so far and is an early favorite for one of the spots after giving up one run on four hits with three strikeouts in his first five innings. The 22-year-old right-hander boasts a fastball that sat around 98 MPH in his brief stint in the bigs last year and will likely be around 95-98 as a starter. Alcantara also features a curveball and slider, and he is working on a change-up that, if it becomes a consistent weapon, could really help him excel as a four-pitch starter in the Majors.
Ronald Acuna, Outfielder, Atlanta Braves
The consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball entering this season, many have already tabbed the 20-year-old outfielder as the early favorite for NL Rookie of the Year. Acuna is coming off an unbelievable breakout season as a 19-year-old, hitting 31 doubles and 21 homers and stealing 44 bases with a .325/.374/.522 line in 139 games while progressing all the way from Class A Advanced to Triple A. The most impressive part of his season was that not only did he not skip a beat at each level, but he arguably got better after each callup — particularly shining at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Acuna hasn’t slowed down since, earning Arizona Fall League MVP honors with a .325/.414/.639 slash and seven homers in 23 games. He took New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka deep for his first Spring homer last week and it’s become clear he’s ready for the next step at the Major Leagues. Of course, there is the issue of service time, and it’s likely the Braves will keep him down in the Minors to start the season in order to get another year of control. But that is likely the only thing that will delay Acuna’s big league breakout. He’ll be starting in center field and hitting near the middle of the Braves’ order by no later than June.
Amed Rosario, Shortstop, New York Mets
Rosario entered last season as a consensus top 10 overall prospect coming off his best year in the Minors, so expectations were high in New York. After putting up more impressive numbers in his first stint in Triple-A (33 extra-base hits, 19 stolen bases, .328 average in 96 games), Rosario got the call to Queens. Unfortunately, that’s where he finally hit a wall. The shortstop was unable to show off the consistent contact that makes him profile as a future star, and when he’s not making contact, his inability to generate walks comes to the forefront. While Rosario did manage to show off his speed with four triples and seven steals, he struck out 49 times in 46 games while drawing just three walks. There will always be growing pains with young hitters, and strikeouts are more accepted in today’s game, but those numbers just aren’t going to cut it.
Rosario made it to the bigs at 22 years old for a reason, as he posted an impressive .296/.331/.405 slash line with 60 stolen bases in five Minor League seasons. While his power ceiling is relatively low, if he can reduce the swings and misses and get back to being the line-drive contact hitter he was in the Minors, he’ll be able to show why the Mets think so highly of him. ZiPS projections have Rosario hitting nine homers and stealing 20 bases with a .259/.295/.380 line — reasonable, yet subdued expectations. Those power and speed numbers seem on point, but Rosario has the ability to hit much higher than that, and a few key adjustments can get him there.
Rhys Hoskins, Left Field, Philadelphia Phillies
In a year where the headlines were taken over by rookie phenoms Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, another rookie not-so-quietly put together a historic second half. A fifth round draft pick in ’14, Hoskins made his name known two years later when he mashed 38 homers in a full season at Double-A Reading. He followed that up with 29 blasts in 115 games at Triple-A last year before he joined the Phillies in August and proceeded to put together a never-before-seen power display in which he went deep 18 times in a 30-game span.
Hoskins slowed down a bit in the final two weeks of the season, and he hit just .135/.292/.192 in his final 65 plate appearances, but the power he displayed is no fluke and offers a glimpse into what the slugger can do over the course of a 162-game season. Hoskins’ batted ball stats back his ability to go deep consistently, as his 31.6 HR/FB rate ranked fifth in baseball among players with a minimum of 200 plate appearances. For reference, Matt Olson, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and JD Martinez are the players who ranked ahead of him, and of those four, only Martinez (49%) had a higher rate of hard-hit balls than Hoskins’ 46%. To go along with the legitimate power, Hoskins didn’t have an OBP below .377 since reaching Class A in ’15, and he drew walks at an incredible rate in his time in the bigs last year. ZiPS has him going deep 34 times in 152 games this season with a .264/.356/.513 slash, and you can put that on the conservative side of projections as he slots into the cleanup spot of the Phillies’ lineup for what the team hopes is a long time.