When you think Rookie of the Year, you think of the Dodgers. In 2016 it was Seager. In 2017 it was Bellinger. Who will it be in 2018? For the last two years, our farm system has spoiled us with the riches of savvy drafts and slick trades. That has resulted in two consecutive NL Rookie of the Year awards. The question then becomes, who could possibly be the next impact rookie for us in 2018? And does anyone in our farm system stand a chance of winning the Rookie of the Year award in 2018?
For starters, let’s look at prospects fairly universally ranked in our top 10 that are either already on the 40 man roster. We are going to also look at players who have an outside chance of contributing this year, but definitely will in 2019.
Like Bellinger last year, and Seager before, Walker Buehler is the undisputed top ranked prospect in our system this year, and for good reason. The 23 year old from Vanderbilt had his first full season with the club last season, and did not fail to impress. Posting a 3.35 ERA and 125 strikeouts across 88.2 innings (good for a 12.69 K/9 rate), he consistently flashed two well-above average pitches: a fastball with life that he can run from 95-99 MPH, and an over-the-top hammer curve rated as the best in our system. He also has a slider that looks more like a cutter at times (due to velocity and break), and a change-up still in the works but with great fade.
For Buehler to make a meaningful impact this season he would need many doors open up for him. Our rotation depth is firm at this point: Kershaw, Hill, Wood, Maeda, Ryu, and McCarthy. With Urias due back some point this season as well. Then we have Stripling and Stewart who can both start games too. Buehler would need to see no less than three of these pitchers either get injured, under-perform, or both in order to even be considered for a call-up, let alone regular playing time. It is pretty difficult to envision him accruing enough time in the rotation to have a shot at making a significant impact, let alone competing for ROY.
The cannon of an arm, right-fielder Alex Verdugo, is fairly universally considered our #2 prospect in the system. He can play pretty much any position in the outfield, and has one of the better arms in the minor leagues. He also has a superb batting eye, striking out less than walking this last year (52 walks/50 strikeouts in 433 at-bats) and makes consistent hard contact (.314 batting average). The one area many scouts is his lack of power (only 6 HR last year at AAA; he did hit 13 in 2016 at AA). But can you honestly complain about power too much when you have a hitter that projects to consistently hit .290-.300+ and walk more than they strike out? Sounds like a perfect #2 spot guy in the lineup.
Either way, Verdugo made a short cameo in September this season. And while his stats didn’t stand out, he has shown excellent poise for a 21 year old. He has consistently risen through the ranks since being drafted in 2014. In all honesty he probably has the best shot of our top prospects to get regular playing time in 2018. With left-field far from certain, Verdugo, with a superb Spring Training could become our regular left-fielder. However, part of the problem though, like with Buehler, is the depth chart. Pederson, Kike, and Toles all rank ahead of Verdugo on the depth chart, and it would take something akin to Bellinger’s highly unique circumstances from last year (combo of Gonzo’s injuries and under-performing) to see him grab a full-time gig.
So aside from Walker Buehler and Alex Verdugo, none of our prospects really stand out as players that could have a significant impact this year on the team. Many may play important depth and backup roles, but none really stand a chance at grabbing playing time. Dennis Santana and Trevor Oaks were recently added to the 40 man roster. But mainly to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. They both fall even further down the starting pitching depth chart than even Buehler. Urias is left off this list because he exhausted his rookie status by two outs last season. And as it stands our other two rookie prospects on the 40 man roster, Tim Locastro and Kyle Farmer, will not see nearly enough time to make that impact.
Is This the End?
Well, in one regard, yes. The Dodgers will likely not repeat for a third straight year with a Rookie of the Year. However, this does not mean we are lacking any potential impact prospects. A lot of highly talented players are eyeballing 2019 to contribute meaningfully (i.e. Buehler, Verdugo, Mitchell White, and possibly Yadier Alvarez). Even beyond that in our lower minor league levels we have a crop of exceedingly talented players that are lining themselves up to be major contributors on our roster in the future.
Most exciting among this bunch, to me, is catcher Keibert Ruiz. At only 19 years old he has slashed an extremely impressive .330/.372/.461 in 201 minor league games. He reached all the way to High-A ball where he was five years younger than the average player there. As a switch hitter, Ruiz also receives high praise for his defensive prowess and receiving ability behind the plate. He likely will start again at A+ ball and could possibly reach AA before his 20th birthday! Once Grandal leaves after 2018, the catching duties will fall to Austin Barnes and Kyle Farmer. Then in a couple years Ruiz should take over.
The Dodgers have an extremely exciting crop of players in their system. Especially at the lower levels with much of our high-level talent graduating in the last three years. It will be very interesting to see who our next true impact prospect will be.
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