Image credit: Kyle Zimmer (Photo by Bill Mitchell)
Opening Day is a day when it’s hard not to get romantic about the return of baseball. But it means even more for MLB players on their first Opening Day roster. Baseball is filled with players who are surprising big leaguers as well as players whose careers long seemed in doubt. Here are nine players I’m thrilled to see get their day in the sun, for a variety of reasons.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP, Royals
It was one of those conversations that are among the perks of the job. Just talking to a scout about what and who they’ve seen. Inevitably, the question comes up, “Who’s the best pitching prospect you’ve seen?”
The answer quickly came back.
Seen on the right day, Zimmer lived up to every expectation. Oh, how we’ve wanted to believe. Zimmer’s minor league career has been Lucy yanking away the football from Charlie Brown time after time. Zimmer made the Top 100 Prospects lists in four different years. He made the Royals’ Top 10 Prospects list five times. All along the way, he barely pitches because of arm and shoulder injuries, but when he did, he would give glimpses of dominance.
Zimmer was part of the same draft class as Michael Wacha, Mike Zunino and Marcus Stroman. The high school players from his draft class (Carlos Correa, Byron Buxton, Corey Seager and Addison Russell) have long been established as big leaguers. As everyone else either succeeded or failed, Zimmer kept getting hurt.
And finally, the Royals and Zimmer decided in the spring of 2018 that they were out of answers. With the Royals’ blessing, Zimmer stopped pitching and instead went and worked out at Driveline Baseball all last summer. It worked, as he was healthy this spring and earned a spot in the Royals’ bullpen with a fastball that once again sits in the mid-90s.
He may never be the front-of-the-rotation starter he once looked to be. But Zimmer is a big leaguer, which didn’t look likely not that long ago.
Michael Reed, OF, Giants
Reed was a toolsy high school outfielder when the Brewers picked him in the fifth round in 2011 and convinced him to give up on a chance to play both football and baseball at Ole Miss. Reed showed that he could get on base and that he could play solid defense in the outfield. He led the Florida State League in on-base percentage in 2014 and made it briefly to Milwaukee in 2015. But he had settled into a role as a useful Triple-A outfielder/emergency replacement until he broke out to lead the minors in OBP (.453) last year with Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett. That earned him his third brief stint in the major leagues, but he was waived during the offseason by the Braves, claimed by the Twins and then traded in a minor deal to the Giants.
And here he is starting in right field on Opening Day. If the 26-year-old Reed is going to go from being a AAAA player to establishing himself in the major leagues, this is his best opportunity. The Giants outfield is holding open auditions and Reed is getting a look.
Richie Martin, SS, Orioles
It’s not all that uncommon for a first-round pick to be left unprotected the first time he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft. But usually, it’s the final confirmation of a career that has gone far off track. The A’s left Martin unprotected on the heels of a solid season in Double-A, which was somewhat surprising. But what happened next is much more unusual.
Normally, Rule 5 picks are added to teams as backups in hopes they can contribute more in the future. Martin has stepped right into the starting shortstop job, which he played on Opening Day. That almost never happens. In fact, Martin is the first No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 draft to start immediately on Opening Day since Bobby Brown started in left field for the Blue Jays on Opening Day in 1979.
Elvis Luciano, RHP, Blue Jays
Luciano is on the Opening Day roster by roster quirk, not merit. That’s nothing against Luciano, but he’s a Rule 5 pick who is the perfect definition of a player being stashed for the future. Luciano came into the season having never picked above Rookie-ball. His spring training produced a Boeing ERA (7.27) and 11 hits in 8.2 innings. The hope for the Blue Jays is that he can pitch low-leverage innings this year, then go back to the minors to get more seasoning next season.
But he does an excellent job of making many baseball fans feel old. Luciano will become the first player born in 2000 or later to make it to the majors the first time he gets into a game.
Robert Stock, RHP, Padres
Stock did everything when he was in high school. He was one of the best pitchers and hitters in the country, and earned Baseball America’s Youth Player of the Year award before skipping his senior season of high school to play at Southern California.
And then everything started to fall apart. Drafted as a hitter in 2009, Stock showed no power and eventually switched to pitching in 2012. He was released by the Cardinals in 2014. He was released by the Astros at the end of spring training in 2015. The Pirates picked him up, but when he hit minor league free agency at the end of the 2015 season, no one called.
So Stock went to the independent Can-Am League and kept working at getting better. It worked, as the Reds picked him up and sent him to high Class A in 2017. He pitched just well enough to interest the Padres when he hit free agency again that offseason, and by now his fastball that once sat 88-92 mph in high school now registered in the upper 90s.
Stock made it up to San Diego for the second half of the 2018 season. Now he’s pitching in the pen of one of the National League’s rising young teams. Success has come a decade after he was drafted.
Kyle Crick, RHP, Pirates
Crick is a testament to perseverance.
He spent the end of 2017 in the majors with the Giants and was in Pittsburgh’s bullpen for most of last season, but he began last year at Triple-A Indianapolis, so this is first MLB Opening Day.
Coming up through the minors, Crick was often incredibly wild. As a starting pitcher, Crick somehow managed to generally be effective despite walking five or more batters per nine innings. He was so unhittable that he’d make it work. In back-to-back starts with high Class A San Jose in 2013, he allowed only one hit in 10 innings while walking 10.
Crick’s 2014 season with Double-A Richmond baffles normal expectations. He had more walks than innings pitched (66 walks, 63 innings) but allowed only 26 runs (23 earned) for a 3.29 ERA.
Crick’s tightrope act finally fell apart in 2015. His control troubles made it hard for him to ever get ahead in counts, and his stuff started to become more hittable as he tried to find the strike zone.
Crick didn’t discover pinpoint command in 2017, but he did find just enough control to make it all work. The stuff remains nearly unhittable when he’s on, and he’s managed to carve out an MLB career as a reliever. That’s an impressive amount of improvement from a righthander who walked six per nine innings for the entirety of his minor league career.
Willians Astudillo, C/INF, Twins
You love Astudillo. We love Astudillo. Who doesn’t love Astudillo?
Willians Astudillo pic.twitter.com/ecXIiFi8Dk
— Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Nixon (@CTowersCBS) March 28, 2019
— Rafa Nieves (@mlb_agent) January 9, 2019
This is still the coolest Willians Astudillo thing imo pic.twitter.com/ATyK513Q85
— Ted Berg (@OGTedBerg) January 9, 2019
The human highlight film is the most GIF-able player in the majors. He never strikes out. He never walks. He plays everywhere. And now he has made the Opening Day roster for the first time in his career.
Eric Stamets, SS, Indians
Stamets was born in Dublin, Ohio and played his college ball at Evansville, just an hour away from Cleveland, so this will be a truly special Opening Day, as he’s made his MLB debut for his home state team.
Stamets is filling in until Francisco Lindor returns from his calf and ankle injuries. He’s long been considered a competent defender (he won best defensive infielder in the Angels’ system in 2012 and 2013), but his bat has never caught up to the glove. He hit .202/.272/.324 last season at Triple-A Columbus. The Indians won’t expect him to match Lindor’s bat in any way, but if he can play a competent shortstop, that will be enough.
Wes Parsons, RHP, Braves
Imagine being Parsons. He was signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Jackson State (Tenn.) JC in 2012, joining the Braves organization at a time when the club’s minor league talent was thinning.
And then he watched as the Braves drafted pitcher after pitcher and watched them turn into top prospects. Parsons is a starting pitcher by trade—he has a multitude of pitches and some feel—but he came into spring training behind Julio Teheran, Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Kevin Gausman, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Touki Toussaint and Bryse Wilson on the club’s depth chart.
No problem. Parsons moved to the bullpen and didn’t allow a run or a walk while striking out 15 in 13 spring innings to earn a job in the Braves’ bullpen. Parsons immediately becomes one of the few NDFA success stories in the major leagues, and someone who is easy to root for.