Vlad Jr., Eloy Jimenez Could Be 2019's Version Of Acuna and Soto
LAS VEGAS — In 2018, the National League East was home to two of the game’s most precocious talents in Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. The pair of teenagers made instant impacts on their teams and finished first and second, respectively, in the Rookie of the Year balloting.
Neither player seemed to require much of an adjustment period, and both look to be potential cornerstones for their teams. Nationals manager Dave Martinez was among the legions of people inside and outside the game who were seriously impressed by the way the two players performed over the course of the summer.
"You look at guys that made an impact real quick like Harper when he came up, he was unbelievable. Barry Bonds, when he came up at a young age, he was unbelievable,” Martinez said during his session with the media on Tuesday at the Winter Meetings. "But to see those guys, to see what they did this year, and even the power numbers and just moving the ball, really, really fun to see, watching these young guys play the way they played.”
Baseball might have a sequel on its hands in a few months when the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the White Sox’s Eloy Jimenez get their first big league callups. Both players starred in the minors in 2018 — Guerrero was BA’s runaway choice for Minor League Player of the Year—and should make their debuts shortly after the beginning of the season.
White Sox manager Rick Renteria, for one, cannot wait.
"We're hoping that this young man's career for us is going to be one of those future impact guys,” he said, "that I don't want to call him a Hall of Famer, because that's a lot to put on a kid's plate, but he has the skill set to potentially be a very, very impactful frontline major league player.”
The White Sox are also involved in the wooing of marquee free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but when asked if Jimenez could eventually provide an impact similar to those who will command nine-figure contracts this offseason, Renteria didn’t back down.
"Absolutely,” he said,”and I think it's because the expectation and the understanding of who he is and what he's about and the skill set that he brings to the table, you know, we're all excited about the possibilities.”
A similar sentiment surrounds Guerrero, whom Blue Jays fans have been hankering for since his walk-off home run in Montreal just before the 2018 season began. The man who will pencil Guerrero’s name into a big league lineup for the first time is Charlie Montoyo, whom the Jays hired away from Tampa Bay this offseason.
Montoyo, an 18-year minor league veteran, had served on the Rays’ coaching staff since 2015, understands the expectations surrounding Guerrero.
"I saw Vladdy (Jr.) two years ago when he came to Toronto to hit BP before the game and stuff, so I talked to him a little bit,” Montoyo recalled. "If Vlad, Jr. is half of what his dad was, that's going to be fun for us to watch. I'm looking forward to seeing him play every day.”
Montoyo lives in Tucson, Ariz., so after he got the managerial job he drove to watch Guerrero and the rest of the Blue Jays’ prospect contingent in the Arizona Fall League. There, he urged his potential star-in-waiting not to put any extra pressure on himself.
"I just want them to play the right way,” Montoyo said. "I'm going to be talking to (the rest of the players) the same. Yeah, he's going to have the pressure because he's just a kid.”
The Blue Jays finished 73-89 in 2018, 35 games out of first place in the American League East. Even so, Montoyo looks at a lineup that will eventually house Guerrero and highly touted prospect Bo Bichette, along with Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and sees a team in the same position the Red Sox were a few years ago. That is, a team with young talent ready to make a big impact.
That's my hope, Boston, the team they have now, that all these kids become players like that,” the manager said. "That's my hope and I think that's what's going to happen.”
If Montoyo and Renteria’s visions for their young players come true, fans in Toronto, Chicago and across the sport will be treated to another spectacular summer watching the first act in baseball’s next generation of superstars.
-- While he and his team were battling the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series, Astros manager A.J. Hinch got a ringing endorsement about one of this organization’s top prospects.
"I got a text from a scout saying: I have your starter for Sunday if you need one,” Hinch recalled.
That message came after Whitley’s first AFL outing, when he dazzled evaluators and struck out eight of the first nine hitters he faced. The righthander finished the six-week season 1-2, 2.42, and his 36 strikeouts were the most by any pitcher in the AFL since 2011.
"I got great reviews on Forrest Whitley from the day that he stepped into the AFL. Stuff is elite across the board. He's got size. He's got quick-twitch. He's got arm speed. He's got some feel for pitching,” Hinch said. "There's not a compliment that I didn't get from a scout or an executive or a coach that went and saw him pitch.”
Whitley also made news on Tuesday for a viral video on Twitter that showed him throwing a baseball 110 mph, albeit from a running start. Velocity aside, Hinch wasn’t quite as impressed as he was with Whitley’s regular work.
"We don't get to throw it from that distance or don't get a running start,” he joked. "Other than that, it was great.”
-- The Athletics shocked the world in 2018 by making the playoffs after watching starting pitcher after starting pitcher succumb to injuries. Many of those pitchers will return in 2019, which will give manager Bob Melvin plenty of options from which to construct his Opening Day rotation.
One young pitcher who might get a chance to push his way into the mix is Jesus Luzardo, who impressed Melvin in spring training and throughout the minor league season with his combination of youth, stuff and poise.
"I was asked yesterday if there was kind of a comp, and I remember Felix Hernandez when I was with Seattle, we were thinking about early on how quickly was he going to get to the big league level,” Melvin said. "And I think there's probably some similarities with Luzardo in the fact that he's awfully talented. Obviously there's a need for us at this point, and I think the way he went about his season last year would suggest that we're going to bring him to spring training this year with an opportunity to start with us.”