Pete Alonso is on the path to the best season ever by a Mets rookie position player. Yet, he may not win NL Rookie of the Year and might not even appear on every ballot.
With the season one-third complete, the NL Rookie race is setting up as the best of any award. If the ballots were due today, the voters probably would have to decide 1-2-3 from among Alonso; his tormentor, San Diego starter Chris Paddack; Atlanta starter Mike Soroka and Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo.
Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. might get consideration even having missed nearly a month with a hamstring injury, and because he is due back in about a week, he will be in the ultimate discussion. Plus some of the best prospects in the majors have been promoted recently in Milwaukee’s Keston Hiura, Atlanta’s Austin Riley, Colorado’s Brendan Rodgers and Cincinnati’s Nick Senzel. This is the kind of year in which Nationals center fielder Victor Robles just might be a 20-20 man and not get much consideration.
Part of the issue is the Baseball Writers Association of America’s antiquated system of only allowing votes for first, second and third. It could be worse — before 1980 the vote was just for a winner and nothing else. MVP allows 10 spots and Cy Young grew from three to five in 2010. The Rookie ballot should increase similarly from three to five to recognize that young players are, more than ever, entrusted with prominent roles.
This year the NL will accentuate that necessity with these candidates:
1. Pete Alonso: Darryl Strawberry won the Mets’ lone positional Rookie of the Year in 1983, with 26 homers and an OPS-plus of 134. Alonso had 17 homers and a .153 OPS-plus through Friday. His defense is more acceptable than anticipated, and his confidence and positivity are valuable to an organization that often struggles in those areas.
Can the Mets really have one of their best pitching seasons ever last year with Jacob deGrom and rookie seasons this year with Alonso and not capitalize with contention?
2. Chris Paddack: He made it personal against Alonso in San Diego and won the battle. He was upset Alonso was named the NL Rookie of the Month in April, though of course Alonso neither voted for that nor campaigned to win it. Nevertheless, it underscored Paddack’s chip-on-the-shoulder boldness. The righty’s changeup, in particular, is devastating. Paddack had allowed just 28 hits in 51 ¹/₃ innings and had a 1.93 ERA. Paddack, though, missed all of 2017 after Tommy John surgery and will have his workload watched, which could hurt his chances at this award.
San Diego general manager A.J. Preller turned three months of Fernando Rodney and the fading James Shields into Paddack and Tatis Jr., and — like Brodie Van Wagenen with Alonso — had both in the majors from the outset this season rather than manipulate service time.
3. Mike Soroka: In seven starts, the righty has given up five earned runs, no more than one in any outing. One other pitcher 21 or younger has done that since 1920: Fernando Valenzuela in 1981. The ball is flying, yet Soroka has yielded one homer in 44 ²/₃ innings. He missed the final three-plus months of the Braves NL East-title run last year with a scapula injury. This season he is a sinker-throwing ace.
4. Alex Verdugo: In some ways, he was the Dodgers’ Clint Frazier — bold and ready for the majors, but blocked by veterans. The Dodgers traded Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig in the offseason, but signed A.J. Pollock. But Pollock played poorly then developed a staph infection in his elbow and will be out for month. Verdugo has seized his Gehrig-Pipp moment. Besides hitting (.311 average, .869 OPS), Verdugo has shined defensively, among other things throwing a runner out while playing each of the three outfield spots.
5. Fernando Tatis Jr.: Despite not playing since April 28, Tatis might actually be the favorite to win this, such is his overall talent. He was a consensus top-three prospect to begin the year along with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) and Eloy Jimenez (White Sox). Guerrero is up now, and Jimenez is back after missing a month with an ankle sprain.
Like with Hiura, Riley, Rogers and Senzel, Guerrero and Jimenez have ground to make up in a less compelling AL race against the surprising current front-runners. Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe finished two plate appearances shy last year of losing rookie status in 2018, then signed a six-year, $24 million pact before this season. He strikes out a ton, but had 10 homers and an .879 OPS.
For a team that was supposed to be prospect poor, the Red Sox promoted Michael Chavis and he has helped save their season with 10 homers, a .943 OPS and a clutch gene. Can Boston take him off second when Dustin Pedroia is healthy enough to play?
In the AL, pitchers Ty Buttrey (Angels), Yusei Kikuchi (Mariners), John Means (Orioles) and Spencer Turnbull (Tigers) could be factors.
6. Austin Riley: More than Hiura, Rodgers and Senzel, Riley has made an instant impact by becoming the first player in Braves franchise history to homer five times in his first nine games. He is playing out of position (he is a natural third baseman) in the outfield while Ender Inciarte heals.
The rest of the NL East should note what is percolating in Atlanta. Soroka and last year’s NL Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna are in their age-21 season; Riley and Ozzie Albies are 22; and Johan Camargo, Max Fried and Dansby Swanson 25; plus Atlanta is considered to have one of the deepest farm systems still.
If Riley or Soroka wins, it would mark the first time an NL team has had consecutive winners since the Dodgers had five in a row from 1992-96 (Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Hideo Nomo, Todd Hollandsworth). But Alonso, a couple of Padres and others are going to make that tough to achieve.