This just in — George Springer is really good. Like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Yasiel Puig, and seemingly a bevy of other players the past few years, Springer is making it look super easy. But it really doesn’t always happen this way. Prospects frequently struggle when they reach the majors, even if they go on to long and productive careers. To demonstrate, I thought I would run through the list of rookie position players from the Wild Card era (minimum 350 plate appearances) and cross reference it with the Baseball America top 100 prospects database to give us a few examples of players who didn’t leap to immediate stardom in their inaugural campaigns.
Really, Really Bad: Ray Durham, 1995 (ranked 28th by Baseball America)
One of the more underrated players of the late 90’s-early 2000’s, for seven straight seasons, and in eight of nine seasons, Durham was worth at least 2.7 WAR. He was an above-average hitter, which is generally not in large supply at the keystone, and while he wasn’t the slickest of fielders, he eventually got good enough to not be a total disaster. His -81.4 Fld mark for his career is a little misleading. In his first five seasons in the majors, he tallied a -75 Fld, but his total across the remaining nine seasons of his career was -6.3. He essentially was below average in one season and then above average in the next.
But, oh, that rookie season. He graduated on April 26 of his age-23 season, and actually did hit pretty well in his initial weeks. From his debut to the end of May, he posted a 111 wRC+. But from June 1 to the season’s end, he posted just a 73 wRC+. Tack in a woeful -22 showing on defense, and you have yourself a -1.4 WAR campaign. Durham would go on to have a pretty nice career for himself — his 30.1 WAR ranks 59th among second basemen all-time (30th since 1947) — but things didn’t look so hot at the end of his rookie campaign.
Really Bad: Brandon Phillips, 2003 (ranked seventh by Baseball America)
Once upon a time, the Indians heisted Phillips away from the Expos. Later upon a time, the Reds heisted Phillips away from the Indians. Of course, at the time of the latter deal, we were past the point of worrying about Phillips. That’s because of what happened in between, during his rookie campaign in 2003. To say Phillips hit poorly would be an understatement. Of the 341 players on this list, only two posted a worse wRC+ than the 44 wRC+ Phillips tallied in ’03 — Cristian Guzman and Jack Wilson. He was a positive force on the bases and in the field, so his WAR wasn’t dragged down too far, but the weight of his .208/.242/.311 line still sank to him to sub-replacement level.
The .247 batting average on balls in play that Phillips posted that season is by far his low for any season in which he had real playing time, but the Indians had seen enough. He was essentially exiled. Thanks in part to that stinker of a rookie campaign combined with Ronnie Belliard having the two best seasons of his career, Phillips never did get another shot in Cleveland. Upon arrival in Cincinnati, he immediately cracked 17 homers, and has hit at least that many in the seven seasons since. He’s also been worth at least 2.6 WAR in each of the past seven seasons. Both streaks are in jeopardy of ending this season, but there’s still time.
Bad: Prince Fielder, 2006 (ranked 11th by Baseball America)
Sure, he hit 28 homers, and that’s nothing to scoff at, but it wasn’t really all that impressive either. Fielder got two token vote points in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, but he wasn’t a serious competitor for the award. He had his worst defensive season, and while his bat hinted at intimidation, it didn’t really get all the way there in that first year. His .213 ISO was nice, but the next year he ratcheted it up to .330. That 50-homer season helped really launch Fielder’s career in a way his rookie season didn’t. At 0.9 WAR, it was pedestrian at best.
Not Good: Mark Teixeira, 2003 (ranked first by Baseball America)
Again, Tex wasn’t exactly awful in his rookie campaign, but after you’re ranked #1 in the game, a 105 wRC+ feels like a little bit of a let down. The .259 average likely didn’t help much either. Sure, he hit 26 homers, and he played what would become his trademark good defense, but he was a clogger on the bases. He did manage five triples somehow, which is easily his career best. But that 105 wRC+ ranked just 17th out of 23 qualified first basemen that season. Teixeira would go on to post 3 WAR or better in each of the next eight seasons — and is over 40 WAR now for his career — but in his rookie campaign he only tallied 1.9.
There are so many other names that I didn’t pick out of the hat, players who tallied less than 2 WAR in their rookie seasons and spent time on prospect lists of one kind or another over the years — Miguel Tejada, Alfonso Soriano, Torii Hunter, Shawn Green, Magglio Ordonez, Robinson Cano, Coco Crisp, Carlos Lee, Freddie Freeman, Matt Holliday, Ian Kinsler and Matt Wieters, to name just a few. Just because George Springer is posting a 129 wRC+ in his rookie season doesn’t mean that everyone will.
Of course, some players who don’t fare well in their rookie seasons really aren’t destined for great things. I’m certainly not holding out much hope for Aaron Hicks, for instance. But if your prospect du jour doesn’t hit the ground running, fret not, there’s still time.
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