If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s this: Major League Baseball has been blessed with a TON of elite young talent.
Outside of the obvious ones like Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper, there are also guys like George Springer, Aaron Judge, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Ramirez….you get the picture.
With that in mind, it’s a dog fight on a yearly basis to capture American League and National League MVP honors between many of the same names. That doesn’t mean some others can sneak up behind them out of nowhere to throw their own name in the race, though.
If certain things fall in place for the following six position players and they continue progressing (or sustain their elite performance) they could do just that in 2018.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
All eyes will be on Machado and how he handles the move to shortstop, along with the inevitable trade rumors, but let’s not forget that the guy to his left is coming off a career year.
The biggest thing Schoop had to change heading into last year was his approach at the plate — he just swung way too much. He still has progress to make in this department, but the early returns are very good. Check out how some of his plate-discipline numbers changed between 2016 and 2017.
This shift in approach helped lead to new career highs in hard-hit rate (36.1%), OPS (.841), ISO (.211), home runs (32), RBI (105), wRC+ (121), and fWAR (4.1). If he’s able to continue this positive regression, who knows what he could be capable of while playing in a division that has a number of hitter-friendly parks.
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
Freeman isn’t exactly you’re prototypical dark horse, but hear me out.
Sure, he’s had two top-10 finishes in NL MVP voting throughout his career — including one in 2016 — but he isn’t getting enough love for his sustained excellence. Part of it is probably because he was limited to 514 plate appearances (117 games played) due to injury in 2017, but it was just a continuation of what he did the year before.
His 152 wRC+ was exactly the same as his 2016 performance, but the .989 OPS was a slight improvement (.968 in ’16). It’s also worth noting that the first baseman maintained a high walk rate (12.6%) and drastically cut his strikeout rate from a career-high 24.7% to a career-low 18.5%. Among the top-five players at his position (according to fWAR) since 2016, he was the only one with fewer than 1,355 plate appearances (he had 1,207) and 312 games played (he appeared in 275).
Despite that, only Joey Votto‘s 11.7 fWAR was greater than Freeman’s 10.6.
Over a full season with these further adjustments, he’s got a terrific shot of being an MVP finalist for the first time in his career.
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Willson Contreras, C, Chicago Cubs
A stint on the disabled list prevented Contreras from playing an entire season, but what he did in just 117 games was impressive enough. His defensive value behind the plate is clear, but it was the 121 wRC+ and .223 ISO he posted (off the strength of 21 homers) that helped him produce a 3.2 fWAR. Among catchers with 100-plus plate appearances last year, that was the fifth-best mark.
What’s even more encouraging is the progress he made between the first half and second half of 2017. After posting a respectable .782 OPS and 102 wRC+ through 278 plate appearances, those numbers jumped up to .993 and 157, respectively, in 150 plate appearances after the All-Star break.
Could this be more of a hot streak than anything else? Well, yes — after all, his ground-ball rate actually went up from 52.8% to 54.0% during this time — but we need to consider the process. His hard-hit rate saw a drastic increase (32.8% to 40.2%), while his walk rate (8.3% to 14.7%) and strikeout rate (25.9% to 17.3%) also got a lot better.
Similar to Schoop, Contreras stopped chasing balls out of the strike zone as much (33.6% to 28.5%). His swing rate on strikes basically stayed the same, but his contact rate in that situation increased by nearly eight percentage points. If he can maintain that approach and stay healthy while making small shifts in his batted-ball profile, the sky is the limit for him offensively.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
For such a talented all-around player like Buxton, the goal for this year should be simple: avoid a slow start. We’ve touched upon this recurring theme earlier in the winter, but check out what he did between the first and second half of the 2017 season.
Despite the high strikeout rate, Buxton has flashed above-average offensive ability in the big leagues on a couple occasions. What makes him an intriguing dark horse MVP candidate is if he can sustain that production with everything else he does at an elite level, which would be defense and base-running.
With a mark of 11.7, nobody was better than Buxton on the basepaths in 2017, according to FanGraphs’ BsR metric. He also managed to save 24 runs with his glove out in center field. The only outfielder with more last season was Mookie Betts, who saved 31 runs (he was on the field for nearly 260 more innings than Buxton, though).
It’s the other parts of his game that allowed the 24-year-old to post 3.5 fWAR despite a 90 wRC+.
Anthony Rendon, 3B, Washington Nationals
OK — first Freeman and now Rendon? How could a guy that finished sixth in NL MVP voting just last year be considered a dark horse? That’s because he should’ve been a finalist and is overshadowed at his position by other elite talents.
It’s hard to grab headlines when guys like Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and even Justin Turner are doing some special things at the hot corner. But can you guess who led all of baseball at the position in fWAR last year? That’d be Rendon, who posted a very nice 6.9 mark — which was identical to that of the reigning NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton.
Who knows where his overall stats would’ve landed if he didn’t spend virtually all of April in a horrible slump. The below table shows his production up until that historic performance of his on April 30th, and then everything after that.
He’ll once again be hitting in the middle of a very potent lineup — Roster Resource projects him to find a spot between Harper and Daniel Murphy — so it’ll be interesting to see if he can keep this domination going.
Mitch Haniger, OF, Seattle Mariners
When they swung a deal for Jean Segura last winter, Haniger was seen as a crucial part of it for Seattle. The young outfielder made them look very smart in April, too — through his first 95 plate appearances, he owned a 186 wRC+, .444 wOBA, and .266 ISO.
Unfortunately, multiple trips to the disabled list for a strained oblique (in April) and facial laceration (in July) thwarted his desire to be in the lineup consistently. He registered just 192 plate appearances between May and August, struggling to a 77 wRC+, .284 wOBA, and .146 ISO.
However, Haniger did end the year on a high note, improving those numbers to 166, .414, and .261, respectively, over his final 123 plate appearances in September. After seeing what’s believed to be the highs and lows of his production, we still need to see what the “norm” is going to be, but his potential as a well above-average offensive asset is quite evident.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.