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Opinion: 2016 MLB season shaped by emergences of little-known rookies

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St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (41) reacts after reaching with a triple during the first inning on April 11 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker (41) reacts after reaching with a triple during the first inning on April 11 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
Credit: Courtesy of TNS

In baseball, lower draft picks are rarely given much of a chance to have success in the big leagues. The 2016 MLB season has defied that logic, with multiple heartwarming stories of guys who weren’t even close to being on anybody’s radar before proving all doubters wrong and making big-league clubs out of spring training.

This is baseball, so it only makes sense that at the two-week mark of the season, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer was leading all of baseball in batting average, a former 33rd-round pick was sixth in that same category and a 180-pound rookie who’s supposed to replace Troy Tulowitzki is leading the league in homers, right? That’s the beauty of baseball.

Last May, Jeremy Hazelbaker was released by the Los Angeles Dodgers while he was in the minors. Hazelbaker was 27 years old and had not yet sniffed the big leagues. He considered retiring. But a week later, the St. Louis Cardinals called and signed him to a minor-league contract.

The outfielder finished last season with the Cardinals, who ended up re-signing him to another minor-league contract with no guarantee he would make the big-league team. But Hazelbaker convinced them otherwise, hitting .304 with three homers and 10 RBIs in spring training, resulting in him earning a spot on the Cardinals’ opening-day roster. He didn’t cool off in meaningful games either, as he hit .481 with three homers and seven RBIs through the first nine games, though he is currently in the midst of an 0-for-16 slump.

“To think you’re finally here, finally living your dream — it might have been a little tougher getting here, a little longer getting here for me than it was for most guys, but the fact of the matter is, I’m here,” Hazelbaker said to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. “I’m playing with an amazing group of guys and for an amazing coaching staff.”

Another out-of-nowhere story garnering attention is that of Tyler White, a former 33rd-round pick of the Houston Astros. White played collegiately at Western Carolina University, hardly a baseball powerhouse, as a walk-on. The Astros sent a scout there and saw White. The notes they took on him warranted a 33rd round selection in the 2013 draft, and since then, all he has done is hit.

In three years in the minor leagues, White hit .311 with 35 homers, continuing to prove all of the teams wrong who let him last all the way until the 33rd round of the draft. Similarly to Hazelbaker, White entered spring training with Houston with no guaranteed spot on the roster, with two of the Astros’ top prospects, Jonathan Singleton and A.J. Reed, competing with him for the first-base job.

White hit .353 with three homers and 12 RBIs en route to securing the starting job, and he has continued his success in the regular season, hitting .348 — sixth in the American League — with four home runs and 11 RBIs through the first 14 games of the season.

“It’s a great feeling,” White told Jason Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. “It’s what I’ve been working toward this my whole life and it’s a dream come true. It’s awesome.”

Finally, the rookie getting the most TV time is Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story. Story, the 45th pick in the 2011 draft, was expected to step in and fill in for Jose Reyes at shortstop while Reyes was suspended for off-the-field issues. Right out of the gates, however, it became clear that Story has taken the job and ran with it.

His first hit was a three-run home run off Zack Greinke. He became the first player in baseball history to hit seven home runs in the first six games of the season. He currently leads the MLB with eight home runs through 15 games. He was also the first rookie ever to hit four home runs in his first four games. Story is helping Rockies fans everywhere forget about Tulowitzki, their previous star shortstop.

It remains to be seen if these three will continue at this torrid pace, but one thing is for certain, rookies are shaping the path of the MLB season early on in 2016.

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