On Monday night, the winner of the American League Rookie of the Year award was announced. As has been the case every year since 1989, an Orioles rookie did not win the award. The winner for 2020 was Seattle outfielder Kyle Lewis, who won for the shortened 2020 season by batting .262/.364/.437 over 58 games.
Upon Lewis being named the winner, I was informed by my counterpart Kate Preusser on SB Nation’s Mariners blog, Lookout Landing, that Lewis’s victory may mean that the Curse of Gregg Olson has been lifted. Not being aware that any such curse had existed, I came to discover that there is a segment of Mariners fans that have been stewing a bit that future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who was also a rookie in 1989, did not win the award that year.
Olson, Griffey Jr. and then-Royals pitcher Tom Gordon all had 3.3 bWAR in their rookie seasons, but Olson, who racked up a bunch of saves for the Why Not? Orioles, won the ROY handily while the other two finished second and third. I would question the bitter Mariners fan by pointing out Mariners players won in 2000 and 2001 - with the 2001 winner being Ichiro - but if they have been cursing Orioles rookies ever since and the curse is now released with a win by their 21st century home-grown outfielder, well, that’s something.
Freed from this unknown-to-me spite coming out of the Pacific Northwest, we can think about who among the next Orioles Rookie of the Year winner. If Orioles fans are lucky, that player was already on the roster in 2020. Ryan Mountcastle made his debut in 2020 and managed to keep his rookie eligibility for 2021. He played in 35 games, enough to get a little bit of attention and exactly one third place ROY vote, but not enough to get either 150 at-bats or 45 days on the roster.
If Mountcastle can play over a full season at the level he did in 35 games, with a .333/.386/.492 batting line, he would be a strong candidate for the 2021 award. Obviously, that’s a big if.
MLB changed the usual rookie rules for 2020 to keep counting September 2020 days against rookie eligibility, since there were no September call-ups. Many prospects exceeded the 150 AB or 50 innings thresholds outright, and a couple of other pre-2020 top 100 prospects like LA’s Jo Adell and Cleveland’s James Karinchak had 45+ days on the roster.
What it adds up to is that out of the ten players who received AL ROY votes in 2020, only Mountcastle carries rookie eligibility into 2021. On the NL side, three of nine to get votes remain eligible into 2021.
On the most recent MLB Pipeline top 100 prospects list, there are 17 American League prospects who have already debuted in MLB, including Mountcastle. Two of these are in the top 10, including former #1 pick Casey Mize, and five are in the top 20.
It’d be premature to call Mountcastle a front-runner or even a guaranteed contender. He could perform acceptably and still leave Orioles fans feeling good about one future spot on the roster and yet be completely blown out of the water like when Trey Mancini and Aaron Judge were rookies in the same year. If he does have another strong season to at least be in the conversation, he could be competing with...
Casey Mize - 2018 #1 pick pitched to a 6.99 ERA in his first seven MLB games
Nate Pearson - hyped Jays prospect missed a month with a flexor strain in his pitching elbow, 6.00 ERA in just five games
Brendan McKay - Rays lefty was dominant in minors in 2019, 5.14 ERA in 49 IP at MLB level, and missed 2020 after shoulder surgery
Michael Kopech - Opted out of 2020 season after missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery
Forrest Whitley - The Astros righty remains the #17 prospect in baseball, although in 2019 he walked 44 batters in 59.2 innings
Alex Kirilloff - Became the first MLB player to debut with a playoff start this year
Nick Madrigal - Former college teammate of Adley Rutschman batted .340/.376/.369 in 29 games in the White Sox infield this year
Of these six players above plus Mountcastle, the one who was picked the latest in his draft class was Mountcastle at #36. These are six of the top 36 prospects according to MLB Pipeline. Here are a few more from the latest Pipeline top 100:
Tarik Skubal - Tigers lefty struck out 179 batters in 122.2 innings between High-A and Double-A in 2019; former ninth round pick had a 5.63 ERA in eight games in 2020
A.J. Puk - 2016 #6 pick had Tommy John surgery in 2018, did not pitch in 2020 due to shoulder discomfort
Sam Huff - Rangers catcher hit three homers in ten games in 2020 after hitting 28 in the minors in 2019
Clarke Schmidt - 3.47 ERA across three minor league levels for the Yankees prospect in 2019, pitched in three MLB games in 2020
This is a just for fun sort of list and not anything guaranteed to happen. A couple of these guys seem like they could be on the Hunter Harvey memorial injury train out of top prospect status. Out of the players who played in 2020, the sample sizes at the MLB level this year were small, and most of those small sample sizes were not good.
There could always be a surprise. If I had written one year ago about 2020 ROY contenders by running through a list of top prospects who either debuted in September 2019 or looked to be set to debut in 2020, I would probably not have mentioned Lewis, who fell out of top 100 lists following a disappointing 2018 season. Third place finisher Cristian Javier of the Astros was not on any of the big league-wide prospect lists either.
On the other hand, runner-up Luis Robert of the White Sox was in most top 10 lists before the 2020 season. Most of the AL’s winners in the 2010s either lived up to some prospect hype or were international players who brought hype into older-than-usual debuts. That doesn’t mean this will keep happening forever, but it is the pattern.
Maybe Mountcastle will be able to run with these guys over 162 games. Or maybe the Orioles will call up 2019 #1 pick Adley Rutschman and he’ll be the one to show that the Curse of Gregg Olson has been broken.