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Why Lewis Brinson is the favorite for 2018 NL Rookie of the Year

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The Marlins already have a rich tradition of contending for—and winning—NL ROY. Brinson has the tools and the timing to follow suit.

Brinson competing in the 2017 SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Being bad isn’t a nightmare scenario for the 2018 Marlins. It’s looking increasingly likely after four major offseason subtractions. No corresponding moves have been made to address those voids on the depth chart with proven players. Updated PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus peg the Fish for a 66-96 record—tied for worst in Major League Baseball—and a minus-152 run differential (third-worst in MLB).

More losses also means improving their position in the 2019 amateur draft, including both higher slots and a larger bonus pool to use in signing their selections.

No, the worst outcome would be a boring team. The Marlins put an emphasis on toolsy prospects in their recent trades. Results aside, Sandy Alcantara’s sizzling fastball and Magneuris Sierra’s elite sprint speed should appeal to some fans. The hope is that they eventually apply those special skills effectively, with the first step being to find them ample playing time.

In a rebuilding environment, the rookies need not worry about lofty expectations...except for Lewis Brinson.

Photo by @FadeMartins/Twitter

Entering his age-24 season, the dynamic outfielder has face-of-the-franchise-caliber talent and intangibles. We won’t be waiting long for that potential to manifest—Brinson is the front-runner for National League Rookie of the Year.

NL ROY fraternity

Despite frequent managerial changes throughout their history, Marlins have maintained a specific reputation for 1) plugging rookie-eligible players into important roles, and 2) getting decent production from them.

In 25 seasons of operation, the law of averages would tell us to expect only one or two NL Rookie of the Year award winners. Instead, there are four members of that fraternity:

NL ROY Award Winners, Marlins Franchise History

Name Year Position Wins Above Replacement
Name Year Position Wins Above Replacement
Jose Fernandez 2013 RHP 4.1 fWAR
Chris Coghlan 2009 LF 2.7 fWAR
Hanley Ramirez 2006 SS 4.4 fWAR
Dontrelle Willis 2003 LHP 3.4 fWAR

Others worth mentioning: Edgar Renteria (second place, 1996 NL ROY); Preston Wilson (second, 1999); Dan Uggla (third, 2006).

It’s not entirely a coincidence. More so than most franchises, the Marlins purposefully drain their active roster of experienced players for financial relief, this offseason being the latest example. That creates opportunities for youngsters to make an immediate impact.

In voting for other individual awards, the BBWAA has a tendency to narrow the field of candidates based on team success. When it comes to Rookie of the Year, however, the writers will usually separate individuals from their surrounding casts.

Bitter (but critical) cup of coffee

Brinson put together a fun highlight reel during two brief stints with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.

But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that he struggled. In 21 games, he batted .106/.236/.277 while striking out 30.9 percent of the time. He had Aaron Judge-like contact issues without enough hard-hit balls that make such an approach worthwhile.

Even so, Brinson’s MLB experience works in his favor. Combining both the AL and NL, seven of the past 16 Rookie of the Year winners played in the majors before their award-worthy campaigns (including Judge and Mike Trout).

Brinson has dominated Triple-A in 107 games, batting .349/.409/.574 with 18 homers and 18 steals. ESPN’s Keith Law (Insider subscription required) believes “cutting down on his swing when he falls behind in the count” is key to replicating that success at the highest level.

Style and skill set to get noticed

Who exactly is Brinson’s NL ROY competition? He current ranks as baseball’s No. 23 prospect, trailing mostly players who are months/years away from MLB starting jobs, limited to part-time roles on contending teams or employed in the American League.

Turning 24 on May 8, he is older than all 22 rookie-eligible players with higher composite rankings. That’s another advantage for 2018, even if it doesn’t bode as well for his longevity.

The PECOTA projections referenced earlier generated the following season stats for Brinson entering spring training: .252/.312/.442, 24 HR, 16 SB, 2.5 WARP. That last figure—Wins Above Replacement Player—factors in his strong defense in center field.

Here’s how PECOTA feels about five other notable NL rookies:

  • Ronald Acuna (ATL) — .268/.320/.450, 20 HR, 26 SB, 0.9 WARP
  • J.P. Crawford (PHI) — .239/.335/.389, 15 HR, 5 SB, 1.9 WARP
  • Alex Reyes (STL) — 58 IP, 3.09 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 80/24 K/BB, 1.3 WARP
  • Jesse Winker (CIN) — .270/.361/.427, 14 HR, 2 SB, 1.2 WARP
  • Brandon Woodruff (MIL) — 131 IP, 4.48 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 119/47 K/BB, 0.7 WARP

No BBWAA members cast their votes solely on total value estimation metrics like WARP and fWAR, but that data is more mainstream than ever before. The well-rounded player is coveted by analysts and front office executives alike, and Brinson has the potential to contribute in so many different facets of the game.

One important caveat: he still needs to stay healthy. PECOTA projects 468 plate appearances, which would be the highest total for him in any season since 2013.

But if that’s the case, Brinson’s combination of production and spectacular plays will be impossible to ignore.