The strongest evidence that an individual calendar year can contain near-infinite multitudes is how a person you had barely heard of on Jan. 1 has become a household name by Dec. 31. This is particularly acute in the world of sports, which is always obsessed with the new and emergent: The next thing is often more entertaining than the great thing in front of us at the moment. Blink, and the future is already here. And once you learn a new player … you never forget them. I'll be talking about Glenn Brummer until the day I die, whether I like it or not.
This week at Sports on Earth, I'll be winding down 2017 by looking back at the year in baseball, what we learned, what we'll remember. And we begin with the most thrilling of baseball experiences: The discovery of a transcendent talent. Here are 11 players who broke through in 2017, who burst onto the scene and assured the fact that we'll be talking about them for the rest of our lives. You weren't talking about them on Jan. 1. You're talking about them now. These are The Emergent.
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers. All right, so in the postseason the Astros found quite a few holes in Bellinger's swing. But he's 22 years old: He'll correct those. The non-holes in his swing connected with 39 homers, including an insane June, when he hit 13 and had an OPS of 1.104. Bellinger is a building block that any franchise would construct their whole organization around who had a jaw-dropping Rookie of the Year season … and he was probably the Dodgers' fifth-best player in 2017. (The Dodgers were pretty good this year.)
Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins. This is probably the iffiest inclusion on this list because most baseball fans knew who Buxton was coming into 2017: He was considered one of the best prospects in the game, and he had played 46 games for the Twins in 2015 and 92 in '16. But he'd also been considered a disappointment, a defensive whiz but a bit of an out machine at the plate. In 2017, it finally all came together. Buxton hit 16 homers, stole 29 bases and played center field in a way that seemed magical; he was the single driving force that led the Twins to their first postseason appearance since 2010. He still has some on-base issues to work on, and if he can solve those, you might be looking at a future MVP Award winner.
Matt Chapman, Oakland A's. The A's hadn't figured out how to fill third base after trading away Josh Donaldson until this year … and now they might be set at the position for the next decade. Chapman was a first-round pick in 2014 but didn't show up in the Majors until June of this year. He instantly made the position his, partly with his bat but mostly with his magnificent glove. Chapman looks like he was born to the play the position. Like Buxton, he needs to work on getting on base more often, but with Matt Olson across the diamond at first base, the A's have a young core to build around.
Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox. Can you believe Devers didn't debut with the Red Sox until late July? The Red Sox held off as long as they could -- they were rumored to be the destination for every third baseman on the market almost the whole season -- but finally promoted Devers on July 25. Devers hit like crazy, with 10 homers in 58 games, and was possibly the best hitter on the Red Sox in their American League Division Series loss to the Astros. He turned 21 during the World Series and is already doing things most players in the game can only dream of … including homering off Aroldis Chapman.
Paul DeJong, St. Louis Cardinals. Heading into 2017, the Cardinals were thought to be set at shortstop … with 2016 All-Star Aledmys Diaz. But Diaz's early struggles led to his demotion (and ultimate trade to Toronto), and the emergence of DeJong. The Cardinals knew DeJong could hit, but they didn't quite anticipate how well he'd play shortstop. He may still be only a league-average defensive shortstop, and there are some strikeout issues, but somehow he led the team in homers (25) despite playing only 108 games. He even had a higher slugging percentage than the team's one MVP candidate (whom we'll be get to in a bit). If he can stick at shortstop, the Cardinals will have solved a problem that has plagued them since Edgar Renteria.
Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros. Gurriel played in 36 games for the Astros in 2016, but he wasn't impressive enough that you felt assured he'd hang onto first base all season for a team that was clearly competing for a postseason spot. But he was steady at first from start to finish for the Astros this season, hitting .299 and smacking 18 homers. He was even more of a force in the postseason, hitting .529 in the ALDS against Boston and knocking two huge homers in the World Series against the Dodgers. At 33, Gurriel is the oldest player on this list after coming over from Cuba, and while he's not spectacular, he's enough to be the starting first baseman for a World Champion. Which is plenty.
Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs. Yeah, that's all the Cubs needed: Another young slugger. Happ didn't get to be a part of the 2016 storybook team, but he was huge for a 2017 team that, for all its supposed hangover effect, still made the National League Championship Series. Happ hit 24 homers and even stole eight bases for the Cubs in 2017 and arguably could be more of a core piece at this point than, say, Kyle Schwarber. Most teams would be elated to have a player like Happ. In Chicago, he's just another cog in the wheel.
Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies. Rhys! Rhys! The Phillies spent most of 2017 in a fog, a rebuilding team that seemed stuck in the mud. Then Hoskins showed up and turned the team into a must-see spectacle every night with mammoth home runs that just wouldn't stop disappearing into the Philadelphia night. The Phillies have not been one of the most compelling teams in baseball over the past half decade. But you can't take your eyes off Hoskins. And suddenly, the Phillies look ready to make their move. Hoskins is the reason why.
Aaron Judge, New York Yankees. Judge played in 27 games in 2016 and hit .179. He struck out in exactly half his at-bats. He looked lost: The Yankees weren't even sure he'd be in their lineup this year. And then, he put the entire sport in a headlock. Now the Yankees are The Yankees again, and Giancarlo Stanton is around, too, all of a sudden. Judge changed the whole sport in 2017. It's not changing back anytime soon.
Tommy Pham, St. Louis Cardinals. Pham had every reason to be infuriated heading into 2017. Despite a quietly productive career up to this point (albeit one riddled with injuries), and despite being responsible for the last great Cardinals postseason moment, he started 2017 in Triple-A, watching Matt Adams try to play left field. When the Cardinals finally called him in May, Pham simply took over, putting together an MVP-caliber season with 23 homers, 25 steals and a .306 average. He also played an excellent left field -- so excellent, in fact, that he's being moved to center field for 2018. He turns 30 in March. Pham has waited so long for his moment. Few have earned it more than he has.
Chris Taylor, Los Angeles Dodgers. How must you feel as a Mariners fan who watched Taylor hit .170 in 2015, struggling to get any foothold in the league, suddenly turn into this Taylor with the Dodgers? Taylor might have been the most valuable non-Justin Turner player on the best team in baseball, hitting 21 homers, stealing 17 bases and playing sterling defense wherever the Dodgers put him in the field. (He played 49 games in center, 48 in left, 22 at second, 14 at short and eight at third.) A player like that is invaluable, particularly in the postseason, where Taylor shared NLCS MVP Award honors with Turner. Meanwhile, the Mariners are still 17 years without a playoff appearance.
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