You need not look any further than the most commonly searched names on any popular baseball site to determine which players have big time name recognition. Some players become multimedia sensations before they ever take the field. A few reach star status prior to even being drafted or signed from overseas. Consider that a Google search for “Bryce Harper” returns 5,830,000 results. “Yoenis Cespedes” gets you 601,000, and a “Yu Darvish” works out to roughly 4,660,000. All 3 highly-touted rookies currently play for major league teams, but that was not the case a matter of a few months ago. While that may be a lifetime by internet generation standards, it still represents a relatively short period by baseball standards.
Given the amount of time, energy, and money dedicated to creating a brand for each of these players, I cannot help but wonder whether the newest faces of MLB even have the chance to meet the lofty expectations associated with each of them. Will every positive step be simply the predecessor of another marketing and advertising wave? Will the creation of higher expectations always outpace actual accomplishments?
Cespedes has already become a mainstay of the A’s offense. He ranks 2nd on the team in both home runs (5) and RBI (22), despite the fact he has just over half the at-bats the team leader in each department has. Josh Reddick ranks first in both HR and RBI, but he has 203 at-bats to 119 for Cespedes. Unfortunately for the A’s, Cespedes generously gives back on defense everything he gives them on offense and more. He certainly has the athletic skills to play his position, but his baseball skills still have some catching up to do. He might qualify as a work-in-progress, but he would then be considered an expensive project. Cespedes cashes in to the tune of $6.5M this season, and the A’s already signed up for $8.5 for 2013, and $10.5M for 2014 and 2015 each. With the increase in salary, the team and its fans certainly are reasonable to expect an increase in productivity, and that might be very gradual for a guy who has struck out 31 times in 132 plate appearances. I hope Cespedes rewards the team and fans for their collective patience, because they cannot afford to swing and miss on very many big ones like this.
Yu Darvish faces similar if not greater expectations in Texas. The Rangers have committed $56M over 6 years to Darvish, and the early returns appear promising. Beyond the 3.25 ERA and 9.7 SO/9, Darvish could benefit from lowering his walk rate, because a WHIP of 1.459 is kind of like playing with fire. It also means high pitch counts, and at 17.39 pitches per inning, Darvish is basically a 6-inning pitcher. For now, that works fine, because the Rangers have a great bullpen that can cover the last 1/3 of the game regularly. However, he could take a lot of load off of that pen by becoming slightly more efficient and going just 1 more inning a game on average. If Darvish can accomplish that without ratcheting up his pitch counts, the Rangers have a potential ace-in-waiting.
Perhaps no young player carries the burden of expectations like Bryce Harper does. The Nationals expect him to be an impact player now and hope for him to be a star player for years to come. No big deal, except the guy is 19 and has barely had time to find his locker. He is hitting .288/.380/.542/.922 with 5 HR, 4 3B, and 12 RBI. As with Cespedes, his defense lags behind his offense by quite a bit, and he also carries a relatively high strikeout rate. Still, he had the good fortune of playing on a team that does not need him to power the offense, and he appears to have the ability to learn on the job.
Even so, the expectations for Harper run as high as they do for Cespedes and Darvish. All 3 have high ceilings in terms of potential, but they are all a long way from reaching those levels of performance. They have become name brands in a matter of months on the MLB stage, and that leads to accelerated expectations and almost certain disappointment. It is a shame that MLB and the various teams have essentially colluded with the media in putting the proverbial cart before the horse. I just hope that it does not prove a detriment to the young, talented people entering the league.