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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 5: Two young guns make a splash in the NL East

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Heading into the 2018 season there was probably no player whose major league debut was more anticipated than Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña. At only 20 years-old he was poised to be one of the younger players to make a serious impact on a pennant race in some time. And, while his debut was a tad delayed thanks to the Braves manipulating his service time in the early weeks of the season, he delivered what he promised once he made the bigs.

Thing was, he was only one of two young outfielders to make a big impact in the NL East in 2018. And he wasn’t even the youngest. That honor went to Juan Soto — a mere 19 years-old all season long — who matched Acuña all year long.

These days we’re somewhat used to teams favoring young players over older players, but to have two guys emerge as stars at such young ages is insanely rare in baseball history. Indeed, there have been just five seasons in all of baseball history in which two players under the age of 21 put up campaigns with offensive WAR of 3.0 or more:

1911 – Rogers Hornsby, Whitey Witt;
1928 – Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx;
1952 – Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews;
2012 – Bryce Harper, Mike Trout; and
2018 – Ronald Acuña, Juan Soto

I’d say that’s some good company.

Maybe even better company than you might realize. It’s rare as all get-out to have two under-21 players putting up seasons like this in one year, but having even one season like that is, more often than not, a harbinger of great things. As Grant Brisbee noted over at SB Nation last month, any given player who puts up a season with an offensive WAR of 3.0 or greater under the age of 21 is more likely than not to make the Hall of Fame. Thirty-three guys have done it. Nineteen of them are in the Hall of Fame and another six of them are still active, including Acuña and Soto.

As it was, Acuña hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 home runs, 64 RBI, 78 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases in 487 plate appearances and was an above-average defender according to the various defensive metrics. Soto hit .292/.406/.517 with 22 homers and 70 RBI in 494 plate appearances. Thanks to the defense and the base running, Acuña beat Soto in the Rookie of the Year voting, gaining 27 of the 30 first place votes, but it’s clear that the two of them are close to equal talents, especially given that Soto is a year younger.

The Nats had a down year in 2018, but with Soto in the fold, they are likely to bounce back at some point soon while Acuña and the Braves seem poised to contend for the foreseeable future. Seeing the two of these guys go head to head in 2018 was itself fantastic. Seeing them do it over the coming years will be a treat indeed.

Report: Angels to sign Cody Allen

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Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the Angels and reliever Cody Allen are in agreement on a one-year contract, pending a physical. The value of the contract is not yet known.

Allen, 30, was looking for an opportunity to close and the Angels can certainly provide that. He will likely be the favorite to break camp as the closer. 2018 was the roughest year of his career, however, as he finished with a 4.70 ERA, 27 saves, and a 80/33 K/BB ratio in 67 innings. Among Allen’s six full seasons, his 27.7 strikeout rate and 11.4 percent walk rate represented career-worsts. FanGraphs also shows him losing nearly a full MPH on his average fastball velocity.

The Angels lost closer Keynan Middleton to Tommy John surgery early last season and he likely won’t return until the second half of the 2019 season. Blake Parker, who handled save situations in Middleton’s place, was non-tendered by the Angels in November and ended up signing with the Twins. The closer’s role is Allen’s to lose, it seems.