Hope springs eternal when camps open for Major League Baseball teams in Florida and Arizona, but it’s also high pressure time for prospects and other unproven players joining new teams on the game’s biggest stage. Will accomplished foreign players live up to the hype in the bigs? Can a rookie step into his team’s void to shine in 2014?
Such questions plague numerous figures this spring as Grapefruit League and Cactus League action takes place. MLB general managers know they can’t believe everything they see in February and March — much like they can’t rely on numbers prospects put up in September — but teams believing they have something special should see their elite prospects perform at a high level in spring training. Here are eight new MLB players going under the microscope this spring.
1. Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
Back in his native country of Cuba, Jose Abreu amassed eye-popping statistics for the better part of a decade, culminating in the 2010 season when he cranked 37 home runs with a .448 batting average in 77 games. The slugging first baseman landed a six-year, $68 million contract with the Chicago White Sox for his Cuban resume.
Though South Siders shouldn’t quite expect the second coming of Babe Ruth, the instant impact of fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig raises the bar for Abreu. On top of the already high expectations, Abreu is replacing White Sox legend Paul Konerko. All eyes will be on Abreu throughout the spring. The White Sox have answered the proverbial “Who’s on first?” Club officials and fans are already planning for the slugger to put up heavy offense.
2. Jackie Bradley, Jr., Boston Red Sox
Like Abreu in Chicago, Jackie Bradley, Jr., is trying to establish himself as an everyday player while replacing departed Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury. Nearly everyone considers Bradley up to the task. The intense pressure and media scrutiny surrounding Boston players has affected young prospects and high-profile signings in the recent past (see: Will Middlebrooks, Carl Crawford), but Bradley is expected to be the club’s everyday centerfielder when the team breaks camp.
As an insurance policy, the Red Sox signed former Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore, who is attempting a comeback. Sizemore has been out since 2011, but his high-level performance before a series of injuries suggest he’s ready to return. Developing Bradley, a centerfielder whose main weakness is at the plate, would be the preferred option.
3. Travis d’Arnaud, New York Mets
Travis d’Arnaud is the top prospect in the New York Mets system, but in 2014 he’s expecting to make the transition to everyday catcher on the big-league level. After appearing in 31 games for the Mets in 2013 following a solid minor-league career, club officials feel he has the chops to handle the pitching staff.
The 25-year-old d’Arnaud has the advantage of being on a team with no championship aspirations, but loyal Mets fans are hoping for big things from the rookie in his first full season. No matter how low you set the bar, fans need a reason to come to the ballpark and invest their time and emotions in the future of the organization. Travis d’Arnaud will carry some of that burden throughout the spring and the 2014 season.
4. Masahiro Tanaka, New York Yankees
Join the New York Yankees and the expectations are high. Join the Yankees at over $20 million a year without having thrown a pitch in the Major Leagues and expectations become insane. Such is the situation for Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka in his first spring training with the Yankees in Tampa.
Tanaka achieved international stardom with a stunnning 2013 campaign for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. However, no one expected he would land a contract on the level of $155 million over seven years. By contrast, stud Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is earning $56 million over six years, though the Rangers had to pay an additional $52 million to Darvish’s old team as a posting fee (the Yankees paid $20 million to Rakuten.)
An intense spotlight will shine on Tanaka throughout his Yankees career because C.C. Sabathia, the team’s ace since 2009, showed signs of mediocrity in 2013. To get back into contention, the Bronx Bombers need Tanaka to be a dominant force on their staff.
5. Oscar Taveras, St. Louis Cardinals
Coming off ankle surgery in 2013, expectations are slightly lower for Oscar Taveras, but the 21-year-old phenom still carries the designation as No. 3 prospect in all of Major League Baseball. Slotted as a corner outfielder, it’s easy to see him replacing the departed Carlos Beltran as a young and powerful addition to the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup.
The scouting report says Taveras has power to all fields, hits for average, and plays solid defense with a powerful throwing arm. Already cleared for full baseball actvities, Taveras will start to generate the most excitement later in the spring when there are no restrictions on his running. The Cardinals’ farm system seems to have produced another gem.
6. Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
The Detroit Tigers were so comfortable with the idea Nick Castellanos was ready for the big leagues the club traded slugger Cecil Fielder to Texas. Miguel Cabrera will take on the duties at first base, leaving Castellanos alone to man the hot corner in 2014.
Baseball America noted that, “Few prospects have a weightier burden” in 2014 than the Detroit third baseman. In addition to establishing himself on this elite level, he must contend with expectations of winning the World Series that has eluded the Tigers in the recent past.
7. Kevin Gausman, Baltimore Orioles
Though the signing of Ubaldo Jimenez by the Orioles changes things slightly, Kevin Gausman will still play an important role in the 2014 season for Baltimore. As the top pitching prospect for the Orioles, Gausman has the potential to bump Miguel Gonzalez or replace an injured hurler as the sixth man in the rotation.
No one jumps off the page of the Orioles’ roster as an ace, but the 23-year-old first-round pick Gausman has the potential to grow into a pitcher of considerable stature. This spring will prove whether he can snag the fifth spot in the rotation or whether the Orioles might consider using him out of the bullpen. The departure of closer Jim Johnson leaves a hole in that spot for Baltimore. Gausman could at least shore up the ‘pen in the short term while the teams sees how the rotation pans out.
8. Taijuan Walker, Seattle Mariners
Robinson Cano may be getting the lion’s share of attention in Seattle camp (Honorable Mention: Fernando Rodney), but Mariners ace Felix Hernandez is confident 21-year-old Taijuan Walker is going to make the starting rotation this spring. Walker, who is now the team’s No. 1 pitching prospect, lit up the flash bulbs at the end of 2013 in his three MLB appearances. He went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA.
Like other top prospects on emerging teams, Walker won’t have the level of pressure Jackie Bradley or Tanaka will face back East, but the Mariners are hoping to add Walker and other young guns to the one-two punch of Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation. This spring, Walker’s appearances will get their share of time under the microscope.