1 Prospect from Each MLB Team Who Will Make the Opening Day Roster
Every spring there's at least one young player from each MLB team that threatens to lay waste to the plans formulated by the front office by doing the unthinkable:
Making the team.
Last year in Cincinnati, that player was almost Dave Sappelt. All he did was hit .564, homer three times, drive in 12 runs and play flawless defense. Sappelt was eventually left off the Opening Day roster.
Baltimore's Zach Britton, however, was not. After tossing 20 innings of three-run ball, the left-hander made the most of an injury to Brian Matusz. He made the roster, started 28 games and garnered some early-season Rookie of the Year consideration.
There are no doubt bound to be some Brittons this year. Some are obvious, such as Cincinnati catcher Devin Mesoraco, who has been handed the reins to a talented Reds rotation. Likewise, lefty Drew Pomeranz will likely start the season in the Rockies rotation.
Some will be less obvious, and some will be totally off the wall and catch us asking, "Who the hell is Atahualpa Severino?"
Without further ado, let's examine who the prospect is going to be that makes your team's Opening Day roster.
Trevor Bauer, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
The third overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bauer almost forced his way onto the roster late last season, but eventually the combined 162 innings between college and pro ball wore him down, and Arizona wisely chose to send him home for the remainder of the 2011 campaign.
They even kept him on the sidelines for the Arizona Fall League season, in which several of the top selections in the 2011 draft participated, including Gerrit Cole (No. 1 overall), Danny Hultzen (No. 2) and Sean Gilmartin (No. 28).
While it was no doubt frustrating for Bauer to remain off the mound for that long, the move will likely pay off come spring training. The diminutive right-hander will be fresh and energized and looking to crack the Diamondbacks starting rotation. He'll have plenty of competition, including fellow top prospect LHP Tyler Skaggs, but something tells me if the team brings one of the two into the season with it, the lucky guy will be Bauer.
Tyler Pastornicky, SS, Atlanta Braves
Last year the Braves ceded the shortstop position to Alex Gonzalez, who came over from Toronto. This season, it looks like they could be once again handing it off to another product of the Blue Jays system, Tyler Pastornicky.
While he might not be able to match Gonzalez's production in terms of power (15 HR, 56 RBI), there's no doubt he'll be able to match, or outdo, the veteran's production in several other areas, most notably batting average (.241) and BB:K ratio (22-to-126). In fact, both of those areas have been Pastornicky's strengths during the four seasons he's spent in the minors.
He hit a combined .314 last season, splitting time between Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett, and at both stops he maintained great plate discipline, walking 32 times while striking out just 45. He's never been much of a strikeout threat, going down on strikes only 11 percent of the time in over 1,700 plate appearances.
Two other skills that should work in his favor are his baserunning ability and his defense. He's stolen, on average, 37 bases per season, including a career-high 57 back in 2009. Defensively, he's consistently posted some of the best fielding percentages in the league, save for last season when he dipped to a career-low .942.
Matt Angle, OF, Baltimore Orioles
After stringing together five great seasons in the minors, the Orioles finally rewarded Angle with a big-league promotion in 2011, and while his final line (.177/.293/.266) looked rather terrible, the front office will swear he was a much better addition to the squad than those numbers would make it seem.
For starters, consider that his on-base percentage was more than 100 points higher than his average, thanks to a "veteran-like" 12-to-13 BB:K ratio. He also provided the Orioles with the best baserunning they saw all season, stealing 11 bases in 12 attempts. Despite playing in just 31 games, Angle came within three steals of leading the team in that category.
The other thing that Angle did incredibly well was play defense. He has always been a superb defender in the minor leagues, racking up 43 assists from center field in five seasons while committing just nine errors, and there was no doubt that he improved the overall play of the outfield when he was on the field.
Angle often struggled to get off to quick starts in the minors, so his .177 average in limited playing time doesn't particularly scare me. I'm sure that if he could get 300 to 400 at-bats he could muster something closer to the .260 to .270 range.
For a team that lacks in speed and has no real long-term answer in left field (maybe Nolan Reimold, maybe Endy Chavez, maybe Jai Miller), Angle should get a long, hard look in spring camp.
Jose Iglesias, SS, Boston Red Sox
There are few big-league rosters that are harder for a prospect to sneak his way onto than Boston's. Combine that with the fact that they just hired a manager, Bobby Valentine, who prefers a savvy veteran to a young whippersnapper nine times out of 10, and I'd say it's going to be hard for any player who has less than a year of experience in the majors to crack the Red Sox Opening Day roster.
Luckily, Jose Iglesias is coming along at just the right time and in just the right situation.
In case you haven't been paying attention, in the past two months the Sox have traded away the two players who saw time at shortstop for them in 2011, Jed Lowrie (to Houston) and Marco Scutaro (to Colorado). They have added some depth, but right now the race to be the team's Opening Day shortstop has been narrowed to three players: Mike Aviles, Nick Punto and Iglesias.
Aviles has a sensational rookie campaign back in 2008, but his bat has fallen off in recent years, and he hasn't played shortstop full-time since that year in '08. Punto is the safest bet, but he's 34 years old and has a career .249 average. He's also slugged a whopping 14 big-league home runs in 11 seasons. He too hasn't seen full-time action at short since 2008. That leaves Iglesias, owner of a .333 average in limited playing time with the Sox last year.
Yes, he hit a meek .235 at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2011, but he's proven to be a quick learner who doesn't strike out too much and who offers Gold Glove-caliber defense. That can't be said of either Aviles or Punto, so Iglesias "should" have this competition in the bag.
The only thing standing in his way is Bobby V's approval.
Welington Castillo, C, Chicago Cubs
The case for Castillo making the Opening Day roster is practically the same as the argument for Geovany Soto NOT making it.
Consider the evidence. Soto has been one of the most inconsistent performers in the majors since coming up for good back in 2007. His 2008 rookie campaign (.285, 23 HR, 86 RBI) seemed to foretell of a promising future. The next season he slipped back into near anonymity, hitting a paltry .218.
He bounced back in 2010, slugging 17 homers while maintaining a .280 average. Things seemed to be on the up and up. Or not. In 2010, he once again dropped off the face of the earth, hitting .228 with a career-high 124 strikeouts.
Entering 2012, it's hard not to think of Soto as a gigantic question mark. Which player will he be in 2011? New "man in charge" Theo Epstein doesn't have the best track record with patience, so it wouldn't surprise me if he decides to make a change to up-and-coming prospect Welington Castillo, who has been a steady performer in the minors, hitting .270 with 28 homers and 95 RBI in 131 Triple-A contests.
Even if Castillo fails to unseat Soto in 2012, there will likely be a spot for him on the big-league roster as the backup, assuming he can beat out fellow prospect Steve Clevenger.
Addison Reed/Simon Castro, RHP, Chicago White Sox
In addition to having easily the worst farm system in baseball, the White Sox will also head into 2012 with one of the weakest big-league rotations. Gone are crafty lefty Mark Buehrle and erratic/brilliant Edwin Jackson. Filling their roles are starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter Chris Sale and chronically injured Jake Peavy.
Even worse is the effect that the rotation moves have had on a bullpen that was once the best in baseball. Gone from that group are Sale (moved to the rotation) and Sergio Santos (dealt to Toronto), and in their place enter rookies Addison Reed and Simon Castro.
Both have vast potential, although both will be making the transition from starting. Reed should have an easier time, seeing as how he made 28 appearances out of the bullpen last year, plus another six relief outings in the majors. With great velocity and impressive poise, he could challenge for a late-inning role.
Castro, on the other hand, hasn't pitched in relief since 2010 and has only done so four times in his six seasons in the minors. He too has excellent velocity, but is coming off a rough year and so will likely be eased into a middle-relief or long-relief role.
Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds
Mesoraco is one of the only players on this list who has a guaranteed spot because of his play and not just a lack of depth at his position.
He earned his stripes in the minor leagues, working his way back from potential first-round bust to minor league All-Star. He's spent five years in the minors, but the last two have been so sensational that there's no way to keep him from the majors any longer.
In 2010, he had arguably the finest offensive season of any catcher in the minors, hitting .302 with 26 homers and 75 RBI. He didn't fare too shabbily behind the plate either, throwing out 41 percent of runners attempting to steal. This past season he did his damage in another way, racking up a career-high 36 doubles and 52 walks.
Mesoraco has the potential, both at the plate and behind it, to be a multiple-time All-Star, and his reign starts now.
Nick Hagadone, LHP, Cleveland Indians
Ever since Hagadone switched to pitching out of the bullpen, he's been one of the most intimidating relievers in the minor leagues.
It helps that he is left-handed, 6'5" and 230 pounds and throws in the mid 90s.
Already 26 years old, Hagadone just reached the majors late last season after a dominating run at both Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. He only surrendered 14 hits in 22.2 innings for the Aeros and then struck out more than a batter an inning for the Clippers.
By the time the season wound down he found himself pitching for the big-league club. He pitched well enough (4.09 ERA, 11 K in 11 IP) but didn't dominate to the point where he was guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster.
With a strong spring he could cement his place alongside Chris Perez in the late innings.
Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Colorado Rockies
While he was widely considered one of the most polished pitchers available in the 2010 draft crop, few experts (or anyone for that matter) expected it to only take 20 minor league starts for Drew Pomeranz to reach the majors.
That's exactly what the left-hander did, however, dominating hitters in the High-A Carolina League (1.87 ERA, 95 K in 77 IP), the Double-A Eastern League (2.57, 17 K in 14 IP) and the Double-A Texas League (0.00, two hits allowed in 10 IP).
If you think it's odd that Pomeranz pitched in both Double-A leagues, don't be alarmed. The former Ole Miss ace was dealt late in the season to Colorado from Cleveland, who received Ubaldo Jimenez.
The Rockies wasted no time calling Pomeranz up to the big leagues, where he performed admirably in three of his four starts. The fourth he was lit up in, serving up six runs on seven hits in just two innings.
One of the reasons Colorado was so bullish about having Pomeranz included in the deal is because it knew the 23-year-old would be able to step into the rotation so seamlessly, something he'll do full-time in 2012.
Duane Below, LHP, Detroit Tigers
Below doesn't have the prospect pedigree of Jacob Turner, but there's a great likelihood that it will be the former that locks down the fifth spot in the rotation come Opening Day.
Just two years removed from Tommy John surgery that threatened to bring an end to his career as a starting pitcher, Below had a terrific campaign at Triple-A Toledo, where he went 9-4 with a 3.13 ERA and held batters to a .232 average. Against lefties, Below was devastating, holding them to a .168 average.
He earned his way onto the roster late in the season and even managed to make a few spot starts, although the majority of his appearances came out of the pen, where he saw action for the first time since 2008.
Below not only has the edge on Turner in age (at 26, he's nearly six years older), but also in experience. He's thrown over 600 innings in the minors, compared to Turner's 246.
Heading into the 2012 season with a run-creating dynamo at its core, Detroit will probably look to the pitcher less likely to screw things up, and while Turner might be the best bet in the long run, odds are the Tigers will turn to Below first.
Kyle Weiland, RHP, Houston Astros
As it stands, Weiland is in a battle for the sixth or seventh rotation spot with the Astros. Seeing as how that many slots don't exist, if he wants on this roster he's going to have to do two things:
1) Pitch incredibly well in spring camp.
2) Be content pitching out of the bullpen.
Weiland's 2011 campaign ended badly, but for the most part it has to be considered a success. He made 24 starts at Triple-A Pawtucket, winning a career-high eight games, while posting a career-low 3.58 ERA. He also struck out close to a batter an inning and went deeper into games than ever before.
The ultimate victory came when the Red Sox called upon him in September to supplement a tattered starting rotation. He didn't perform too well, giving up 29 hits and 21 earned runs in 24.2 innings, but he did show some promise in his last outing of the season, pitching a perfect inning against Baltimore.
Maybe that successful relief outing was a sign for his future, because that's really the only way he'll crack the Opening Day lineup of one of the least impressive rosters in baseball.
Clint Robinson, 1B, Kansas City Royals
If there's one player in the minor leagues who doesn't get nearly as much attention as he deserves, it's Clint Robinson. All the 26-year-old has done is produce at every level he's been. His 2011 campaign may have been his finest yet.
Playing for Triple-A Omaha, he hit .326 with 23 home runs and a career-high 100 RBI. For the third straight season he rapped 30 or more doubles. He also struck out a career-high 88 times, but it didn't dent his on-base percentage, which at .399 was the second-highest of his career.
Robinson could have an easier time cracking into just about every lineup in baseball, but in Kansas City he's blocked by future superstar Eric Hosmer. In order to get his bat into the everyday lineup, the Royals are going to have to move him to the outfield, where he's started just three games in five seasons.
Even cracking the outfield is going to take a minor miracle. Left fielder Alex Gordon is coming off a career year, right fielder Jeff Francoeur is just two years older than Robinson and there's literally no way Robinson can handle center.
Still, it's hard to imagine the Royals breaking camp without a bat as potent as his.
Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
Believe it or not, Trout isn't a lock to crack the Opening Day roster.
Despite rocketing through the minors, jumping straight past Triple-A and performing admirably as a 19-year-old in the majors, Trout still has to contend with a crowded outfield, one that has become even more of a quagmire with the addition of Albert Pujols.
With Pujols entrenched at first base, both Kendrys Morales and Mark Trumbo need new positions, with the outfield being the most likely. The Angels are already stocked there, however, with aging veterans Torii Hunter (36), Vernon Wells (33) and Bobby Abreu (37). Don't forget about Peter Bourjos, who forced Hunter to right field with his stellar play.
That appears to leave little room for Trout. Even he admitted as much in a recent interview with local radio station WLAA 830, opining on his situation, "You always want to be up all year, but sometimes it’s got to be the right time and the right spot. I’m just going into spring training trying to get hot, swing the bat pretty well and see where they put me.”
Considering his poise, and his tools, I wouldn't put it past him to hit his way onto the big-league squad out of spring camp, especially if the team finds a way to trade away either Morales or Trumbo, despite its stated intentions against doing so.
Tim Federowicz, C, Los Angeles Dodgers
On the surface, it doesn't appear that Federowicz has a legitimate chance to earn one of two catching spots on the big-league roster. The Dodgers already have two veteran guys on the roster, Matt Treanor and A.J. Ellis.
If you dig a little deeper, however, you'll see that "FedEx" is closer to achieving his lifelong goal than most think.
For starters, the supposed starter, Treanor, will be 36 in March and owns a career .225 average. In eight big-league seasons, he's mustered only 42 doubles and 16 homers, numbers that pale in comparison to some 162-game totals for some average major league hitters. Treanor is above average defensively, but it's hard to imagine him posting caught-stealing percentages anywhere close to the 47 percent he notched in 2006.
And then there's Ellis, six years younger than Treanor and owner of a career average nearly 50 points higher. The downside to going with him is that he's only made 87 starts in four seasons in the majors and hasn't played in more than 100 games combined since 2007.
Last, but not least, there's Federowicz. Not only does he have a proven track record of hitting for average and power in the minors, but he's also posted caught-stealing percentages above 30 percent in four consecutive seasons. He's widely regarded as one of the best defensive catching prospects in baseball.
If he can hit well enough in spring training, he could easily take one of the two spots belonging to the older...eh...more veteran gentlemen.
Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Miami Marlins
This one requires a bit of creative license, seeing as how Cespedes hasn't even gotten authorization to play in the United States, much less signed with a team.
Still, he's finally stateside and has taken his first visit, with the Marlins. He'll be making the rounds with his other suitors, most notably the Tigers, Orioles, White Sox and Indians. The way the Marlins have spent this offseason I see no reason not to expect him to sign with Miami. They not only have the money, but the added draw of Ozzie Guillen.
Cespedes struggled in his brief foray into winter ball, but don't forget that this is the same guy who hit .333 with 33 homers and 99 RBI in 90 games last year in Cuba. Rumor has it that Cespedes will likely need some time in the minors, but with his price tag likely to top $60 million it will be hard to keep him off the big-league roster.
Taylor Green, 3B/OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Potentially losing Ryan Braun to an inevitable suspension for the use of performance-enhancing drugs puts a huge dent in Milwaukee's plans for 2012. Not only did it lose Prince Fielder, but in Braun, it lost the only other player to top the 30-homer mark. Fifty games without Braun leaves the team in quite a pickle, and with a gaping hole in left field.
Enter Taylor Green. Green saw some playing time towards the end of last season and didn't fare too well, but his track record in the minors speaks for itself. He's averaged 14 home runs and 76 RBI in each of his full-season campaigns and has a career .291/.373/.458 line. Last year at Triple-A Nashville, he hit .336 with 22 homers and 91 RBI, by far the best season of his career.
Green is the most logical candidate since the Brewers' other top young hitter/corner infielder, Mat Gamel, is scheduled to take the reins at first base in lieu of Fielder.
Now to the tricky part. Green has never played an inning in the outfield in regular-season play. Of course, there's no better place to learn a new position than in spring training.
Liam Hendriks, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Arguably the top Australian prospect in the minors, Hendriks reached the big leagues late last season. He didn't perform especially well, surrendering 29 hits and 16 runs in 23.1 innings, but he showed considerable poise and grit in four starts. He averaged nearly six innings per start, a pretty solid number for a 22-year-old getting his first taste of the majors.
In the minors, Hendriks was brilliant in 2011. Splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A, he won 12 games and posted a 3.36 ERA and a 111-to-21 K:BB ratio. Believe it or not, the 21 walks were a career high. Obviously, Hendriks fits the bill as your typical Minnesota control specialist.
Hendriks will get an invite to spring camp since he's the top pitching prospect in the system now that Kyle Gibson is on the mend from Tommy John. Given his ability to throw strikes and little else, it doesn't seem like a shot in the dark to see him winding up with a spot in the rotation.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, OF, New York Mets
The Mets have plenty of outfielders, and unless something drastic happens they're set at all three outfield spots: Jason Bay in left, Andres Torres in center and Lucas Duda in right. The one thing they lack, however, is a dynamic fourth outfielder. That position currently belongs to Scott Hairston.
For those of you with short memories, keep in mind that the soon-to-be 32-year-old Hairston hit .235 last year for New York and .210 the year before with the Padres. He doesn't offer much speed or power and isn't a specialist at getting on base. The one thing he does do is play all three positions, plus a couple in the infield.
Nieuwenhuis also has that ability to play each outfield spot, and unlike Hairston he's a legitimate threat, both with the bat and on the basepaths. In two full seasons he's slugged 35 home runs and swiped 30 bases, all the while maintaining a .278 average. He's also an extra-base hit machine, racking up 81 doubles from 2009-10.
The 24-year-old saw his 2011 campaign ended prematurely when he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his non-throwing arm. He appeared in only 53 games, but with 17 doubles and six home runs he was on pace for his finest offensive season yet.
There's no doubt in my mind that he'd make a better, more explosive fourth outfielder than Hairston, regardless of the former's big-league inexperience.
Dellin Betances, RHP, New York Yankees
Betances has appeared in 91 games in the minors, and only one has come as anything other than a starter. If he is to make the Yankees' Opening Day roster, however, it's most likely going to be as a reliever, and seriously can you imagine anything more intimidating than a 6'8", 255-pound behemoth capable of throwing in the mid 90s?
The former eighth-round pick has always been a big strikeout guy, but he's had trouble maintaining his control deep into games. As a result, 2011 saw him issue a career-high 70 walks in just 126.1 innings. That kind of number isn't going to cut it as a Yankees starter. After all, they already have A.J. Burnett.
Betances is all but assured to get an invite to spring training, and with a performance that bests his mediocre effort from last year, the Yankees really have no better option in the bullpen.
Brad Peacock, RHP, Oakland Athletics
By the end of the 2011 season, it appeared that Peacock, the team's top "non-Harper" prospect, was going to be a lock for the 2012 rotation. Since the end of the season, the Nats have added Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to a starting five that also includes Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. That leaves little room for Peacock.
Luckily, he was dealt to Oakland in the same trade that brought Gonzalez to the nation's capital. Now an Athletic, Peacock has little standing in his way of earning a spot in a depleted rotation that lost not only Gonzalez, but also Trevor Cahill to Arizona.
Peacock was no doubt the breakout star of the 2011 campaign, winning a combined 15 games, plus another two in the majors, and posting a 2.39 ERA. He also struck out a career-high 177 batters in just 146.1 innings. He earned a late-season call-up to Washington and performed admirably, posting a 0.75 ERA in three appearances.
His ceiling is likely somewhere between the kind of pitcher he was before his breakout campaign and the one he is now. Still, in Oakland, he's likely to emerge as one of the team's top three starters.
Justin De Fratus, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
De Fratus was one of many young arms to come up to Philly in 2011, and while his stay was a short one (four IP in five games), there's a good chance he'll be back in the bullpen to open the 2012 campaign.
Ever since switching to relieving full-time back in 2010, the 24-year-old has flourished. He posted a 1.94 ERA in 2010 and struck out 71 batters in 65 innings while allowing just 48 hits. He was nearly as good in 2011, getting 99 punchouts in a mere 75.1 innings en route to picking up 15 saves in 51 games between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
The Phillies added Red Sox cast-off Jonathan Papelbon in the offseason, but he could take a back seat to De Fratus if he pitches like he did the past two seasons.
Rudy Owens, LHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
For the first time in a very long time the Pirates will enter the season with a slew of returning pitchers in their rotation. Their top four (Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and James McDonald) combined to start 112 games in 2011. That's more than the combined number of career starts by the projected Baltimore starting five.
To further bolster the rotation, the Bucs inked lefty Erik Bedard to a one-year deal, although with his spotty health record, it's hard to imagine him making more than 20 starts for Pittsburgh. Fellow youngster Brad Lincoln is going to challenge Bedard for the fifth rotation spot, but a guy that no one is talking about is left-hander Rudy Owens.
Need I remind that of the team's projected starting five, the only lefty is Bedard, leaving quite a wealth of righties. Owens would break things up, and don't be fooled into believing that he's as bad as his 2011 stat line (5.05 ERA, 10 HR allowed) suggests. The year before, he won 12 games, posted one of the lowest ERAs (2.46) in the organization and struck out 132 batters in 150 innings. He walked a mere 23.
Owens has earned his stripes in the minors, and even if he can't break into the rotation, he could warrant a look in the bullpen, which happened to be one of the most underrated in baseball last year.
Shelby Miller, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
Miller has been on the verge of breaking into the big leagues, even if it's just for a few spot starts, for a few seasons now, and this spring might finally be the time for the 21-year-old.
He built off the momentum generated in his full-season debut last year, posting a 2.77 ERA splitting time between High-A and Double-A. His strikeout rate, 11 batters per inning, was one of the tops in the minors, and he remained as stingy as ever with the home runs, allowing just four in 139.2 innings.
Miller could spend the majority of the 2012 season at Triple-A, but if he has a strong showing in spring camp, it will be hard for the Cardinals to send him back down, especially considering the guff they're likely to take for allowing Albert Pujols to leave town.
The organization will be searching for a new "face," and there's no better candidate than Miller.
Yonder Alonso, 1B, San Diego Padres
The Padres acquired two big-league-ready first basemen this offseason, but in the end the player who will likely end up at first base on Opening Day is former Red Yonder Alonso.
Alonso has been blocked for the past two years in Cincinnati by former NL MVP Joey Votto. In order to get his bat in the lineup, the Reds tried Alonso in the outfield, but the experiment didn't take despite his stellar play at the plate (.330, five HR in 47 games in 2011). He seemed destined to open 2012 back at Triple-A before the Padres dealt for him, sending starter Mat Latos to Cincy.
The team eliminated Alonso's sole competitor from the process when it traded Anthony Rizzo to Chicago later in the offseason. Now it's Alonso's show.
Heath Hembree, RHP, San Francisco Giants
There has been no reliever more dominant the past two seasons than San Francisco's Heath Hembree. Not only does the right-hander have the ability to light up radar guns, but he's also been nearly unhittable at three different levels.
He struck out a whopping 78 batters in 53.1 innings in 2011, good for a strikeout rate of 13.2. The year before he struck out 22 batters, and walked none, in 11 innings. Clearly strikeouts are his thing.
Combined, Hembree has a 1.68 ERA spanning 66 outings and nearly as many innings (64.1). He became both the San Jose Giants' and Richmond Flying Squirrels' closer last year and racked up an MiLB-best 38 saves.
Make no mistake—Hembree is the Giants closer of the future. Like Mariano Rivera before him, he may have to lie in wait as a dynamic setup man before he gets the chance to unseat Brian Wilson, but the day will eventually come when they turn to Hembree.
Jesus Montero, C, Seattle Mariners
Catch or no catch, Montero will be in the lineup on Opening Day.
That's what having the best bat in the minor leagues will do for you. Yes, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout get all the love, but chalk that up to a case of prospect fatigue. Montero has been around for quite some time, and it seems like two or three years that he's been on the verge of cracking the big-league roster.
In New York, however, that's easier said than done, as evidenced by the fact that he racked up 967 at-bats at Triple-A Scranton the past two years.
He'll find the environment much more conducive to growth in Seattle, where he'll be given at least 500 at-bats this year and every opportunity to prove he can catch.
Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Moore proved his worth late last season when he dominated the Yankees with 11 strikeouts in five innings in his first big-league start. He did even better in his second, holding the Rangers scoreless for seven innings in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
He'll enter 2012 the way he ended 2011—as the top pitching prospect in baseball. He'll get an invite to spring camp and will have a handful of starts to prove that his late-season heroics were no fluke.
In the end it will likely come down to Moore, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis fighting for two spots. If Moore wins one of the spots, the loser will head to the bullpen. If he loses, however, he's likely headed back down to Triple-A.
In addition to having some of the best stuff in the minors, Moore also has the stats to back up his claim as one of the top prospects in baseball. The past two seasons, Moore has struck out over 200 batters, and two of the past three he's won the minor league strikeout crown. In nine Triple-A starts, Moore was downright dominant, striking out 79 batters in 52.2 innings and posting a 1.37 ERA.
Yu Darvish, RHP, Texas Rangers
From the moment he joined the organization, Darvish cemented a spot in the Rangers rotation.
Featuring some of the best stuff in baseball, and with a desire to be the greatest pitcher in the world, Darvish should find more success than any other pitcher to cross the Pacific Ocean. He'll come to spring training with a guaranteed spot, likely slotting in behind Colby Lewis.
Deck McGuire, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
The Jays don't have a very flashy rotation, but heading into spring camp, they do appear to have one that is set with five starters. Brandon Morrow, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Henderson Alvarez and Dustin McGowan appear to be the five guys, although more than a few of them have injury concerns. The guy who warrants the most concern is McGowan.
After missing half of the 2008 season, and all of the 2009 and 2010 campaigns, the 29-year-old returned to the mound late last season. He wasn't incredibly effective, but after more than three years away from the majors, who could blame him? Still, it seems unlikely that he'll be able to make it through an entire season, even if he is healthy.
My pick to surprise this spring is right-hander Deck McGuire.
The team's first-round pick in 2010, McGuire has blown through the minors, reaching Double-A just 20 starts into his pro career. He struck out 124 batters last season in 125.1 innings despite never being known as a high-strikeout guy while in college. He could return to New Hampshire to open the 2012 campaign, or he could get an aggressive boost to Triple-A.
He didn't get the opportunity to see game action last spring, but that will not be the case this year. I fully expect him to open some eyes and make the decision for the fifth spot hard on the front office.
Atahualpa Severino, LHP, Washington Nationals
Not the guy you expected, eh?
Probably the least known name on this list (I'll admit even I had to look him up), Severino finally reached the majors after toiling for six seasons in the minors.
It's not for lack of results, though, as the 27-year-old has held down a 2.93 ERA and struck out 353 in 337.2 innings. Last year he put together arguably his worst campaign. His ERA spiked to 4.50 and he posted the highest walk rate (6.5) of his career.
On the plus side, he struck out more than a batter an inning and posted the second-highest strikeout rate (10.7 per 9/IP) of his career.
Even if he makes the Opening Day roster, Severino likely won't garner much attention throughout the season. He doesn't have the stuff to close, and he's never topped 75 innings in a single season, so he's likely going to be a middle reliever who works the sixth and seventh innings.