Spring Training is fully underway in Florida and Arizona, with all 30 major league clubs preparing themselves for the grind of the upcoming season. For the most part, roster spots are decided, with only a handful of players actually competing for playing time at the major league level.
Eyes have turned to the impressive young talent in each organization, and speculation has begun regarding which young stars have played in their final minor league game.
The kids are definitely making names for themselves this spring. Some started camp all but assured of a spot on the 25-man roster, while some continue to battle, playing every spring game as if it's Game 7 of the World Series. Nothing matters more to them than that spot on their club's Opening Day roster.
So, which of these prospects actually have a shot at breaking camp with the big league club? I've narrowed it down to eight guys who need to finish up strong this spring if they're going to impress their managers enough to give them the call.
With the departures of Carlos Quentin and Juan Pierre, Chicago's young outfielder Dayan Viciedo should be a near-lock to win a corner outfield job out of Spring Training. Still, it wouldn't hurt him to get off to a good start in 2012 with a nice spring.
Viciedo has gotten the major league call in each of the past two seasons, appearing in 20-30 games each time, but last year he failed to impress after a successful callup in 2010. After two years at AAA, he has shown that he is ready for the next challenge, as he hit .296 with 20 home runs down in the minors in 2011.
At just 23 years of age, Viciedo could be the new face of the Chicago White Sox for the foreseeable future, and look for him to prove his worth this spring.
Last season, Domonic Brown made it to the majors in late May, seemingly taking over the everyday right field job for good. However, his performance was less than satisfactory, and by August he found himself back down in the minors. Hitting .245 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 56 games did nothing to cement his status for the 2012 season.
Now, although Hunter Pence has been brought in as the starting right fielder, Raul Ibanez has left Philly for the Bronx, leaving a vacancy in left field, one which will at least not immediately be taken by John Mayberry Jr., who will be filling in for Ryan Howard as he recovers from offseason surgery. Brown has his second chance, but if he plans on sticking with the Phillies once Howard returns, he'll have to earn his keep, and the first step would be to win the job in Spring Training.
Brown is by no means a bad player. He has enjoyed much success in the minors, including a 2010 season in which he hit .327 with 20 home runs and 68 RBI at both AA and AAA, so the potential is there. He just needs to figure out how to transition this success to the major leagues, and where better than Spring Training to do so?
The Boston Red Sox made a very strange move this offseason when they traded starting shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies for relief pitcher Clayton Mortensen. I couldn't understand the logic of the move, and quite frankly I still don't, as Scutaro was one of the few players who performed well down the stretch as Boston collapsed in September, having a career year in the process.
So now the Red Sox will use their Spring Training to name a new starting shortstop. The candidates? Mid-season acquisition Mike Aviles, offseason acquisition Nick Punto and yes, the young Cuban prospect Jose Iglesias.
Iglesias is a weak hitter, that's just a fact right now. Will his bat improve? Maybe in time, with a little more experience, but for now Iglesias's value lies in his glove. This kid is so good, if he started the whole season for the Red Sox in 2012, he would probably win the AL Gold Glove as a rookie, and he would probably be a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, the offensive side of his game is what the front office, the coaching staff and the fans are all observing right now. If he does not at least hold his own this spring, he will likely have no chance at taking the job from Aviles, the clear favorite right now.
However, if Iglesias can prove that his bat isn't completely useless, he might just force new manager Bobby Valentine's hand and finally make his way to Boston for Opening Day.
Before the 2011 season, Angels prospect Mike Trout was ranked the No. 1 overall prospect by MLB.com. Needless to say, expectations were high for the then 19-year-old outfielder. However, when he finally got the call to the majors, he sure didn't look like the minors' best player, as he posted a .220 batting average with five home runs and 16 RBI in 40 games for Anaheim.
This season, Trout is fully aware of the type of performance he needs to give in order to win an Opening Day nod for the Angels. With the logjam in the outfield as well as at DH, competition should be fierce this spring for the Halos. With Torii Hunter and the much-overpaid Vernon Wells locks to take two of those outfield spots, Trout will have to beat out Peter Bourjos, as well as Bobby Abreu (assuming Kendrys Morales claims the DH spot) in order to steal a starting role.
Can he do it? Well, let's just say you don't get ranked as the best prospect in baseball if you're not major-league ready. A .338 career minor league batting average means you can hit, so if Trout can do what he's always done in the minors this spring, he'll make Scioscia's job difficult come April.
Mat Gamel has some BIG shoes to fill, both literally and figuratively. With Prince Fielder officially departing Milwaukee for Detroit, the Brewers have chosen to replace their All-Star slugger with the top in-house candidate, Gamel. While he might not technically be a "prospect" anymore, Gamel has never even spent a half-season in the bigs, so I felt inclined to include him on this list.
Gamel played 61 games in 2009 for Milwaukee, but after that he only played in a handful of games in both 2010 and 2011. 2012 will finally be his shot at the big time, and this spring he needs to start to prove to his manager, his teammates and the Brewers fans that he can be their everyday first baseman, and that life will go on without Fielder.
Gamel is a career .304 hitter in the minors, and last season hit .310 with 28 home runs and 96 RBI in only 128 games. If he can finally translate that kind of performance to the majors, the Brewers won't be missing Prince for too long.
In perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason, young slugger Jesus Montero was sent from the New York Yankees to the Seattle Mariners for the also-young flamethrower Michael Pineda. A trade of two players so young and so talented is rare in any sport, baseball included, and it could be years before we know who, if anyone, will come out on the higher end of this trade.
Will Montero actually spend his career as a catcher, be a perennial All-Star, and hit .300 with 30-plus home runs per year? Maybe, or maybe he'll be a DH who never sees an All-Star Game and hits .240 with 20 home runs a year, shut down by his spacious new home in Seattle.
Will Pineda ever reign atop the Yankees' rotation, win 20 games, take home a Cy Young Award, and most importantly, win a ring? Possibly, or he could burn out under the pressure of New York as soon as this season. What I'm trying to say is that when it comes to young players with such small sample sizes in the big leagues, you never know for sure what you're going to get.
But as for the present, what can the Mariners look for in Montero in 2012? If his spring is even halfway decent, he'll likely bat cleanup for the M's anemic offense, one that placed last in almost every offensive statistic in 2011. However, this spot comes with responsibility and a whole lot of pressure.
In New York, he was going to bat somewhere from 6-8 in the lineup, providing some extra protection for some of the game's premier hitters like Robinson Cano, A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. In Seattle, he is the guy. He has to perform like an MVP for the Mariners to even have a shot at finishing second in their own division, and even then...
Montero is the future of the Mariners, plain and simple. The best thing he can do right now is show off his naturally incredible abilities while the games don't matter, so that when they do, he'll be ready.
Last year, Rays lefty Matt Moore burst onto the scene with some of the most impressive September callup work in recent memory. After only starting one game down the stretch for the surging Rays, Moore was named the Game 1 starter for the ALDS versus the Rangers.
Moore proceeded to stymie the Rangers' offense, pitching seven shutout innings and earning the only win of the postseason for Tampa Bay, as the Rangers would go on to win the next three games en route to their second consecutive AL Pennant. But for the Rays, despite losing their second straight ALDS to those Rangers, they had to come away feeling pretty good about the future, as it would include Moore.
However, despite being a heavy favorite to land a rotation spot out of Spring Training, competition will be steep for Moore. With James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson pretty much having a grasp on their spots, that leaves Moore, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann and Alex Cobb to battle it out for the final two spots.
I'd say that Moore and Davis are probably the guys that the Rays expect to walk away as the No. 4 and 5 guys in the starting rotation, but it is baseball, and as the Rays proved during their miracle run last September, anything is possible.
That being said, if Matt Moore, MLB.com's No. 1 overall prospect for 2012, can put up a halfway decent showing this spring, the Rays will likely hand the job over to him. And once he's in the rotation, we can start to enjoy a possible second consecutive Rookie of the Year campaign for a Rays starter.
How many times have you heard the words "this kid's gonna be a star" or that he's the "real deal"? I'll tell you, I'm starting to get a little sick of it myself. However, Bryce Harper is and has been the most-hyped prospect in baseball ever since being drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 draft, a year after they drafted star pitcher Stephen Strasburg (anyone else think they lost on purpose to get these guys?).
Harper is described as a five-tool player, a guy who will one day be a perennial All-Star. Will these lofty predictions come to fruition? Who knows, but I guarantee you, the only thing Harper is concerned with right now is not having to waste any more time playing in the minor leagues in 2012, having set his sights on being in Cincinnati with the Nats on Opening Day.
One thing is for sure, Harper is not guaranteed a spot in the Washington outfield for 2012. Will he make his debut this coming season? Probably at some point, especially if the Nationals are actually competing for their division or one of the two Wild Card berths.
But first the 20-year-old needs to prove himself with a successful spring showing. So far so good for Harper, as he is currently hitting .313 in six games in Florida this year. But six games isn't going to be the end of Harper's spring, so he's going to have to keep up the good work if he wants to make the Opening Day roster and contend for the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year award.