The new wave of baseball is here, and already some young players are taking the major leagues by storm. These players are the future of the game, and they're likely to be the foundation of your favorite team for years to come.
With Spring Training about to start, I'd like to take a moment to profile some of the young players I'll be keeping my eye on this season.
This is not a "top prospects" list, and the players listed here are not in any particular order. Rather, I'll be breaking down the ten young players I'll personally be keeping an eye on in each league this season.
1. David Price - P - Tampa Bay Rays
Wow, so many players to choose from in Tampa. I could have gone with Evan Longoria, BJ Upton, or just about any other member of the pitching staff, but I went with Price.
Why? Because he'll make a huge difference for the Rays this year. He probably won't start the year out in the majors, but he had a great run for the Rays in the postseason last year, and this guy will be an absolute machine when he's called up.
2. Jacoby Ellsbury - CF - Boston Red Sox
Ellsbury has had a great Major League career so far, giving opposing pitchers fits both at the plate and on the basepaths. He knows how to get on base, has the speed to stretch a single into a double and a double into a triple, and knows how to pick his spots to steal a bases successfully—which he did 50 times last year.
Ellsbury is a throwback player that makes the game fun to watch, and I expect him to develop a little bit of home run power this season as well, possibly hitting around 15 dingers for the Red Sox.
3 and 4. Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain - P - New York Yankees
All the buzz in New York is over the big free agent splashes they made, especially the additions to their pitching staff. It seems as if everyone has forgotten about Phillip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, who were beating down the door of the rotation last year.
Well, allow me to remind you: I fully expect Hughes to come up to the Majors this year and pitch at the back end of the Yankees rotation.
He's been a strikeout machine with masterful control all through the minors while walking very few batters. He has a career minor-league mark of a 2.40 ERA with a 0.92 WHIP, and has struck out 348 batters in 310.2 innings while walking only 77.
This guy is a future ace.
Chamberlain may have had some setbacks in the rotation last year, but if the Yankees were to insert him in the back end from the beginning of the year, he'd do fine.
By the All-Star break, we should be seeing a Sabathia-Burnett-Wang-Chamberlain-Hughes rotation, and that's something to be feared.
Even if Joba isn't ready for the rotation, odds are that Ian Kennedy will be and Joba will be able to resume his dominance from the bullpen.
5. Matt Wieters - C - Baltimore Orioles
He has been on every top prospect list since the day he was drafted (as a Pirates fan, I remember that day well...), and he's absolutely torn up the minor league system.
He was tagged as a fast-track candidate, and it's looking like he'll only spend a month or two in AAA, if even that, before the Orioles call him up to the show.
Personally, I can't wait to see what he can do.
6. Adam Lind - LF/DH - Toronto Blue Jays
I may be a bit biased here because I went to the same high school as Adam Lind, but he is a legit power prospect that finally got a chance to play for an extended period of time in the big leagues last year.
He did not disappoint, going .282/.316/.439 with nine home runs. Although he doesn't hit as many homers as the Blue Jays would like to see from him yet, he is good enough to replace Big Hurt - who the team famously dumped last year - in the lineup, and the balls he's hitting are falling just short of going all the way. Give him some time, and he'll come along.
I expect around 25 homers from him this year if the Jays allow him to play. Manager Cito Gaston has made a commitment to giving Lind playing time, so we'll see what comes of it.
7. Carlos Quentin - LF - Chicago White Sox
In his first year of significant playing time, Quentin bombed 36 homers out of the park and showed a knack for getting on base, posting a .394 on-base percentage.
This is consistent with what he's done in the minors and in his two seasons as a role-player in Arizona. He's always been extremely adept at reaching base, the question is whether or not he'll retain the power he showed last year.
Throughout his minor league career, he's been a doubles machine, so what we saw last year is likely what happens to a lot of young talent: his swing gets an extra pop, and those doubles are turning into home runs.
8. Kevin Slowey - P - Minnesota Twins
Slowey is a pitcher with masterful control and the ability to make a batter miss. He should be No. 2 on the Twins rotation instead of No. 3, but he's still young enough that mid-rotation is an accomplishment all on its own.
Last year, Slowey started 27 games for the Twins, pitching 160.3 innings. He managed 123 strikeouts and only walked 24, and was rewarded with a 1.15 WHIP and a 3.99 ERA.
The biggest problem Slowey has is that he has a propensity to give up the long ball. If he can keep opposing hitters' balls inside the park, he's got the talent to be a great pitcher for years to come.
9. Matt LaPorta - LF - Cleveland Indians
There's no guarantee that Matt LaPorta will be on the major league squad this year, but if he does, he could be a force to reckon with.
LaPorta is the picture of a complete hitter, with awesome on-base skills and a good power bat to go with them. He would make a fine addition to the Indians outfield if he can prove that he's major league ready. The Indians are a team with too much talent to miss the playoffs again this year, and if LaPorta is ready, they'll certainly take him.
10. Chris Davis - 1B - Texas Rangers
Last year, a 22-year-old named Chris Davis set the world on fire with his bat and took many fantasy baseball leagues by storm.
After being called up to the majors at the end of the season, the slugger managed 17 home runs and 23 doubles in only 295 at-bats, putting up a .285/.331/.549 line along the way.
It will be interesting to see if this output continues. The Rangers may have found the next Mark Teixeira.
1. Troy Tulowitzki - SS - Colorado Rockies
After getting off to a stellar start and being part of a World Series team in 2007, Tulowitzki spent most of 2008 injured. He didn't fare well during the time he did play, but a good chunk of that time he was still rehabbing.
Will the speedy 24-year-old shortstop will return to his 2007 form and smack 20+ homers again while hitting for plenty of extra bases, or was that year a fluke?
2. Joey Votto - 1B - Cincinnati Reds
The majority of the Reds roster could make this list. They've got an exciting core of young players such as Jay Bruce, Edinson Volquez, Chris Dickerson, and Homer Bailey.
However, the reason I want to focus on Votto is because he gets no respect. Last year, he was only slightly worse than David Wright, and he was easily among the elite tier of 1B players in the major leagues, and yet nobody talks about him when they talk about top young talent.
Votto not only has home run power, but he's also a smart hitter, cranking out a .297/.368/.506 line last year. Add in his 32 doubles, and you've got yourself a real threat in the middle of the lineup. He's only 24-years-old, meaning he's only likely to get better!
If Votto was on a team like the Yankees, we'd never hear the end about him, but since he's on the Reds, he's just another first baseman.
3. Hanley Ramirez - SS - Florida Marlins
You only think you know how good Hanley Ramirez is.
I know that Hanley has been established as a good SS for a few years now, but I just want to hammer the point home that this 25-year-old player is out-playing Derek Jeter, Jose Reyes, and Jimmy Rollins, yet he only gets mentioned as an afterthought when it comes to discussing elite MLB shortstops.
Along with a decent glove, Ramirez provides unmatched power to the Marlins lineup from the shortstop position, with a career slugging line of .527. Having that kind of bat at shortstop is a valuable asset from a normally defense-first position.
Combine all this with his incredible speed (51 stolen bases for two years in a row, 35 last year, and the ability to stretch plays for extra bases) and you've got yourself an all-world athlete.
4. Lastings Milledge - CF - Washington Nationals
The speedy center fielder has been atop many a top prospects lists for a few years now, but hasn't really done anything impressive with his major league playing time. Could 2009 be the year that changes?
5. Jonathan Sanchez - P - San Francisco Giants
Last year I would have put Tim Lincecum in this spot, but what with him winning the Cy Young, I imagine people are now fully aware of how dominant he is.
Last year was Sanchez's first full year in the rotation, and he handled it well. He made a lot of batters miss, but he also walked a bit too many.
His detractors like to point out that his peripherals, i.e. WHIP and ERA aren't good, but he was playing with a pretty poor defense behind him. His defense-independent statistics aren't bad at all. Although I doubt he'll turn into a mirror of Tim Lincecum, there's some real upside here.
6. Hunter Pence - RF - Houston Astros
Talk of Astros prospects is usually headed up by discussing JR Towles, but his brief stint in the majors last year proved to me that he isn't ready for the show. Looking at his minor league numbers, too, leaves a lot to be desired. Towles is a fine catcher, but he's not the "set the world on fire" prospect he's made out to be.
Hunter Pence, however, is a legitimate prospect.
Although last year was a step back from his rookie performance, it was still a solid season by a good right fielder. Pence has the ability to hit for both power and average, and if he can work on his pitch selection, he could turn into a dynamic hitter.
7. Yovani Gallardo
I still have my edition of Baseball Prospectus 2008, and on the cover it has a picture of Yovani Gallardo with the caption "meet the Brew-crew's new ace." It didn't quite work out that way last year, as an injury sidelined him until they needed him and Sabathia to make a playoff run.
However, Gallardo will still make for a very interesting pitcher to watch in 2009. During his brief playing time in 2008, he strung together 20 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched, and looked every bit as dominant as he was supposed to.
If we give this guy a full season, Brewers fans will be saying "Ben who?"
8. Chase Headley - LF - San Diego Padres
Like Lastings Milledge, Chase Headley is a highly touted prospect that hasn't been able to do much with his time in the show thus far.
I think Headley is a bit more "legit" than Milledge is, though, and if I had to pick one or the other to give a full season to in 2009, it would be Headley. His minor league numbers show a lot of promise, and he did start to show some flashes of brilliance near the end of last year.
9. Matt Kemp - CF - Los Angeles Dodgers
Kemp is a dynamic hitter with a wide skill set, and he's a pretty good fielder too.
This guy is truly able to do it all. He can patrol center field well, he can get the base hit, he can draw the walk, he can steal a base, he can hit the homer, and he can stretch a single into a double.
With Andruw Jones out of the way and Joe Torre finally starting to come around on the Juan Pierre front, I'm looking for a big year from Kemp in 2009 when he gets some significant playing time.
10. Andy LaRoche - 3B - Pittsburgh Pirates
LaRoche has been universally considered one of the best prospects in baseball for years now.
The Dodgers were criticized for blocking him with aging athletes such as Nomar Garciaparra and Casey Blake, and finally they traded him to Pittsburgh in the Jason Bay three-way deal last year.
Although LaRoche struggled last year, I believe that it was simply his adjustment period. He'll probably struggle even more at the beginning of this year, but I see him pulling it together midseason and showing the world that he really is a player capable of performing at the top level.
At least, he had better. There are no immediate threats to his job, with Neil Walker not showing the power in AAA that the Pirates would like to see and Pedro Alvarez only entering into his first year of minor league play.
However, a power surge from Walker while LaRoche is flailing away could end with LaRoche losing his job, and with Pedro Alvarez projected to be a fast-track athlete, he'll probably only have one year to gain it back.
Once Alvarez comes up, if LaRoche hasn't proven his worth to the Pittsburgh top brass at least enough to consider keeping him on the bench or switching his (or Alvarez's) position, he'll probably get dumped by the team. If that happens, he's more likely to be a never was than a has-been.
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