For prospect hounds like myself, not to mention all baseball fans in general, the 2012 regular season will be remembered as the year of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
After opening the first month of the season at the their club’s respective Triple-A affiliate, both Trout (age 20 at the time) and Harper (19) were summoned to the major leagues on the same day (April 28). At the time, nobody could have forecast or estimated the impact that they would ultimately have, as both players were named their league’s Rookie of the Year last week.
However, both players’ promotion to the major leagues was a move made out of necessity and not preference. Trout and Harper were relied upon to strengthen their respective big league team despite the fact they would rank among the youngest players in all of Major League Baseball.
But as time would ultimately suggest, they were both more than prepared for the challenge of life as an everyday player in the major leagues.
Even though Harper and Trout proved ready for the big leagues and commanded the spotlight all year, they weren’t the only young prospects called up over the course of the regular season. In fact, there were numerous organizations that aggressively promoted their elite—but seemingly not ready—prospects with the hope of improving their overall on-field product.
With Kevin Youkilis struggling out of the gate and battling a lingering back injury, the Boston Red Sox promoted one of their top prospects, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, on May 7.
Although there were noticeable holes in his plate discipline and swing, the 23-year-old held his own initially and eventually excelled as the team’s everyday third baseman, batting .288/.325/.509 with 15 home runs and 54 RBI in 75 games.
Had he not suffered a broken wrist late in the season, the right-handed hitter would have surely placed in the end-of-season Rookie of the Year voting in the American League.
But no organization demonstrated a trust in its players this past season more than the Baltimore Orioles.
With their improbable playoff dreams still alive entering August, the Orioles addressed their biggest hole—production and defense from third base—by calling up 20-year-old Manny Machado.
Despite having played shortstop exclusively at Double-A during the regular season, Machado stepped in and played the hot corner like a veteran and was instrumental in the team’s ascent into the ALDS. Playing in 51 games over the final two months of the regular season, he batted .262/.294/.445 with 18 extra-base hits and 26 RBI, and he saved seven runs with his eye-opening defense.
The Orioles made an additional call-up later in the season—this one even more surprising than Machado’s—when they promoted right-hander Dylan Bundy, 19, to the big league bullpen. After opening the season at Low-A Delmarva, Bundy finished the season in the Double-A rotation and was working in the organization’s instructional league at the time of his call-up.
Although he would only make two brief appearances out of the bullpen, the fact that the O's looked past any developmental concerns and promoted the phenom out of necessity spoke volumes about what may be a new mentality and trend across the game: Despite a player’s given lack of experience or age, if they can be of value to the major league club, then the promotion is justified.
As we look toward the 2013 season, the potential exists for several notable prospects to be called up well ahead of schedule.
I’m not referring to a team like the Astros calling up first baseman Jonathan Singleton after the All-Star break once they are well out of playoff contention. Rather, I’m looking at scenarios, as was the case with the Orioles, where the promotion is expected to strengthen the team and favorably alter the outcome of the season.
Expected to open the upcoming season in Double-A, shortstop Xander Bogaerts could receive a chance with the Red Sox ahead of schedule given their lack of productivity from the position in 2012.
Although they signed Torii Hunter this past week, it’s conceivable that third baseman-turned-outfielder Nick Castellanos could take over the Detroit Tigers’ remaining corner outfield spot over the course of the season.
Despite questions surrounding his overall hit tool—especially from the right side—and his ongoing adaptation to center field, the Reds will likely call up speedster Billy Hamilton sooner rather than later next season.
And finally, with their Opening Day first baseman currently up in the air and concerns about Ryan Zimmerman’s health and longevity at the hot corner, the Nationals may opt to promote top prospect Anthony Rendon—regarded as one of the better pure hitters in the minor leagues—early in the season depending on the team’s overall production.
While there will surely be other prospects called up under similar circumstances over the course of the season, the aforementioned players seemingly stand a strong chance to be among the first wave of promotions.