5 MLB Prospects Who Are Facing Make-or-Break Spring Trainings
With the World Baseball Classic set to begin in early March, many of baseball’s top players and pitchers will be absent from big league camp this season. As a result, most teams will presumably offer their top prospects more playing time and exposure this spring than in previous years.
Headed into the 2013 season, there are countless former top prospects on the verge of falling out of their organization’s long-term plan. For those players, spring training might be the last time they get to play in front of the entire organization.
Here’s a look at five prospects who are entering what should be the most important season of their respective professional careers.
Julio Teheran, RHP, Atlanta Braves
After registering a 2.55 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2011 as a 20-year-old, Teheran entered the 2012 season as one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Unfortunately, the right-hander deteriorated across the board while repeating the level, registering a 5.08 ERA with 97-43 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 131 innings.
The Braves tinkered with his mechanics throughout the year, which many believe was the reason behind his struggles.
While that was definitely a contributing factor toward his overall poor performance, Teheran’s stuff was noticeably less crisp and lively at various points throughout the year. The good news is that Teheran pitched extremely well this winter in the Dominican Winter League after reverting back to his original mechanics.
The right-hander’s fastball still has good life at 91-95 mph, but was flatter last year than it was before the 2011 season. Teheran’s changeup is still his best pitch and already grades as a plus offering. He also mixes in a curveball and slider, though both pitches are raw and essentially undeveloped.
After trading Tommy Hanson and Randall Delgado this offseason, it seems as though Teheran is the early favorite, at least on paper, to win the final spot in the Braves starting rotation. However, that also means that the spot will be his to lose. And after his dismal 2012 campaign, Teheran is anything but a lock.
Casey Crosby, LHP, Detroit Tigers
Selected by the Tigers in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, Crosby’s professional career got off to a slow start when the left-hander missed nearly all of the 2008 season due to Tommy John surgery. However, he was impressive in his return to the mound the following year, as Crosby registered a 2.41 ERA with 117/48 K/BB in 104.2 innings at Low-A West Michigan.
With a strong start to the 2010 season, it was conceivable that Crosby could hop on the fast track to the major leagues—especially with GM Dave Dombrowski’s propensity for rushing prospects. Unfortunately, the 6’5” southpaw once again endured a major setback in his development, as an ailing and inflamed elbow limited him to only 12.1 innings.
Since the injury, Crosby has struggled in back-to-back seasons in the high minors, as the organization has repeatedly offered him aggressive promotions despite his lack of experience and success at previous levels.
Even though he registered a 9.49 ERA with 9/11 K/BB over three big league starts last summer, the 24-year-old is still very much on the major league radar. The left-hander has a solid three-pitch mix that should translate at higher levels, but his overall control and command remains a work in progress.
Joe Benson, OF, Minnesota Twins
A second-round draft pick out of an Illinois high school in 2006, Benson has always showcased a projectable blend of power and speed, as well as the ability to play a solid center field.
After moving through the Twins system at a level-per-year pace, the 6’1” outfielder enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2010, as he batted .259/.343/.538 with 27 home runs, 19 stolen bases and 136/47 K/BB in 123 games between High-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain.
Benson opened the following year (2011) back at Double-A, and, after posting an .883 OPS through 111 games, was called up to the major leagues in early September. Although he batted .239/.270/.352 with seven extra-base hits in 21 games, Benson also posted an ugly 21/3 K/BB.
Assigned to Triple-A Rochester to refine his plate discipline before an inevitable return to the major leagues, 2012 turned out to be a lost season for Benson. After posting a pedestrian .584 OPS through 28 games at Triple-A, the 6’1” outfielder landed on the disabled list with a broken hamate bone.
After two weeks' worth of rehab games in the low minors, Benson ultimately worked his way back to Double-A but managed to bat just .184/.268/.305 with 43/13 K/BB in 37 games.
Therefore, it was only fitting that a knee injury—one that ultimately required surgery—shelved the toolsy outfielder in August for the remainder of the season.
Finally healthy entering his age-25 season, Benson still has an impressive collection of tools that include slightly above-average raw power, good wheels and the defensive chops to stick in the center. And after trading away both Denard Span and Ben Revere this offseason, it seems as though the Twins will be exploring internal options at the position for the upcoming season.
As long as he can stay on the field, Benson should get some looks in the Twins outfield throughout the year. However, he’ll be forced to compete with Darin Mastroianni and Aaron Hicks for playing time—both of whom have moved ahead of him on the organization’s depth chart.
Josh Vitters, 3B, Chicago Cubs
The third overall pick in the 2007 draft, Vitters has moved slowly through the Cubs system and didn’t reach Double-A until the 2010 season—his fourth as a professional.
Throughout his six-year career, the right-handed hitter has struggled to make swift adjustments, especially in response to promotions to more advanced levels. Vitters is the type of hitter who simply puts too many balls in play. Although he’s never posted concerning strikeout rates, the third baseman’s pitch recognition is raw, impedes his ability to coax walks and facilitates excessive weak contact.
After what seemed like an eternity in the minor leagues, Vitters was finally called up to the major leagues last August.
At the time of his promotion, the 23-year-old was enjoying a career year at Triple-A Iowa—his first at the level—with an .869 OPS through 110 games. However, his lack of plate discipline and overaggressive approach was magnified upon reaching the major leagues, as he ultimately batted .121/.193/.202 with 33 strikeouts in 109 plate appearances.
Unless he tears the cover off the ball this spring, Vitters will presumably be headed back to Triple-A Iowa to open the 2013 season. Due to his overwhelming struggles in the major leagues last year, the Cubs wisely re-signed Ian Stewart, as well as Luis Valbuena and Brent Lillibridge, to one-year contracts.
While Vitters will likely return to the major leagues at some point during the upcoming season, it’s difficult to envision him making the necessary adjustments between now and then.
Dellin Betances, RHP, New York Yankees
A local prep standout selected in the eighth round of the 2006 draft, Betances’ ascent to the major leagues has been slow and, for the most part, disappointing. After making his big league debut in late 2011, expectations for the 6’8” right-hander were at an all-time high headed into the 2012 season.
However, Betances was absolutely brutal at Triple-A to open the year as he registered a 6.39 ERA with 71/69 K/BB in 74.2 innings. The 24-year-old’s ongoing struggles ultimately resulted in a demotion to Double-A Trenton where things only worsened: 6.51 ERA and .319 batting average allowed with 53/30 K/BB in 56.2 innings.
So, what can be expected of Betances in 2013?
Well, not much, unfortunately.
However, that outlook could change if the Yankees finally decide to move him to the bullpen. They’ve remained steadfast in their development of the right-hander as a starter; however, it may be time to reconsider if they want to salvage his once lofty prospect stock.