Under-the-Radar Players from Each MLB Team Who Could Have Big 2013 Impact

Benjamin Klein@BenjaminJKleinContributor IIIMarch 27, 2013

Under-the-Radar Players from Each MLB Team Who Could Have Big 2013 Impact

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    Over an extended period of time, it’s not always the ace atop the starting rotation or the slugger in the heart of the lineup who makes the difference between winning and losing.

    Role players are constant factors in the formula for success, and some are relatively unknown. For the purpose of this article, let’s deem these players “under the radar.” We’re looking for players who are going to make an impact, but aren’t necessarily All-Stars or household names—or perhaps just don't get the attention they deserve.

    There are players on each team who are going to be difference-makers through Major League Baseball in 2013, and it’s time to try and recognize who they are.

    *All statistics were obtained via FanGraphs unless otherwise noted. All roster and injury information was obtained via Baseball Prospectus. All contract information was obtained via Cot’s Contracts.

Baltimore Orioles: Jason Hammel

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    Jason Hammel is expected to open 2013 as one of the top starting pitchers for the Baltimore Orioles. Hammel went 8-6 in 20 starts for the Orioles last season, setting a new career-high with a 3.43 ERA. He did, however, miss significant time due to knee surgery.

    Healthy and ready to start the year on a positive note, Hammel hasn’t had the most success in spring training. In nine innings of work across three starts, he’s allowed five earned runs on 12 hits. Opponents have hit .308 off him, a high mark even though he’s been pitching in exhibition games.

    If Baltimore is going to make the postseason, Hammel is going to have to pitch a little better than he did last year and stay off the disabled list. When the Orioles made the postseason, it wasn’t like the team was made up of a collection of All-Stars. It was compiled of average and above-average players who played well together.

    Hammel probably won’t be an All-Star in 2013, but he’ll have a lot to do with Baltimore’s potential success.  

Boston Red Sox: Jonny Gomes

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    The Boston Red Sox signed Jonny Gomes over the winter to be the regular left-fielder. But as spring training continues and David Ortiz remains sidelined with a heel injury, it’s becoming more and more likely that Gomes begins the season as Boston’s designated hitter.

    Gomes had one of his best seasons last year, hitting .262/.377/.491 with 18 home runs and 47 RBI for the Oakland Athletics in 99 games. He’s reached the 20-home run mark three times in his career, but hitting consistently isn’t something that Gomes usually does. His 2012 batting line was considerably higher than his career line of .244/.344/.455.

    Whether Ortiz comes back soon or is out for an extended period of time, the Red Sox will need Gomes’ offense in the middle of the lineup. He’ll probably hit either sixth or seventh but is still a big piece of Boston’s puzzle.

    He is one of only a couple power hitters projected to start in 2013, and if Gomes has a power drought, the Red Sox are in trouble. 

New York Yankees: David Phelps

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    With Phil Hughes looking like he’ll start the season on the disabled list or at least not ready to go, there’s an open spot in the New York Yankees starting rotation. That No. 5 role is expected to be played by David Phelps, who started and pitched out of the bullpen last year.

    In 33 games, Phelps went 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in just under 100 innings of work. He was a little better in terms of ERA when coming out of the bullpen, but take into consideration that he only started 11 games for the Bronx Bombers, which likely skews the numbers. Even still, a 3.77 ERA as a starter is nothing to scoff at.

    With Hughes out with a bulging disk in his back, there’s a chance Phelps stays in the rotation longer than originally expected. If he can pitch well while Hughes works his way back, he might win the No. 5 job outright and push Hughes back to the bullpen.

    Phelps is a young pitcher who has a lot of promise. In 2013, New York will see if he’s up for the challenge.

Tampa Bay Rays: Yunel Escobar

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    The Tampa Bay Rays made a couple of big moves over the offseason, but acquiring Yunel Escobar was one of the decisions that went unnoticed. It’s notable, though, considering he’s going to hit in the middle of the lineup while playing shortstop on a regular basis. He’s not with the Rays to sit on the bench.

    Escobar is actually one of the more underrated shortstops in baseball. He’s a good fielder who knows how to handle the bat. Like many major league shortstops, Escobar doesn’t have a ton of power but can be held accountable for around 10 home runs per season. Over the course of his career, he’s driven in an average of around 50 RBI per year as well.

    One of the problems with Escobar is getting the most out of him. His batting average has fluctuated the last four seasons, which has basically determined how valuable he is. It seems that he goes from hitting .290 to .250, year to year. If that is a real trend, he’ll probably hit close to .300 in 2013. But for all we know, he could be back at .253 for the second consecutive season. 

Toronto Blue Jays: Emilio Bonifacio

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    While the Toronto Blue Jays were wheeling and dealing over the winter, many were focused on the bigger names coming north such as Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson. But what about Emilio Bonifacio, who’s expected to be the Opening Day second baseman?

    While not the best defensive player in baseball, Bonifacio still finds a way to provide value to his team. He’s a career .267/.329/.343 hitter over six seasons. He’s not going to hit many balls out of the park, if any, but he creates havoc on the base paths with great speed. He stole 30 bases last season and 40 the year before that.

    The Blue Jays have a couple of other second basemen they could use throughout the year such as Mark DeRosa or Maicer Izturis, but for now, Bonifacio will get the bulk of the playing time.

    Toronto now has a dangerous lineup, but in order to win games, Bonifacio will have to be on top of his game all the time, hitting at the bottom of the order.

Chicago White Sox: Jeff Keppinger

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    The Chicago White Sox didn’t make a ton of noise during the offseason, but they did bring in a new third baseman after Kevin Youkilis left via free agency. The starting third baseman this year will be Jeff Keppinger.

    Keppinger is not a good fielder at all, but he makes up for it with his bat. He’s a career .288/.337/.396 hitter but had a great season last year while with the Tampa Bay Rays. In 115 games, he hit .325/.367/.439 with nine home runs, 40 RBI and 46 runs. While he might not be the biggest threat in the lineup, Keppinger has had a monster spring.

    In 16 games and 42 at-bats, Keppinger has 20 hits—three for extra bases—with seven walks and no strikeouts. That’s right, he has yet to strike out in 42 at-bats. It may be spring training, but that’s impressive.

    The guy is hitting at a .476/.551/.595 clip. If he can carry this momentum into the regular season, the rest of the division better watch out.

Cleveland Indians: Drew Stubbs

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    While the Cleveland Indians may have ditched the idea of Shin-Soo Choo being a long-term fit in their outfield, the club did get back a solid outfielder in Drew Stubbs. And Cleveland did bring in two other free-agent outfielders to make up for the potential loss in production.

    But Stubbs should be just fine. His production has certainly declined since being a full-time player with the Cincinnati Reds back in 2010. His biggest weakness seems to be his approach at the plate. He hit just .213/.277/.333 last year in 136 games, but more importantly, struck out 30.5 percent of the time. This spring, he’s struck out 14 times in 52 at-bats.

    A lot of things are going to have to go right for Cleveland to make the postseason, but the Indians could really use a big year from Stubbs. If he can break this slump, he could turn his young career around in the blink of an eye.

    If Stubbs continues to strike out with the best of them—like Adam Dunn or Mark Reynolds—he’s on the fast track to getting benched. 

Detroit Tigers: Victor Martinez

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    There are many fans who have forgotten the Detroit Tigers were without Victor Martinez for the entire 2012 season—just imagine if he were in the World Series.

    Would he have made that big of a difference to turn everything around? Who knows, but at least we have 2013 to look forward to. He has been a great hitter over the course of his 10-year career, hitting at a .303/.370/.469 clip and totaling over 140 home runs and 740 RBI.

    Before getting injured, Martinez’s production was dipping, but with a year to recover, there’s no reason to believe the veteran wouldn’t return to form. Does that mean he’ll hit .300 with 20 home runs and 100 RBI? Absolutely not, but let’s not count him out just yet. The Tigers just have to be happy to have their designated hitter back.

Kansas City Royals: Salvador Perez

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    Salvador Perez was once one of the top prospects in the Kansas City Royals organization, and last season he showed what he was capable of. In 76 games, he hit .301/.328/.471 with 11 home runs and 39 RBI. The future catcher of the Royals looks to have a promising career ahead of him.

    Danny Knobler of CBS Sports reports that even rival general managers rave about how good Perez is, noting his solid makeup. With an impressive season, the 22-year-old could quickly become one of the top catchers in baseball.

    One thing Perez should look to improve is his eye. While he’s good at getting hits, he needs to be able to walk more often. Through 115 games, he’s only walked 4.1 percent of the time.

    The Royals will have a decent amount of young players in the starting lineup on Opening Day, but a lot relies on how Perez performs. He’s expected to play a full season for the first time in his career, and if he plays well, the Royals will be in great shape to make a run at a playoff berth.

Minnesota Twins: Mike Pelfrey

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    The Minnesota Twins don’t have a very competitive roster and will most likely finish 2013 in the cellar of the American League Central, but that doesn’t mean that every player will play poorly. Mike Pelfrey is one of the players fans should keep an eye on.

    A veteran starting pitcher who has played with the New York Mets his entire career, Pelfrey is ready to make his mark in Minnesota. Missing nearly all of the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, Pelfrey needs a good start. He hasn’t had a positive campaign since 2010 when he went 15-9 with a 3.66 ERA in 34 games and over 200 innings.

    This spring hasn’t been too kind to Pelfrey, though. In five starts, he’s allowed nine earned runs on 19 hits in 14.2 innings. He has struck out 13 batters but walked six, while opponents are hitting .302 against him.

    A couple of good starts to start the year would do wonders for his confidence and may lead to a bounce-back year.

Houston Astros: Fernando Martinez

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    Fernando Martinez was once a top prospect for the New York Mets. Although never given much of an opportunity in the big leagues, Martinez wasn't panning out. Now, four years after making his debut, Martinez is slated to be a regular in the Houston Astros outfield in 2013.

    Martinez saw limited time with Houston last season, appearing in just 41 games. In that short period of time, he hit .237/.300/.466 with six home runs, 14 RBI and 12 runs. If he could’ve picked his batting average up, those wouldn’t be horrible numbers. What was relatively horrible was that he struck out 26.2 percent of the time while walking just 4.6 percent.

    Martinez has, however, had a nice spring that could turn into a nice start to the regular season. In 18 games and 32 at-bats, Martinez has 11 hits for a spring line of .344/.382/.531.

    While the Astros aren’t expected to win many games in 2013, Martinez could still have a good year. A bounce-back season may turn his young career around. 

Los Angeles Angels: Peter Bourjos

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    The Los Angeles Angels will open the 2013 season with a bunch of big names in the lineup including Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton, among others. But while they’re all expected to play a big role in Los Angeles’ potential success, Peter Bourjos is also expected to perform at a high level.

    If the Angels didn’t believe in Bourjos, they would’ve traded him instead of Kendrys Morales or maybe even Vernon Wells. But Bourjos is still in Los Angeles, while the other two are now elsewhere. An outstanding outfielder with great speed, if he could just pick up the slack at the plate, he’d be a great player.

    In three seasons, Bourjos has hit at a .247/.291/.315 clip. Although the Angels would love to see his batting average increase, I’m sure on-base percentage is much more important. His speed plays a big role in the Angels offense, and the more he gets on base, the more they can take advantage of it. 

Oakland Athletics: Scott Sizemore

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    Although Scott Sizemore hasn’t officially been named the Opening Day second baseman for the Oakland Athletics, he deserves the job the most. He also gives Oakland the best shot at winning games. He may have missed all of last season due to injury, but that’s beside the point.

    In 2011 with the Detroit Tigers and Oakland Athletics, Sizemore hit .245/.342/.399 with 11 home runs and 56 RBI, very positive numbers considering it was his first full season as a big leaguer. But since he missed a considerable amount of time, he was forced to fight for his spot in the starting lineup this spring.

    Sizemore hasn’t been too impressive during camp this year, but there’s still a little bit of time to turn things around. In 19 games and 47 spring at-bats, he has 11 hits, two which have gone for extra-bases. While he’s struck out 15 times, which isn’t very good, he has walked 10 times, which is a big positive.

    It’s impossible to predict Oakland, as we saw last season, so don’t count Sizemore out just yet.

Seattle Mariners: Erasmo Ramirez

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    It’s not going to be easy, but Erasmo Ramirez is going to make a difference for the Seattle Mariners in 2013. Why won’t it be easy? Because Ramirez is expected to start the season in the minor leagues, as he looks to be out of the rotation race, according to Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times.

    Ramirez made his debut with Seattle last season and only saw a small chunk of time. In eight starts and eight relief appearances, Ramirez went 1-3 with a 3.36 ERA. This spring, he’s allowed six earned runs in 14 innings for a 3.86 ERA, striking out 10 and walking just two. Call me crazy, but those aren’t bad numbers at all.

    The point here is that just because Ramirez won’t break camp with the Mariners doesn’t mean a thing. There’s still a very good chance he is with Seattle at some point during the season, and that’s when he’ll show the club it made a big mistake by not giving him a big league job out of the gate.

Texas Rangers: Mitch Moreland

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    With a ton of offensive firepower leaving the Texas Rangers over the offseason through trades and free agency, someone who’s left is going to have to step up. While still not the biggest name in the lineup, that role could fall to Mitch Moreland, who’ll be playing first base regularly in 2013.

    Moreland has been relatively consistent the previous two seasons with Texas, the only full campaigns he’s had in the big leagues. Last season, he hit .275/.321/.468 with 15 home runs and 50 RBI. But what’s separating Moreland from the rest of the Rangers is the monster spring that he’s had.

    In 21 games and 55 at-bats, Moreland is hitting .400/.468/.727 with 10 extra-base hits including four home runs, 13 RBI and seven walks. Those are absolutely huge numbers, even if the competition isn’t that fierce. Someone in the Rangers lineup will need to pick up the slack this season, and Moreland seems comfortable being that guy.

Atlanta Braves: Paul Maholm

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    Paul Maholm is one of the better definitions of an under-the-radar player. For years, he pitched for poor Pittsburgh Pirates teams that left him with unappealing win-loss records. But his ERA hasn’t been bad in the past with an exception or two. Now entering a full year with the Atlanta Braves, he has the opportunity to turn it all around.

    Between the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta last season, Maholm went 13-11 with a 3.67 ERA in 189 innings of work. This spring has really been a turning point for Maholm. In six starts and 25.1 innings, he’s allowed just five earned runs for a 1.78 ERA. He’s shown fair command, striking out 18 batters while walking 10 and having opponents hit .208 off of him.

    Maholm has a lot of good experience, but it’s finally time for him to make his mark. The Braves have a very talented offense that should give him plenty of run support. As long as he can keep his ERA around 3.50 this season, he should be very successful. 

Miami Marlins: Rob Brantly

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    By now, Miami Marlins fans probably know who Rob Brantly is, but the rest of the baseball world might not. Brantly is one of Miami’s top prospects who will likely be the team’s starting catcher throughout the season. Brantly has earned a spot in the lineup, and it’ll be interesting to see how he does in his first full season.

    Brantly got into 31 games for the Marlins last season and had good success. He hit .290/.372/.460 with a trio of home runs and eight RBI. What’s really to like is his approach at the plate. He only struck out 14.2 percent of the time while walking 11.5 percent. He’s expected to be solid behind the plate, and his offensive production should improve as well.

    The young Marlins catcher has looked very good this spring, which will likely make the transition to the regular season that much easier. In 19 games and 56 at-bats, he’s hitting .321/.367/.429 with a home run, nine RBI and seven runs. If he keeps it up, watch out for this kid.

New York Mets: Ruben Tejada

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    There’s a lot of uncertainty with the New York Mets as spring training comes to a close because of injuries and an overall lack of talent. But one thing that’s for sure is that Ruben Tejada is going to be New York’s Opening Day shortstop and the regular guy at the bottom of the lineup throughout the season.

    Tejada is definitely an underrated infielder who doesn’t get a lot of attention because he’s on a bad team. He’s a good fielder and an above-average hitter for a shortstop. Just last season in 114 games, he hit .289/.333/.351. He’s a small guy, so there isn’t much power to be expected, but he did score a respectable 53 runs.

    The problem is that Tejada has been nonexistent at the plate this spring. He only has four hits in 47 at-bats throughout spring training. That equates to a .085 batting average. That’s not the best way to start the regular season, but one would assume that he turns it around at some point in the near future. 

Philadelphia Phillies: John Lannan

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    After Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and even Kyle Kendrick take the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies, John Lannan will be the last of the five to pitch. Lannan, a veteran left-hander, enters his first season with the Phillies after spending the first six years of his career with the Washington Nationals.

    Lannan spent the bulk of last season in the minor leagues for the Nationals, but did make six big league starts. Over the course of his career, he’s 42-52 with a 4.01 ERA in just less than 800 innings of work. He’s never been a big strikeout guy and has been fair with allowing walks. He’s not going to lead the staff in anything, but he’s a good arm to keep on hand.

    But if Lannan wants to stay with the Phillies this year, he better get his act together quick. He’s been terrible this spring, allowing 17 earned runs on 26 hits in 18 innings. Whether it’s a couple of days off to get his mind straight, he needs to do whatever it takes to start pitching like a big leaguer again. 

Washington Nationals: Ross Detwiler

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    Ross Detwiler is expected to anchor the strong Washington Nationals starting rotation in 2013, pitching behind the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, among others. Detwiler is a solid left-hander who doesn’t get talked about much because of how good his teammates are.

    Detwiler went 10-8 with a 3.40 ERA last season in arguably the best year of his young career. He pitched well enough to earn a spot on the World Baseball Classic Team USA roster, throwing four shutout innings during the tournament. In spring training, he’s allowed four earned runs in 8.2 innings while striking out seven and walking just one.

    In order for Washington to make it further than it did last season, each of its starting pitchers is going to have to have a good year. A couple of underwhelming performances, and the Nationals could once against get eliminated from the postseason. Just because Detwiler is the No. 5 guy, doesn’t mean that doesn’t go for him too.

Chicago Cubs: Welington Castillo

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    It’s finally time for the Welington Castillo show. Castillo has seen bits and pieces of time over the last three seasons but enters 2013 as the projected Opening Day starter behind home plate. This is big news considering he used to be a top prospect within the organization and is now getting the opportunity to strut his stuff.

    In 52 games last season, Castillo hit .265/.337/.418 with five home runs and 22 RBI. His success in 2012 has yet to carry over into this spring, though. While he’s scored nine times in 19 games, Castillo has hit just .182/.294/.364 in 44 at-bats, which isn’t very good at all. He really needs to get his head in the right place in order to start the year on a positive note.

    The Cubs don’t have many other options, as Castillo is expected to be the catcher for the long haul. There aren’t a couple of top prospects waiting in the wings behind him. Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on him to succeed, but he’ll probably hit toward the bottom of the lineup, so there’s no need for him to be nervous up at bat.

Cincinnati Reds: Mike Leake

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    In order for the Cincinnati Reds to make a deep run in the postseason and potentially bring home a World Series, everything has to click perfectly. That includes Mike Leake, who is expected to get the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation after the Reds decided to keep Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen for the time being.

    Leake has only pitched in three major league seasons, and they haven’t been bad. Sure, his career ERA sits at 4.23, but it fluctuates from year to year. Last season, he went 8-9 in 30 starts for the Reds, posting a 4.58 ERA in 179 innings of work. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but there’s certainly room for improvement.

    Whatever Leake did to improve over the offseason hasn’t worked out just yet. He’s allowed 10 earned runs in 13.1 innings across four outings. The Reds desperately need Leake to have a solid season where he increases his innings total to somewhere around 200 and lowers his ERA to somewhere below 4.00. Is he capable of that? Absolutely. 

Milwaukee Brewers: Michael Fiers

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    The Milwaukee Brewers are absolutely one of the main contenders in the National League, but there are some questions surrounding the starting rotation. Milwaukee just signed Kyle Lohse to boost it, but will the No. 3 through No. 5 starters be able to push the Brewers into the postseason? Mike Fiers is one of the guys in question.

    Although Fiers’ 2012 win-loss record isn’t very eye-appealing, he had a great season. He pitched in 127.2 innings while posting a 3.74 ERA, striking out 135 batters and walking just 36. The problem is that Fiers has had a bad spring training, and now it’s up for debate as to how he’ll pitch once the regular season gets started.

    Fiers has allowed 15 earned runs through 19.1 innings this spring while walking eight and striking out 16. He’s given up 29 hits and opponents are hitting .333 off of him. While it’s only spring training, some numbers do matter, and there should be some concern about the right-hander. If he can’t handle the job, Milwaukee needs to find someone who can.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Travis Snider

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    Travis Snider has seen time in the big leagues in each of the last five seasons, but he’s had trouble staying in the majors and earning considerable playing time. In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates are giving him the opportunity to show them that he’s worthy of a starting role going forward, as they’re likely to start him in right field.

    Once a top prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays, Snider just hasn’t been very impressive in the chances that he’s gotten. Last season between Toronto and Pittsburgh, Snider hit .250/.319/.378 with four home runs and 17 RBI in 60 games. He has a very high strikeout rate and doesn’t draw many walks. He’s a pretty good fielder too. He just needs more time.

    Snider hasn’t been bad this spring, which is definitely a positive sign. In 18 games and 43 at-bats, he’s hitting .279/.333/.395 with five doubles and a trio of runs. He’s still striking out a ton, and that’s something Pittsburgh must be working with him on. He’s going to have a tough time succeeding if he’s constantly getting mowed down by pitchers. 

St. Louis Cardinals: Lance Lynn

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    If Chris Carpenter wasn’t injured and Kyle Lohse had re-signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, Lance Lynn might not be penciled into the starting rotation this late through spring training. He likely would’ve been in the bullpen or even in the minor leagues, but Lynn is currently scheduled to be the No. 4 starter this year for the Cardinals.

    Lynn was remarkable last season for the Cardinals, going 18-7 in 35 games, 29 of them being starts. He posted a 3.78 ERA across 176 innings while striking out 180 batters and walking just 64. With numbers like that, it’s tough to imagine that he wouldn’t have gotten a starting job in the big leagues this year.

    But even though spring training numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, Lynn hasn’t pitched well at all. He’s allowed 13 earned runs on 24 hits in 17.2 innings while seeing opponents hit .329 off of him. The Cardinals need the Lynn of 2012. As of now, it doesn’t appear they’re going to get that.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Cliff Pennington

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    After a couple of big trades over the offseason, it appears Cliff Pennington will still be the starting shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks to begin the season. This is mainly because Didi Gregorius, one of the top prospects acquired over the winter, will likely start 2013 in the minors.

    But Pennington is a more than fine option. Although his glove may be shaky at times, he always brings some sort of value to his team. Last season with the Oakland Athletics wasn’t the best of years for the shortstop, though. He ended the year hitting .215/.278/.311 with six home runs and 28 RBI.

    Pennington has the potential to hit much better than that, and he has in the past. His career line is .249/.313/.356, so it wouldn’t be crazy for Arizona to expect around that this season. Pennington has actually hit a little bit better than that this spring and looks to be in good shape to enter the regular season.

Colorado Rockies: Chris Nelson

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    Chris Nelson may not have a lot of opportunities left to show that he’s worth a spot on the 25-man roster. The Colorado Rockies have top prospect Nolan Arenado rising through the system, and he’ll be major league-ready before they know it. Nelson, however, needs to make the most of his time as the starting third baseman.

    Nelson had a very nice offensive year for Colorado in 2012. He finished the year hitting .301/.352/.458 with nine home runs and 53 RBI in 111 games. One of the problems with him, however, is that he’s a poor fielder. He committed 12 errors at third base last season in around 650 innings.

    Nelson hasn’t been as good as he was last season through spring training, but he hasn’t been awful either. He’s hitting .267/.313/.378 with a home run and six RBI through 16 games, which is around the type of line Colorado should expect to see from Nelson in 2013.

    But who knows, maybe he’ll end this upcoming season hitting better than .300 again.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Luis Cruz

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    The big names in the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup are expected to be Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. But one player to keep an eye on is Luis Cruz, who would regularly be at third base but will start the year at shortstop with Hanley Ramirez sidelined with an injury.

    Cruz is a strong player who the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers never got to see much of. Last season, he hit .297/.322/.431 with six home runs and 40 RBI in 78 games while playing very well defensively. He didn’t even play in the majors in 2011 and only played in 56 games the previous three years combined.

    Cruz is off to a great start this spring, showing that he has good power. In 17 games, he’s slugged four home runs. The Dodgers could really use that production with Ramirez out for a little while and some other questions in the lineup. Cruz could turn out to be a star if he keeps up his hot hitting.

San Diego Padres: Jedd Gyorko

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    Jedd Gyorko is one of the top prospects in the San Diego Padres system, and he’s supposed to be a big part of their future. Well, the future is now, as the Padres plan on starting him at third base this season, hitting toward the top of the lineup.

    Gyorko was a great minor league prospect who rose through the ranks relatively quickly. He made his professional debut in 2010, and just a couple of years later, he’s about to make his major league debut. In Triple-A last season, he hit .328/.380/.588 with 24 home runs and 83 RBI in 92 games. Those are pretty insane numbers.

    I’m sure the Padres would jump for joy if Gyorko’s minor league numbers fully transitioned to the majors, but we’ll have to wait and see about that. The kid has had a pretty good spring, though. He’s played in 22 games and had 63 at-bats, hitting .286/.308/.508 with three home runs and 10 RBI. He should be an NL Rookie of the Year award candidate.

San Francisco Giants: Brandon Crawford

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    Brandon Crawford is one of the weaker hitters in the San Francisco Giants lineup, yet somehow he finds a way to stay at shortstop. He hit .248/.304/.349 and struck out 20 percent of the time in 143 games last season, but the guy plays outstanding defense, to say the least.

    Crawford is still a young player, though, and maybe it’s taking him a little longer to develop into a major league hitter than originally expected. For all we know, he could come out and hit over .300 this year with a dozen home runs and 75 RBI. He’s already off to a great start, hitting very well in spring training. In 19 games, he’s hitting .365/.424/.577, which is certainly an improvement—even if the games don’t count.

    We know that the Giants can still win a World Series even if Crawford doesn’t hit that well. But if he improves and has a solid year at the plate, San Francisco's run at another title could go just as smoothly as last year.