MLB

One Player from Each MLB Team Who Could Emerge from Shadows in 2014

Ely SussmanCorrespondent INovember 18, 2013

One Player from Each MLB Team Who Could Emerge from Shadows in 2014

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    David Robertson has the challenge of replacing legendary closer Mariano Rivera.
    David Robertson has the challenge of replacing legendary closer Mariano Rivera.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The MLB offseason brings change for every team, as veteran players depart via free agent, accept part-time positions or elect retirement.

    That opens the door for younger, cheaper talent to emerge from their shadows.

    Throughout 2014, watch as top prospects and international signings take advantage of their major league debuts and 2013's standout rookies try to graduate to stardom. This coming summer will also allow underappreciated role players to prove themselves in high-leverage situations.

    The opportunities have finally come for the following guys to translate their high upside into production.

     

    *All stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise specified.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Chris Owings

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    Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic was among the majority who reprimanded the Arizona Diamondbacks for their underwhelming haul in last offseason's nine-player trade.

    Specifically, he balked at the idea of Didi Gregorius establishing himself as a competent starting shortstop:

    The problem isn’t Gregorius’ defense. It’s his bat that has some scouts wondering if he might end up a utility player. His career minor league slash line of .271/.323/.376 makes you wonder if he’ll ever hit enough in the majors to become an above-average regular. Moreover, the left-handed hitting Gregorius has not fared well against left-handed pitching, another reason he could end up in a part-time role.

    Around Memorial Day, Piecoro and everybody else who initially ripped general manager Kevin Towers briefly held their feet in their mouths.

    The D-Backs were leading to NL West through May 27. Most shockingly, Gregorius was complementing his slick fielding with a gaudy .324/.385/.541 batting line.

    His hot streak didn't last, of course. Gregorius slugged .297 the rest of the way and participated in only six of Arizona's final 15 games. That's because Chris Owings had burst through after a sensational campaign at Triple-A.

    Less than one year after acquiring his "shortstop of the future," Towers is now making him fight for that title, according to Barry M. Bloom of MLB.com. Owings' superiority at the plate should allow him to leapfrog Gregorius on the depth chart.

Atlanta Braves: Alex Wood

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    If you're an Atlanta Braves fan, then you're probably concerned by what Tim Hudson had to say about free agency in an interview with Alabama Tonight's Kyle Burger:

    It is a little bit unsettling, but it's kind of exciting too. This is the first time that I've been a free agent in my career. It's not exactly the ideal time—38 years old and coming off a broken ankle—but it's been exciting to know that there are teams that are showing a lot of interest and it seems like the market is pretty good.

    Hudson went on to point out that his family is "very happy" in Atlanta, but he didn't seem inclined to accept a hometown discount. It's difficult to envision the Braves paying him what he's worth while also working out new contracts with their large class of arbitration eligibles.

    Thankfully, there's no reason to pout with lefty Alex Wood on the roster.

    His unorthodox delivery yielded better results than you might have noticed. Wood's 3.05 FIP in 11 starts this past year was most similar to those posted by Francisco Liriano, David Price, Madison Bumgarner and Mat Latos. Differences in ballparks and batter handedness barely affected his performance.

    The Braves seemingly always assemble deep rotations at very little cost, and with Wood bolstering the back end, expect that trend to continue into 2014.

Baltimore Orioles: Henry Urrutia

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    The Baltimore Orioles will need to make a few personnel changes as they address a mediocre starting rotation and prepare for Chris Davis' massive salary bump, as Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projects.

    One luxury that they're likely to sacrifice is veteran left fielder Nate McLouth.

    The O's were fortunate enough to scoop him out of the trash in June 2012. He batted .268/.342/.435 the rest of the way (55 games), but with most suitors skeptical of the small sample size, Baltimore re-signed him for only $2 million. After producing at a similar clip for an entire season, however, there's little chance of getting him back without a multi-year, eight-figure commitment.

    Instead, expect management to pass the baton to Henry Urrutia.

    Urrutia contributed a weak .586 OPS during his 2013 regular-season debut, but he has since led the Surprise Saguaros to an Arizona Fall League championship. According to MiLB.com, he posted a .985 OPS in 18 games. Moreover, manager Gary Kendall praised his improvement "in all facets," per Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun:

    He certainly has a ways to go from what they’re going to expect in Baltimore, but his throwing accuracy has improved, his judgment on the basepaths has gotten better, his breaks, his secondary [leads]. He can gather some ground and increase some distance so he can score on some hits. I think he’s made strides in all facets of the game.

Boston Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr.

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    To quote Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is "a lock to depart" from the Boston Red Sox.

    Agent Scott Boras claims that the number of teams interested in signing Ellsbury is "more than normal for elite players," according to Gordon Edes of ESPN Boston. We know that wealthy clubs like the Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees could pursue him.

    Meanwhile, WEEI.com's Jerry Spar reports that general manager Ben Cherington prefers to keep Shane Victorino in right field. Cherington insists that the veteran outfielder wouldn't have quite as much defensive value if he shifted to center.

    That's where Jackie Bradley Jr. comes in.

    One of the shining stars in an ocean-deep Red Sox farm system, the 23-year-old patrolled center in 19 games for the Red Sox last summer. Spending the majority of the season at Triple-A, Bradley batted .275/.374/.469 with 10 home runs.

    Replicating Ellsbury's production is an unrealistic expectation, but besides the baserunning, Bradley boasts a comparable skill set.

Chicago Cubs: Jake Arrieta

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    Size-wise and stuff-wise, Jake Arrieta and Jeff Samardzija have a lot in common. Both also throw from the right side and were born in the Midwest barely a year apart.

    But don't expect these Irish twins to occupy the top of the Chicago Cubs starting rotation for years to come.

    Samardzija's MLB service time and recent success will merit a substantial pay raise this winter (from $2.64 million to $4.9 million, Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projects). The club only has control of him through the 2015 season.

    General manager Jed Hoyer tells David Kaplan of CSNChicago.com that contract extension discussions have taken place between Samardzija and the Cubs. Only a few weeks earlier, however, Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times considered it "a long shot" that he signed anything before reaching free agency. There's reportedly "a sizable gap" between how the two sides quantify his long-term value.

    Chicago Now's Tom Loxas is convinced that "multiple teams are laying the groundwork for potential deals" that feature Samardzija as the centerpiece. Those suitors include the Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals.

    Now that things are finally "clicking" for Arrieta on the mound, per Jesse Rogers, ESPN Chicago, the Cubs expect him to snatch the spotlight from Samardzija rather than share it with him.

Chicago White Sox: Jose Dariel Abreu

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    Here's our early favorite for the "no, duh" moment of this article.

    The Chicago White Sox made Jose Dariel Abreu their most expensive free-agent signing ever with a six-year, $68 million guarantee. They wouldn't have gone that far for the feared Cuban slugger without near certainty that his immense talents would translate to the major league level.

    It's not so bold to predict that he'll succeed. FanGraphs' Dan Farnsworth agrees that the path of Abreu's swing should ensure he produces at a high level despite the culture change. That change, by the way, won't be so dramatic, as the White Sox employ fellow Cubans Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo. Their presence was a significant factor in Abreu's free-agent decision, he tells MLB.com.

    Of course, he is challenged with filling enormous shoes at first base.

    Paul Konerko ranks second on the franchise list in games played. He's inside the top three in home runs, hits and plate appearances.

    It isn't clear what relationship Konerko has with the team going forward. The 37-year-old hasn't announced his retirement, but such a decision would not come as a surprise. He performed way below replacement level during a torturous 2013 campaign as the White Sox finished in the AL Central cellar.

    When Abreu was introduced to the media, general manager Rick Hahn left the door open for Konerko to return, according to MLB.com's Scott Merkin. After a "real good, open and honest conversation" with the longtime White Sox captain, Hahn tells Merkin that he's waiting to hear back.

    Let's be clear, though, that his presence—or lack thereof—won't noticeably affect Abreu's much-anticipated debut season.

Cincinnati Reds: Billy Hamilton

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    Shin-Soo Choo only spent one season with the Cincinnati Reds before reaching free agency, but there ought to be folk songs inspired by the tremendous impression that he left.

    Only teammate Joey Votto posted a higher on-base percentage among qualifying National League players in 2013. Choo finished seventh in the Senior Circuit with a 143 OPS+ while joining this exclusive group of NL stars who totaled at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases.

    Reds general manager Walt Jocketty hasn't ruled out a long-term deal with the talented outfielder, according to C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer (subscription required). Alas, it's difficult to envision the front office making the nine-figure commitment necessary to satisfy Scott Boras.

    This situation bears strong resemblance to Boston's. Similarly, the franchise's future in center field hinges on the performance of a talented yet inexperienced 23-year-old.

    Billy Hamilton isn't immediately going to fill Choo's shoes; his 160-pound frame won't generate more than a handful of home runs annually. Defense is another question mark considering that he only moved to the outfield last season after spending most of his career at shortstop.

    On the other hand, Hamilton's transcendent speed—which produced 13 stolen bases in only 13 MLB games (three starts)—should easily validate his place in the everyday lineup.

Cleveland Indians: Danny Salazar

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    The Cleveland Indians' remarkable 2013 regular season received less than its fair share of attention, as the skeptics—read: everybody—expected them to run out of steam down the stretch. Instead, the Tribe finished with a flourish, and Danny Salazar was a huge factor in that.

    He settled into the starting rotation in early August, maintaining a 3.33 ERA over his final nine outings with a Yu Darvish-like 11.35 K/9.

    It's too bad that Salazar didn't seize his opportunity on the national stage. The rookie right-hander only lasted four-plus innings (three earned runs) and took the loss in the AL Wild Card Game.

    He'll have ample opportunities to avenge that disappointment next summer, however.

    Two of Cleveland's top three innings-eaters, Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, have entered free agency seeking multi-year deals. The Plain Dealer writer—and new Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame inductee—Paul Hoynes reports that signing either is highly unlikely.

    Salazar just endured 149 total innings between the minors and majors. If Justin Masterson's progression from 2009 to 2010 is any indication, management should green-light him for a 50-inning workload increase.

Colorado Rockies: Jordan Pacheco

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    The Colorado Rockies need somebody new at first base now that Todd Helton has stepped away from the sport.

    As Troy E. Renck of the Denver Post explains, an ideal scenario would've been signing Carlos Ruiz and shifting current catcher Wilin Rosario to fill the void. Alas, the Rockies "believe they are out" on Ruiz after hearing that a mystery team submitted a larger two-year contract offer.

    That disappointment has led the team to contact several free-agent first basemen, most notably Mike Napoli.

    Assuming he's out of Colorado's price range, however, the most probable targets appear to be James Loney and Justin Morneau.

    The latter has faded into a platoon player, while Loney only freed himself from that label with a strong 2013 campaign. Jordan Pacheco, on the other hand, excelled against left-handed pitching in 2011-2012 before uncharacteristically struggling in his third major league season.

    Barring a blockbuster acquisition like Napoli, Pacheco is going to receive ample plate appearances. The Rockies will want to know if he's a piece of their future.

Detroit Tigers: Drew Smyly

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    Kudos to Drew Smyly for embracing a bullpen role in his sophomore season.

    Prior to 2013, he had seldom appeared in relief at any professional level. Last year, however, Jim Leyland used him on back-to-back days and even three days in a row when high-leverage fires broke out.

    Leyland has since retired, but more importantly, the dominant Detroit Tigers starting rotation is getting prohibitively expensive. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer (albeit at a much steeper price) have become trade candidates, according to CBS Sports insider Jon Heyman. In speaking with Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, Jon Morosi of Fox Sports confirmed that the club wants Smyly in the rotation, which reinforces Heyman's report.

    The Arkansas native certainly possesses sufficient command and strikeout ability to navigate through lineups several times with success. With that said, developing into more than a back-end starter will require that Smyly shrinks his platoon splits (career .736 OPS vs. RHB).

Houston Astros: Jarred Cosart

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    Bud Norris was one of this decade's few homegrown Houston Astros who actually showed some consistency from year to year. So naturally, the front office decided to sell when the trade market was dry and his stock had peaked.

    The Astros ended 2013 on a brutal 15-game losing streak, but that likely wouldn't have been the case if 23-year-old Jarred Cosart hadn't been shut down in early September.

    Cosart fell one inning short of a complete-game shutout in his MLB debut and continued irritating all opposition until Astros management said "that's enough," per Brian McTaggart, MLB.com.

    The right-hander maintained a stunning 1.95 earned run average in 60 innings. He posted a .220 batting average against and never surrendered more than four runs in any outing.

    Cosart's command issues won't remedy themselves in a single summer, but the movement on his fastball and disparity between that and his curve will help him get away with mistakes. If not for inevitable matchups against the Baltimore Orioles, Houston fans might forget that Norris ever existed.

Kansas City Royals: Danny Duffy

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    The Kansas City Royals will have a rotation spot to fill if Ervin Santana gets anything close to the five years and $112 million that his agents have been requesting, according to Jon Heyman, CBS Sports.

    Danny Duffy had a great audition for the potential vacancy. Coming off June 2012 Tommy John surgery, the young southpaw posted a 1.85 earned run average in five starts while striking out nearly a batter per inning.

    Duffy's elbow began barking again, unfortunately, and he didn't make any appearances beyond Sept. 7. However, Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star tells Bleacher Report that the inflammation subsided soon after and he could have pitched down the stretch if it was absolutely necessary.

    Considering his injury history, it's doubtful that the Royals will push Duffy through six full months of starting duty, but whatever production they get from him should be substantially above replacement level.

Los Angeles Angels: Garrett Richards

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    Since Mike Trout burst onto the scene midway through 2011, Garrett Richards is the only notable individual to rise up through the Los Angeles Angels farm system. 

    Yup, times are rough.

    But Richards has legitimately blossomed into an asset on L.A.'s thin pitching staff.

    From 2012 to 2013, he trimmed his BB/9 from 4.31 to 2.73. The young right-hander posted a 3.59 ERA following the All-Star break and did a much better job competing when at a platoon disadvantage. Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto already confirmed that Richards has earned a spot in the 2014 starting rotation, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register.

    He'll try to compensate for the loss of southpaw Jason Vargas, who was responsible for three of the club's four complete games last summer. Vargas hasn't signed elsewhere yet, but Ken Rosenthal expects his handedness and durable track record—averaged 203.2 IP from 2010-2012—to lead him to receive lucrative offers in free agency.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Alexander Guerrero

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    Former Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Mark Ellis only stands 5'10", but he came up much bigger than that before entering free agency.

    Ellis has been a consistently excellent defender on the right side of the infield with his extraordinary hands and instincts. Meanwhile, his .685 OPS as a Dodger from 2012-2013 nearly matched the league's average at the position.

    The potential for Alexander Guerrero to surpass Ellis' past levels of production will hinge on his superior durability and power.

    Aside from weighing in about 15 pounds heavier than his predecessor, Guerrero also boasts a stronger lower half and average to plus bat speed, according to Bleacher Report's Mike Rosenbaum. Although there's still some rawness to refine, he walked more often than he struck out during his final four seasons in Cuba. 

    Guerrero established himself as an adequate fielding shortstop before defecting, so second base shouldn't overwhelm him. Also, being a decade younger than Ellis makes him less prone to stints on the disabled list.

Miami Marlins: Nathan Eovaldi

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    About 16 months removed from the Hanley Ramirez trade, it obviously seems that the Miami Marlins got the shaft.

    The only reason we'd ever feel differently is if right-hander Nathan Eovaldi becomes a steady innings-eater.

    He'll certainly have the opportunity to do so. Ricky Nolasco's departure decongested Miami's starting rotation, and Eovaldi posted the best earned run average among starters not named Jose Fernandez (min. 100 IP). Buffing up his strikeout rate while allowing fewer home runs contributed to that progress.

    MLB.com's Joe Frisaro reports that although the Marlins could trade for offensive reinforcements this offseason, Eovaldi isn't available.

Milwaukee Brewers: Scooter Gennett

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    Choosing the nickname "Scooter" might make us question that judgement of Ryan Joseph Gennett, but there's nothing sketchy about his baseball-playing ability.

    The 23-year-old second baseman batted .324/.356/.479 in 69 games. Gennett was even better once Rickie Weeks' season-ending hamstring tear created an everyday job. His .351 post-All-Star break batting average was best in the National League (min. 150 PA).

    As if we needed more stats to justify that he's better than Weeks, Gennett saved runs for the Milwaukee Brewers, according to both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.

    Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel admits that the Brewers are "definitely going to have a quandary" when Weeks gets back on the field in 2014. He points to Bill Hall and Jeff Suppan as previous examples of underachieving, overpaid veterans that the club has released near the end of their contracts.

    Entering the final guaranteed year of his deal, Weeks will suffer the same fate shortly after Opening Day so long as Gennett resembles his 2013 self from the onset.

Minnesota Twins: Josmil Pinto

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    As a likely future Hall of Famer and the face of the Minnesota Twins, Joe Mauer casts an enormous shadow.

    Now that he has transitioned to first base, Josmil Pinto gets to the unenviable challenge of providing comparable value behind the plate.

    If last September was at all indicative of his potential, then Twins fans ought to be very encouraged. The 24-year-old batted .342/.398/.566 in 21 games. He also gunned down more than 45 percent of players who attempted to steal against him. 

    "But the organization believes that Pinto still has work to do defensively," MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger reports "as he needs to improve his game-calling and receiving skills behind the plate." He also struck out too frequently during that small sample size (22 K in 83 PA). 

    Overall, though, the good certainly outweighed the bad, and the Twins will be pleased if that's the case again next summer.

New York Mets: Zack Wheeler

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    Zack Wheeler must have been ecstatic in 2011 when the New York Mets traded for him and fast-tracked him toward the big leagues. Two years removed from that deal, he was already integrated into their starting rotation.

    In that short span, unfortunately, Matt Harvey emerged as an elite prospect, took nude pics for ESPN The Magazine and established himself as a top-five pitcher in the National League. How does anybody measure up to that?

    That's Wheeler's challenge heading into 2014. Harvey won't throw a pitch for the Mets as he recovers from Tommy John surgery, so it's up to the flame-throwing Georgia native to capture the fans' attention.

    Wheeler doesn't need to emulate Harvey off the field, but the expectation is that he'll throw more first-pitch strikes, get into better counts and improve upon a pedestrian 7.56 K/9. Anything short of vying with Jonathon Niese for the title of New York's ace should be seen as a disappointment.

New York Yankees: David Robertson

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    The lone All-Star on this list, David Robertson doesn't need to convince anybody that he's an excellent late-inning reliever.

    Too bad he pitches for the New York Yankees. That will mean persistent comparisons to Mariano Rivera, the legend he is a top candidate to replace.

    Robertson's six-year MLB career actually shares plenty in common with Rivera's from 1995-2000. Their earned run averages are nearly identical (2.76 to 2.63), and the University of Alabama product holds a slight edge in strikeout-to-walk ratio, 2.99 to 2.74.

    Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has been reluctant to "anoint anybody the closer" entering the first season of the post-Mo era, according to Anthony McCarron of the Daily News. Although there are qualified free agents like Joe Nathan, Joaquin Benoit and Brian Wilson, reports suggest that the team has several higher priorities.

    Re-signing second baseman Robinson Cano, of course, is most vital to New York's present and future, and his new contract will certainly cost north of $25 million per year. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe calls the Yankees "the most aggressive pursuer" of Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka. As Jon Heyman reports, they also have serious interest in upgrading at catcher and/or right field, which is evident from their meetings with the agents who represent Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann.

    Crossing all those items off the wish list wouldn't leave a ton of money left over to spend on a top-tier closer. Considering Robertson's track record of excellence, maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Oakland Athletics: Sonny Gray

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    The Oakland Athletics haven't quite moved on from free agent Bartolo Colon. Team officials met with his agent at the GM Meetings, according to Joe Stiglich of CSNBayArea.com. 

    But one way or another, they're going to make space for Sonny Gray in the rotation.

    The rookie right-hander finished the 2013 regular season with a sparkling 2.67 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 9.42 K/9. The A's showed their faith in Gray's ability by deploying him twice during the ALDS, including in the winner-take-all Game 5.

    Gray bravely battled—and slicked his hair back—during that brief playoff run despite ulnar collateral damage in his left (non-pitching) thumb. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle tweets that October surgery went smoothly, while the club expects him to be fully recovered by spring training.

    Jon Heyman reports that Brett Anderson and his $8 million salary will become expendable if a new deal is worked out with Colon. So yeah, Gray is going to get starting opportunities every five days.

Philadelphia Phillies: Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez

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    Before Jose Dariel Abreu got paid, Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was on the verge of securing the richest international free-agent contract ever, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.

    But "pending physical" has never been such a significant phrase. The Philadelphia Phillies' guarantee of $48 million was reduced to only $12 million due to concerns about the right-hander's pitching elbow, Passan tweets.

    Philly's co-aces, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, certainly overshadow Gonzalez, but with Roy Halladay's future in doubt, there's still plenty of fame waiting for him this coming summer.

    Staying healthy will be most of the battle for the Cuban defector. He's only 27 and very much in his physical prime (subscription required) with a mid-90s fastball and an above-average split-finger and changeup, Baseball America's Ben Badler reports.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Gerrit Cole

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    MLB's most studious fans know how special Gerrit Cole is, but don't overestimate the general baseball-watching population.

    The national narrative was that the Pittsburgh Pirates ended two decades of futility by riding do-it-all NL MVP Andrew McCutchen; that their front office shrewdly invested in A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano when few others would have; and that Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin were premium sources of power and intangibles, respectively.

    Of that indispensable quintet, only Burnett has hesitated to RSVP for the 2014 roster. He spent the entire summer pondering retirement and was still "50-50" about continuing his career as the playoffs approached, according to Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

    Although Jon Morosi tweets that the Bucs expect to search outside the organization for reinforcements if the veteran right-hander hangs up his cleats, there's only one pitcher capable of replacing his production, and that's Cole.

    Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle actually gave Cole the nod over Burnett when the club faced elimination in Game 5 of the NLDS, as noted by Matt Snyder of CBS Sports. The Pirates' championship pursuit ended there, however, preventing the former No. 1 overall draft pick from achieving the same prominence as fellow rookie Michael Wacha.

    Cole's season totals—3.22 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 100 K in 117.1 IP—were impressive, but his steady progress from start to start was most encouraging. He wrapped up the summer with eight consecutive quality starts, demonstrating the sort of consistency that we seldom see from young players.

San Diego Padres: Cory Luebke

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    San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes sounds excited about his starting pitching depth, writes Barry M. Bloom. There were six guys that the coaching staff utilized in the rotation as the 2013 season wrapped up.

    None of them generates as much intrigue as lanky left-hander Cory Luebke.

    The Tommy John survivor didn't pitch at any professional level last summer, but he demonstrated tremendous potential when fully healthy. He whiffed 177 major league batters in 170.2 innings from 2011-2012 while allowing a mere .275 on-base percentage.

    Laugh all you want about former Padres starter Edinson Volquez, but the team sorely needs somebody to maintain a high strikeout rate over a substantial number of innings like he used to. This Ohio State University product should be up for the challenge, obviously while pitching with better command than Volquez ever did.

    A year-and-a-half removed from surgery, Luebke told Byrnes, "Now I feel like myself again." He'll either seize a starting job out of spring training or receive an opportunity at the first sign of shakiness from a rotation member.

San Francisco Giants: Yusmeiro Petit

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    No, Yusmeiro Petit's near-perfect performance on Sept. 6 is not representative of his true ability. The odds of the Venezuelan journeyman firmly establishing himself in the San Francisco Giants rotation are slim indeed.

    But for the time being, this team doesn't have a definitively better fifth option behind Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and newly signed Tim Hudson.

    Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle tweets that the Giants are reluctant to commit more than three years to any free-agent pitcher. Schulman also writes that general manager Brian Sabean covets his 2014 first-round draft pick too much to pursue any of the available players who declined qualifying offers.

    Assuming those are firm restrictions, that leaves the Giants without any targets who bested Petit's 3.56 ERA and 1.12 WHIP last season.

    They will certainly add another veteran pitcher, but not by signing/trading for the most talented and durable options. Petit should have a chance to expand his role following an injury or by out-performing an aging newcomer.

Seattle Mariners: Justin Smoak

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    Justin Smoak is quietly coming off a career year during which he set new personal bests in home runs (20), on-base percentage (.334) and slugging percentage (.412).

    Smoak isn't a star through his age-26 season, and he probably never will be. But when Dave Cameron gives up on a Seattle Mariners player who then becomes a tolerable starter, you know there are supernatural forces at work.

    With 2013 teammates Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse all exploring free agency, Smoak figures to receive better placement in the lineup going forward. A possible promotion from the sixth spot to the cleanup spot would earn him dozens of additional plate appearances over the course of an entire season.

    Count Brian Scott of NWSportsbeat.com among those who believes that Smoak is poised to break out.

St. Louis Cardinals: Oscar Taveras

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    Carlos Beltran's career as an everyday outfielder is coming to a close, and therefore, so is his tenure with the St. Louis Cardinals.

    Mark Feinsand of the Daily News tweets that the veteran switch-hitter has received the most attention from American League teams. That's because they can occasionally use the designated hitter's spot to keep Beltran healthy as he ages, fitting his productive bat in the lineup without any of his declining defense. For that reason, they'll feel comfortable making longer and more substantial contract offers than St. Louis.

    Although the Cards will miss Beltran in the clubhouse, highly touted prospect Oscar Taveras has the potential to mirror his performance in all tangible departments.

    MLB.com's Jim Callis raves that Taveras' arm is plenty strong enough for right field. The 21-year-old is also athletic enough to supplant Jon Jay in center if the former second-round draft pick keeps struggling. August ankle surgery to repair ligament damage won't hinder him heading into 2014.

    The most redeeming features about Taveras, however, are the coordination, balance, bat speed, power and plate discipline that have manifested themselves in a stellar .320/.377/.518 minor league batting line.

Tampa Bay Rays: Alex Torres

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    Fernando Rodney's stay with the Tampa Bay Rays worked out much better than anybody involved in the club's baseball operations could've expected.

    A contract that originally guaranteed only $2 million brought out the best in the quirky closer. He posted the two highest strikeout totals of his career and an earned run average that was less than half of his career mark from 2002-2011.

    Now that Rodney is back on the market, he can expect a multi-year guarantee at a bloated annual rate, and the Rays don't play that game. Their challenge is to find the next Rodney, either in the form of a buy-low free agent or a cheap, team-controlled pitcher.

    Taking the latter route could lead to Alex Torres' emergence.

    He was equally abusive versus left-handed and right-handed opposition in 2013, holding both to a sub-.200 batting average and sub-.500 OPS in his 39 relief appearances. Torres also met ideal closer criteria with his 9.62 K/9 and avoidance of huge innings.

    With David Price on the trading block and none of his potential rotation replacements evoking much confidence, per Bill Chastain of MLB.com, consistency at the back end of the bullpen will be especially important. 

Texas Rangers: Jurickson Profar

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    Tying up $25-30 million annually in your middle infield doesn't sound like a smart idea, especially for a franchise like the Texas Rangers that's cutting back on payroll, according Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.

    Fortunately for them, there aren't many quality shortstops and second basemen available around the league right now. With demand grossly exceeding supply, Texas has the opportunity to dump Elvis Andrus or Ian Kinsler along with one of their generous contracts.

    Moving either would provide the Rangers with more spending money to pursue power hitters, Grant explains, while solving what he previously identified as the key to their entire offseason—to "untangle the jumbled role" of Jurickson Profar.

    At age 20, the former top prospect gained more than 400 innings of experience as one of the team's double-play partners. Profar posted an ugly 76 OPS+, however, largely because his playing time was inconsistent and his spot in the lineup was so fluid.

    If given 500-plus plate appearances, his tools and intangibles will translate to a much stronger stat line.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    A severe oblique strain robbed Brandon Morrow of the opportunity to be one casting shadows on the Toronto Blue Jays pitching staff.

    Morrow had tossed three complete-game shutouts in his first dozen starts of the 2012 season and was seemingly destined for an All-Star selection when the injury occurred early in his June 11 outing. He spent more than two months on the disabled list and didn't return to a major league mound until the Blue Jays were hopelessly out of playoff contention. 

    The following offseason, Toronto's front office opened its wallet to acquire more accomplished starting pitchers like Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Josh Johnson. Johnson was held in particularly high regard by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who later admitted, via Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors, that the former National League ERA leader ignited the expensive roster overhaul.

    The 6'7", 250-pound free-agent-to-be ironically left a tiny impression. Johnson battled arm injuries for most of the summer and averaged barely five innings per start when healthy. He recorded only two wins while earning $13.75 million.

    With Johnson out of the picture, Morrow is once again the top strikeout artist on the Blue Jays. Entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, he ought to be their most motivated pitcher.

    Although Morrow also battled the injury bug in 2013, MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm provides an encouraging health update:

    Morrow resumed throwing in late October and has begun the process of getting ready for Spring Training. He has been long tossing three days a week and playing light catch on the remaining two weekdays. According to a report on Sportsnet, Morrow also threw off a mound last week, which is another big step in his return from injury.

Washington Nationals: Tanner Roark

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    James Wagner of the Washington Post has a delightful piece about how Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark emerged from the ether to become viable members of the Washington Nationals starting rotation.

    The question heading into 2014 is which of them has the better chance of inheriting Dan Haren's old spot.

    In equally limited action, Roark was clearly more dominant. He maintained a 1.51 earned run average (1.74 ERA as a starter) and piled up 40 strikeouts in 53.2 innings. Jordan, by comparison, generated only 29 whiffs in 51.2 innings and allowed approximately 50 percent more baserunners.

    The former's success obviously isn't sustainable, but at least he has a full repertoire already. On the other hand, Jordan tells Wagner that he's still searching for a fourth pitch. Besides, the Nats would probably prefer to test him at Triple-A after allowing him to skip that level of competition last summer.

    Roark should not be expected to leapfrog Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmermann on the depth chart, but he could be the piece that propels Washington back to playoffs after a one-year hiatus.

     

    Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter. 

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