Regardless of whether a team is a perennial World Series contender, a fringe playoff team or a cellar-dweller, there is always at least some reason for excitement looking ahead to the future.
Whether it is a single player destined for stardom or a deep minor-league system overflowing with talent, the "next big thing" is always waiting just around the corner to step in and make a huge impact. Granted, the next big thing doesn't always pan out as hoped, but they give fans a reason for optimism nonetheless.
So here is a look at the next big thing for all 30 MLB teams. For the most part, it's a list made up of top prospects on the cusp of big-league contribution, though there are a few young players with big-league experience ready to take a big step forward included here as well.
*All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise noted.
Entering last season, Archie Bradley ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks system behind fellow starting pitchers Tyler Skaggs and Trevor Bauer. A year later, those two are pitching for other teams, and Bradley looks like a safe bet to the be the best of the bunch.
The big right-hander has everything you look for in a front-of-the-rotation starter, and he was nothing short of dominant last season. Splitting the season between High-A and Double-A as a 20-year-old, he went 14-5 with a 1.84 ERA and 162 strikeouts in 152 innings of work.
The Diamondbacks' signing of Bronson Arroyo could mean that Bradley opens the season in the minors, but the team is lacking a legitimate staff ace, and it would not be at all surprising to see Bradley filling that role before the 2014 season is over.
The Atlanta Braves have a wealth of young talent at the big-league level, but their farm system is somewhat short on impact players at this point. Christian Bethancourt and Tommy La Stella could both seize everyday jobs by 2015, but neither profiles as a star-caliber player, while Lucas Sims has a high ceiling but is still a few years away.
If anyone is going to emerge as a star in the immediate future, it will likely be right-hander J.R. Graham, even though he made just eight starts in Double-A last season before suffering a shoulder injury.
The 24-year-old will not be limited this spring, according to Mark Bowman of MLB.com, as he looks to return to his 2012 form. In what was his first pro season that year, the right-hander used a high-90s fastball and solid slider/changeup mix to go 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA and 110 strikeouts in 148 innings of work while reaching Double-A.
Taken out of LSU with the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft, Kevin Gausman immediately joined Dylan Bundy as a future ace in the Baltimore Orioles' rotation. He then moved quickly through the system, making his big-league debut on May 23 of last season.
He was perhaps moved too quickly, though, as he made just five starts before being sent back to the minors, going 0-3 with a 7.66 ERA. He did show flashes, however, including a start against a good Detroit Tigers team in which he allowed just five hits and one run in six innings of work.
He pitched in the bullpen upon returning, making 15 appearances and posting a 3.52 ERA in 23 innings of work, but his future is as a starter. The right-hander is still just 23, and the front-of-the-rotation stuff remains, it's just a matter of putting it all together and gaining experience.
It's easy to forget Xander Bogaerts has just 44 regular-season at-bats under his belt, as he saw nearly as many opportunities during the postseason in 2013, eventually playing his way into the starting third base job in the World Series.
That puts the 21-year-old among the favorites for 2014 AL Rookie of the Year honors in a deep field, but he has the potential to be an impact bat right out of the gates. He's been among the youngest players each step of the way in his ascent through the system, and all signs point to him being a legitimate superstar.
He split last season between Double-A and Triple-A before his late-season call-up, hitting .297/.388/.477 with 23 doubles, 15 home runs and 67 RBI. With budding power and plate discipline beyond his years, an OPS over .800 and 20 home runs is not out of the question as a rookie, and he should only get better from there.
With perhaps the best bat speed in all of minor league baseball, Javier Baez has established himself as the premier prospect in a loaded Chicago Cubs farm system, and he should make his big-league debut at some point in 2014.
He won the organization's Minor League Player of the Year honors last year, hitting .282/.341/.578 with 34 doubles, 37 home runs, 111 RBI and 20 steals between High-A and Double-A as a 20-year-old.
He remains overly aggressive at the plate, which leads to a lot of strikeouts, but his power potential is undeniable. Third base prospect Kris Bryant may be a safer pick to be an All-Star-caliber player, but Baez has the higher ceiling and is likely to arrive first.
Signing international players is always something of an unknown, but if the recent performance of Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig is any indication, the Chicago White Sox may very well have gotten a steal when they signed Jose Dariel Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal this winter.
The 27-year-old slugger is one of the most prolific sluggers in Cuban League history, putting together a season for the ages in 2011, when he hit .453/.597/.986 with 33 home runs and 93 RBI in 66 games.
He was 9-for-25 with a double, three home runs and nine RBI in six World Baseball Classic games last spring, before hitting .382/.535/.735 with 13 home runs and 36 RBI in 42 games during the Cuban League regular season.
The tools are there for a 30-home-run season right out of the gates, and he will be counted on to replace Paul Konerko in the middle of a young White Sox lineup.
Many would be tempted to put speedster Billy Hamilton here, and he'll certainly get every chance to prove that he's the next big thing this coming season. However, after posting just a .308 OBP in Triple-A last year, there are questions as to just how good he's going to be at the big-league level.
Instead, my pick here is right-hander Robert Stephenson, who was taken with the No. 27 pick in the 2011 draft out of high school. The 20-year-old opened last season in Low-A and advanced through High-A to Double-A, making a combined 22 starts and going 7-7 with a 2.99 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 114.1 innings of work.
With Homer Bailey set to hit free agency at season's end, and Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake all becoming free agents after the 2015 season, there is likely to be some turnover in the Reds' rotation in the years ahead. If Stephenson continues his rapid ascent and impressive development, he could help ease the loss of one of those guys and put up front-line numbers in the process.
The Cleveland Indians farm system has been among the thinnest in baseball for several seasons now, but they do have one player who looks like a future star in shortstop Francisco Lindor.
The 20-year-old was taken with the No. 8 pick in the 2011 draft, and he was viewed at the time as an elite-level defensive shortstop who had the offensive potential to develop into a terrific all-around player.
His bat has come around much quicker than many thought it would, though, as he hit .303/.380/.407 with 31 extra-base hits in 403 at-bats while reaching Double-A last season. Incumbent shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is entering a contract year, and the team could very well let him walk in favor of Lindor if the latter turns in another solid season.
Fielding a starting rotation to match their offense has long been an issue for the Colorado Rockies, but help looks to be on the way, as top prospects Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray could both make their debuts this coming season.
Though Butler is only older than Gray by roughly six months, he already has 40 minor-league starts under his belt compared to just nine by Gray, so he'll likely be the first of the two to reach Colorado. In fact, a strong spring could force the Rockies hand, as the No. 5 spot in their rotation is still very much up in the air.
The 22-year-old Butler went 9-5 with a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 149.2 innings in 2013, and he ended the year with a dominant six-game stint at the Double-A level. Emerging as a star while pitching for the Rockies is no easy feat, but Butler has the stuff to do it, and he could give the staff a huge boost in 2014 and beyond.
With the trade of Prince Fielder, the Detroit Tigers will move Miguel Cabrera back to first base and appear ready to hand the everyday third base job to Nick Castellanos. He was originally drafted as a third basemen back in 2010 but shifted to the outfield last year in an effort to reach the big leagues sooner.
It's his bat that could make him a future star, though, as he has more than held his own every step of the way in the minors, despite spending all of last season as a 21-year-old in Triple-A.
He hit .276/.343/.450 with 37 doubles, 18 home runs and 76 RBI before a late-season call-up, but he has the potential to be a perennial .300-hitter and should be able to turn some of those doubles into home runs in the future. He may not have the raw power to replace Fielder, but he has the hit tool to contend for the batting title in the not-too-distant future.
It may be slim pickings at the big-league level still, but the Houston Astros have built one of the better farm systems in baseball through their rebuilding efforts, and George Springer looks like he'll be the first of the bunch to make a serious big-league impact.
He nearly became the first 40/40 player in the modern era of minor-league baseball (since roughly 1962) last season, finishing the year with 37 home runs and 45 steals while splitting the year between Double-A and Triple-A.
The 24-year-old hit .303/.411/.600 in the process and added 27 doubles with 108 RBI, as he has little left to prove at the minor-league level. The team will likely start him in the minors this season in an effort to slow his arbitration clock, but expect to see him in Houston before midseason, at which time he could mount a run at AL Rookie of the Year honors.
The Kansas City Royals have two exciting pitching prospects in Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer, and while it's hard to ignore the triple-digit fastball of Ventura, there's a good chance it will be Zimmer who winds up making the bigger impact in the majors.
Unless he can further develop his changeup, Ventura may be ticketed for the back end of the bullpen, while Zimmer looks destined to front the rotation in the very near future after being taken with the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft.
The 22-year-old was 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 108.1 innings last year, though he did reach Double-A and impress over four starts to close out the season. Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo told Andy McCullough of The Kansas City Star that the right-hander could be in the majors by midseason with an eye on helping the team's push for a playoff spot:
The goal would be to have him peaking in the minor leagues in late May, June, going into July,” Picollo said in a telephone interview. “And then really ramping it up and taking the handcuffs off him, hopefully in a playoff run, and he pitches in September and hopefully October.
The Los Angeles Angels' minor league system ranked dead last according to Baseball America entering last season, and it would not be out of line to say that the next big thing for the franchise is not currently a member of the franchise.
Kole Calhoun impressed down the stretch last season and has an everyday job entering camp, but a .275 BA/20-HR/80-RBI season may be his peak, and that's not quite star-caliber. Third base prospect Kaleb Cowart still has a high ceiling, but his production has not matched his potential to this point.
Instead, the pick here is second baseman Taylor Lindsey, a supplemental round pick back in 2010. The 22-year-old spent a full year at Double-A last season, hitting .274/.339/.441 with 22 doubles and 17 home runs. He has the bat to be one of the league's top offensive second basemen if he can take another step forward, and his continued development could trigger a trade of Howie Kendrick down the line.
With top prospect Joc Pederson blocked by an already crowded outfield situation and pitching prospects Zach Lee and Chris Reed looking more like middle-of-the-rotation starters at best once they reach the majors, it may be some time before the next big thing arrives for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That guy could wind up being Corey Seager, as the 19-year-old split last year between Single-A and High-A in what was his first full pro season after being taken with the No. 18 pick in the 2012 draft.
He hit .269/.351/.473 with 20 doubles, 16 home runs and 72 RBI, and his plus plate discipline should allow him to move quicker than most high school bats. As his 6'4" frame continues to fill out, a move to third based could be inevitable. He has the bat to stick there, and he could replace Juan Uribe at the end of the 2015 season, or perhaps sooner.
Jose Fernandez will be a tough act to follow, but left-hander Andrew Heaney could be the next big thing for the Miami Marlins, as he looks poised to join an already impressive young rotation at some point in 2014.
Taken out of Oklahoma State with the No. 9 pick in the 2012 draft, Heaney was viewed as one of the most big-league ready prospects in the class, and he backed that up by reaching Double-A in his first full season.
He pitched just 95.1 innings last season but still managed to impress, going 9-3 with a 1.60 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 8.4 SO/9. A big spring could win him the No. 5 spot in the Marlins' rotation over Tom Koehler, but he should be up by midseason, one way or another, barring a setback of some sort.
The Milwaukee Brewers have a handful of solid pitching prospects in Jimmy Nelson, Tyler Thornburg, Taylor Jungmann and Johnny Hellweg, but none of them profile as future stars at this point. In fact, the Brewers system is one of the weaker groups in the league at this point.
One player worth keeping an eye on, though, is outfielder Victor Roache, who was taken with the No. 28 pick in the 2012 draft. Were it not for a broken wrist that ended his final season at Georgia Southern in February, Roache likely would have been a top-10 pick.
He hit .248/.322/.440 with 14 doubles and 22 home runs in a full season at Single-A Wisconsin last year, but he could be in position for a big step forward this coming season. The raw power is there, and now it's just a matter of hitting enough to tap into it.
Outfielder Byron Buxton may be the top prospect in the game right now and looks to have a higher ceiling than Miguel Sano long-term, but chances are it will be Sano who arrives in Minnesota first.
The 20-year-old third baseman is a consensus top-10 prospect entering the 2014 season, and he has as much power potential as any prospect in the game. The big question is whether he will be an Adam Dunn type or whether he can back his tremendous power with a solid average as well.
He split last between High-A and Double-A, hitting a combined .280/.382/.610 with 35 home runs and 103 RBI. However, he hit just .236 and struck out 81 times in 233 at-bats after being called up to Double-A, though he did manage to hit 19 of his home runs there.
The New York Mets have churned out a pair of bright, young pitching stars the past two seasons— Matt Harvey in 2012 and Zack Wheeler in 2013—and it may not be long before another potential ace debuts in Noah Syndergaard.
Acquired in last offseason's R.A. Dickey trade, Syndergaard earned the start in last year's Futures Game, as he split the season between High-A and Double-A. Over 23 starts, he was 9-4 with a 3.06 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 117.2 innings.
The Mets have no reason to rush him in 2013, as they still look to be a year away from legitimate contention. Still, don't be surprised to see him earn a late-season call-up before making a run at a rotation spot to kick off the 2015 season. The potential is there for the 21-year-old to give the Mets a third young ace atop their rotation.
Living up to the hype is going to be no small challenge for Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, as the 25-year-old signed a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees after a lengthy bidding process in which a number of teams made serious runs at him.
Then again, few pitchers have had the type of season Tanaka did in 2013 while pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles. In 28 games (27 starts), he was 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 212 innings of work.
Despite his age, he is by no means lacking in experience, with 1,315 pro innings already under his belt in Japan. Yankees GM Brian Cashman had the following to say about his expectations for Tanaka, according to Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News:
There is definitely some unknown because of the transition. We scouted him extensively. Certainly, we look forward to adding him into the mix with the rest of our rotation. That's what we look at him as: A solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues. If we get more than that, all the better. He's got a great deal of ability.
With a clear need at the shortstop position in the short and long term at the time, the Oakland Athletics took Addison Russell out of high school with the No. 11 pick in the 2012 draft. That went against the team's usual approach of targeting college players early, but it looks like they made the right decision.
Russell spent the bulk of last season as a 19-year-old playing at the High-A level, and he more than held his own with a .269/.369/.495 line that included 29 doubles, 10 triples, 19 home runs and 21 steals.
The team bumped him up to Triple-A for a brief three-game stint at the end of the season, but chances are he'll open the 2014 season in Double-A. Incumbent shortstop Jed Lowrie is a free agent at the end of the upcoming year, and all signs point to Russell being handed the job in early 2015.
After having been rumored to have agreed upon a six-year, $60 million contract last summer, the Philadelphia Phillies wound up signing Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a three-year, $12 million deal after health questions popped up regarding his arm.
Still, the original offer speaks to the kind of potential Gonzalez has, and the Phillies may well have wound up walking away with an absolute steal last August. The 27-year-old made a name for himself in the 2009 and 2011 World Baseball Cups, but his exposure has been limited for the most part.
With a fastball that can touch 97 and a changeup/curveball/forkball trio to complement it, he has the repertoire to succeed as a starter, and he'll likely open the season in the Phillies' rotation. There are a lot of question marks here, but on a team thin on young talent, he looks like the best bet to be the next big thing.
He has spent much of the past two years in the shadow of Gerrit Cole, but Jameson Taillon is a highly-regarded prospect in his own right, having been taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, a year before the team took Cole No. 1 overall.
The right-hander showed what he's capable of while pitching for Team Canada in the WBC last spring, earning the start against Team USA. In four innings of work, Taillon allowed four hits and two runs (one earned) while walking one and striking out three. The 22-year-old then split the regular season between Double-A and Triple-A, going 5-10 with a 3.73 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 147.1 innings.
Edinson Volquez is currently penciled into the No. 5 starter spot for the Pirates, with Jeff Locke in the mix as well. However, a big spring could be enough for Taillon to break camp as part of the Pittsburgh Pirates rotation, and he could make an impact similar to what Cole did for the team last year.
The San Diego Padres took Cory Spangenberg with the No. 10 pick in the 2011 draft, making him the top JUCO player selected that year, and he quickly agreed to a contract.
That gave him time to receive 275 at-bats the same year he was drafted, and he impressed with a .316/.419/.418 line and 25 stolen bases while reaching Single-A. He's continued to progress through the system since, hitting .292/.346/.407 with 38 extra-base hits and 36 steals last year.
He's currently blocked at second base by Jedd Gyorko, but if Chase Headley winds up traded or departs in free agency, the team could move Gyorko back to his natural position of third base in order to open things up for Spangenberg. He may never hit for a ton of power, but he has the hit tool and speed to make an impact as a table-setter atop the order.
The San Francisco Giants farm system is as thin as any in baseball heading into the 2014 season, but they do have one potential stud in Kyle Crick, as he could be the next in an impressive line of homegrown starting pitchers that includes Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.
A supplemental round pick out of high school in 2011, Crick has been brought along slowly to this point, spending a full season at High-A San Jose last year and pitching a total of 187 innings over his three seasons as a pro.
He made just 14 starts last year, as he dealt with an oblique injury, making the team extra cautious. Still, he was impressive nonetheless, with a 1.57 ERA and 95 strikeouts in 68.2 innings of work. It could still be another year before the team takes the leash off of the 21-year-old, but he is already one of the top pitching prospects in the game.
Viewed by many as the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball entering the 2014 season, Taijuan Walker has progressed faster than anyone in the Seattle Mariners organization could have dreamed when they took him out of high school with the No. 43 pick in the 2010 draft.
Walker was more of a basketball player in high school, and he has turned raw ability into production in an incredibly quick manner as a pro baseball player. He split last season between Double-A and Triple-A, going 9-10 with a 2.93 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 141.1 innings before making three starts for the big-league club down the stretch.
He's penciled into a big-league rotation spot entering camp, and he has the stuff to make an immediate impact alongside Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the Mariners rotation. There has been an influx of terrific young starting pitching over the past few years, and Walker has the stuff to be as good as any of them.
The 2013 season was a disappointing one for Oscar Taveras, as an ankle injury limited him to just 47 games and kept him from making his highly-anticipated debut in St. Louis.
A .321/.380/.572 line with 37 doubles, 23 home runs and 94 RBI as a 20-year-old at the Double-A level in 2012 immediately shot him up prospect rankings, with many viewing Taveras as the heir apparent to Carlos Beltran in right field.
He'll likely have to open the season in the minors now after missing so much time last year, but he's a safe bet to claim the right field job at some point in 2014. That will likely push Allen Craig back to first base and Matt Adams to the bench, as the rich get richer and the Cardinals incorporate yet another homegrown talent.
Wil Myers was the piece of the James Shields trade that captured headlines in Tampa Bay, and understandably so, but the team also landed a terrific pitching prospect in Jake Odorizzi in that same deal.
Originally a member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization before being shipped to the Kansas City Royals in the Zack Greinke trade, Odorizzi finally looks to have found a home in Tampa Bay.
He spent the season in Triple-A last year, going 9-6 with a 3.33 ERA and 124 strikeouts in 124.1 innings. The 23-year-old also spent four different stints in Tampa Bay last year, posting a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings of work.
With Jeremy Hellickson potentially sidelined to start the year, Odorizzi has a good chance of winning a rotation spot this spring, and he has the stuff to be the next great young pitcher to emerge from the Rays system.
In fantasy sports, the term "post-hype" gets thrown around a lot in reference to players who were expected to have a big season the previous year but fell short. As a result, they are somewhat overlooked entering the next season.
Count Jurickson Profar among the biggest post-hype breakout candidates of 2014.
After entering last season as the top prospect in baseball, Profar spent last season shuffling between second base, shortstop, third base and left field in an effort to get as much playing time as possible. The result was a .234/.308/.336 line that left many disappointed.
However, with Ian Kinsler traded to the Detroit Tigers this offseason, the 20-year-old now has an everyday position to call his own at second base. It could still be a few years before he reaches his full offensive potential, but there's no reason to think he's not still the next big thing in Texas.
The Toronto Blue Jays mortgaged a good chunk of their future in a pair of trades last offseason, but they still have a pair of highly-regarded pitching prospects in Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.
Were it not for a 50-game suspension following a positive test for a banned stimulant, Stroman likely would have made his big-league debut at some point in 2013. He still managed to impress, though, going 9-5 with a 3.30 ERA and 129 strikeouts in 111.2 innings of work over 20 starts at Double-A in 2013.
His undersized 5'9" frame could mean a move to the bullpen at some point, but he has the stuff to be a frontline starter or a dynamic late-inning reliever. The 22-year-old will get a long look this spring, and a spot on the Opening Day roster is not out of the question.
Anthony Rendon has as much big-league experience as anyone on this list, but it's fair to say that he has yet to tap into his full potential, and a breakout season may be just around the corner for the Washington Nationals second baseman.
Injuries in his final season at Rice kept him from being the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, and the Nationals were thrilled to scoop him up with the No. 6 pick. Originally a third baseman, he made the move to second base to get out from behind Ryan Zimmerman, and he took over for a struggling Danny Espinosa last June.
A .330/.358/.473 line over 91 at-bats in June showed what he's capable of, but he hit just .243/.315/.379 in 235 at-bats the rest of the way. Don't be surprised if he makes a run at a .300 average in 2014, and his power should continue to develop in the years ahead as well.