Even for a team like the New York Yankees, spring training is where under-the-radar stars can be born.
Generally speaking, the Yankees go into spring workouts every year with their 25-man roster all but set. Their high-profile stars make up almost the entire 25-man group—save for a reliever or two—so spring training is really just for getting their players back into game shape.
Not this year, though. The Yankees have several openings in the bullpen and a reserve-infielder role that are up for grabs.
The 40-man roster and group of non-roster invitees are chock full of potential breakout candidates to watch for these spots. At least one of these players will make the final cut, and it's likely that up to three could be with the team on Opening Day.
The following players are ones you should keep an eye on this spring. They're going to post big numbers.
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The Yankees acquired second baseman Dean Anna from the San Diego Padres for right-handed minor league pitcher Ben Paullus back in November, and he has an outside shot at seeing time at the position this season.
Brian Roberts will be the starting second baseman, but given his injury history, Anna should be ready for the call whenever it comes.
Anna led the Pacific Coast League in batting in 2013, posting a line of .331/.410/.482 with nine home runs and 73 RBI. He also smoked 38 doubles and five triples.
His left-handed swing would play favorably in Yankee Stadium, even if he is simply a line-drive hitter. All Anna needs to do is drop the barrel on a pitch down and in to give it enough lift to send it over the short porch in right field.
At 27 years old, Anna is reaching the point of no longer being a prospect. He has played professional baseball since 2008 and has yet to sniff the big leagues.
His breakout will come in 2014, and he'll more than likely get his first taste of The Show.
Matt Daley has had success in the bigs before, but those two seasons came in 2009 and 2010 with the Colorado Rockies. He hasn't been a consistent pitcher since, making him a candidate to break out for the Yankees in spring training.
The right-hander was strong in limited action for the Bombers in 2013, allowing only two hits and no runs over six innings.
Daley has the potential to be an important member of manager Joe Girardi's bullpen. Girardi loves to use his entire bullpen and keep everybody fresh. Daley's funky delivery could prove useful against hitters who have yet to see him pitch—which, for the most part, is everyone.
The 31-year-old has local ties. He grew up in Garden City, Long Island, and friends and family members would be thrilled to see him get a full season in the Bronx.
Given the lackluster depth of the bullpen, he'll probably earn himself a spot no matter how well he performs. That said, I can certainly see him breaking out.
Like Daley, Michael Pineda has also broken out once before.
In 2011, Pineda was one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball for the Seattle Mariners. He was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 171 innings. He even earned an All-Star nod.
A rash of injuries then took a toll on Pineda, who hasn't pitched in the bigs since the end of the 2011 season. The Yankees famously traded top prospect Jesus Montero (who also has yet to pan out) for him, and they'll finally be expecting a return on their investment in 2014.
Pineda has a great shot at locking down the No. 5 starter's job in the spring. If he can regain some of his 2011 form, the Yankees have the potential to have one of the best starting rotations in baseball.
The 25-year-old has put in a ton of rehab work recently and appears ready to pitch against major leaguers. The spring will be a great challenge for him. He's pitched only against minor leaguers since the end of the 2011 season.
But Pineda has the chops to be a quality starter for the Yankees. The opinion here is that he'll be a breakout star this spring.
Slade Heathcott is one of the most athletic (and most volatile) prospects in the Yankees' system.
In 2012, he hit .302/.380/.461 with five homers, 29 RBI and 19 steals. In 2013, he hit .261/.327/.411 with eight homers, 49 RBI and 15 steals.
While run production will always increase with experience in the minors, it remains to be seen which slash line Heathcott will post consistently. He's a career .270 hitter, so that would tend to lean towards his 2013 marks.
I think he can hit consistently around .290, however. For him, it really comes down to pitch selection.
Heathcott is aggressive in the box. He has walked just 123 times in four full minor league seasons (all with the Yankees), as compared to 338 strikeouts. With a proper eye in the box, Heathcott could turn himself into an on-base machine.
When Heathcott matures a bit more as a player, the Yankees will give him a realistic look in spring training. All parties involved know that he isn't cracking the final roster in 2014, but a strong performance in the spring would help his standing come 2015.
Jose Ramirez is terribly inconsistent.
He has shown flashes of brilliance in the minors, but he also has struggled with control and maturity. Those are the only two things preventing him from making a serious run at a bullpen job this spring.
A starter by trade, Ramirez has good stuff for the bullpen. He throws pretty hard, has good off-speed stuff and the stamina to give Joe Girardi a couple of innings in an emergency. It's not good when your relievers are walking batter after batter, though, and that is what's holding Ramirez back.
Another year at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is best for the young hurler. Even if he does break out this spring (which I think he will), the best thing for his young career would be to go back down to the minors.
He's only 24 years old, and the Yankees don't like to give prominent roles to pitchers that young unless their names are Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy—none of whom ever, really, panned out.
Ramirez isn't that type of prospect, though, so he'll have the luxury of performing without all the hype. Look for him to settle in and pitch well in the spring.