3B Jake Lamb batted .303/.424/.558 with 20 doubles and 13 home runs in 283 plate appearances last season at High-A Visalia.
Every year, baseball fans' excitement about top prospects in major league spring training seems to grow. Unfortunately, it's also too easy to overlook some of the game's less glamorous, under-the-radar young players.
Besides providing an opportunity for players to fine-tune their skills in anticipation of the season, participating in major league camp also offers prospects the chance to make a strong impression in front of the entire organization.
Therefore, I’ve identified a select group of prospects—some are on a 40-man roster, some are non-roster invitees—whom I believe will blow past expectations in spring training and ultimately turn in a breakout performance during the minor and major league regular seasons.
Here’s a look at my spring training breakout prospects to watch in 2014.
An eighth-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers in 2011 out of Dartmouth, Kyle Hendricks dominated at short-season Spokane in his professional debut, even making a start for Double-A Frisco toward the end of the summer.
The 6’3”, 190-pound right-hander was equally impressive the following year at High-A Myrtle Beach, registering a 2.82 ERA with a stellar 112-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 130.2 innings (20 starts). However, with the Rangers looking to upgrade their starting rotation, he was shipped to the Chicago Cubs as part of the Ryan Dempster deal just before the 2012 trade deadline.
Hendricks, 24, had a breakout campaign last year in his first full season with the Cubs, as he posted a 1.85 ERA and 101-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 126.1 innings at Double-A Tennessee, followed by a 2.48 ERA in 40 innings at Triple-A Iowa over the final month of the regular season.
Though his fastball isn’t overpowering in the high 80s/low 90s, Hendricks possesses an advanced feel for his secondary arsenal, highlighted by an above-average changeup with outstanding fading action and a pair of serviceable breaking balls (curveball/slider). The right-hander simply knows how to mix his pitches and exploit hitters' weaknesses, and his command already ranks as the best in the organization.
He already fully understands the importance he and other young players have on the Cubs' future (courtesy of Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago).
We're trying to institute a winning way here. It obviously hasn't been that way in the past, so it's going to be up to me and the young guys here to change everything that's been going on.
As a non-40-man roster prospect invited to major league spring training, Hendricks is a long shot to break camp in the Cubs’ Opening Day rotation unless there’s an injury. He’ll get a chance to make a strong impression on the coaching staff (pitching coach Chris Bosio is already his biggest fan, per Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune) before heading back to Triple-A Iowa, and if all goes well, he should be one of the first pitching prospects recalled from the minors in 2014.
Video courtesy of SmokiesBaseball.com
The Miami Marlins selected Nick Wittgren in the ninth round of the 2012 draft following his two excellent seasons as Purdue’s closer. It didn’t take long for the right-hander to make an impact after signing; he recorded 11 saves in 17 games in the short-season New York-Penn League, as well as a 1.46 ERA and 34-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Assigned to High-A Jupiter to open the 2013 season, the 22-year-old recorded 25 saves, a 0.83 ERA and a 59-10 strikeout-to-walk rate in 54.1 innings (48 games). As a result of his overwhelming success, the right-hander was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville in late August.
Given his effectiveness in the ninth inning, one would assume that Wittgren boasts overpowering stuff. However, that’s not the case; the 6’3", 210-pound right-hander’s fastball sits comfortably in the low 90s.
That being said, he does miss a considerable number of bats with the pitch. The deception in his delivery causes the ball to jump on opposing hitters. Wittgren also supplements his heater with a power breaking ball that registers in the 76-81 mph range, and he’s demonstrated an improved feel for the pitch since signing.
Wittgren should keep moving through Miami’s system at an accelerated pace, and he's arguably a dark-horse candidate to open the season in the major leagues. Regardless of how his spring unfolds, he has the potential to join the Marlins bullpen sooner rather than later, and he could even get a crack at the ninth inning should the team deal Steve Cishek during the regular season.
Video courtesy of BullpenBanter.com
After batting .262/.313/.411 with 47 extra-base hits, 84 RBI and a 145-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 144 games at Low-A Dayton over parts of two seasons, Yorman Rodriguez was finally promoted to High-A Bakersfield for the final month of the 2012 regular season. However, the outfielder struggled mightily at the more advanced level, posting a .381 OPS and 39-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 23 games.
Splitting the 2013 season between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Pensacola, Rodriguez turned in a long-overdue breakout performance by batting .259/.324/.427 with 54 extra-base hits—including a career-high 13 home runs—in 129 games.
He has always shown huge raw power to all fields during batting practice, but last season was the first time it manifested in games with a hint of consistency. Plus, the fact that his power emerged at a pair of advanced levels during his age-20 campaign suggests that there’s plenty more to come.
Still, Rodriguez’s impressive raw pop does come with a caveat: It tends to only play in games when he gets a fastball in a fastball count. Combine that with his problems with recognizing spin, and one begins to understand how he struck out 153 times in 567 plate appearances last season.
Rodriguez is still very young and raw, with a huge gap between the present and future, but the 21-year-old’s upside is undeniably huge. And since he’s already on the Cincinnati Reds’ 40-man roster, Rodriguez could possibly get his first taste of the major leagues later in the year.
A ninth-round selection in the 2011 draft out of Miami Dade (Fla.) JC, Derek Law earned an assignment to Low-A Augusta for his full-season debut the following year. Though he posted a 2.91 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, it wasn’t until last season that the right-hander’s career took flight.
Law, 23, dominated across three levels in 2013, posting a 2.31 ERA with 14 saves and the best combination of strikeout (13.84) and walk (1.63) rates among all minor league relievers. He was especially impressive at High-A San Jose over the second half of the season, registering a 2.10 ERA with 11 saves and 45 strikeouts in 25.2 frames.
A 6’3”, 218-pound right-hander, Law creates deception with an upper body turn at the height of his delivery and exaggerated arm stab on the backside. Though unorthodox in every sense, it allows him to stay on top of the ball with an over-the-top release point and work on a consistent downhill plane.
In terms of stuff, Law’s fastball typically works in the 92-96 mph range and plays up due to his aforementioned deception. Given the right-hander’s release point, his curveball is a big, slow breaker that offers extreme velocity contrast to the fastball. He will also mix in a good slider so as to keep opposing hitters off balance.
Coming off an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League in which he struck out 16 batters in 12.1 innings (11 appearances) without allowing an earned run, Law is poised to open eyes this spring in major league camp. He’ll likely open the 2014 season in the Double-A Richmond bullpen, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the major leagues by the All-Star break.
Video courtesy of Baseball America
Selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the sixth round of the 2012 draft out of the University of Washington, Jake Lamb made an immediate impact during his professional debut in the Rookie-level Pioneer League, batting .329/.390/.539 with 36 extra-base hits (nine home runs) in 315 plate appearances.
As a result of his overwhelming success, the Diamondbacks assigned Lamb to High-A Visalia for the 2013 season, bypassing the Low-A level in the process. Unfazed by the more advanced competition, the 23-year-old continued to rake in the hitter-friendly California League, posting a .287/.415/.558 batting line with eight home runs and 43-29 strikeout-to-walk ratio through his first 37 games.
Lamb suffered a broken hamate bone in his right wrist June 1 that sidelined him for roughly two months, but thankfully the injury didn’t impact his performance following his return to Visalia in early August. In fact, August was actually Lamb’s most productive month of the season, as he batted .351/.461/.606 with five home runs and 23 RBI in 25 games.
Overall, Lamb played in 64 games last year for Visalia and posted a .303/.424/.558 batting line with 20 doubles, 13 home runs and a 70-48 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 283 plate appearances.
Lamb possesses more strength than his 6’2”, 200-pound build suggests, as he’s a legit plus defender at third base with excellent range and above-average arm strength, as well as the agility and athleticism to stick at the position long term.
At the dish, he has a smooth and compact left-handed swing, with a mature approach that caters to his strong on-base skills. He consistently works deep counts and projects for average or better hit tool at maturity. Lamb also stands out for his ability to hit same-side pitching over the last two seasons, evidenced by his career .290/.414/.427 (.407 BABIP) batting line against left-handers in 162 plate appearances.
While Lamb’s bat and glove both profile favorably at the highest level, it’s difficult to envision him becoming an everyday player without developing more consistent over-the-fence pop. However, the 23-year-old did take a big step forward last year in that department—albeit in the California League—as 13 of his 70 hits left the yard. Also, of those 13 home runs, only five were hit to his pull side, which suggests he has considerable untapped power.
After his strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (.802 OPS in 21 games), Lamb should begin the 2014 season at Double-A Mobile but likely spend the entire year there so as to gain experience against more age-appropriate competition. However, he will have an opportunity to improve his stock this spring in major league camp. As arguably the fourth-best third baseman in the organization, he’ll see decent playing time once exhibition games begin.
Lamb should continue to make progress at the plate next season in Double-A if he can stay healthy. And if everything goes as planned, then there’s a realistic chance he’ll receive his first taste of the major leagues the following year.
Video courtesy of MLB Advanced Media, MLB.com