10 Breakout Stars from Spring Training's Opening Week of Games
It's not easy for players to break out in the opening week of MLB spring training.
After all, most position players have only accumulated a handful of at-bats, and most pitchers have only made one appearance. Then again, Masahiro Tanaka only needed a single pitch—or splitter to be exact—to prove that he's for real.
So, here's a look at Tanaka and nine others who have already demonstrated that they're ready to become breakout stars in 2014.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. All videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media.
Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
In his first at-bat of the spring, Chicago Cubs top prospect Kris Bryant clubbed a towering home run to deep center field.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft appeared in 36 minor league games last season, batting .336/.390/.688 with nine home runs. The third baseman is ticketed to begin the 2014 campaign in Double-A, so clearly he has some climbing to do before he arrives at Wrigley Field.
However, one AL scout thinks that Bryant is on the verge of being ready for the big leagues, as Bruce Levine of CBSChicago.com reports:
This young man has tremendous natural power. The ball jumps off his bat, he will hit and hit for power. His defense will improve with better footwork. They should work with him on getting up on his toes and moving side to side before the ball is thrown. The slow roller is a challenge for him.
The safe bet for Bryant's MLB debut is 2015. Still, if he can refine his glove work, a late-season call-up in 2014 isn't out of the question.
Drake Britton, RP, Boston Red Sox
Even before the games got underway, the Boston Red Sox brass was "raving about how well Drake Britton had been throwing the ball," according to Sean McAdam CSN New England.
The left-hander was equally impressive in his first Grapefruit League outing, as he ripped off four strikeouts in two innings of work.
Manager John Farrell provided his take on Britton's first outing, via McAdam: "He was crisp, he was powerful. I think one of the most impressive things was his ability to throw some fastballs in on right-handers...Just a very good and clean two innings."
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski also praised the young left-hander, via McAdam:
He was great. Obviously the results speak for themselves...He threw the ball great—inside, outside. He threw sliders, threw some changeups. He pretty much had it all going. That was an impressive showing.
Britton faces tons of competition to land a spot in a crowded Boston bullpen. However, if he continues to pitch like he did in his spring debut, the Red Sox will have no choice but to find a role for Britton.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Nick Castellanos, who MLB.com recently dubbed the 15th-best prospect in all of baseball, is a prime candidate to break out in 2014.
The Detroit Tigers' first-round selection from the 2010 MLB draft is set to take over at third base, after blasting 18 home runs a year ago during his age-21 season in Triple-A. Keith Law of ESPN (subscription required) writes that Castellanos has "got rookie of the year potential."
That potential, and in particular Castellanos' impressive opposite-field power, was on full display in the video above.
Through his first three spring training games, Castellanos has two doubles and has driven in five runs for the Tigers. The spring is barely underway, but already Castellanos is proving that he's ready to live up to the considerable hype that surrounds him.
Marco Gonzales, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals are absolutely loaded with pitchers. According to Bernie Miklasz of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Marco Gonzales is yet another good one to keep an eye on:
One to watch is young lefthanded starting pitcher Marco Gonzales. He was the Cardinals' top pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, selected 19th overall. This, only a year after the Cardinals chose Michael Wacha 19th overall ... and needless to say Wacha arrived quickly.
The comparison to Wacha is an intriguing one, as it highlights the organization's willingness to promote top prospects aggressively. However, Gonzales has already learned just how challenging it will be to follow Wacha's path.
In his first outing of the spring, Gonzales pitched a scoreless inning of relief, before running into problems in his second frame. In the end, Gonzales ended up working 1.2 innings and allowed two runs on two hits and three walks.
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
There's been a lot of buzz surrounding Gregory Polanco this spring. Based on the power he displays in the video above, that makes tons of sense.
The 22-year-old outfielder is the 13th-best overall prospect in the minor leagues, according to MLB.com, and is expected to begin the year in Triple-A. However, if he tears up the minor leagues in the first half, Polanco could be starring in the Pittsburgh Pirates outfield alongside Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte by the All-Star Break.
The 2013 NL MVP McCutchen describes Polanco as "a freak of nature," according to John Perrotto of the Beaver County Times. Meanwhile, one unnamed NL GM explained to Peter Gammons of MLB Network, that the trio of Marte, McCutchen and Polanco "will be the best outfield in the league" (via Tom Singer of MLB.com)
James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
The race for spots in the Seattle Mariners starting rotation is wide open following the news that both Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker are likely to miss the start of the season, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
That means there is an excellent chance left-hander James Paxton will be a part of the rotation when the Mariners break camp. Last season, he went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four starts for Seattle. In his first start of the spring, the 25-year-old pitched two perfect frames with one strikeout.
Manager Lloyd McClendon liked what he saw in Paxton's Cactus League debut, per Mike Cranston of the Associated Press (via KentuckySports.com): "It's early in the spring, but the young man has talent. He's capable of doing things. He pounded the zone and that was pretty impressive."
With the Mariners short on starters, now is the perfect moment for Paxton to seize a spot in the rotation, and to prove just how talented he is.
Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Owings crushed the Pacific Coast League last year, as he hit .330/.359/.492 with 12 home runs and 31 doubles on his way to earning MVP honors.
This spring, Owings is in the midst of a battle with Didi Gregorius to become the starting shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Through his first four games of the spring, Owings is hitting .333 (3-for-9). Second baseman Aaron Hill is just one of Owings' teammates, who has noticed just how good of a hitter the 22-year-old is, as Nick Piecoro of azcentral.com reports:
He's always had silly pop. He wows some guys around the cage. Even [slugger Mark] Trumbo was over there saying, 'Golly!' It's not like it's just left [field]. He makes it fly to all sides of the field.
With nothing left to prove in the minors, look for Owings to make a significant impact on the big league stage in 2014. And that impact might not be with the Diamondbacks. The club is reportedly open to parting with a shortstop, according to Piecoro.
Adam Eaton, CF, Chicago White Sox
As Adam Eaton explains in the video above, it's all about "causing havoc." And for the Chicago White Sox's new leadoff man, the key to causing that havoc is getting on base.
In Eaton's first spring training game, the center fielder reached base in both of his plate appearances, as he drew a walk and singled.
Manager Robin Ventura has high expectations for the White Sox's new table-setter, per Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times: "Guys like him have been able to raise the intensity and level of other people in the lineup, and hopefully he can do that."
White Sox legend Paul Konerko is also intrigued by the new dimension that Eaton will bring to the club's offense, per Van Schouwen: "I'm excited to see a guy who wants to be a true leadoff hitter...I've seen him the last couple of springs with the Diamondbacks and was really impressed."
With a career .450 OBP in the minor leagues, Eaton should be a perfect fit atop Chicago's lineup, and should cause plenty of havoc in the process.
Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
Last year, Tommy La Stella hit .343 in 324 plate appearances while playing for the Atlanta Braves' Double-A club. This spring, he's picked up right where he left off, as he hitting .455 (5-for-11) through the first three games of the Grapefruit League campaign.
For manager Fredi Gonzalez, La Stella's strong showing at the plate comes as no surprise, per Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "He swings it, and our reports say that's what he does. He can swing and make contact and put the ball in play, a gap-type hitter. And today he showed that."
ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required) adds that the second baseman "has caught the eye of evaluators early on." With Dan Uggla coming off a dismal 2013, La Stella will put some serious pressure on the veteran this spring. And it's possible that La Stella could even steal his job.
Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees
Masahiro Tanaka didn't waste much time putting his famous splitter on display in his spring training debut with the New York Yankees.
In his second inning of work, the Japanese right-hander made use of the pitch to send Ben Revere down swinging, as can be seen in the video above (skip to the 50-second mark).
Anthony McCarron of the New York Daily News said the pitch "just buried" Revere, and CC Sabathia also came away impressed. The veteran referred to Tanaka's talent as "filthy" and noted that his split "is dirty."
On the day, Tanaka struck out three and allowed two hits while working two scoreless innings. While his splitter grabbed all the headlines, it was far from the only pitch that he utilized on the day. According to John Harper of the New York Daily News, Tanaka actually threw all seven pitches in his extensive arsenal during his first appearance as a Yankee.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.
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