The Biggest Emerging MLB Star at Every Position
Every year players blow past estimations of their potential and become stars.
Last season, the transformations of Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig from potential stars into actual stars happened almost immediately after each reached the major leagues.
On the other end of the breakout spectrum are players such as Chris Davis and Josh Donaldson, older guys who finally put things together in their late-20s to emerge as legitimate MVP candidates.
With the spring schedule underway and players finally doing meaningful things on the field, it’s time to look at the biggest emerging star at every position headed into the upcoming season.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.
Catcher: Josmil Pinto, Minnesota Twins
Josmil Pinto doesn’t get the love he deserves despite batting .275/.351/.439 with 131 doubles, 63 home runs and a solid 372-237 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2,395 minor-league plate appearances dating back to 2006.
The 24-year-old was finally rewarded with a call-up to the major leagues in late 2013, and he opened eyes by batting .342/.398/.566 with five doubles and four home runs in 83 plate appearances.
However, even with Joe Mauer moving to first base this season, the Twins are reluctant to give Pinto full-time catching duties, which is why they signed Kurt Suzuki during the offseason. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as it allows the organization additional time to thoroughly develop Pinto’s defense while also preventing him from being overexposed as an everyday player.
Pinto has plenty to prove this season after his impressive 2013 debut, so expect him to spend a majority of the year with Minnesota, even if he opens the season in the minor leagues.
First Base: Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants
The Giants stuck with Brandon Belt in spite of his struggles at the major league level in 2011 (.718 OPS in 209 plate appearances) and 2012 (.781 OPS in 472 plate appearances). And after two years of underwhelming production, the organization was rewarded for its patience last season, as Belt posted his best numbers to date, with a .289/.360/.481 batting line and 60 extra-base hits in 571 plate appearances.
It initially appeared as though the 25-year-old was destined for another disappointing campaign, as he was batting only .255/.331/.425 heading into August. However, around that time Belt made an adjustment at the plate, changing his grip on the bat and moving back in the box. The changes paid enormous dividends for the left-handed hitting first baseman, as he posted a .984 OPS with three triples, seven home runs, 17 doubles and 28 RBI over his final 52 games.
The fact that Belt posted a .351 BABIP for the second consecutive year, while also lowering his strikeout rate (21.9 percent) and ground-ball rate (34.4 percent), leads me to believe that he’ll continue to improve moving forward. Plus, last season was also the first in which Belt enjoyed success against curveballs and changeups, as he posted career-best values of 0.50 wCB/C and 2.81 wCH/C.
If he’s actually figured things out to the extent his stats suggest, then Belt could be in store for a monster 2014 season.
Second Base: Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals
The No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Anthony Rendon made only 326 minor league plate appearances before the Nationals summoned him to The Show just weeks into the 2013 season after Ryan Zimmerman got hurt. While his first trip to the majors was only temporary, the 23-year-old returned to the big leagues for good in early June and took over at second base for the struggling Danny Espinosa.
Rendon got off to a hot start once he was given everyday playing time, batting .301/.352/.460 with 18 extra-base hits in 177 plate appearances before the All-Star break. After that, though, his production fell off, as Rendon batted just .234/.310/.340 over his final 217 plate appearances. Overall, he finished the season with a .265/.329/.396 batting line, 31 extra-base hits and a 69-31 strikeout-to-walk rate in 394 plate appearances.
However, Rendon is likely to offer more consistent production in 2014, if only because last season was the first time he played more than 38 games. In spite of his lack of experience, Rendon’s 17.5 percent strikeout rate mirrored his career rate in the minor leagues, though his walk rate plummeted to 7.9 percent. However, that also only means he has room to improve moving forward.
Additionally, Rendon struggled to the tune of .253/.316/.365 against right-handed pitching last season, which was a steep drop-off compared to his .288/.410/.587 line against righties in 227 minor league plate appearances. Simply put: He’s too good a hitter for that to carry over into 2014.
Shortstop: Brad Miller, Seattle Mariners
Brad Miller made quick work of the minor leagues after being selected by the Mariners in the second round of the 2011 draft, batting .334/.409/.516 with 93 extra-base hits, 30 stolen bases and a 162-113 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 999 plate appearances before a promotion to the majors on June 28 of last year.
Though never considered a top prospect during his time in the minors, Miller emerged as one of baseball’s more intriguing young shortstops last year, as he went on to bat .265/.318/.418 with 11 doubles, six triples, eight home runs, five stolen bases and a 52-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 335 plate appearances. More specifically, Miller was the 10th best shortstop in the game after the All-Star break with a 104 wRC+ and 1.4 WAR.
The 24-year-old will have to prove himself over a full season in 2014—especially if the Mariners decide not to trade Nick Franklin—but the combination of Miller’s speed, sneaky pop and good on-base skills could see him yield 15 home runs and 10-plus steals as a sophomore.
Third Base: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Nolan Arenado parlayed a strong showing in major league camp last spring and hot start at Triple-A Colorado Springs into an early-season call-up in late April. After joining the Rockies, the 22-year-old quickly settled in as the team’s starting third baseman, opening eyes with both his offensive potential and prowess with the glove.
Arenado went on to appear in 133 games last season, batting .267/.301/.405 with 29 doubles, 10 home runs, 52 RBI and a 72-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 514 plate appearances. The right-handed hitter really came into his own at the dish after the All-Star break, as he posted a .298/.323/.419 batting line with 18 extra-base hits in 228 plate appearances. Arenado’s defense at the hot corner was a revelation for the Rockies, as he saved 30 runs and posted a 22.5 UZR/150 (range factor) en route to winning a Gold Glove.
However, it’s Arenado’s low strikeout and solid line-drive rates that make me believe he is poised for a breakout campaign as a 23-year-old in 2014. After fanning 11.3 percent of the time during his minor league career, Arenado struck out at a 14.0 percent clip last season with the Rockies. Furthermore, he proved capable of sustaining a favorable line-drive rate last season at 24 percent, albeit well above his minor league average of 15.9 percent since 2011. It will presumably come down some next season, but that will likely be as a result of an improved outfield fly-ball rate.
Outfield: Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
There may not be a second-year position player with as much realistic upside as Christian Yelich.
Yelich was called up by the Marlins last season in late July after batting .313/..387/.499 with 77 doubles, 36 home runs and 58 stolen bases in 302 minor league games, and he immediately took over as the team’s left fielder. The 21-year-old went on to enjoy a quietly good rookie campaign, batting .288/.370/.396 with 17 extra-base hits and 10 stolen bases in 273 plate appearances.
Yelich’s resounding success last season stemmed from his knack for crushing right-handed pitchers, whom he posted a .941 OPS and 39-22 strikeout-to-walk ratio against in 171 plate appearances. Conversely, he put up an ugly .476 OPS in 102 plate appearances versus same-sided arms.
Basically, Yelich has everything going for him except for his struggles against lefties. Still, his hit tool should make him a .300-plus hitter for a long, long time, and considering his age and inexperience in the pros, he has the potential to post numerous 20-20 seasons during his prime years.
Pitcher: Nate Eovaldi, Miami Marlins
Nate Eovaldi was the Marlins’ big return when they shipped Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers before the 2012 trade deadline. In fact, the 24-year-old was expected to begin last season in the team’s starting rotation, but he developed shoulder inflammation late in the spring and was subsequently placed on the 60-day disabled list.
Eovaldi returned from the injury in mid-June and made 18 starts for the Fish, posting a 3.39 ERA (3.59 FIP) and 78-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 106.1 innings. The right-hander’s H/9 (hits per nine innings) started trending in the right direction last season as well, dropping from 10.0 in 2012 to 8.5, and he also boosted his K/BB rate from 1.66 to 1.95.
Eovaldi is the definition of a power pitcher, as his average fastball velocity of 97 mph last season was the highest among all starting pitchers who threw at least 1,000 fastballs, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards. He’s yet to truly establish a secondary pitch, but the right-hander has shown a promising slider in the past—particularly in 2012 after joining the Marlins—and it could emerge as a legitimate swing-and-miss offering with refinement.
With 260 major league innings under his belt, Eovaldi is a prime candidate for a breakout campaign in 2014. And considering his improvement as a strike thrower in 2013 and strong track record of generating weak contact, the 24-year-old should start to put up numbers that better reflect his power stuff.