Early Breakout Stars of MLB Spring Training So Far
MLB spring training is the time of year when all sorts of players put up video game-type numbers.
Of course, spring stats can be notoriously unreliable indicators of future success. For that reason, the early breakout stars who made this list aren't just here because of the numbers they've posted in the opening weeks of spring training.
Great numbers don't hurt, but most of these breakout stars earned a spot on the list thanks to praise they've received from their coaches, teammates and sometimes even opponents.
So, with those considerations in mind, here's a look at 10 breakout stars from around the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.
Note: All stats courtesy of MLB.com.
Before we get started with the list, it's worth noting that I also wrote an article about early breakout stars from spring training last week, which can be found here.
I didn't repeat any players who made the cut the first time around, so that means you won't find any of the guys listed below in the slides that follow:
- Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs
- Drake Britton, RP, Boston Red Sox
- Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
- Marco Gonzales, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
- Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
- James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
- Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
- Adam Eaton, CF, Chicago White Sox
- Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
- Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees
Addison Russell, SS, Oakland Athletics
Considering he's played just three games above Single-A, Addison Russell almost certainly won't be landing a spot on the Oakland Athletics' Opening Day roster.
Still, that hasn't stopped the No. 11 overall selection from the 2012 MLB draft from impressing manager Bob Melvin, via Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle: "Mature beyond his years, watches the game the right way, very respectful kid, and at 20 (now), looks physically like 23 or 24. We have real high hopes for him."
The shortstop is more than holding his own in his second big league camp. Through 11 games, Russell is batting .261 with a double, a triple and three RBI. His 23 at-bats are tied for the third most on the team.
According to Ostler, Russell is slated to begin the season in Double-A, and the club's "unofficial timeline" is for the top prospect to make his big league debut by midseason.
For his part, Russell plans on letting his play do the talking, per Ostler: "The way that they're moving me up, I really can't complain. I think they have a lot of faith in me and I just want to go out and perform and prove 'em right, you know?"
So far, so good.
Noah Syndergaard, SP, New York Mets
As Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News reports, New York Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard has "little chance" of claiming a spot in the club's rotation this spring.
However, it shouldn't be long before he is making a significant impact at Citi Field. Last year, while splitting time between Single-A and Double-A, Syndergaard went 9-4 with a 3.06 ERA and a 10.2 K/9 ratio in 23 starts.
In his first two outings of the spring, Syndergaard let in two runs over five innings of work while racking up five punch-outs. After facing off against the Detroit Tigers in his second Grapefruit League start on March 8, Ian Kinsler came away impressed with what he saw in the 21-year-old, via Anthony Rieber of Newsday: "He looked like he belonged."
Meanwhile, manager Terry Collins is high on the 6'6" starter, per Ackert:
He's got all the traits of the good ones. He is bound and determined to be real, real good. Obviously the stuff speaks for itself, his work ethic is outstanding and he's going to be really, really a good pitcher.
Now it's just a matter of time before Syndergaard makes his breakthrough in New York.
Dustin Ackley, LF, Seattle Mariners
As the No. 2 overall pick from the 2009 MLB draft, Dustin Ackley hasn't exactly lived up to expectations.
In his first three big league campaigns, the left-handed hitter posted a combined .669 OPS. However, things started to click for the former top prospect last summer, as he put up a .304/.374/.435 slash line in 53 games after the All-Star break.
The 26-year-old has absolutely battered Cactus League pitching this spring, hitting .478 (11-for-23) with a home run, four doubles and nine RBI in eight games.
That's a small sample size to be sure, but Ackley certainly appears to be trending in the right direction.
Jameson Taillon, SP, Pittsburgh Pirates
Jameson Taillon could prove to be this year's Gerrit Cole for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Like Cole, who stands 6'4", Taillon is tall (6'6"), right-handed and throws absolute gas. However, as Cole pointed out to Adam Berry of MLB.com, he believes Taillon already possess a superior curveball.
So far this spring, Taillon appeared in two games, allowing one earned run on four hits and one walk in 2.2 innings of work. For now, there's no room in the Pirates rotation for the 22-year-old, who could benefit from a little more time at the minor league level.
A season ago, he went 5-10 with a 3.73 ERA while splitting time between the Pirates' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates. With a strong start to the 2014 campaign in Triple-A, Taillon could force his way into the club's big league rotation before the All-Star break just as Cole did in 2013.
Manager Clint Hurdle is looking forward to the day that Taillon joins Cole in Pittsburgh's rotation, per Berry: "They have the skill set, the mound presence, all the things you need to have two stalwarts in your rotation."
Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Baltimore Orioles
Jonathan Schoop is making a strong push this spring to claim the starting job at second base for the Baltimore Orioles.
In his first eight games, the native of Curacao is hitting .533 (8-for-15) with a home run, two doubles and four RBI. After posting a .256/.301/.396 slash line in 70 Triple-A games a season ago, a little more minor league seasoning certainly wouldn't hurt.
However, manager Buck Showalter explained, via Peter Schmuck of The Baltimore Sun, there's a chance Schoop could be the club's starting second baseman on Opening Day: "I can tell you for sure, there's nothing in stone about where he's going to start the year—down or up. In fact, we made sure he knows that."
So far, Schoop is taking full advantage of his opportunity. Even if he doesn't begin the year in Baltimore, he appears to be a safe bet to join the Orioles later this summer.
Drew Smyly, SP, Detroit Tigers
After dominating out of the bullpen a season ago, Drew Smyly now has the chance to makes his mark as member of the Detroit Tigers' loaded starting staff.
Through his first three Grapefruit League outings, the left-hander allowed three runs in eight innings of work while striking out seven. The 24-year-old stayed busy this spring, introducing a changeup to an arsenal that already included a fastball, cutter and curve, per Bill Kemp of The Ledger.
Smyly ditched the chanegup last season while working in relief.
However, now Smyly realizes that he'll have to rely on the pitch in order to "propel" himself "to the next level," according to Tony Paul of The Detroit News. Smyly added, via Paul, that he's already "confident" with the changeup.
It's still early in the spring, but already Smyly appears to be on track to become Detroit's latest standout starter.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Eric Hinske, the first base coach for the Chicago Cubs, dished out some high praise for Javier Baez and fellow top prospect Kris Bryant, via Patrick Mooney of CSN Chicago: "They're those guys. When they get in the box, you stop doing what you're doing and watch them hit. ... They're on their way, that's for sure."
Baez almost certainly will be on his way to Wrigley Field sooner than Bryant. According to Mooney, Baez will begin the season as the starting shortstop for the Cubs' Triple-A affiliate.
This spring, Baez will also get time at second and third, as Mooney notes. That added defensive versatility could expedite Baez's timeline for making his MLB debut. So far in Cactus League play, Baez is batting .333 (6-for-18) with two doubles and a pair of home runs.
Last year, the right-handed hitter clubbed 37 home runs while playing in the minor leagues. A strong start in Triple-A this year should be all it takes for Baez to get the chance to play somewhere in the Cubs infield.
Jon Gray, SP, Colorado Rockies
Jon Gray, the No. 3 overall selection from the 2013 MLB draft, is on the fast track to the big leagues.
Last year, in nine minor league starts, he went 4-0 with a 1.93 ERA and a 12.3 K/9 ratio. The 22-year-old is slated to begin the 2014 season in Double-A but is still in the running to grab a spot in the Colorado Rockies rotation, according to Troy E. Renck of The Denver Post.
In two spring outings, Gray worked four innings, allowing one run on four hits while striking out four. The young starter throws a fastball that can crack 100 mph on the radar gun, but the heater is far from the only pitch Gray relies on.
According to Baseball America, the righty, who landed at the No. 12 spot in the publication's Top 100 list, possess a "devastating" slider.
Andrew Heaney, SP, Miami Marlins
After finishing the 2013 season in Double-A, Andrew Heaney is a "long shot" to break camp as a member of the Miami Marlins' starting rotation, per Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.
Nonetheless, manager Mike Redmond likes what he's seen from the 22-year-old in the early weeks of spring training, as he explained to Frisaro: "Very intriguing. He's got great stuff. He's got a great arm. He's an exciting type of guy."
According to Marty Scott, the club's vice president of player development, it's not just Heaney's "stuff" that stand outs, via Frisaro: "It's the intangibles, his mound presence. It's not arrogance. He doesn't show anybody up. It's just self-confidence, that he can put the ball where he wants to put it."
With plenty of options to fill out the final two spots in the rotation, the club can afford to take its time in developing the talented lefty. However, as Redmond told Frisaro, "He's a big part of our future."
Jurickson Profar, 2B, Texas Rangers
Shoulder tendinitis kept Jurickson Profar from playing the field this spring, but it hasn't limited him at all in the batter's box.
Through 10 Cactus League contests, the 21-year-old is batting .310 with two doubles, one home run and 10 RBI. The second baseman could be ready to play the field at some point in the next week, according to Gerry Fraley of the The Dallas Morning News.
With Ian Kinsler now a member of the Detroit Tigers, the path is clear for Profar, whom MLB.com ranked the No. 1 overall prospect in baseball heading into 2013, to step up and become a star at second base.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.
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