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Each MLB Division's 'Next Big Thing' Entering 2014

Jason MartinezContributor IMarch 21, 2014

Each MLB Division's 'Next Big Thing' Entering 2014

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    George Springer will start the 2014 season in Triple-A, but he won't be there long.
    George Springer will start the 2014 season in Triple-A, but he won't be there long.Associated Press

    Just because the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper might not show up for another 10-20 years doesn't mean that Major League Baseball is devoid of young players with superstar potential who are ready to take the stage as the "next big thing."

    But what is it that qualifies a player for this list? It's quite simple, actually, but I still implore you to read though it:

    1. The player cannot have completed a "full season" in MLB (classified by 400 or more at-bats or 150 innings for starting pitchers).
    2. Each player must be under the age of 25 as of Opening Day 2014.
    3. He must be expected to play at the MLB level during the 2014 season (whether all year long or as an in-season call-up).

    Other than that, it comes down to my own projections and expectations for each player—based on minor league performance, early MLB returns and roster depth/needs at the MLB level.

    Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig were among those who took the step into MLB stardom in 2013.

    Here are six players, one from each division, who could do the same in 2014. 

AL Central: Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    For some strange reason, the Cleveland Indians didn’t make much of an effort to replace Ubaldo Jimenez, who signed a free-agent deal with the Baltimore Orioles after posting a 3.30 ERA with a 3.9 BB/9 and 9.6 K/9 in 182.2 innings last season.

    They’ve brought in veterans Aaron Harang and Shaun Marcum on minor league deals and are giving Josh Tomlin, who won 12 games and posted a 4.26 ERA in 2011, a chance to regain his spot now that he’s recovered from Tommy John surgery. Those three, however, are competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

    Who will fill Jimenez’s No. 2 spot behind ace Justin Masterson, though? Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister each had solid seasons but profile more as mid- to back-of-the-rotation starters.

    This lack of any sort of urgency to fill Jimenez’s shoes indicates that the Indians might just be completely sold on Danny Salazar’s brilliant stint to end the 2013 season (3.12 ERA, 52 IP, 44 H, 15 BB, 65 K; 2 ER or fewer in 7 of 10 regular-season starts). If giving him the starting assignment in the Wild Card Game against the Tampa Bay Rays wasn’t enough of a hint, the failure to show much interest in any free-agent starting pitchers should be. 

    After making only 15 starts during the 2010-11 seasons because of Tommy John surgery, the right-hander burst back onto the scene in 2012 and quickly made his way up the ladder by dominating in High-A and Double-A. He was in Double-A and Triple-A last season before getting the call to the majors last July, where he flashed a fastball that averaged 96.2 mph, according to FanGraphs

    While the 24-year-old might not be ready to give the Tribe 200 innings, he should be pretty close after combining for 149 innings last season between the minors and majors.

AL East: Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Xander Bogaerts made his major league debut last August at age 20, giving Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell another option down the stretch to spell Stephen Drew at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base. It was a well-earned opportunity after posting an .865 OPS with 15 homers in 116 games between Triple-A and Double-A.

    While his regular-season starts were few and far between once he reached the big leagues—he started six games at shortstop and six games at third base—he was able to make enough of an impact (four multihit games) to earn a spot on the postseason roster. He mostly sat and watched, however, until Game 5 of the ALCS, when he was penciled into the starting lineup at third base for his first playoff start.

    As things turned out, Farrell didn’t fill out the lineup card again without including Bogaerts. The Sox won six of those eight games, the last of which clinched the MLB pennant, and the 21-year-old—his birthday is Oct. 1—out of Aruba played an important role with seven hits, including two doubles and a triple, and four walks in 25 at-bats in those starts.

    A heavy favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, Bogaerts enters the 2014 season as the starting shortstop for the defending world champions. With the ability to deliver a comparable season to Troy Tulowitzki’s rookie year of 2007 (.838 OPS, 24 HR, 33 2B, 99 RBI, 104 R, 57 BB, 130 K, 7 SB), it might not take him long to achieve superstar status as one of the top young players in the game.

AL West: George Springer, Houston Astros

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    After the season that George Springer had between Double-A (.978 OPS, 19 HR, 23 SB) and Triple-A (1.050 OPS, 18 HR, 22 SB), it’s safe to say that the Houston Astros had absolutely no intention of calling him up regardless of his performance on the field. 

    That is unlikely to be the case in 2014, though, when the ‘Stros can’t possibly keep the 24-year-old down in the minors for much longer. The offseason acquisition of Dexter Fowler could force Springer from center field to a corner outfield spot, but it’s hard to see Robbie Grossman, Marc Krauss or L.J. Hoes doing enough to hold him off for more than a few weeks. He was recently reassigned to minor league camp and will begin the season back in Triple-A.

    While his strikeout totals (161 in 590 plate appearances in 2013) are a bit of a concern and some ups and downs are to be expected during his rookie season, Springer is one of the rare players who can impact the game with his bat, his speed on the basepaths and in the outfield, and his powerful throwing arm.

    Even if he isn’t promoted to the big leagues until sometime in June, which is a possibility because of how it would affect his future earnings and free-agency time line, he could still get 350-400 plate appearances and make a run at the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

NL Central: Michael Wacha, St. Louis Cardinals

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    While Michael Wacha won’t be sneaking up on anyone after his dominant playoff run last season (4-1, 2.64 ERA, 30.2 IP, 16 H, 12 BB, 33K), don’t expect his performance to drop off too much in 2014.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates had faced the 22-year-old Wacha only a month earlier when they got a second shot against him in the NLDS. While they did score a run unlike the previous game when he shut them out for seven innings, Pedro Alvarez’s solo homer was the Bucs’ lone hit against the 6'6" right-hander in the Cardinals’ 2-1 victory. 

    When the Dodgers faced Wacha for the first time ever in Game 2 of the NLCS, he shut them out over 6.2 innings en route to a 1-0 victory over Clayton Kershaw. Six days later, they still couldn’t figure him out as he tossed seven more shutout innings as his team cruised to a 9-0 victory to clinch the NL pennant.

    So despite the Red Sox finally getting to him in Game 6 of the World Series (3.2 IP, 6 ER, 5 H, 4 BB) after he defeated them in Game 2, Wacha probably deserves a pass considering he was approaching 180 innings in his first full professional season—he was the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft.

    As he enters his first full big league season, teams might be more prepared and aware of Wacha’s arsenal. But don’t discount that Wacha may be even more prepared for the majors this time around. And that’s a scary thought for opposing hitters.  

NL East: Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Two of the game’s brightest young stars have already emerged in Miami over the past few years. Giancarlo Stanton, at age 24, already has 117 big league homers. Staff ace Jose Fernandez made last year’s Opening Day roster as a 20-year-old and proceeded to make the All-Star team, win the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finish third in NL Cy Young voting.

    As a result of Fernandez and Stanton stealing what was not much of a spotlight to begin with, outfielder Christian Yelich’s solid debut went relatively unnoticed.

    Debuting early in the second half, the then-21-year-old outfielder had multihit games in 21 of his 61 starts and finished the season on a tear with a .330/.431/.468 slash line over his last 30 games.

    Yelich could hit in the No. 2 spot of the Marlins lineup between veteran Rafael Furcal and in front of Stanton. A 15-homer, 25-stolen base season isn’t out of the question at age 22, and he’s only going to get better. 

    More importantly, his presence, along with Fernandez and a few other promising young Marlins, could be key in Stanton’s decision to negotiate a long-term contract extension.

NL West: Jonathan Gray, Colorado Rockies

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Archie Bradley might be the best prospect in the entire NL West. But the Colorado Rockies have two fellow starting pitchers, Eddie Butler and Jonathan Gray (pictured), who aren’t far behind and appear to have a relatively clear path to the majors.

    It might even be a toss-up to who will arrive first in the majors and who will have the biggest impact between the two Rockies pitching prospects. While both are likely to reach Colorado in 2014 and both have the tools to have great success in the majors, I’m going with Gray.

    Gray was the third overall pick in the 2013 draft and the No. 1-ranked prospect in the Rockies’ organization, and he figures to be the next big thing in the NL West.

    Armed with a high-90s fastball, wicked slider and changeup with plus potential, the 22-year-old won’t be in the minors very long. In his 37.1 innings between Rookie Level Grand Junction and High-A Modesto last season, the right-hander posted a 1.93 ERA with eight walks and 51 strikeouts.

    A quick stop at Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he could prepare for the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, wouldn’t be a bad idea. But a Rockies team that is probably just good enough to hang around in the playoff hunt for a few months will see the opportunity to stick around much longer with Gray in their starting rotation.

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