Scorching MLB Starts That Will Lead to Breakout 2014 Seasons
From Xander Bogaerts to Brandon Belt, there are a ton of MLB players off to scorching starts who are on the verge of breakout seasons in 2014.
What follows is a rundown of 10 of those players. Of course, it's still early—really early. So, nearly all the players who crack this list also have track records of success either in the minor leagues or during the second half of the 2013 season. Others don't bring an impressive resume but have played so ridiculously well that their numbers simply can't be ignored.
Now, let's take a look at 10 MLB players that started hot out of the gate and are ready to become household names this season.
Emilio Bonifacio, UTL, Chicago Cubs
The way Emilio Bonifacio has started the season, the Kansas City Royals might soon be regretting the decision to release the utility man back in February.
Chicago Cubs manager Rick Renteria is certainly happy to have Bonifacio around, as he explained via Tony Andracki of CSN Chicago:
"He's a ball of energy...He's talking in the dugout all the time. He's walking up and down. We come in and he's talking about getting on base and trying to score runs. He's a ball of energy we appreciate having."
The 28-year-old has also been incredibly productive on the field, batting .500/.548/.571 through the first six games of the season. Nobody expects Bonifacio, the owner of a career .266 average, to continue hitting at that clip.
Still, with the ability to play all over the diamond and a league-leading four stolen bases, Bonifacio will prove to be a highly valuable contributor for the Cubs—especially now that his versatility and speed can be fully utilized in the National League.
Tyler Skaggs, SP, Los Angeles Angels
Tyler Skaggs made quite the splash in his first regular-season start as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. On April 5, the 22-year-old left-hander dominated the Houston Astros, as he worked eight innings, allowing one run on four hits and one walk while striking out five.
The key to his success was his sinking two-seam fastball, which he hadn't used during spring training, as he told reporters (via Mike DiGiovanna of the L.A. Times):
"That's what you have to do—you have to keep your secret weapon in your back pocket...I don't think any of the teams knew that. I don't even think the Angels knew I had one, honestly."
Obviously, that weapon won't be much of a secret after the lefty's performance against the Astros. However, as MLB.com's No. 10 prospect in all of baseball heading into the 2013 season, Skaggs clearly has the upside to star for the Angels this year.
Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks
Chris Owings, the new shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks, is off to a strong start with the bat. Through the first nine games of the season, the 22-year-old is batting .367 (11-for-30) and has also swiped three bases.
That showing isn't surprising considering that Owings crushed the Pacific Coast League last year, batting .330/.359/.482 with 31 doubles, eight triples, 12 home runs and 20 steals. The concern with Owings is whether he has the glove to handle the defensive demands of the shortstop position.
As Scott Bordow of AZCentral.com tweets, Owings' glove work has so far not been up to the same level as that of former shortstop Didi Gregorius. However, the infielder has demonstrated a willingness to improve and take all sorts of suggestions, as manager Kirk Gibson noted to Steve Gilbert of MLB.com:
"He's all ears, he's very engaged, he's very open-minded, he's a sponge."
James Paxton, SP, Seattle Mariners
James Paxton pitched so effectively in his first outing of the season on April 2 that Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon didn't even know which adjective to use afterward, as he explained via Greg Johns of MLB.com:
"That was pretty impressive...I don't know what else to say. I can add a lot more adjectives, but he was outstanding. It was quite a performance."
In the 8-2 win over the Los Angeles Angels, the left-hander went seven shutout innings, allowing two hits and two walks while racking up nine strikeouts. The 25-year-old also got a vote of confidence from Albert Pujols, who noted to Johns that Paxton "has a great future ahead of him."
Yangervis Solarte, INF, New York Yankees
Since arriving at the New York Yankees' spring training camp, Yangervis Solarte has done nothing but hit.
During the Grapefruit League campaign, the 26-year-old infielder batted .429 (18-for-42) in 24 games to land a spot on the club's Opening Day roster. Solarte hasn't stopped hitting in the early goings of the 2014 regular season. In his first five games, the Venezuelan is batting .450 (9-for-20) with four doubles and six RBI.
Bleacher Report featured columnist Joe Giglio put the unexpected breakout into perspective with this tweet:
$503 million spent in the offseason and Yangervis Solarte the current Yankees MVP.
Eventually, Solarte's bat will slow down. For now, though, he remains a leading contender to become an out-of-left-field star in 2014.
Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics
Last year, Sonny Gray enjoyed a seamless transition to the big leagues, as he went 5-3 with a 2.67 ERA in 12 games, including 10 starts, for the Oakland Athletics. This year, the 24-year-old has the chance to excel over the course of the entire season.
Through his first two outings, Gray has posted a 0.75 ERA while recording 10 strikeouts in 12 innings of work. After pitching six shutout innings on Opening Day on March 31, Gray allowed three runs (one earned) over six innings on April 6 in his second outing of the year.
While his final line was worse his second time out, manager Bob Melvin was nonetheless impressed with Gray's showing, as he noted to reporters (via Joe Stiglich of CSNBayArea.com):
"He's a battler...It's easy to throw in the towel and say it's not your day. You don't see that (resilience often) at a young age. And that's why we have such faith in him."
A battler, indeed. Gray's ability to pitch effectively, even when he's far from the top of his game, is a highly encouraging sign for the Athletics and the talented right-hander.
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington Nationals
Anthony Rendon's 2014 season got off to a fortuitous start when the infielder smashed a three-run home run in the 10th inning of the Washington Nationals' 9-7 win over the New York Mets on Opening Day back on March 31.
Through his first six games, Rendon is batting .391 with two doubles, one home run and five RBI. Rendon's skills at the plate have caught the eye of shortstop Ian Desmond, who likened the 23-year-old to the club's other standout infielder, per Howard Megdal of Sports on Earth:
"He's hit everywhere he's been...It's just a gift. He's got an unbelievable eye, hands, good swing. The hitch kind of reminds me of [Ryan] Zimmerman when he was younger."
That's high praise for the second-year player. But so far in 2014, Rendon is living up to the hype.
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants
In his first seven games of the 2014 season, Brandon Belt has already clubbed four home runs, and he's batting .323/.323/.710.
The first baseman for the San Francisco Giants really took off last summer, as he hit .326/.390/.525 with 17 doubles and seven home runs in 61 games after the All-Star break. Don Mattingly, manager of the NL West rival Los Angeles Dodgers, has a ton of respect for Belt, telling Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News: "He kind of scares me, honestly."
The way Belt has started off in 2014, Mattingly definitely isn't alone.
Nathan Eovaldi, SP, Miami Marlins
In his first two starts of the 2014 season, Miami Marlins right-hander Nathan Eovaldi has already piled up 14 strikeouts. His 3.46 ERA isn't exactly overwhelming, but it's also somewhat deceiving.
In 13 innings of work, the right-hander has allowed five earned runs, but three of them came on a pinch-hit home run he served up to Alexi Amarista, the last batter he faced in a 4-2 loss to the San Diego Padres on April 6. The single mistake ruined an otherwise "great game," as manager Mike Redmond put it, per Craig Davis of the Sun Sentinel.
Along with staff ace Jose Fernandez, the 24-year-old will provide the club with a formidable top of the rotation in 2014.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
After making his major-league debut last August, Xander Bogaerts was a key cog in the Boston Red Sox lineup as the club captured the World Series title.
In 2014, the 21-year-old shortstop is off to an outstanding start. Through his first seven games, Bogaerts is hitting .360 (9-for-25) with a pair of doubles. Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe tweets that he can't decide what's "better," the infielder's swing or his approach at the plate.
With Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka among the early contenders for the American League Rookie of the Year award, there promises to be a fierce competition for the honor. Despite the crowded field, there's no doubt that Bogaerts will be right in the middle of the conversation.
If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.