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Each MLB Division's 'Next Big Thing' Entering 2016

Rick WeinerFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 9, 2017

Each MLB Division's 'Next Big Thing' Entering 2016

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Being labeled a top prospect in any sport, especially baseball, doesn't guarantee success and stardom at the game's highest level. Those who develop into Bryce Harper- or Mike Trout-like superstars are the exception, not the rule. 

    That doesn't mean there's not a lot of young star power on the horizon, whether it be a player who's just getting his major league career started or a prospect who has yet to make his big league debut. But only a select few have the total package to become baseball's "next big thing."

    The criteria for inclusion, which we’ve used in previous versions of this list, remains the same, but we've added a fourth prerequisite to make entry a bit more difficult:

    • The player cannot have completed a "full season" in MLB (400 or more at-bats or 150 innings for starting pitchers).
    • Each player must be under the age of 25 as of Opening Day 2016.
    • The player must be expected to play at the MLB level during the 2016 season (whether all year long or as an in-season call-up).
    • The player cannot have appeared in an All-Star Game or won any individual MLB awards.

    Aside from that, the selection process came down to my own projections and expectations for each player, based on past performance (both in the majors and minors) as well as whether there was a clear path to playing time.

    That last part is why you won't find Texas' talented trio of Lewis Brinson, Joey Gallo and Nomar Mazara on the pages that follow, while players like the Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant and Houston's Carlos Correa were eliminated by one (or more) of our four selection criteria.

    But nobody would argue that Bryant and Correa didn't emerge as their respective division's next big thing in 2015. The six players we're about to take a look at are poised to follow in their footsteps this season.

AL East: Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Blake Snell was about as dominant as a pitcher could be in 2015, starting the season off with 49 consecutive scoreless innings and finishing it with a 15-4 record, 1.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts over 134 innings of work across three minor league levels.

    So it's understandable why his first spring training outing—an inning of relief against Washington in which he allowed three hits, walked a batter and surrendered a three-run home run to Scott Sizemore—had some Tampa Bay fans worried.

    But as Rays manager Kevin Cash told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, it was a good thing for the 23-year-old southpaw to endure a rough outing, one that did nothing to change his view of Snell.

    Oh my gosh, yes, He left a changeup up, but you definitely know why everybody is excited about him. Just effortlessly throwing 94-96 miles an hour, and it seems like even his misses were kind of intentional where he wanted to go just off the plate. So that was good to get him out there and let him experience that a little bit.

    While Snell is armed with three plus pitches, including a fastball he can dial up into the high 90s, he's not yet a finished product. To his credit, he's not concerned with the fact that he still has some work to do—or with the numbers he puts up this spring.

    "I'm learning," Snell said, per Topkin. "It's spring training. None of it really counts, none of it matters. It's all about getting better and learning." That maturity will serve him well moving forward.

    Snell figures to start the year at Triple-A and should be ready to make his MLB debut right around midseason—if not earlier.

AL Central: Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins

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    "See that tiny little dot over there? That's the ball I just hit."
    "See that tiny little dot over there? That's the ball I just hit."Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Predictions and projections by fans and pundits have become a part of the spring training fabric, so it was only a matter of time before a player dipped his toes in the waters of prognostication. Take, for example, this exchange between Minnesota's Miguel Sano and Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci:

    “I don’t know,” Sano replied when I asked him what kind of numbers he could put up in a full major league season, “but if I stay healthy I feel like I have a chance to be something like the MVP and win the Triple Crown, and I can be on the All-Star team.”

    “Wait a minute,” I told the man who hit .269 last year. “You could hit for a high enough average to win the Triple Crown?”

    “Yeah, I can hit like .320,” he said.

    Whether Sano can ever make enough consistent contact to become a .300 hitter remains to be seen, but there's little doubt about the 22-year-old's ability to hit for power and produce runs in the middle of Minnesota's lineup.

    Among batters with at least 250 plate appearances last season, Sano finished with baseball's ninth-highest wRC+ (151), sandwiched between Miami's Giancarlo Stanton (152) and Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion (150). Only Stanton (49.7 percent) made hard contact more often than Sano (43.2 percent).

    That hard contact sends the ball screaming around the park and over the outfield walls. While Sano finished fifth among rookies with 18 home runs, he was only eight behind the leaders—Chicago's Kris Bryant and Los Angeles' Joc Pederson, who finished tied with 26—and played in 71 fewer games.

    While he strikes out a ton (119 times last season), as many of the game's best sluggers are prone to do, Sano has all of the tools to become one of the more feared hitters in baseball. A sophomore campaign with 30-plus home runs, 100-plus RBI and an appearance at both the All-Star Game and in the voting for AL MVP isn't hard to imagine.

AL West: A.J. Reed, Houston Astros

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A.J. Reed torched minor league pitching in his first full season as a professional ballplayer in 2015, hitting a combined .340 with 69 extra-base hits (34 home runs), 127 RBI and a 1.044 OPS over 135 games split between High-A and Double-A.

    Production like that had many expecting the 22-year-old to run away with Houston's starting first base job this spring, and while he's put up decent numbers, hitting .316 (6-for-19) with a pair of doubles, he's struck out six times.

    That's not convincing enough for the Astros to start his service-time clock and break camp with him as their starting first baseman, at least not before they give former prospect Jon Singleton one last chance to prove he's not a complete bust.

    Besides, Reed would probably benefit from spending some time at Triple-A, even if it's only a month or so.

    Astros manager A.J. Hinch explained the situation to the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich:

    It's very individual based, the readiness of where the development is. There's always something to learn at every level that will be a first time for somebody, and skipping a level speeds up that learning curve. Some guys can handle it, some guys can't. In an ideal world you do touch a little bit of every level. ... But sometimes the players play so well that it speeds up the process.

    The question isn't if Reed's powerful left-handed bat will arrive in Houston this season; it's when he'll finally make his major league debut. A June promotion seems logical, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if Reed arrived in early to mid-May, especially if Singleton continues to underwhelm.

NL East: Steven Matz, New York Mets

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Durability, and not stuff, is seemingly the only thing that can keep Steven Matz from becoming the next ace on a staff of aces for the New York Mets.

    "He has had Tommy John surgery, knee surgery, back issues, a torn lat muscle and shoulder tendinitis, which may not even be a complete list of his ailments," wrote ESPN.com's Keith Law in his profile of Matz, whom he ranked as the 37th-best prospect in baseball heading into the season.

    That torn lat muscle came only two starts into his major league career and sidelined Matz for nearly two months. Yet he managed to finish the regular season with an impressive 2.27 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 34 strikeouts over 35.2 innings of work, going 4-0 in six starts. He'd also make three postseason starts for the Mets, pitching to a 3.68 ERA and 1.43 WHIP.

    Not too shabby for a pitcher with fewer than 10 major league starts under his belt.

    Between his natural ability, what he's shown in the big leagues thus far and his continued development, former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola, the Mets' Triple-A pitching coach, has lofty expectations for the 24-year-old in 2016.

    “I think Corey Seager is a hell of a ballplayer. But this kid [Matz] has the tools," Viola told Newsday's Marc Carig in February. "The last thing I want to do is put pressure on a kid. But he’s got the tools and the makeup to win that award.”

    "That award" is the National League Rookie of the Year Award, an honor that a member of the Mets has won five times, most recently in 2014, when ace Jacob deGrom beat out Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton and St. Louis' Kolten Wong with relative ease.

    While there will always be concerns about his health, and the Mets are sure to try to limit his workload to an extent, Matz has everything he needs to become one of the game's great young hurlers.

NL Central: Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs

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    Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

    Like Minnesota's Miguel Sano, Chicago's Kyle Schwarber opened eyes in 2015 with his prodigious power.

    Despite not arriving in the big leagues for good until mid-July, Schwarber finished the regular season with 23 extra-base hits—16 of them home runs—in only 69 games. Lest we forget, he clubbed five more round-trippers in nine postseason games, setting a franchise record along the way. 

    It's that ability to go deep in bunches that makes him so dangerous—and a star in the making.

    But to label Schwarber as a slugger, and not a complete hitter, would be a mistake. While he hit only .246 in the big leagues, he hit .333 over parts of two minor league seasons, including a robust .323 in 75 games split between Double-A and Triple-A last year.

    He'll need to improve his contact rate in order to become a .300 hitter in the big leagues, but putting in the work isn't something that scares the 23-year-old.

    "I am not going to be an unknown hitter in the league this year," he told CBS Chicago's Bruce Levine. "I must be ready to make adjustments as they come my way.”

    While he doesn't yet have a clear path to regular playing time—he'll split time with Jorge Soler in left field and get behind the plate every once in a while, assuming the Cubs still believe he can develop into a quality defensive catcher—Schwarber could put up MVP-caliber numbers in his first full season.

NL West: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    While a sprained left knee has put Corey Seager's availability for Opening Day in doubt, there's no question about the impact the 21-year-old will have on the Los Angeles Dodgers when he does make his regular-season debut.

    Seager was even better than advertised upon his September arrival in the big leagues, hitting .337 with 13 extra-base hits (four home runs), 17 RBI and a .986 OPS in only 27 games. He showed an advanced approach at the plate, walking (14 times) nearly as often as he struck out (19 times).

    That small sample size was enough for former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly to compare the shortstop to one of the game's all-time greats.

    “Mattingly would watch Corey play and say, ‘This is the closest I’ve seen to (Derek) Jeter since Jeter was that young,’” Dodgers catcher A. J. Ellis told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. “It was the way he carried himself and the quiet confidence he had in himself and in his position in this game.”

    Ellis pointed to another similarity between Seager and Jeter—their humility. “The one thing I love about him is he does not have any desire for any spotlight, no desire for any attention,” Ellis told Kepner. “All he wants to do is be one of the guys.”

    Except Seager is too talented—especially with a bat in his hands—to blend into the crowd. His elite bat speed, natural strength and picture-perfect swing allow him to drive the ball with authority to all fields, while his feel for hitting and keen batting eye allow him to lay off pitches when necessary.

    The younger brother of Seattle third baseman Kyle Seager, Corey has all of the tools needed to become a perennial MVP candidate in the National League.

    A rookie campaign that finds him hitting .300 with 20-plus home runs, 90-plus RBI and taking home the NL Rookie of the Year Award is a reasonable expectation. Then again, we might be selling Seager short, as he is capable of far more than that.

     

    Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

    Hit me up on Twitter to talk all things baseball: @RickWeinerBR. 

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