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Projecting Each MLB Team's Next Big Thing

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2017

Projecting Each MLB Team's Next Big Thing

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    Alex Bregman is ready to breakout in a big way for the Houston Astros.
    Alex Bregman is ready to breakout in a big way for the Houston Astros.Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Regardless of whether a team is a perennial World Series contender, a fringe playoff club or a cellar-dweller, there is always some reason for excitement about the future.

    With that in mind, we set out to find the next big thing on each MLB roster.

    In some cases, it was a top prospect on the cusp of making a significant impact at the MLB level.

    In others, it was a young player with a few MLB seasons under his belt who has yet to establish himself as an MLB star.

    For the sake of clarity, here were our stipulations for inclusion:

    • Under 27 Years Old: A player's age-27 season is often when they break out, so inclusion was capped at players who will be 27 or younger in 2017. It's fair to say the odds of becoming the next big thing start to drop considerably after that.
    • Zero 2.0-plus-WAR Seasons: Baseball-Reference.com identifies a WAR of 2.0 or better as being MLB-starter caliber. So it stands to reason that anyone who has yet to post a WAR above 2.0 has yet to truly establish himself at the MLB level.

    Another way to look at this might be to ask the question: Who has the best chance of being a first-time All-Star on each MLB roster among players who are still on the upswing of their career? (Sorry, Rich Hill.)

    Hopefully that criteria makes things clear as we seek out each MLB team's next big thing.

Arizona Diamondbacks: SP Robbie Ray

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MLB: 32 GS, 8-15, 4.90 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 71 BB, 218 K, 174.1 IP

                                 

    Outlook

    Look out, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, because the game's next elite lefty starter might reside in your own backyard in the NL West.

    Hooray for hyperbole.

    In all seriousness, Robbie Ray flew under the radar with a quietly terrific performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016, and he may be ready to take another step forward this coming season.

    The 25-year-old didn't have great numbers by old-school measures with an 8-15 record and a 4.90 ERA that checked in 70th among 75 qualified starters.

    However, that ERA came with a 3.76 FIP, and he showed a newfound ability to miss bats, ranking fourth in the NL in strikeouts (218) and second in strikeouts-per-nine-inning (11.3).

    Just how good is that 11.3 K/9 mark?

    It ranks as the 10th-best single-season punchout rate ever by a qualified left-handed starter. Only Randy Johnson (seven times), Chris Sale and Kershaw have been better.

    If all of this is news to you, it's a good indication that Ray hasn't quite arrived yet as the next big thing. He might not fly under the radar for much longer, though.

Atlanta Braves: SS Dansby Swanson

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 105 G, 470 PA, .275/.362/.426, 39 XBH (9 HR), 55 RBI, 68 R

    MLB: 38 G, 145 PA, .302/.361/.442, 11 XBH (3 HR), 17 RBI, 20 R

                                

    Outlook

    The importance of Dansby Swanson to the Atlanta Braves stretches beyond his individual development and on-field production.

    "It's hard to imaginein the short term anywaythe take on the rebuild not being tied to Swanson," wrote Cory McCartney of Fox Sports South.

    As the headliner of the Braves' deep, talented system going into last season and the first touted prospect to arrive on the scene for the rebuilding club, it's inevitable that the fanbase will use his performance as a measuring stick for the process as a whole.

    The 22-year-old is no stranger to lofty expectations, though, as a former No. 1 overall pick.

    We're talking about the same guy who's been compared to Derek Jeter on multiple occasions, most recently by prospect guru Jim Callis of MLB.com.

    With the everyday shortstop job in hand and a solid debut to use as a springboard, he'll enter the 2017 season as the top candidate for NL Rookie of the Year honors, and that could just be the start.

Baltimore Orioles: SP Dylan Bundy

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MLB: 36 G, 14 GS, 10-6, 4.02 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 42 BB, 104 K, 109.2 IP

                                      

    Outlook

    Dylan Bundy took a day off between his MLB debut on Sept. 23, 2012, and his second MLB appearance on Sept. 25.

    It would be another 1,289 days before he took an MLB mound again.

    The No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 draft and the No. 2 prospect in baseball heading into 2013, per Baseball America, Bundy appeared to have all the makings of a future ace.

    Injuries have made his path to the top of the rotation more circuitous than expected, though.

    The 24-year-old entered camp last spring finally healthy but out of minor league options and looking simply to prove he was healthy enough to hold down a roster spot.

    After spending the first half of the season in the bullpen, he joined the rotation after the All-Star break and showed promising flashes.

    All told, he went 8-5 with a 4.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP and 72 strikeouts over 71.2 innings in 14 total starts.

    Now, he'll be asked to expand his workload and help anchor the Baltimore Orioles' rotation alongside Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman for the upcoming season.

Boston Red Sox: LF Andrew Benintendi

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    Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 97 G, 418 PA, .312/.378/.532, 52 XBH (9 HR), 76 RBI, 70 R

    MLB: 34 G, 118 PA, .295/.359/.476, 15 XBH (2 HR), 14 RBI, 16 R

                                

    Outlook

    Just as the David Ortiz era ends in Boston, the Andrew Benintendi era is set to begin.

    Well, technically it began with an impressive 34-game audition last season, but now it's set to kick off in earnest, as he opens 2017 as the starting left fielder and a strong candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors.

    No one is expecting the 22-year-old to replace Ortiz.

    That said, it remains to be seen just how good he can be offensively as his power tool continues to develop in his otherwise terrific toolbox.

    "The one thing we're all wondering about is his power and where he can go with it," one AL scout told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe. "He's a plus defender, a decent arm, a good contact hitter who has power to the gaps, but as he gets stronger and his body fills out, we might see some unexpected power emerge. We certainly saw that with Mookie Betts. This kid could emerge similarly."

    Given his career trajectory since being taken No. 7 overall in the 2015 draft, don't be surprised if that emergence comes soon.

Chicago Cubs: C Willson Contreras

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 55 G, 240 PA, .353/.442/.593, 28 XBH (9 HR), 43 RBI, 40 R

    MLB: 76 G, 283 PA, .282/.357/.488, 27 XBH (12 HR), 35 RBI, 33 R

                            

    Outlook

    The door is wide-open for Willson Contreras to seize the bulk of the catching duties for the Chicago Cubs.

    David Ross retired after a memorable final season, and Miguel Montero struggled to a .684 OPS and a minus-0.3 WAR, watching his role diminish in the process.

    With expanded duties, Contreras has the offensive skills to immediately become one of the game's top offensive backstops.

    "You can probably double his 2016 plate appearances; he might not be quite as good moving forward on a per-AB basis, but he projects as a well-above-average offensive catcher," wrote Tony Blengino of ESPN.com.

    The 24-year-old hit a combined .314 last season with 21 home runs and 55 total extra-base hits in 523 plate appearances, earning the call from Triple-A on June 17 after raking over the first two-plus months.

    He continued to carve out a bigger piece of the job throughout his rookie campaign, culminating with a .256 average and .710 OPS that included two doubles and one home run over 43 plate appearances in the postseason.

    With rare athleticism for a catcher and an unceasing motor, he should continue to endear himself to the fanbase.

Chicago White Sox: SP Carlos Rodon

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MLB: 28 GS, 9-10, 4.04 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 54 BB, 168 K, 165.0 IP

                                       

    Outlook

    It may only be a matter of time before Carlos Rodon is asked to step into the role of staff ace for the Chicago White Sox.

    Chris Sale has already been dealt, and Jose Quintana seemingly has one foot out the door as the rebuilding club continues to shop its most valuable veteran assets.

    Is he ready for that role?

    "We've seen him very, very consistent. And we've seen him not be. Carlos Rodon has got a chance to be a beast. There are things we continue to have to stay on top of for the progress to happen for him to turn into that player," pitching coach Don Cooper told Scott Merkin of MLB.com.

    While there may still be work to do in terms of his overall command, the left-hander made significant strides in that area in his second full season.

    After ranking fourth in the AL with 71 walks and pitching to a 4.6 BB/9 rate as a rookie, he trimmed his walk total to 54 in 165 innings for a more manageable 2.9 BB/9 rate in 2016.

    With Rodon's strong 6'3", 235-pound frame and a solid three-pitch repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, devastating slider and improving changeup, there's plenty of reason to believe he can be a major piece of the long-term puzzle for the rebuilding South Siders.

Cincinnati Reds: IF/OF Jose Peraza

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 71 G, 322 PA, .281/.333/.375, 20 XBH (2 HR), 21 RBI, 40 R

    MLB: 72 G, 256 PA, .324/.352/.411, 13 XBH (3 HR), 25 RBI, 25 R

                                     

    Outlook

    There was a time not long ago when Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo used their speed and base-stealing ability to wreak havoc atop the Florida Marlins lineup.

    Billy Hamilton and Jose Peraza could form a similar dynamic duo.

    Excited yet, Cincinnati Reds fans?

    Hamilton has already established himself as one of the league's premier base stealers, and improving his on-base percentage from .274 to .321 represented a significant step forward.

    Now, it's Peraza's turn.

    The 22-year-old forced his way into the starting lineup in a super-utility role last season as he split his time between second base, shortstop and the outfield.

    With Brandon Phillips and Zack Cozart still entrenched up the middle, it's unclear where Peraza fits into the team's 2017 plans.

    However, general manager Dick Williams and manager Bryan Price have both committed to giving him regular playing time, according to C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

    It's only a matter of time before he settles in as the everyday shortstop.

Cleveland Indians: CF Bradley Zimmer

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    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 130 G, 557 PA, .250/.365/.425, 46 XBH (15 HR), 62 RBI, 76 R

                                 

    Outlook

    The Cleveland Indians are hoping they won't need to call up top prospect Bradley Zimmer in 2017.

    With Michael Brantley set to return as the everyday left fielder, Tyler Naquin coming off a productive rookie season in center field and a platoon of Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer ticketed for right field, the outfield appears set.

    They'd no doubt welcome it if the former first-round pick played his way into a role, though.

    The 24-year-old struggled with the jump from Double-A to Triple-A last season, posting a .654 OPS with a 37.3 percent strikeout rate over 150 plate appearance at the highest level of the minors.

    However, he still draws rave reviews for his all-around offensive abilities.

    "Zimmer has the hitting ability and on-base skills needed to become a dynamic top-of-the-order hitter, but it's his 20-20 potential that could make him one of the more valuable up-the-middle players in the game once he's fully developed," wrote MLB.com's Prospect Watch while ranking Zimmer as the No. 22 prospect in the sport.

    He's made the necessary adjustments every step of the way. His next adjustment should land him in Cleveland.

Colorado Rockies: LF David Dahl

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 92 G, 400 PA, .314/.394/.569, 49 XBH (18 HR), 61 RBI, 70 R

    MLB: 63 G, 237 PA, .315/.359/.500, 23 XBH (7 HR), 24 RBI, 42 R

                                       

    Outlook

    This one was a tough call between outfielder David Dahl and right-hander Jeff Hoffman.

    Dahl's impressive debut and his clear path to the starting left field job won out.

    He's far from a slam dunk to repeat what we saw in 2016, though.

    .404 BABIP propped up the 22-year-old last season. That number was second only to Tyler Naquin (.411) among players with at least 100 plate appearances.

    With no trade of Charlie Blackmon or Carlos Gonzalez on the horizon and a move to first base for CarGo now blocked by Ian Desmond, Dahl will also have to hold off prospect Raimel Tapia, who has little left to prove in the minors.

    Then again, there's a reason Dahl was such a highly regarded prospect.

    With his .310/.357/.513 line over five minor league seasons and tools to be a perennial 20/20 threat, it's easy to envision him as the next homegrown star in the Colorado lineup.

Detroit Tigers: SP Daniel Norris

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 17 GS, 6-7, 4.50 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 32 BB, 91 K, 86.0 IP

    MLB: 14 G, 13 GS, 4-2, 3.38 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 22 BB, 71 K, 69.1 IP

                                 

    Outlook

    Daniel Norris may finally be ready to turn in the MLB breakout that many have been predicting since his days in Toronto.

    Two years ago, he looked ticketed for a spot in the Toronto rotation but instead spent much of the offseason recovering from surgery on his throwing elbow to remove bone chips.

    After the 2015 season, he underwent surgery for thyroid cancer.

    So it's understandable that he's welcomed a relatively uneventful winter with open arms.

    "Night and day, just being able to go in with a clear mind and not worry about being healthy or rehabbing or anything. The last two offseasons, I've had to rehab. It's just not fun. This offseason, I was able to not take any time off," Norris told Tony Paul of the Detroit News.

    The 23-year-old quickly became a key piece of the rotation in Detroit upon returning to action last season, eventually going 2-0 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.11 WHIP in five September starts, while the Tigers were chasing a wild-card berth.

    Michael Fulmer became the latest big thing for the Tigers on his way to AL Rookie of the Year honors last season.

    Norris is no longer a rookie, but he could enjoy a similar coming-out party in 2017.

Houston Astros: 3B Alex Bregman

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    Brad Mangin/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 80 G, 368 PA, .306/.406/.580, 44 XBH (20 HR), 61 RBI, 71 R

    MLB: 49 G, 217 PA, .264/.313/.478, 24 XBH (8 HR), 34 RBI, 31 R

                                      

    Outlook

    Dansby Swanson versus Alex Bregman will be a fun debate to follow in the years to come.

    Those two will forever be linked after going 1-1 and 1-2 in the 2015 draft, and both wasted little time ascending the minor league ranks.

    After crushing Double-A and Triple-A pitching and shining during the annual Futures Game, Bregman made his MLB debut on July 25.

    The 22-year-old began his MLB career with a dismal 2-for-38 showing at the plate that included 10 strikeouts and zero extra-base hits.

    However, that rough start was immediately followed by an eight-game hitting streak, and he went on to hit .313/.354/.577 with 13 doubles, eight home runs and 34 RBI in 175 plate appearances over his final 39 games.

    Now, he's set to represent the United States in the World Baseball Classic this spring ahead of what could be a huge 2017 season.

    For a Houston Astros team with lofty expectations, he has a chance to be a real X-factor.

Kansas City Royals: SP/RP Matt Strahm

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 22 G, 18 GS, 3-8, 3.43 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 23 BB, 107 K, 102.1 IP

    MLB: 21 G, 2-2, 6 HLD, 1.23 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 11 BB, 30 K, 22.0 IP

                           

    Outlook

    Chris Sale. Carlos Martinez. Matt Strahm?

    It might not be as crazy as it sounds.

    The path to the top of an MLB rotation for both Sale and Martinez began with stellar work out of the bullpen, as both pitchers served primarily in a relief role during their first two MLB seasons.

    The need for a quality left-handed option in the bullpen led the Kansas City Royals to promote Strahm in a similar role last season, and he didn't disappoint.

    The plan was always for him to return to starting, though.

    "You need to develop starters," GM Dayton Moore told Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star in August while speaking of the team's plans to give Strahm a chance to compete for a rotation spot in the spring.

    Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and recently signed Jason Hammel are locks for the rotation, and a healthy Jason Vargas will likely secure a job, leaving Strahm to compete with the likes of Nathan Karns, Alec Mills and Miguel Almonte for the No. 5 starter job.

    The 25-year-old could be pitching alongside Duffy at the top of the rotation before the season is over.

Los Angeles Angels: SP Tyler Skaggs

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 9 GS, 3-2, 1.60 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 8 BB, 53 K, 39.1 IP

    MLB: 10 GS, 3-4, 4.17 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 23 BB, 50 K, 49.2 IP

                                     

    Outlook

    In 2016, Tyler Skaggs turned in about as impressive a return from Tommy John surgery as you'll see.

    After missing the entire 2015 season and nearly four months of the 2016 campaign, he took the mound on July 26 to face the Kansas City Royals.

    On the heels of a dominant nine-start rehab stint in the minors, Skaggs allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out five over seven scoreless innings to earn the victory.

    "I had a few setbacks, a lot of trials and tribulations, but I think it's made me stronger mentally," Skaggs told Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com after that impressive return.

    Skaggs is armed with a fastball that sits in the 92-93 mph range and a decent changeup, but it's his biting curveball that gives him a chance to be a special pitcher.

    That pitch held opposing hitters to a .170 average and .094 ISO last season, per Brooks Baseball, while accounting for 23 of his 50 strikeouts.

    If Skaggs can work his way into the No. 2 starter role behind Garrett Richards, the Los Angeles Angels could make what is expected to be a tight AL West race even tighter.

Los Angeles Dodgers: SP Julio Urias

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 11 G, 7 GS, 5-1, 1.40 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 8 BB, 49 K, 45.0 IP

    MLB: 18 G, 15 GS, 5-2, 3.39 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, 31 BB, 84 K, 77.0 IP

                           

    Outlook

    Julio Urias has been the next big thing for a while now.

    However, the Los Angeles Dodgers have been justifiably careful with their young phenom.

    Will 2017 be the season when the kid gloves come off?

    Despite reports that the team might consider leaving Urias at extended spring training when the campaign starts in an effort to save innings for later in the year, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, all signs point to his being a key piece of the rotation for most of 2017.

    Urias won't turn 21 until Aug. 12, and he was the youngest player to suit up in the majors last season by more than a year.

    Yet he's already flashed the stuff that has more than a few people predicting he'll join Clayton Kershaw atop the rotation in short order.

    He commands his four-pitch arsenal well, has smooth mechanics and already knows how to miss bats as evidenced by his 84 strikeouts in 77 innings.

    The last remaining hurdle appears to be building up his arm and proving he can hold up over 30-plus starts.

Miami Marlins: SP Adam Conley

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MLB: 25 GS, 8-6, 3.85 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 62 BB, 124 K, 133.1 IP

                                   

    Outlook

    If anyone is going to emerge as the ace of the Miami Marlins, it's going to be Adam Conley.

    Otherwise, the Miami Marlins appear to have a staff of No. 4 starters.

    Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Tom Koehler and Dan Straily should all eat up innings at a roughly league-average rate, but they offer little in the way of upside.

    Conley, on the other hand, showed flashes of greatness last season before tiring down the stretch and missing time in September with a hand injury.

    He was 7-5 with a 3.38 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 117.1 innings over 21 starts at the end of July.

    However, he was just 1-1 with a 7.31 ERA and more walks (15) than strikeouts (12) in four starts over the final two months.

    "He's going to try to put strength on, try to put some weight on—all the things you do over the winter to try to improve and get stronger," manager Don Mattingly told Tim Healey of the Sun Sentinel at the start of the offseason. "Physically, you'd kind of like him to continue to build on his frame and be more durable and stronger. Hopefully, that helps him stay strong throughout the course of the season."

    The 26-year-old will be the key to a rotation that appears to be the Marlins' biggest question mark.

Milwaukee Brewers: CF Lewis Brinson

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    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 104 G, 434 PA, .268/.305/.468, 45 XBH (15 HR), 61 RBI, 63 R

                                    

    Outlook

    Lewis Brinson was a key piece of the 2016 deadline deal that sent catcher Jonathan Lucroy to the Texas Rangers.

    Now he's hoping to become a key piece of the Milwaukee Brewers' expansive rebuilding efforts.

    His first few months with the organization were a good start.

    Despite a disappointing .237/.280/.431 line in Double-A at the time of the trade, the Brewers bumped him up to Triple-A when he arrived in the organization.

    He responded with a .382/.387/.618 line with 13 extra-base hits in 93 plate appearances to close out the season, which helped earn him the No. 18 spot on MLB.com's Top 100 prospect list.

    With good wheels and plus raw power, Brinson has 30/30 upside and the glove to do it at a premium position in center field.

    First, he'll need to overtake Keon Broxton.

    Broxton returned from a minor league demotion last season to hit .294/.399/.538 with 18 extra-base hits and 16 stolen bases over his final 46 games.

Minnesota Twins: CF Byron Buxton

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 49 G, 209 PA, .305/.359/.568, 25 XBH (11 HR), 24 RBI, 41 R

    MLB: 92 G, 331 PA, .225/.284/.430, 35 XBH (10 HR), 38 RBI, 44 R

                                         

    Outlook

    Stop me if you've heard this one before.

    Byron Buxton might be ready to break out in 2017.

    The No. 1 prospect in the land heading into 2014 and the No. 2 overall prospect going into 2015 and 2016, according to Baseball America, Buxton battled injuries and looked overmatched at the MLB level to this point in his career.

    That is until last September.

    The 23-year-old returned from the minors a changed man when rosters expanded, hitting .287/.357/.653 with six doubles, nine home runs and 22 RBI over the final month of the season.

    "I think he's had to deal with a lot in terms of the up and down and expectations," Twins manager Paul Molitor told reporters in September. "And he's just kind of learning to trust his ability a bit more."

    Already a standout defender in the outfield (3 DRS, 6.4 UZR/150) and a major threat on the bases with his 80-grade speed, Buxton still has legitimate superstar potential if things click with the bat.

    For a Minnesota Twins team coming off a 103-loss season, he'll be given every chance to live up to the hype.

New York Mets: SS Amed Rosario

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    Mark Cunningham/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 120 G, 527 PA, .324/.374/.459, 42 XBH (5 HR), 71 RBI, 65 R

                     

    Outlook

    The minor league ranks are loaded with high-ceiling shortstop talent right now, and Amed Rosario has vaulted into the upper tier after a stellar 2016 season.

    Rosario has always been a standout defender at shortstop with zero question he'd stick there long term.

    His bat has lagged behind a bit, though, due in part to the organization's aggressive developmental track for the Dominican native.

    Then everything fell into place in 2016.

    The 21-year-old raised his OPS from .631 to .833, as he tallied 42 extra-base hits while hitting .324 between High-A and Double-A.

    According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the Mets were "open to nearly anything" this offseasonexcept for trading Rosario.

    That may seem like a "duh" statement, but it speaks to a team's belief in a player when he's specifically highlighted as untouchable.

    Asdrubal Cabrera is currently entrenched as the starting shortstop at the MLB level. Don't be surprised if Rosario forces the team's hand before 2017 is over, though.

New York Yankees: 1B Greg Bird

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    Did not play, shoulder surgery

                                

    Outlook

    The New York Yankees are all-in on Greg Bird at first base.

    Technically, they could go with a platoon of Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder if necessary, but at a premium offensive position, Bird is the player capable of being a difference-maker.

    First, the 24-year-old will need to prove he's healthy after missing the 2016 season recovering from shoulder surgery.

    According to Bird in a video on the team's Facebook page (via the New York Daily News), things are going well:

    I think there will be work that has to be put in to get used to the swing again and get used to everything ... but I have no doubt in my mind that I can go out and perform this year like I want to perform. The doctor told me when he did the surgery, 'you're going to be amazed at how good this thing is going to feel when it's all said and done,' and technically it's not all said and done yet and it's already catching me off guard at times with how unbelievable it is in a lot of ways, so I'm excited.

    It's easy to forget that Bird was essentially the 2015 version of Gary Sanchez, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

    Called up to replace an injured Mark Teixeira, he posted an .871 OPS with nine doubles and 11 home runs in 178 plate appearances to get fans plenty excited about his future potential.

Oakland Athletics: SP Jharel Cotton

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 22 G, 16 GS, 8-5, 4.90 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 32 BB, 119 K, 97.1 IP

    MLB: 5 GS, 2-0, 2.15 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 4 BB, 23 K, 29.1 IP

                      

    Outlook

    By all accounts, Jharel Cotton was the "third guy" in a deadline deal that also sent highly regarded pitching prospects Grant Holmes and Frankie Montas to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick.

    That quickly changed when he became the "first guy" to reach the majors.

    Here's how the 25-year-old fared over his first five MLB starts:

    • W, 6.1 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 3 K
    • ND, 5.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
    • ND, 6.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 6 K
    • W, 7.0 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 5 K
    • ND, 4.1 IP, 6 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 7 K

    That earned him the No. 4 spot among Oakland prospects, per Baseball America, one slot ahead of Montas and two ahead of Holmes.

    With an undersized 5'11" frame and some effort to his delivery, scouts have long projected a potential move to the bullpen for Cotton.

    However, his impressive showing last September has earned him a shot at a rotation spot this spring.

Philadelphia Phillies: SP Aaron Nola

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    Justin Berl/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MLB: 20 GS, 6-9, 4.78 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 29 BB, 121 K, 111.0 IP

                                            

    Outlook

    For 12 starts last season, Aaron Nola was really, really good.

    • 10 QS, 5-4, 2.65 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 15 BB, 85 K, 78.0 IP, .212 BAA

    Then over his final eight starts, he was really, really bad.

    • 1 QS, 1-5, 9.82 ERA, 2.06 WHIP, 14 BB, 36 K, 33.0 IP, .367 BAA

    So what happened?

    Nola missed time down the stretch with an elbow strain, and the health of that elbow could be a major question mark going forward.

    The 23-year-old throws a ton of curveballs (33.8 percent), and as Mike Sielski of the Philadelphia Inquirer highlighted, there are some red flags in his mechanics that could make elbow problems a recurring issue.

    Then again, it stands to reason that if Sielski has noticed those mechanical issues, the Phillies have no doubt spotted them as well.

    There's still plenty of time for Nola to tweak his mechanics and refine his approach to mixing pitches as he settles in at the MLB level and tries to deliver on his front-line potential.

Pittsburgh Pirates: 1B Josh Bell

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 114 G, 484 PA, .295/.382/.468, 41 XBH (14 HR), 60 RBI, 57 R

    MLB: 45 G, 152 PA, .273/.368/.406, 11 XBH (3 HR), 19 RBI, 18 R

                                                     

    Outlook

    Josh Bell is proof that the high school standout with "signability concerns" going into the MLB draft is not always guaranteed to honor his college commitment.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates threw a $5 million bonus at Bell as a second-round pick in the days before bonus-pool restrictions and successfully signed him away from what was thought to be a rock-solid commitment to the University of Texas.

    Five-plus years later, that looks like money well spent.

    While the 24-year-old is still working to tap into his plus raw power at the plate, his hit tool has continued to progress. He should be a perennial .280-plus hitter with the potential to make a run at .300.

    "Bell is ready to be an everyday big leaguer, one who will continue to learn to drive the ball and be the run producer the Pirates initially envisioned, regardless of his long-term defensive home," MLB.com's Prospect Watch wrote.

    He'll be given every chance to overtake the incumbent platoon of John Jaso and David Freese at first base this spring, and he looks like perhaps the biggest competition to Dansby Swanson and Alex Reyes for NL Rookie of the Year honors.

San Diego Padres: CF Manuel Margot

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    Andy Hayt/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 124 G, 566 PA, .304/.351/.426, 39 XBH (6 HR), 55 RBI, 98 R

    MLB: 10 G, 37 PA, .243/.243/.405, 5 XBH (0 HR), 3 RBI, 4 R

                             

    Outlook

    Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe are both expected to break camp with a starting spot in the San Diego Padres outfield as rookies.

    That duo checked in at No. 23 and No. 42 in MLB.com's top 100 prospect list, respectively.

    Renfroe had the more flashy stat line last season with an .893 OPS, 34 doubles, 30 home runs and 105 RBI in Triple-A and then another three doubles and four home runs in an 11-game cup of coffee in the majors.

    However, it's Margot who might be better equipped to make an immediate impact.

    "Margot's quick bat and outstanding hand-eye coordination help him to generate hard contact to all fields from the right side of the plate, and his improving feel for managing the strike zone suggests he'll reach his ceiling of a plus hitter," MLB.com wrote.

    Given the current state of the Padres lineup, there's a good chance he'll be hitting first or second right out of the gates. His mix of contact skills and base-stealing ability should translate smoothly to the majors.

    He's also viewed as an elite defensive outfielder with terrific range and a strong throwing arm, and that should gain him some immediate attention as he patrols cavernous Petco Park.

    Both players have All-Star potential, but Margot will get there first.

San Francisco Giants: SP Tyler Beede

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 24 GS, 8-7, 2.81 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 53 BB, 135 K, 147.1 IP

                                

    Outlook

    Ty Blach was almost the pick here.

    Never a top prospect during his time in the minors, Blach pitched to a 1.06 ERA in 17 innings spanning two starts and two relief appearances in the heat of a pennant race last September.

    That included eight scoreless innings of three-hit ball against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in a must-win game on the second-to-last day of the regular season.

    That's an awfully small sample size, though, and not enough to convince he's anything more than the next Chris Heston just yet.

    Instead, we'll stick with top pitching prospect Tyler Beede.

    The former Vanderbilt standout has made strides with his command since beginning his pro career, and he looks to have all the makings of a future No. 3 starter with some upside for more after an impressive season in Double-A.

    Given the ongoing health concerns of Matt Cain, it's fair to assume the Giants will need to dip into the minor league ranks at some point.

    Blach might be the first choice for a spot start or two, but it's Beede who figures to be a long-term fixture in the rotation once he's deemed ready.

Seattle Mariners: RP Edwin Diaz

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 16 G, 6 GS, 3-3, 2.21 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 7 BB, 54 K, 40.2 IP

    MLB: 49 G, 0-4, 18/21 SV, 13 HLD, 2.79 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 15 BB, 88 K, 51.2 IP

                         

    Outlook

    While you can certainly justify the huge contract of Aroldis Chapman as a proven commodity in the late innings, the next great closer can come from anywhere.

    Wade Davis was a failed starter and a throw-in piece of the James Shields-Wil Myers trade.

    Kenley Jansen began his pro career as a catcher.

    Seung Hwan Oh signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal last winter to compete for a middle relief spot.

    And Edwin Diaz began the 2016 season as a starter in Double-A.

    The Seattle Mariners promoted Diaz straight from Double-A in June and plugged him into a setup role, where he recorded 13 holds with a 1.80 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 17.6 K/9 before taking over closer duties at the start of August.

    He rattled off 11 straight saves before finally blowing one and, all told, finished with 18 saves in 21 chances, turning the ninth inning into a strength for a Mariners team in the hunt for a playoff spot.

    Now, he's poised to emerge as one of the game's premier late-inning options in his first full season in the majors.

St. Louis Cardinals: SP Luke Weaver

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 13 GS, 7-3, 1.30 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 12 BB, 92 K, 83.0 IP

    MLB: 9 G, 8 GS, 1-4. 5.70 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 12 BB, 45 K, 36.1 IP

                           

    Outlook

    This was a tough one.

    With a 2.2 WAR over his 46 innings of work last season, Alex Reyes wasn't eligible to be the selection here based on our previously laid out criteria.

    Outfield prospect Harrison Bader received some consideration, but he struggled with a promotion to Triple-A and is now thoroughly blocked in the outfield following the signing of Dexter Fowler, and many of the team's other high-end prospects are still a few years away.

    That left Luke Weaver as the logical choice.

    He too is lacking a clear path to an MLB job and seems to be the No. 7 starter right now behind Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha and Reyes.

    He has little left to prove in the minors, though, and these things have a way of working themselves out whether it's an injury, underperforming veteran or something else altogether that opens up a spot.

    The potential is there for Weaver to emerge as a fixture on the staff.

    "Weaver got away from what works for him a bit when he got to St. Louis last year, trying to be too fine rather than trusting his stuff. Once he does that, he should reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation type starter in the very near future," MLB.com's Prospect Watch wrote.

Tampa Bay Rays: SP Blake Snell

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 12 GS, 3-5, 3.29 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 28 BB, 90 K, 63.0 IP

    MLB: 19 GS, 6-8, 3.54 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 51 BB, 98 K, 89.0 IP

                               

    Outlook

    It's not often you see a 3.54 ERA accompanied by a 1.62 WHIP.

    Blake Snell pitched his way into trouble with a 5.2 BB/9 walk rate and pitched his way out thanks to his swing-and-miss stuff.

    All things considered, it was a solid debut for the former Minor League Player of the Year, and he seems to have a clear understanding of what he needs to work on going forward.

    "I’m learning more and more each start," Snell told Kyle Glaser of Baseball America. "The biggest difference is hitters are a lot smarter. They know what you’re trying to do. They won’t chase your pitch. What I’m throwing, when I’m throwing it, you have to know the reason behind it. The mental side is something I need to focus on more. Still have the same stuff. I’m just getting a lot smarter pitching."

    That stuff helped him go 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 163 strikeouts in 134 innings over three minor league levels in 2015.

    Now, he'll be asked to help lead a rotation that has seen Matt Moore and Drew Smyly both depart via trade since last July.

Texas Rangers: LF Nomar Mazara

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 3 G, .500/.538/.750, 1 XBH (1 HR), 4 RBI, 4 R

    MLB: 145 G, 568 PA, .266/.320/.419, 36 XBH (20 HR), 64 RBI, 59 R

                             

    Outlook

    An early injury to Shin-Soo Choo forced the Texas Rangers' hand with top prospect Nomar Mazara.

    He hit .375 with one double and one home run last spring but was still optioned to Triple-A to start the year.

    He made it all of three games before Choo went down with a calf injury, and he was on his way to the majors, where he went 3-for-4 with a home run in his debut against the Los Angeles Angels.

    While he slumped a bit in September (.213 BA, 0-for-21 finish) as the grind of a long season started to take its toll, his overall numbers were still good enough to net a fifth-place finish in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

    Now with Mitch Moreland, Ian Desmond and Carlos Beltran departing in free agency and Prince Fielder forced into retirement, he'll be asked to take on a bigger role in the offense.

    As he continues to add strength to his big 6'4" frame, he should develop into a perennial 30-homer threat, especially playing half his games in Arlington.

    Expect bigger and better things in his second season.

Toronto Blue Jays: SP Sean Reid-Foley

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    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 21 GS, 10-5, 2.81 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 38 BB, 130 K, 115.1 IP

                                

    Outlook

    This might have been the toughest choice of all.

    Devon Travis was my first thought, but he's posted a 2.4 and 2.9 WAR in his first two seasons, so he wasn't eligible for inclusion.

    Dalton Pompey could finally break through and steal part of the left field platoon, or Rowdy Tellez could be pushed the majors if the team is in need of some added pop and Justin Smoak isn't producing.

    Instead, we'll go with right-hander Sean Reid-Foley as the next big thing for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    He has always had plus stuff with a fastball that sits in the mid-90s, a slider-curveball combination that flashes plus and a passable changeup.

    It's his command that was the issue.

    However, after lowering his walk rate from 6.3 to 3.0, he now looks like an elite-level pitching prospect.

    The 21-year-old was 6-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 10 starts at the High-A level following a midseason promotion.

    With a strong start to the 2017 season in Double-A, he could position himself for a second-half call-up and a run at a rotation spot in 2018.

Washington Nationals: SP Erick Fedde

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    2016 Stats

    MiLB: 23 G, 22 GS, 8-5, 3.12 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 29 BB, 123 K, 121.0 IP

                          

    Outlook

    Austin Voth might be the next prospect to reach the majors for the Washington Nationals, but Erick Fedde will be the next big thing.

    Fedde takes over as the top pitching prospect in the system after Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning were shipped to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for Adam Eaton.

    After undergoing Tommy John surgery in May of his junior season, Fedde slipped to No. 18 overall in the 2014 draft, where the Nationals were happy to roll the dice on another injury returnee after taking a similar chance on Giolito.

    He returned strong midway through the 2015 season and showed no ill effects this past season, as he ramped up his workload to 121 innings while splitting the year between High-A and Double-A.

    Fedde has a dynamic fastball-slider combination, and his changeup has developed to the point of being a viable third pitch, which gives him a good chance of reaching his ceiling as a No. 2 starter.

    After watching Giolito and Lopez both make a handful of starts with the big club last season, it wouldn't be surprising to see Fedde do the same in 2017.

                                                        

    All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, unless otherwise noted.

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