Predicting the Early Sensations of MLB's 2018 Spring Training Action

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2018

Predicting the Early Sensations of MLB's 2018 Spring Training Action

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    For established players, spring training is about stretching hamstrings, honing swings and rediscovering release points. Results don't matter.

    For younger players looking to make an impression, it's a different story. They're trying to win jobs, or at least leave lasting impressions.

    As the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues rumble to life, here's a look at eight up-and-comers who have the skill, opportunity and motivation to emerge as early spring sensations. 

Steven Duggar, San Francisco Giants

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The San Francisco Giants revamped their outfield this winter by acquiring Andrew McCutchen from the Pittsburgh Pirates and signing Austin Jackson.

    McCutchen should slot into right field with Hunter Pence sliding to left. That leaves Jackson as the presumptive center fielder, but San Francisco could augment the position with rising prospect Steven Duggar.

    The 24-year-old rose from the rookie leagues to Triple-A in 2017 with a .262/.365/.445 slash line and exemplary defense. 

    A lefty swinger, Duggar could platoon with the right-handed Jackson until he proves he's ready to flourish full-time against MLB pitching. No matter what, spring will be a ripe opportunity for the 2015 sixth-round pick to break through.

Alex Verdugo, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Speaking of young National League West outfielders with an opportunity to shine, Alex Verdugo could muscle his way into the mix for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    The defending NL champs have a crowded outfield competition, with Yasiel Puig, Chris Taylor, Joc Pederson, Andrew Toles, Matt Kemp and others jostling for playing time.

    The 21-year-old Verdugo hit .314 with 37 extra-base hits at Triple-A last season and sipped a cup of coffee with the Dodgers. He's among the franchise's most highly rated prospects. Surely L.A. is hoping he'll follow in the footsteps of shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger to form a potent, homegrown offensive core.

    Verdugo will need to rake this spring to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, which means his motivation will be set to 11

Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Eloy Jimenez went from the North Side to the South Side of Chicago in 2017 when the Cubs sent him to the White Sox in the Jose Quintana trade.

    The slugging outfielder ascended as high as Double-A and posted a .956 OPS there. He then raked in the Dominican Winter League, where he posted a 1.120 OPS and .368 average in 19 games.

    Jimenez is likely on track for more MiLB seasoning. He could accelerate his development, however, as White Sox general manager Rick Hahn explained, per Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times

    "If, at age 21, he spends the entire year in [Class AA] and performs close to the level that he performed at for the three weeks he was there [in 2017], that's a really, really good developmental year," Hahn said. "Now, the good ones have a way of sort of changing your timeline on that, and it's not going to shock me if, at some point over the course of the summer, that Eloy forces our hand a little bit."

Victor Robles, Washington Nationals

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    The Washington Nationals are bracing for life without Bryce Harper. The right fielder and franchise icon is entering his final season before free agency, and is sure to reel in a ludicrous payday next winter.

    Enter Victor Robles, the Nats' top prospect and a leading candidate to fill the Harper-sized void.

    The 20-year-old possesses eye-popping speed and excellent contact abilities, and has drawn comparisons to McCutchen in his prime.

    "I think they have a future star on their hands," MLB Network analyst and former Colorado Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said, per Bryon Kerr of MASNsports.com. "I was fortunate enough to broadcast the Arizona Fall League championship game this year and he was in it. He was the starting center fielder. The player comparison I put on him was body-type, movement of an Andrew McCutchen, a young Andrew McCutchen obviously."

    Robles saw limited action with the Nationals in the regular season and playoffs in 2017. A stellar spring could motivate them to stick him on the 25-man roster, even if he'd be better served getting regular reps at Triple-A.

Ronald Acuna, Atlanta Braves

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    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    The Atlanta Braves aren't wanting for young talent. With a stacked farm system and emerging studs knocking on the door of MLB stardom, they're well-situated for the future.

    There may be no more exciting prospect in Braves camp than Ronald Acuna, who slashed .325/.374/.522 between High-A and Triple-A last season while cracking 21 home runs and swiping 44 bases.

    Now, the 20-year-old outfielder can solidify his status as one of the game's burgeoning forces with a scalding spring.

    "He's a better athlete than everybody else," Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson said, per David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You'll just have to wait and see. I mean, it's pretty special."

Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The New York Yankees have holes to fill in their infield after trading second baseman Starlin Castro and third baseman Chase Headley this winter.

    One of those should be plugged by top prospect Gleyber Torres, who is coming back from Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow but also posted an .863 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A and has little left to prove in the minor leagues.

    The 21-year-old Torres sounded a humble note, per Dan Martin of the New York Post.

    "Maybe there's an opportunity for me," Torres said. "Right now, I want to play. I feel like a kid with a new toy. I don't think about whether I'll make [the roster] Opening Day or go to [Triple-A] Scranton or the minor leagues for two weeks."

    He may not be thinking about it, but the Yanks assuredly are.

Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    At long last, we get to watch Shohei Ohtani square off against big league competition.

    The 23-year-old phenom who's been compared to Babe Ruth trails ample hype into the Cactus League, and the Los Angeles Angels must be eager to see him in action.

    After winning the winter sweepstakes for the two-way Japanese star, the Halos will let Ohtani prove his mettle with his bopping bat and live right arm.

    There will be a learning curve. There should also be enough towering home runs and triple-digit fastballs to appease the Pacific-spanning fans and media contingent that will follow the Angels wherever they go.

Michael Kopech, Chicago White Sox

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    Michael Kopech posted a 2.88 ERA with 172 strikeouts in 134.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. He's got arguably the most electric fastball of any pitcher in any camp.

    He's also 21 years old. Barring a shocking twist, the rebuilding White Sox will stash him in the minors to avoid starting his service clock.

    Kopech could force the issue with a superlative spring, and he's primed to do exactly that during a period when pitchers are often ahead of hitters. 

    He's not a star yet, but he's on the verge. In the early days of the exhibition slate, fans have been seeking him out.

    "To say the least, I have not earned that spotlight yet," Kopech said, per Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune. "I do appreciate it, but for me, I'm just trying to take care of business."

           

    All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference.