MLB Predictions: 10 Unfamiliar Names Who Will Make Huge Impacts in 2011

Andy VanfossanContributor IJanuary 17, 2011

MLB Predictions: 10 Unfamiliar Names Who Will Make Huge Impacts in 2011

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    Phillies Outfielder: Domonic BrownHunter Martin/Getty Images

    Pitchers and catchers report in a little over three weeks. It's been a short offseason for the Rangers and the Giants, but for everybody else, spring training can't get here quick enough. In this latest installment of MLB predictions, we will look at players that we think will make a huge impact on their respective teams this upcoming season.

    Some of the players you are going to see have already been up to "the show" and some even had significant time last year, but some of the players you may not be familiar with because of the smaller markets they may play in or may wonder who will be taking over for departed free agents.

    Undoubtedly there will be omissions, so feel free to add who you think should be on here. Enjoy!

Tsuyoshi Nishioka: Minnesota Twins Middle Infield

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    Tsyuyoshi Nishioka has been the lone Minnesota free-agent acquisition so far this offseason (Thome and Pavano were both Twins last year). He not only won the Japanese batting title with a .346 average, but also won the Japan Series title in 2010. He is coming to the Twins via the $5 million negotiating rights the Twins paid to try and secure his services from the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.

    He has had favorable comparisons to another Japanese superstar, Ichiro. He is capable of hitting for some power but will more than likely be a single and doubles hitter who will make things happen with his legs. It is unclear where Twins manager Ron Gardenhire will play Nishioka, opting either for shortstop or second base.

    Gardenhire made it clear in the offseason that he wanted more team speed. With the losses of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, Nishioka seems to be a perfect fit for the Twins. He will undoubtedly begin the regular season in Minneapolis and definitely will be batting near the top of the order. Expect big run numbers and a low .300 average from him this season.

Jeremy Hellickson: Tampa Bay Rays Starting Pitcher

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    Jeremy Hellickson will be coming into the season as a mid-rotation type starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. Hellickson had an outstanding 2010 season, winning Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year as well as going 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA in 10 games at the big-league level.  

    He is a 2005 fourth-round draft pick out of Des Moines, Iowa, with tremendous upside. His first major league start came on August 2 when he went seven innings and picked up the win against the Twins in Tampa. He was optioned back down immediately following the game then was back for good in September.

    Hellickson will more than likely take the place of the departed Matt Garza. It's difficult to tell where exactly in the rotation he will be as David Price will be the ace, then potentially followed by James Shields. It's a safe bet to put him in as the third or fourth starter either ahead of or behind Wade Davis. 

Freddie Freeman: Atlanta Braves First Baseman

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    Good pitching staff? Check. Young, aggressive team? Check. Solid Outfield? Check. Face of the Franchise (post Chipper)? Check. Power hitting first baseman? Not until this year.

    Last year, the Atlanta Braves made the playoffs with solid pitching and clutch hitting despite an unsure infield and a young roster full of talent. First base was divided up between Troy Glaus and Derek Lee.

    Both have moved on, so the heir apparent to the job is Freddie Freeman. Freeman is the first, first baseman the Braves have given the job to since Adam LaRoche and seems very deserving of it. He is a 6'5", 225-lb. mountain of a man with power to boot.

    He was a second-round draft pick the same year slugger Jason Heyward was the Braves' first-round pick. In 2010 at the Triple-A level, Freeman hit 18 home runs and drove in 87 and hit a rock-solid .319. He will make up half of a solid hitting right side of the infield with recently extended Dan Uggla at second base.

    The Braves will certainly be in a position to challenge the Phillies for supremacy in the NL East. Expect Freeman in manager Fredi Gonzalez's opening day lineup barring any spring injury.

Mike Moustakas: Kansas City Royals Third Base

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    Will the "Moose" be loose? According to Royals GM Dayton Moore, the answer is "yes." With Alex Gordon presumably moving to the outfield, Mike Moustakas seems to be the next in line for the third base job in Kansas City.

    The Royals have had some issues the past few years, only having one winning season in the past 15 (in 2003 they were 83-79). Pundits agree, though, the the Royals may be on the right track once again and boast one of the strongest minor league systems in baseball, if not the strongest.

    Moustakas was drafted as a shortstop in the 2007 draft as the No. 2 pick. He is built like a brick house at 5'11" and 230 lbs. His power numbers suggest the same: 36 home runs and 124 RBI in a 2010 season split at Double-A and Triple-A.

    Earlier this offseason, it was suggested that Moustakas would be a midseason call up as to save his arbitration eligibility and let Mike Aviles and Wilson Betemit share the job. However in a recent Q/A with Moore, there was no mention of Betemit and Moore even suggested that "Moose" would be up sooner rather than later.

    For Royals fans, hopefully the hype is real and he can help restore a once-proud franchise over the next few years. I would expect to see him by May or June at the latest.

Desmond Jennings: Tampa Bay Rays Outfield

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    Besides economics, there was a reason the Rays were open to letting Carl Crawford walk this offseason: Desmond Jennings. Jennings hit .278 last year at Triple-A Durham with 37 stolen bases. Jennings is an athlete build much like Crawford and has the tools to almost be a clone of the all-star at 6'2 and 200 lbs.

    There is talk amongst the Rays organization that Matt Joyce may start the season with the big club, but Jennings will be right in the mix in spring training and seems to have a higher upside than Joyce. Don't be surprised to see this young man in the Tampa lineup at the beginning of the season.

Dustin Ackley: Seattle Mariners Second Base

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    The 2010 version of the Seattle Mariners was a major disappointment not only for the team, but baseball in general. With the trade for Cliff Lee and the signing of Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley, it was widely speculated that the Mariners would return to their early-decade dominance in the division.

    Nothing went right for Seattle, but 2011 is a new year. With it comes a pair of highly anticipated rookies in Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda.

    Ackley's stats in 2010 were solid but not maybe what you'd expect from what mlb.com said "was the best hitter in the 2009 draft." He hit .267, had seven home runs, knocked in 51 and scored 79 runs. He also stole 10 bases and walked 75 times.

    The question is, will he be ready for opening day? It certainly sounds like the Mariners are looking at him getting a chance with Figgins moving over to third base and Jose Lopez being traded, although they did sign Brendan Ryan and still have Jack Wilson in the mix. I would think a hot spring would allow Ackley to start the season with the big club. If he has a sluggish spring, expect him up by June.

Michael Pineda: Seattle Mariners Starting Pitcher

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    The other prospect that Seattle is waiting to see in the big leagues is right-handed pitcher Michael Pineda. Pineda has been hyped as a King Felix-type ace and although that is extremely high praise and quite lofty expectations to live up to, Pineda seems to have some of Felix's magic in that right arm.

    He is rated as the No. 1 or No. 2 prospect in the Mariners organization. His fastball reaches the mid-90's and with his height (6'6") has a good downward angle towards the plate. His secondary pitchers are above average right now and he has excellent command of all his pitches.

    Pineda had a combined 3.36 ERA in 2010, working 139.33 innings and striking out 154. If Pineda can stay healthy and again live up to the King Felix hype, it may make Pacific Northwesterners forget about Cliff Lee and the 2010 season and begin thinking about division title.

    I see Pineda starting the season at the major league level.

Ivan Nova: New York Yankees Starting Pitcher

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    It seems the Yankees, after losing out on the Cliff Lee sweepstakes and possibly losing Andy Pettitte to retirement, are content with leaving Ivan Nova in the starting rotation. This seems to be a more realistic possibility as they have signed Rafael Soriano to be Marino Rivera's set-up man. Nova was 1-2 last year with a 4.50 ERA for the Pinstripes.

    He appeared in 10 games, pitching 42 innings and striking out 26. Not overpowering numbers, but he can hit 95 on the radar gun.

    To be honest, the Yankee rotation could be a mess or it could get them through to the playoffs. Sabathia is the clear No. 1 and one could make the argument for Phil Hughes as the No. 2, but after that, it's up in the air. Losing Vasquez to Florida and Pettitte to retirement could put Nova has high as four pending AJ Burnett's form.

    Expect Nova to be a fixture at the bottom of the rotation for the 2011 Bronx Bombers.

Tanner Scheppers: Texas Rangers Starting Pitcher

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    Along with the Yankees, the Rangers are looking to fill the top of the rotation after losing out on Cliff Lee. The Rangers have some solid young pitching with Colby Lewis, CJ Wilson and Tommy Hunter already in their rotation, and Tanner Scheppers may be the next in line.

    According to ESPN's Keith Law, Scheppers had the second-best fastball and power curveball in the 2009 draft behind a guy named Strasburg from the Nationals.

    He seems to fit the bill of a Nolan Ryan-type pitcher: a power pitcher with filthy off-speed stuff. His third pitch is his changeup but people around baseball say this is lacking behind the other two pitches because he hasn't had to rely on it to get people out.

    I don't see Scheppers at the top of the Rangers rotation in 2011, but I do see him being a mid to late rotation flame thrower who will win 9-12 games in his rookie year.

John Axford: Milwaukee Brewers Closer

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    John Axford could easily not be on this list. I decided to put him on here, though, for a couple reasons: 1) The fact that he has taken over (albeit during the 2010 season) for a Hall of Fame closer, and 2) the Brewers will win the National League Central division this year.

    Axford notched eight wins against just two losses last year while saving 24 games for the Brewers. He is a strikeout pitcher, having K'd 76 in 58 innings. Axford should get plenty of save opportunities for the new-look Brewers with Zack Grienke and Shaun Marcum now in the rotation and Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and Cory Hart still in the lineup; expect huge numbers from Axford in 2011.