As spring training rolls ever nearer, our attention begins to turn away from the big names, and we focus more on the minor leaguers, September call-ups and young players who could compete for a spot on the Opening Day roster.
With that in mind, here is a quick rundown of 15 players who might find themselves starting 2011 in the majors.
Jason Kipnis, Cleveland
Kipnis played his first year in the minors in the outfield but made the move to second base in 2010. It is the swiftness with which he has been able to adjust to the new position that has impressed the Indians, and with his bat nearly MLB-ready, he could find himself in The Show in 2011.
Jed Lowrie, Boston
Lowrie has been injured almost his entire time in Boston and until the end of 2010 had not really shown anything to impress people. However, he hit nine home runs down the stretch, and if he is healthy he could steal the starting job from Marco Scutaro.
A good spring could make him trade bait with Jose Iglesias waiting in the wings in the Sox’ system.
Ryan Kalish, Boston
The Red Sox will not want to bring him up to the majors to warm the bench, but with Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron recovering from injuries, it is not too fanciful an idea that Kalish could find some playing time in the bigs.
Jordan Lyles, Houston
Lyles has risen through the minors quickly, skipping High-A and finishing the season in Triple-A. With an invite to spring training, he could compete for the fifth spot in Houston’s rotation.
Brandon Belt, San Francisco
The biggest thing in Belt’s favour is his versatility. He can play both corner outfield positions and first base. The most likely scenario is that he plays in the minors to begin the year and is called up around late May or June. GM Brian Sabean has said if Belt does not win a starting job, he will go back to the minors, as the world champions do not want him to waste time on the bench.
J.P. Arencibia, Toronto
Arencibia may actually be the favourite to land the starting job behind the plate despite a weak September last season. On August 7 he became the first player since 1900 to hit two home runs and collect four hits in his debut, but after that, he struggled. He drove in just one more run, going 1-for-30.
Matt Rizzotti, Philadelphia
Rizzotti is another fast-rising prospect, going from High-A to Triple-A in 2010. While he struggled at the higher level, batting .200, he was great at Double-A, where he hit .361 with 16 homers.
Justin De Fratus, Philadelphia
De Fratus spent 2011 entirely in the bullpen and posted the best numbers of his career. In High-A and Double-A he struck out more than a batter an inning and a sub-two ERA. There will be a few spots available at the back end of the Phillies’ pen, and with a strong spring, he could be in with a shout.
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta
After a September call-up, he batted just .167 with only two extra-base hits in 20 games. However, he hit .319 with 18 home runs at Triple-A Gwinnett, and the Braves are expecting big things of him.
A great season would be a historical oddity, as only half a dozen rookies 21 or younger have played a full season at first base in the modern era.
Chris Sale, Chicago (AL)
The biggest question regarding Sale is not whether he will make the team; it is what will his role be. He was drafted as a starter but has been used in the bullpen in the minors and his 21-appearance spell in the majors last season.
He could remain a reliever in 2011, but if any of the White Sox’ starters struggle with injury at the beginning of the year, Sale could find himself making up their starts in the rotation. He had a 1.93 ERA and 1.071 WHIP in the majors in 2010.
Ivan Nova, New York (AL)
With the Yankees’ rotation still up in the air, there is a good chance Nova could wind up starting for the Bombers in 2011. He started seven games last season, making his debut in May. He pitched to a 4.50 ERA and 1.452 WHIP—not great numbers, but they were solid. In Triple-A, he has posted a 2.86 ERA, and with New York’s starting five a couple of pitchers light, Nova seems to make the most sense.
Jesus Montero, New York (AL)
Montero got off to a terrible start to 2010 but wound up with a .351/.396/.684 line in the second half at Triple-A. He has a big upside offensively, and whilst there are defensive concerns, he might be the best catching prospect in the minors.
The Yankees do have a number of young catchers coming up through the ranks, such as Gary Sanchez, Francisco Cervelli and Austin Romine. They may trade Montero, and that might be the best thing for him, as the Yanks’ system is full of catchers and he is ready for a shot at the bigs.
Juan Francisco, Cincinnati
After making 55 plate appearances last season, Francisco is no longer a rookie, but with just 50 MLB games under his belt, he might as well be. A.316 BA in his spells in the last two seasons is very promising, and he was having a great performance in the Dominican League before injuring his leg.
He will be healthy for spring training and could compete for a role, but it will be tough with Yonder Alonso, Chris Valaika and Chris Heisey all fighting for spots on the Opening Day roster.
Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay
Hellickson finally made his MLB debut last year and pitched well. In 10 appearances (four starts, six relief) he posted a very good 3.47 ERA. With their roster being picked apart in the offseason, Tampa will need to turn to younger players in their system, and Hellickson is likely to get a shot.
Chris Carter, Oakland
After a few solid years in the minors, Carter made it to the majors last season. He struggled, batting .186 in 24 games, but with averages over .300 in Double-A and .260 in Triple-A, there are still high hopes for the 24-year-old.
The Athletics have the youngest team in Major League Baseball, and one never knows how young players will perform, so a good spring could see Carter back in the bigs at the beginning of the season.