7 Young Players Suddenly Under a Ton of Pressure in 2014

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterJanuary 18, 2014

7 Young Players Suddenly Under a Ton of Pressure in 2014

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    Can Nick Castellanos break camp as Detroit's Opening Day third baseman?
    Can Nick Castellanos break camp as Detroit's Opening Day third baseman?DUANE BURLESON/Associated Press

    Every prospect feels pressure to surpass expectations upon reaching the major leagues. After all, if the player is a high-profile prospect, then chances are he’s already viewed as a potential franchise cornerstone.

    However, that’s nothing compared to the pressure felt by a prospect tabbed for an everyday role in The Show to begin a season. Such a scenario usually involves prospects that have at least tasted the major leagues—guys who understand what’s at stake and will do everything in their power to relish the opportunity.

    This offseason, there have been numerous trades and signings that have affected a prospect’s standing on his organization’s depth chart.

    Here’s a look at seven top-ranked prospects that will feel pressure to produce out of the gate in 2014.

    *All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted

    *All videos courtesy of MLB Advanced Media

Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds

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    Billy Hamilton took baseball by storm last season as a September call-up, going 4-of-4 in stolen-base attempts and scoring three runs as a pinch runner before logging his first career at-bat.

    The Cincinnati Reds gave Hamilton three starts over the final month of the season to see what he could do, and the 23-year-old responded in a big way by batting .500 (7-for-14) with four runs scored, two doubles and six stolen bases in those games.

    In addition to setting a professional record in 2012 with 155 stolen bases in 132 games, Hamilton also made significant strides at the dish, batting .311/.410/.420 with 112 runs scored and a 113-86 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    However, the 23-year-old’s production regressed across the board last season at Triple-A Louisville. The bat-to-ball and on-base skills that made him so effective the previous year didn’t translate at the more advanced level, and he ultimately posted a disappointing .256/.308/.343 batting line with a 102-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 547 plate appearances.

    That being said, Hamilton still managed to swipe 75 stolen bases (in 90 attempts) in 123 games before joining the Reds in September.

    While his game-changing speed is an obvious asset, the development of his hit tool remains a legitimate concern.

    As a switch-hitter, Hamilton has quick wrists from both sides of the plate that allow him to generate above-average bat speed and stay short to the ball. However, he also struggles to keep his weight back and tends to lunge at too many hittable offerings within the strike zone.

    Hamilton's secondary pitch recognition is solid and likely to improve against advanced competition, but he doesn’t always give himself a chance to make adjustments with an overaggressive approach and swing mechanics geared toward hitting velocity. And though he controls the zone relatively well, he also makes far too much weak contact for someone who projects as a dynamic leadoff hitter.

    Slated to open the 2014 season as the Reds’ center fielder, the organization desperately needs Hamilton to be something other than a fourth outfielder or pinch runner. If he comes remotely close to reaching his sky-high ceiling, he could become a frequent All-Star, not to mention one of baseball’s premier up-the-middle players.

Jackie Bradley, OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Jackie Bradley made the Boston Red Sox’s Opening Day roster in 2013 thanks to an eye-opening performance in spring training (1.120 OPS, 13 R, 7 XBH) as well as injuries to several of team’s outfielders.

    However, the 23-year-old outfielder struggled to establish rhythm at the plate and posted a dismal .392 OPS through 12 games in April. After that, he spent the season bouncing between Triple-A Pawtucket and the major leagues.

    He would ultimately appear in 37 games with the Red Sox, though he batted just .189/.280/.337 with eight extra-base hits in 107 plate appearances.

    Bradley’s weaknesses as a hitter were exposed in the major leagues. He demonstrated a tendency to stride early, open up with his front side and try to pull pitches on the outer third of the plate. In the past, he’d been successful using the entire field, serving line drives from line to line.

    Bradley’s approach and plate discipline will give him a chance to hit at the highest level, as he’s a patient hitter who has a plan each time he steps to the dish. Furthermore, he’s a smart hitter who understands how to make adjustments against advanced pitching. For all those reasons, he has the makings of a .280-plus hitter in the major leagues with a top-of-the-order-worthy on-base potential.

    While he stands out for his plate discipline and on-base skills, Bradley’s greatest strength is his defense in center field. The 23-year-old makes it look easy out there with above-average speed and tremendous instincts that result in plus range. He gets excellent jumps and consistently takes a direct route to the ball while showcasing closing speed in all directions.

    Though he didn’t shine in his time with the Red Sox in 2013, Bradley’s experience in the major leagues should pay enormous dividends as he prepares to take over for Jacoby Ellsbury as the everyday center fielder. The gig will be his to lose next season, so expect the Red Sox to keep him on a performance-based short leash.

Michael Choice, OF, Texas Rangers

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    The No. 10 overall selection in the 2010 draft, Michael Choice probably would already be in the major leagues had he not suffered a season-ending injury in 2012.

    Deployed directly to High-A Stockton in 2011 for his full-season debut, Choice showcased his monster potential by batting .285/.376/.542 with 30 home runs in 542 plate appearances.

    After a sluggish start at Double-A Midland in 2012, he finally appeared to be turning the corner when an errant pitch broke his hand in July. The outfielder finished the season with a disappointing .779 OPS and 10 home runs in 402 plate appearances.

    The 24-year-old moved up to Triple-A Sacramento in 2013 and enjoyed a solid bounce-back campaign in the Pacific Coast League. Playing in 132 games, Choice batted .302/.390/.445 with 14 home runs and 89 RBI in 600 plate appearances.

    While he didn’t showcase the robust light-tower power that he did before the injury in 2011, Choice made noticeable improvements at the plate by employing a more consistent approach and working deeper counts. And even though he fanned 115 times in 132 games last season, the outfielder actually improved both his strikeout (19.2 percent) and walk (11.5 percent) rates.

    Choice ultimately reached the major leagues as a September call-up, and he looked good despite limited playing time. Appearing in nine games over the final month of the regular season, he collected five hits and struck out six times in 19 plate appearances.

    The Texas Rangers' acquisition of Choice this past offseason was a great, low-risk move, not to mention a significantly cheaper alternative to re-signing Nelson Cruz. The 24-year-old is under team control through the 2019 season and has the potential to be a source of cheap, 20-home run power from the right side for years to come.

    While he can play all three outfield positions, Choice is expected to see a majority of time at both corner spots, as well as designated hitter next season, with a majority of his playing time coming against right-handed pitching.

    Unless Texas signs or trades for another outfielder, it’s hard not to like Choice’s chances of cracking the Opening Day roster. While he’s sure to struggle and go in and out of slumps like any young hitter, he also has the potential to put up some big numbers in that ballpark.

Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Selected in the first round of the 2011 draft, Kolten Wong moved at a level-per-year pace through the St. Louis Cardinals' system (as expected) and impressed with his all-around consistency at each stop.

    After a slightly disappointing 2012 campaign at Double-A Springfield, he put everything together this past season at Triple-A Memphis, batting .303/.369/.466 with 39 extra-base hits (10 home runs), 20 stolen bases and a 60-41 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 463 plate appearances.

    As a result of his success in the Pacific Coast League, the Cardinals promoted Wong to the major leagues in the middle of August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. Besides his two-game tear from August 19-20, when he combined to go 5-for-10 with a double and three stolen bases, the 23-year-old struggled to make the most of his limited playing time and batted only .153/.194/.169 in 62 plate appearances spanning 32 games.

    Because he’s a left-handed hitter with above-average speed, Wong ultimately made the Cardinals’ postseason roster, appearing in seven games as a late-inning replacement and collecting one hit in six at-bats.

    While all of Wong’s tools should translate in The Show, his left-handed bat is the only one with plus potential. His swing is short and direct, and he demonstrates excellent barrel control that plays up thanks to his advanced approach and pitch recognition.

    With an above-average glove and potential plus hit tool, Wong is ready for an everyday gig in the major leagues. The Cardinals envisioned him as their future second baseman when they nabbed him in the 2010 draft. However, the emergence of Matt Carpenter at the keystone in 2013 ultimately delayed his arrival in the major leagues—and probably reduced the internal pressure to promote him ahead of schedule—and has raised questions about his future role in the organization.

    Wong’s defense at the keystone is big league-ready, and with Matt Carpenter likely to take over at the hot corner in the wake of the offseason trade of David Freese, he’ll likely have every opportunity in spring training to prove he’s ready for an everyday gig at the highest level.

Erik Johnson, RHP, Chicago White Sox

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    A second-round pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of California, Erik Johnson thrived at every level during his rapid ascent of the Chicago White Sox's system.

    After excelling at Double-A Birmingham (2.23 ERA, .189 BAA in 84.2 IP) over the first half of the 2013 season, Johnson was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte in late June. Even though he missed most of July with an oblique strain, the 24-year-old still dominated to the tune of a 1.57 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 57.1 innings (10 starts).

    A 6’3”, 225-pound right-hander, Johnson features an advanced four-pitch mix. He’ll work comfortably in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball and complement it with a legit plus slider thrown in the high 80s with good tilt. He also works in a curveball and changeup, with the latter projecting to be above average at maturity.

    Following the offseason trade of Hector Santiago, the stage is set for Johnson to open the 2014 season as the White Sox’s No. 4 or 5 starter.

Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals

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    Assigned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas to open the 2013 season, Yordano Ventura posted a 2.34 ERA and a 74-20 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 57.2 innings over 11 starts. 

    As a result of his success, the right-hander was moved up to Triple-A Omaha in the middle of June and pitched well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Appearing in 15 games (14 starts) at the more advanced level, Ventura registered a 3.74 ERA and 81-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 77 innings. 

    Promoted to the major leagues on Sept. 17 to start against the division-rival Cleveland Indians in the heat of a playoff race, the 22-year-old flame-thrower allowed one run on five hits and two walks over 5.2 impressive frames in his major league debut. He struck out three batters in the outing, showcasing a fastball that averaged 97.7 mph and registered as high as 102.5 mph at one point, according to BrooksBaseball.net.

    Ventura ultimately made three starts with the Kansas City Royals down the stretch of the regular season, registering a 3.52 ERA and .224 opponents’ batting average with an 11-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 15.1 innings.

    He has always possessed a lightning-quick arm and fastball in the mid- to upper-90s, but it’s the strength he’s added over the last year that’s led to him effortlessly touching triple digits deep in starts. His curveball has the makings of a second plus pitch with consistent downer break, and he’s become increasingly comfortable throwing it in any count.

    And though his changeup is currently an average offering, his natural arm speed should make it another weapon as his feel for the pitch improves.

    With the Royals unlikely to re-sign Ervin Santana due to his high price tag, Ventura is a strong candidate to take his spot in the 2014 starting rotation. The right-hander obviously will have to prove himself at the major league level and may endure some growing pains, but the upside is huge.

Nick Castellanos, 3B/OF, Detroit Tigers

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    A lanky right-handed hitter, Nick Castellanos has always stood out for his pure bat-to-ball ability and excellent barrel control. However, his overaggressive approach and penchant for expanding the strike zone were exposed following a midseason promotion to Double-A Erie in 2012.

    In spite of posting a .678 OPS in 341 plate appearances at Erie, the Detroit Tigers aggressively promoted Castellanos to Triple-A Toledo to begin the 2013 season.

    Overall, he made significant adjustments at the plate, demonstrating a more advanced approach that produced career-best strikeout (16.8 percent) and walk (9.1 percent) rates at a full-season level. And while Castellanos had shown plenty of gap power in the past, the 21-year-old exhibited more consistent in-game power last season, leading many to believe he’ll surpass expectations in that department.

    Castellanos’ bat was enough to get him the major leagues as a September call-up, and the 21-year-old made his big league debut as a pinch hitter later that day against the Indians.

    He received his first start on Sept. 7 against the Royals and picked up the first hit and run scored of his career as part of a 1-for-2 effort. He ultimately appeared in 11 games over the final month of the season, collecting five singles in 18 at-bats.

    Castellanos is a natural hitter with advanced bat-to-ball skills and inside-out swing that suggest a .300-plus hitter in the major leagues. While he’s always been a consistent source of extra-base hits during his career, the right-handed hitter’s line-drive-oriented swing limits his home run power. However, as he continues to develop physically and learns to turn on the ball, he should grow into more over-the-fence pop.

    Drafted and developed as a third baseman until mid-2012, Castellanos was moved to the outfield as a way to potentially get his bat to the major leagues ahead of schedule. However, following Detroit’s offseason trade of Prince Fielder, he is expected to begin the season as the team’s third baseman, with Miguel Cabrera moving back to first base.

    If he struggles out of the gate, though, the Tigers may quickly find themselves exploring short-term alternatives at the hot corner.