Previewing MLB's Biggest Debuts Coming Early in 2014
Baseball debuts are always memorable.
Stephen Strasburg dropped jaws in his major league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 8, 2010, as the then-21-year-old right-hander struck out 14 batters in seven innings.
Chris Coste made his debut as a 33-year-old on May 26, 2006, 12 years and 973 games after beginning his professional career in the Independent Prairie League.
Rick Ankiel hit a home run in his debut as a hitter on Aug. 9, 2007, roughly eight years after reaching the major leagues in 1999 as a highly touted 19-year-old left-hander.
In Tim Lincecum’s first postseason appearance, the then-26-year-old right-hander, fresh off back-to-back Cy Young Awards at the time, fired a two-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS, striking out 14 of the 30 batters he faced.
Whether it's stars such as Robinson Cano and Jacoby Ellsbury playing at their former home stadium as a member of another team, international standouts Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka beginning their stateside careers or impact prospects like Javier Baez and Archie Bradley receiving promotions to the major leagues, there will be a variety of must-watch debuts (for one reason or another) early this season across Major League Baseball.
Here are the five we’re looking forward to the most.
*All stats courtesy of MLB.com, unless otherwise noted, and reflect games through March 24, 2014.
*All videos courtesy of MLB.com/MLB Advanced Media.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees
Yes, it’s only spring training, but so far, Masahiro Tanaka has been as good as advertised.
The New York Yankees won the offseason bidding war for Tanaka and eventually signed him to a seven-year, $155 million contract (on top of the $20 million posting fee), essentially locking up the 25-year-old through the 2020 season. So expectations were understandably high heading into spring training.
Well, Tanaka has been very impressive through four outings (three starts), as the right-hander owns a 3.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts against three walks in 15 innings. He’s been especially sharp as of late with spring training winding down. He has shown a steadily improving feel for locating his entire arsenal throughout the zone against major league hitters, which had led to six strikeouts in back-to-back starts.
In addition to naming Michael Pineda as the Yankees’ fifth starter, Joe Girardi also announced Monday that the team’s first three starters will be CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, which means Tanaka will start the fourth game of the season, April 4 in Toronto.
While all eyes will be on Tanaka in his highly anticipated stateside debut, I’m more intrigued by his likely home debut on Wednesday, March 9, against the Baltimore Orioles. Circle your calendars, folks.
Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox have traded for a collection of impressive young players since initiating a retooling of their farm system last July, which made the team’s offseason signing of Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million contract even more significant. With a solid core of young position players and pitchers under team-friendly contracts, it’s clear that the White Sox view Abreu as an All-Star-caliber hitter—the kind a team can build around moving forward—capable of making an immediate impact.
Listed at 6’3”, 255 pounds, Abreu is an enormous human being with prodigious power. The 27-year-old posted a .621 slugging percentage with 184 home runs in 2,686 plate appearances during his 10-year career in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, and that doesn’t include his strong track record in international tournaments.
Like Tanaka, Abreu hasn’t disappointed in his first spring training, as he’s batted .271/.286/.438 with two home runs and nine RBI in 15 games. His line doesn’t jump off the page, but the right-handed hitter hasn’t been overmatched by major league pitching and has made his share of hard outs.
Abreu will make his big league debut against the Minnesota Twins March 31, also the White Sox’s home opener, and I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he jumped the yard just for good measure.
Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
Archie Bradley emerged as baseball’s top pitching prospect last season. The then-20-year-old posted a 1.84 ERA with 162 strikeouts in 152 innings between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile while also holding opposing hitters to a .215 batting average.
An excellent athlete with a durable and projectable 6’4”, 225-pound frame, Bradley, now 21, boasts arguably the deadliest two-pitch combination among minor league pitchers, with a heavy fastball in the mid to upper 90s and a power curveball with a 12-to-6 shape and sharp downer bite. The right-hander’s feel for a changeup lags behind that of his two other offerings, but it flashes above-average potential and should serve as a third weapon in time.
With staff ace Patrick Corbin out for the season following Tommy John surgery, Bradley is currently competing with Randall Delgado for the final spot in Arizona’s Opening Day rotation.
After yielding only three hits and no runs and striking out nine batters through his first two spring starts (6.1 total innings), Bradley struggled with his control Mar. 13 against the Seattle Mariners, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks in just two innings.
He struggled once again last Friday in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ final regular-season tuneup against Team Australia, allowing three runs on six hits while walking three in 3.2 innings. The right-hander was expected to work five innings in the start but was lifted from the game in the fourth.
The 21-year-old reportedly will make one more start before the team sets the Opening Day rotation, though I suspect he’s ticketed for Triple-A regardless of his performance. However, the Diamondbacks' recent history of promoting top pitching prospects ahead of schedule suggests Bradley will be up early in the season, possibly as early as May depending on the team’s success.
Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs
Arguably the most exciting prospect in baseball, Javier Baez enjoyed a monster 2013 campaign between High-A and Double-A, batting .282/.341/.578 with 98 runs scored and 20 stolen bases. The 21-year-old was one of the most productive hitters in the minors at the more advanced level, posting a .983 OPS with 20 home runs over his last 54 games. On the year, Baez led all minor league hitters with 75 extra-base hits and 111 RBI and ranked second with 37 home runs in 577 plate appearances.
Every aspect of his power profile is elite: the bat speed, his sheer strength, the hand-eye coordination, the leveraged bat path and extension after contact and the ability to jump the yards to all fields.
Suffice it to say that Baez’s robust power was on display this spring, as he posted a 1.048 OPS in 14 games and ranked second among all hitters with five home runs before his March 22 reassignment to minor league camp.
Although he was cut—which had more to do with the Chicago Cubs saving money in the future than him not being ready for the major leagues—Baez proved that he’s nearly ready to be challenged at the highest level. And if he stays healthy and puts up the numbers he should in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, the 21-year-old should arrive sometime around June.
Grady Sizemore, OF, Boston Red Sox
It will feel as though Grady Sizemore is making his major league debut this season when he finally takes the field.
Sizemore, 31, had his highly promising career derailed by injuries as he entered his prime and hasn’t played in the major leagues since 2011. Before that, though, the toolsy center fielder was one of the sport’s premier players, as he posted the sixth-highest WAR (23.0) among all qualified hitters between 2006 and 2009 and appeared in three consecutive All-Star Games (2006 to 2008).
But after countless failed attempts at a comeback (due to injuries) and two seasons away from the game, Sizemore is seemingly on the verge of making the Boston Red Sox’s Opening Day roster. His competition for the rights to center field is prospect Jackie Bradley, who batted .189 in 37 games last season and owns a .173 average this spring in 17 games. Sizemore, on the other hand, is currently batting .303 with five runs scored and 10 hits through 10 games.
With Opening Day less than a week away, the Red Sox soon will be forced to choose between Bradley and Sizemore, with loser expected to begin the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. Call it a gut feeling, but I think we’ll see the 31-year-old Sizemore play on Opening Day this year for the first time since 2010.