20 Young Players on the Verge of Becoming MLB Superstars

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2015

20 Young Players on the Verge of Becoming MLB Superstars

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    Mookie Betts is one of the Red Sox's young talents primed to become a superstar in 2015.
    Mookie Betts is one of the Red Sox's young talents primed to become a superstar in 2015.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Baseball fans, welcome to the second annual search for Major League Baseball's next superstars.

    This tricky, treacherous venture—which began a year ago at this time—isn't about highlighting youngsters who might be above-average players.

    No, this is about unearthing those with the potential and ability to break out and become the very best, those who possess the talent and skill to make themselves into perennial All-Stars and/or MVP and Cy Young Award candidates—and soon. Like, by-the-end-of-the-2015-season soon.

    In short, if this search were to take out a classified ad, the write-up would include something like: "Seeking the next Mike Trout or Jose Abreu, the next Madison Bumgarner or Garrett Richards."

    Such players exist somewhere in the baseball world and should rise to prominence in the very near future. This is simply about uncovering them.

    All of the following candidates are players whose careers are still in their infancy, but that doesn't mean they're all prospects. There is a mix of both prospects and those with at least some major league experience, because casting a wide-enough net hopefully will capture a batch of MLB's next superstars.

    To qualify for this, players must have:

    1. Less than two years of service time in the majors heading into Opening Day 2015
    2. Never received any votes for MVP or Cy Young
    3. Zero All-Star appearances to date

    After all, achieving either of those last two lofty criteria can be equated to having reached superstardom already. And the first qualification applies because the aim is to find players who still are in the nascent stages of their MLB careers.

    Hence, there's no Anthony Rendon, the Washington Nationals' all-around stud third baseman; or Corey Kluber, who came almost out of nowhere to win the AL Cy Young; or Chicago Cubs slugging first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who just barely has more than two years in the bigs; or Devin Mesoraco, the Cincinnati Reds' breakout catcher.

    All of the above placed in MVP/Cy Young voting in 2014 or made it to the Midsummer Classic. Or both.

    For the purposes of finding MLB's next superstars, that makes them old news. This is about finding next year's old news—now.

Honorable Mentions

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    Sonny Gray
    Sonny GrayLM Otero/Associated Press

    Other Major Leaguers Considered

    • Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies
    • Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
    • Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
    • Sonny Gray, RHP, Oakland Athletics
    • Corey Dickerson, OF, Colorado Rockies
    • Michael Wacha, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
    • Wil Myers, OF, San Diego Padres
    • Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds

    Nearly MLB-Ready Prospects Who Came Close

    • Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
    • Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia Phillies
    • Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
    • Jonathan Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
    • Henry Owens, LHP, Boston Red Sox
    • Alex Meyer, RHP, Minnesota Twins
    • D.J. Peterson, 1B, Seattle Mariners
    • Aaron Nola, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
    • Archie Bradley, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
    • Andrew Heaney, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
    • Steven Matz, LHP, New York Mets

    Top Prospects Who Are Still Too Far Away

    • Addison Russell, SS, Chicago Cubs
    • Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
    • Miguel Sano, 3B, Minnesota Twins
    • Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
    • Joey Gallo, 3B, Texas Rangers
    • Dylan Bundy, RHP, Baltimore Orioles

No. 20: Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Because he's more defensive-oriented, Francisco Lindor doesn't have the same type of profile as many of the other position players ahead of him.

    That said, the 21-year-old prospect already is a pretty special performer on D, thanks to good hands, great range and a strong arm—at the premium position of shortstop, no less. That alone could make Lindor into a must-watch player as soon as the Cleveland Indians deem him ready. And as a switch-hitter with above-average speed, Lindor should be no slouch on offense.

    Given his importance as the organization's top prospect, per MLB.com, the Indians want to make sure he's up for good once he's promoted. Having reached Triple-A late last year, Lindor could—and probably should—make his big league debut during the first half of 2015.

No. 19: Daniel Norris, LHP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    No pitching prospect made a more impressive jump than Daniel Norris did last year. The 21-year-old pitched at—count 'em—four levels in '14, starting with High-A and working his way up to the majors by September.

    Along the way, Norris, a second-rounder in 2011 whose pro career got off to a shaky start, struck out 167 in 131.1 innings and emerged as one of the best lefty pitching prospects in the game.

    While this spot also could have gone to his Toronto Blue Jays teammate Aaron Sanchez (who is listed among the honorable mentions), the guess here is that the more polished Norris fits better as a starter in Toronto's rotation and makes good on his opportunity.

No. 18: Carlos Rodon, LHP, Chicago White Sox

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Drafted third overall last June, Carlos Rodon made it to the cusp of the majors merely three months later.

    The 22-year-old N.C. State product turned in three strong starts for Triple-A Charlotte, allowing just four runs on nine hits to go with 18 strikeouts in 12.0 innings.

    "Rodon pitched nine minor league games last season, and those might be the only nine he ever pitches," writes Richard Justice of MLB.com. "He has both polish and power, and he seems to be absolutely ready for the big leagues."

    The Chicago White Sox have made some nice offseason moves that could turn them into playoff contenders in 2015, and as long as he starts out well in the high minors and stays healthy, Rodon will get a chance to contribute to that cause and show what he can do in The Show.

No. 17: Joc Pederson, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    There are two big things to like about Joc Pederson's chances to become one of MLB's next young superstars.

    First, the 22-year-old became the first player to pull off a 30-homer, 30-steal campaign in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League since 1934, so he has nothing left to prove in the minors.

    Second, the Los Angeles Dodgers helped clear a path for Pederson to make an impact this coming season by trading away former center fielder and franchise cornerstone Matt Kemp. So the club clearly believes Pederson is ready for the gig.

    As Justice puts it:

    One of the reasons the Dodgers were comfortable trading Matt Kemp is that they believe Pederson's 33 home runs and 1.017 OPS at Triple-A last season make him the real deal.

    Right behind him is 20-year-old SS Corey Seager, whose debut may be pushed back a year because of the trade for Jimmy Rollins, but Dodgers fans will be seeing a lot of these two kids the next few seasons.

    There's bound to be an adjustment period for Pederson, who got a September cup of joe, but he is in prime position to make a name for himself as a power-speed performer on the Hollywood stage.

No. 16: Javier Baez, SS, Chicago Cubs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Possessing some of the biggest raw power around—as well as some of the biggest flare, too—Javier Baez does nasty things to baseballs. When he makes contact, that is.

    Were there some sort of guarantee that the 22-year-old would strike out in even 30 percent of his plate appearances in his first full MLB campaign—rather than the entirely unacceptable 41.5 percent of the time he whiffed as a rookie in 2014—then Baez would rank higher here.

    After all, his bat speed is borderline arousing, and his ability to launch home runs in bunches is the kind of profile that makes people in the industry as well as fans get all kinds of excited.

No. 15: Taijuan Walker, RHP, Seattle Mariners

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Between his 11 games across 2013 and 2014, Taijuan Walker has exhausted his prospect eligibility with 53.0 frames, over which he's compiled a 2.89 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings for the Seattle Mariners.

    That's mighty impressive, especially for a 22-year-old who entered last year's spring training with a legitimate shot to break camp with the M's before he battled through shoulder trouble at the beginning of 2014.

    Walker won't be able to contend for AL Rookie of the Year, but he's a highly touted arm who is ready to pitch a full season in the big leagues, which makes him a name to know as a possible superstar in the making.

No. 14: Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It was somewhat surprising when Noah Syndergaard didn't make it to the majors last season, but he's a candidate to make the New York Mets' Opening Day roster in 2015.

    The 22-year-old righty had an unsightly 4.60 ERA pitching all year at Triple-A, but that's due in large part to the offensive-oriented Pacific Coast League and having hitter-haven Las Vegas as his home park.

    The 6'6" Syndergaard still used his hard, downhill fastball and quality breaking stuff to strike out 145 in 133.0 innings. And his control was about as good as ever with a 2.9 walks-per-nine rate.

    The Mets currently have too many starters for the five-man rotation, but either they'll find a way to open a spot for Syndergaard or his performance simply will force their hand sooner than later.

No. 13: Yasmany Tomas, 3B/OF, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

    There are questions about the Arizona Diamondbacks' new $68.5 million man, Yasmany Tomas, including what position he'll play (third base or, more likely, outfield?), how his hit tool will fare against the best pitchers in the world, and whether he'll even start the season in the desert.

    In other words, this is no slam dunk as the next great Cuban import to MLB after Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu.

    But it's impossible to ignore all the success those three hitters have had, which gives the 24-year-old Tomas the benefit of the doubt, especially if he regularly displays the kind of power he possesses. Hitting long home runs—and a lot of 'em—is one of the quickest ways to become a superstar-caliber player.

No. 12: Rusney Castillo, OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    It's fitting that Rusney Castillo is back-to-back with Tomas in these rankings, as he, too, is a former star from Cuba's Serie Nacional who got a big-money deal recently. In fact, Castillo's $72.5 million contract, signed last August with the Boston Red Sox, is the largest ever handed out to a Cuban free agent.

    While Castillo, at 27, isn't as young as Tomas and doesn't possess the same type of power, he does offer a more complete skill set that should allow him to impact the game in a number of ways—offensively, defensively and on the basepaths. Plus, he can handle a premium position in center field.

    "He's a complete player," former Red Sox infielder Alex Cora, who managed Castillo in the Puerto Rican winter league this offseason, said, via Joon Lee of Over the Monster. "He's got a pretty good idea about the game. His baseball IQ is solid. He understands it, and we were very impressed with the way that he plays the game, he's been taught the game. He thinks the game. He's a good player."

    And if Castillo puts everything together out of the gate, maybe even a great one.

Marcus Stroman, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    As much as Toronto is going to be relying on its two other prospect-eligibles, Daniel Norris and Aaron Sanchez, the more proven Marcus Stroman could very well step into the role of Blue Jays ace in 2015.

    The 23-year-old had his ups and downs as a rookie last season, but once he settled into the rotation, he was pretty much nails. To wit, from the very end of May on, Stroman made 20 starts (in 21 appearances) and pitched to a 3.18 ERA and 1.12 WHIP while whiffing 107 in 124.1 frames.

    This coming campaign will be Stroman's first full one in the bigs, but if he can perform anywhere close to that over 30-plus starts, the hard-throwing, 5'9" right-hander is going to get plenty of pub.

No. 11: Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Speaking of short righties with big arms, next up is Yordano Ventura, owner of the fastest fastball in baseball last year at a blink-and-you'll-miss-it 96.9 miles per hour.

    The 23-year-old is more than just a heater, though, as he's armed with a breaking ball that gives hitters fits when it's on and a still-developing changeup.

    Ventura turned in a very fine first season (3.20 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 7.8 K/9) while holding up for 183.0 innings over 31 games.

    He then was the Kansas City Royals' best starting pitcher in the postseason, sporting the same 3.20 ERA, as when the club made its run to the World Series. "It's been really enjoyable to watch him throw," closer Greg Holland said, via Dick Kaegel of MLB.com, after Ventura forced Game 7 with a seven-inning, three-hit gem. "He doesn't get rattled."

    If Ventura can improve on what he's done so far, he'll achieve superstar status, especially given the sport's obsession with radar-gun readings.

Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Considering he took home the NL Rookie of the Year Award, some might consider Jacob deGrom to be too "superstarry" for this endeavor already.

    Except the New York Mets right-hander debuted only in the middle of last May and didn't register a single vote for the Cy Young, and he wasn't an All-Star, so the 26-year-old still qualifies here.

    Besides, everyone loves an-out-of-nowhere story, which describes deGrom, who was a fringe top-10 prospect in the Mets system as a converted college shortstop who battled through injuries early in his minor league career before everything clicked in 2014.

    The fact that deGrom plays in New York will only help his cause, and don't dare overlook the luscious locks as another element that could make deGrom a household name by this time next year.

    "As long as he gets outs,” Mets manager Terry Collins quipped, per Tim Rohan of The New York Times, “I don’t care how long his hair is."

    But it always helps to have a potential superstar with a signature style.

No. 9: Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Among these 20 candidates, Christian Yelich might be the most under-the-radar pick, as the Miami Marlins left fielder tends to get lost in the hype showered upon teammates Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez.

    But make no mistake: Yelich has the goods to be a star in his own right.

    The 23-year-old didn't light the world on fire in his first full season, but a .284/.362/.402 triple-slash line with 45 extra-base hits, 94 runs and 21 stolen bases provides a good indication of how well-rounded Yelich's game is.

    That might not make the soft-spoken lefty hitter an in-your-face stud, but he deserves his due and could be in line for a huge year in a retooled Marlins lineup, featuring that other guy who hits all the homers and has $325 million.

No. 8: Mookie Betts, OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    As much as folks love an out-of-nowhere story like deGrom's, there's perhaps even more love for the underdog-little-man tale, especially when said undersized player goes by the name Mookie, like Mr. Betts.

    The 5'9", 155-pounder debuted just before the All-Star break last season, but it wasn't until Betts was given regular run in the second half that he took off and started to show what he can do. To that end, Betts triple-slashed .303/.386/.458 with 15 extra-base hits and six swipes in 42 games from August on.

    Armed with plus speed, agility and athleticism, as well as an uncanny baseball IQ, a "gamer" mentality and pop that belies his stature, Betts is on the verge of becoming the biggest little thing in Boston since Dustin Pedroia.

No. 7: Jorge Soler, OF, Chicago Cubs

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    Brian Kersey/Getty Images

    Few young position players have louder tools than Jorge Soler, the Cuban emigre who scored a $30 million deal in 2012 and projects to be the Chicago Cubs' starting right fielder on Opening Day.

    The 22-year-old debuted last August and immediately made his mark by hitting one out to dead center off Mat Latos in his very first big league plate appearance.

    Soler wound up batting .292 with a .573 slugging percentage that is indicative of his big-time raw power, and he flashed his equally big-time arm in the outfield, too.

    The big question with Soler is whether he can stay healthy for a full season, which has been a problem to this point in his young career. Regardless, he's going to be fun to watch.

No. 6: George Springer, OF, Houston Astros

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    While on the topic of fun-to-watch young stars in the making, George Springer doesn't have many ahead of him on that list.

    Although a July quad injury wound up resulting in his eventually being shut down after only 78 games as a rookie, the 25-year-old made his intro to The Show count, smashing 20 home runs, including seven in a seven-game stretch in late May.

    The athletic, do-it-all outfielder does everything big, from hitting majestic shots to making ridiculous catches to striking out, which he did 33 percent of the time. As long as that last aspect of Springer's game doesn't get in the way, he'll be a highlight reel waiting to happen on a nightly basis.

No. 5: Gregory Polanco, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    After he entered 2014 as one of MLB's best prospects, Gregory Polanco's rookie season was a roller-coaster ride.

    Polanco debuted at age 22 on June 10, by which point his domination of Triple-A (.347/.405/.540) had become obnoxious to the point where the Pittsburgh Pirates essentially were keeping him in the minors merely to avoid his becoming eligible for four rounds of arbitration as a Super Two qualifier.

    He then had immediate success in Pittsburgh, posting an 11-game hitting streak to start his big league career, only to wind up slumping so badly in the second half that he was demoted back to the minors in late August. He would return in September when rosters expanded.

    That disappointing finish leaves a bit of a bad taste and some question whether Polanco will flip the switch. But the sinewy, 6'4", 220-pounder's abilities are very much for real. The question, then, shouldn't be whether but when.

    "Some young players are out for stardom," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said last June, per Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." He's not out for stardom. He's out to be a master craftsman."

    That may be true of Polanco's intentions, but if the latter happens as he continues transitioning and adjusting to the majors, then he can't help but become a star because of his raw tools and advanced understanding of the game for a player of his age and experience level.

No. 4: Kevin Gausman, RHP, Baltimore Orioles

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Sure, Kevin Gausman was the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2012 and has already had some success with the Baltimore Orioles, having sported a 3.57 ERA with a 7.0 K/9 and just seven home runs allowed in 20 starts as a rookie last season.

    "If you look at his peripherals, it looks like he's ready to have a breakout season as a starting pitcher," O's decision-maker Dan Duquette said, via Eduardo Encina of The Baltimore Sun. " Low walks, high strikeouts. Keeps the ball in the ballpark. He looks pretty good. We'll see his innings limit has been extended each year. He's right on schedule to have a good year."

    But the best way to know that Gausman has the goods to become one of baseball's best pitchers? Just watch him pitch.

    Gausman, who turned 24 years old in early January, has a mid- to upper-90s fastball and a dynamite changeup, as well as an ever-improving slider that could be the key to his development into a front-of-the-rotation stud.

    As impressive as Gausman's first real exposure to the majors was, he put his superstar potential on national display last October, hurling eight innings of four-hit, one-run ball out of the O's pen. With the stuff to allow him to not only stick as a starter but also to keep getting better, Gausman might soon be sending out invites to his coming-out party.

No. 3: Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Gerrit Cole checked in as the No. 1 choice on this very superstar search last year, so the fact that he's this high yet again means two things.

    First, it means that Cole actually didn't quite have the breakout for which he was poised in 2014. The 24-year-old was by no means bad, as his 3.65 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.0 K/9 rate prove, but he wasn't good enough to record any Cy Young votes or get an All-Star nod, either. That he missed most of June, July and August with injuries certainly didn't help his cause.

    Second, it means that the right-hander with a ridiculous repertoire and impressive pedigree as the top pick in the 2011 draft remains talented enough to still be worthy of such a lofty placement. Again.

    Perhaps nothing better epitomizes the "almost" that was Cole in 2014 than when the Pittsburgh Pirates chose to pitch him a few days prior to their eventual wild-card tilt rather than, you know, in the actual NL Wild Card Game, which they lost to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants.

    Cole, meanwhile, merely turned in his best outing of the year in that last start, hurling seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball with 12 strikeouts. If he can put it all together in 2015, no pitcher is more primed for a superstar-making season.

No. 2: Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    A lot of what goes for Cole also applies to Xander Bogaerts in that he's a supremely talented former top prospect who rated very highly here last time and looked to be on the verge of hitting it big in 2014 until those plans just didn't work out.

    Bogaerts got off to a good start, mind you, hitting .304/.397/.439 through May. But he absolutely cratered soon thereafter, right around the time the Boston Red Sox moved him off his natural shortstop position to third base to make room for Stephen Drew.

    From June 1 to July 31, Bogaerts posted a gnarly .177/.211/.291 triple-slash line—all while handling the hot corner.

    Thing is, he did bounce back some late in the year—again, after he returned to short—hitting .313 with nine extra-base hits in September. And while age might be an easy excuse, Bogaerts played all of his rookie season at the tender age of 21 years old.

    Now that he has a full year under his belt—not to overlook the fact that he's locked in at short for the Sox—Bogaerts very well may be better suited for his should-be superstar status. Just a year later than expected.

No. 1: Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Picking someone with nary a game in the majors as the No. 1 potential player on the verge of superstardom might seem brash or even silly. But in this case, the choice is Kris Bryant—and it wasn't all that difficult to decide, either.

    The second overall selection in the 2013 draft, Bryant had a phenomenal 2014 split between Double- and Triple-A, hitting .325/.438/.661 with 43 home runs—the most in the majors or minors, by the way. And he did all of that in what was his first full professional season.

    "The numbers he put up were outstanding," Chicago Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer told Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com last September.

    Having utterly dominated the high minors already, Bryant, who just turned 23 in early January, is ready to take over as the Chicago Cubs' starting third baseman. He may, however, have to wait a few weeks into the 2015 season, if only so the franchise can keep him under team control for an extra year, as Brett Taylor of Bleacher Nation speculates.

    Regardless, even if Bryant isn't on the roster on Opening Day, he should be by late April, which would give him plenty of time to embark on a smashing rookie campaign. If that happens, and Bryant is anywhere close to as good as he has shown so far, he could spearhead the Cubs' return to relevance or even (gasp) the playoffs.

    That would be more than enough to make Bryant the next big superstar of Major League Baseball.

    Statistics are accurate through the 2014 season and courtesy of MLB.com, Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11.