Young MLB Stars with the Most Untapped Potential
A stellar nebula is a hot, swirling cloud of gas where stars are formed.
For optimal impact, read that sentence in Neil deGrasse Tyson's voice.
What's true for the universe is true for the big leagues. Every season, stars are born. Some fade quickly, some shine steadily, others continue to rise.
With that in mind, let's scan around MLB and identify a handful of young celestial bodies with the most untapped potential.
To qualify, a player needs at least one full season under his belt, so prospects and partial-year wonders are off the menu. We're also looking for guys who have earned awards and accolades and turned themselves into household names.
More than anything, though, this is about players who are still far from their apex. As brightly as they've burned, they're on track to burn a whole lot brighter.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Aaron Sanchez was a man on a leash last season. The Toronto Blue Jays never removed him from the rotation, but they skipped his starts "to keep his innings to a manageable number," per MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm.
This season, Sanchez will be under no such restrictions.
"I don't see any limitations," said manager John Gibbons, per Chisholm. "He ended up throwing a full year last year, because some good things happened. He pitched later. But, yeah, he's a big, strong kid, he worked really hard this winter...he's good to go, no concerns."
Sanchez threw 192.2 frames in 2016 with a 3.00 ERA—tops among American League qualifiers—and made his first All-Star team.
With the leash off, the 24-year-old should vault past 200 innings and could improve upon his top-seven Cy Young Award finish.
Kevin Kiermaier, CF, Tampa Bay Rays
It's a stretch to call Kevin Kiermaier a star. He plies his trade for the small-market Tampa Bay Rays and owns a modest .257/.314/.422 career slash line.
If you love defense, though, you adore Kiermaier.
Kiermaier posted an impressive 25 defensive runs saved in center field in 2016 and an eye-popping 42 DRS in 2015.
As FanGraphs' Travis Sawchik put it in February, "If Kiermaier goes from being a plus-plus glove and league-average bat to a player with a plus-plus glove and better-than-average bat, he will be (or should be) near the top of the AL MVP voting."
How likely is his bat to come around? Kiermaier showed signs last season, posting career highs in home runs (12) and on-base percentage (.331). He also raised his hard contact rate from 24.6 percent in 2015 to 31.4 percent but saw his batting average on balls in play drop from .306 to .278, suggesting an element of misfortune.
An MVP award seems like a stretch, but an All-Star nod and wider recognition are well within reach.
Addison Russell, SS, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs have many hitters who are climbing toward their ceilings: infielder Javier Baez, outfielder Kyle Schwarber and even National League MVP Kris Bryant.
Let's train our focus on Addison Russell, who hit 25 home runs with 95 RBI last season, made the All-Star team and checked in as the fourth-best defensive shortstop in baseball.
Russell also hit .238, so there's room to grow on the stat sheet. Fortunately for Chicago, he's in his age-23 season and is almost guaranteed to take several more developmental leaps.
ESPN.com's Keith Law, among others, tapped Russell as a 2017 breakout candidate.
"Russell has some of the best hands I've ever seen in terms of strength and quickness, and that applies on both sides of the ball," Law wrote.
The Cubs don't need their shortstop to go from good to great to repeat as champions, but it sure wouldn't hurt.
Christian Yelich, CF, Miami Marlins
Christian Yelich had easily his best big league season in 2016, posting career highs in home runs (21), RBI (98) and OPS (.859).
Now, the 25-year-old is poised to wrest the title of franchise player from oft-injured slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
"You're not a secret anymore," right-hander Tom Koehler reportedly told Yelich recently, per Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel. "Miami's best-kept secret is out."
Yelich's slender frame doesn't scream, or even murmur, "power hitter." But he raised his hard-contact rate from 33.1 percent in 2015 to 38 percent in 2016 while hiking his fly-ball percentage from 15 percent to 20 percent.
A 30-homer season isn't beyond the realm of possibility. Nor is a batting title, as MLB.com's Joe Frisaro noted.
Either or both of those achievements would take Yelich's star to the next level, and make him one of the best offensive center fielders in baseball not named Mike Trout.
Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
An All-Star in 2015, Carlos Martinez set a career-best total with 195.1 innings last season and posted a 3.04 ERA.
Not bad for a guy who looked like he might be destined for the bullpen a few years ago.
Martinez has done it with four plus pitches—a fastball, sinker, slider and changeup—and kept hitters off balance with an array of looks and velocities.
And as KMOV.com's J.J. Bailey reported, Martinez is looking to add a curveball to the mix.
"This is a guy who will throw three innings at 91 [mph] because he just wants to and it’s fun," manager Mike Matheny said, per Bailey. "Then he gets to a point where he feels like, 'Why not show them 98?' And he does that too."
On April 2, the 25-year-old became the Cards' youngest Opening Day starter since 1989, as Viva El Birdos' Joe Schwarz noted.
Martinez should live up to the honor in 2017 and garner some Cy Young Award votes in the process.
Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers
Corey Seager couldn't have scripted a better rookie season.
The Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop slashed .308/.365/.512 with 26 home runs, won NL Rookie of the Year honors and finished third in MVP balloting.
A balky back limited him this spring, but he's gone 8-for-26 with two doubles and two homers to open the regular season, quashing injury concerns.
It's possible Seager could endure a sophomore slump. The 22-year-old set the bar so high, a letdown seems plausible, if not inevitable.
He's not just any promising youngster, however. The polish and consistency of Seager's offensive approach belie his tender age, as Robert Sanchez of ESPN the Magazine outlined: "There's a small toe-tap, a wide yawn of a step, a mass of controlled action ready to be unleashed forward. Seager's left-handed swing is like the undercurrent of a river—liquid and beautiful and deceptively powerful, the source of its strength invisible to the naked eye."
He hacks beyond his years, he's a physical specimen and he's at the forefront baseball's burgeoning shortstop revolution.
Opposing pitchers beware: This kid's smashing debut was merely a prelude.
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, New York Mets
Noah Syndergaard became the ace of the New York Mets' vaunted rotation in 2016, avoiding the injury bug that feasted on his cohorts to post a 2.60 ERA with 218 strikeouts in 183.2 innings.
After packing on muscle in the offseason to increase his velocity and stamina, Syndergaard is ready to join the fraternity of top-shelf MLB aces.
Throwing 200-plus innings and leading the league in strikeouts are realistic goals. If he does that, he could make good on my bold prediction and win the NL Cy Young, even with Clayton Kershaw at the height of his powers.
Syndergaard is only 24, after all, and he isn't named after a Norse god/Marvel superhero for nothing.
"It's only going to go north," former pitcher and Mets analyst Ron Darling said of Thor's potential, per ESPN.com's Mark Simon. "He has the ability and the will—that makes the special ones. A lot of guys have the ability. Very few mix it with the will to be great."
Carlos Correa, SS, Houston Astros
Here's all you need to know about Carlos Correa: The Houston Astros shortstop hit .274 with 20 home runs and 96 RBI in 2016, and it felt like a minor letdown.
Correa won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 2015 and seemed to be on a collision course with superstardom. He didn't stumble in his sophomore season, but he didn't explode, either.
He could repeat his 2016 output and be an exceedingly valuable player. But the 22-year-old is ticketed for bigger things.
Like Seager, he's an impressive physical presence, particularly for a middle infielder. His power, scary as it sounds, might just be emerging.
As Correa himself put it, per MLB.com's Brian McTaggart: "I want to be a better hitter than I already am, and I feel like I can get so much better."