Projecting Every MLB Team's Next Big Thing

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2018

Projecting Every MLB Team's Next Big Thing

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    Spring training is upon us. Narratives abound, from injury comebacks to position battles to best-shape-of-his-life yarns.

    At the same time, each club will be focused on identifying and developing its next big thing—the youngster or prospect destined for MLB stardom based on pedigree, potential and a path to playing time.

    While players limber their hamstrings and locate their release points in Florida and Arizona, here's a look at the leading candidate to assume the "next big thing" mantle for all 30 teams.

American League West

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    Houston Astros: OF Kyle Tucker

    The outfield of the defending champion Houston Astros is set from left to right with Marwin Gonzalez, George Springer and Josh Reddick. That leaves no room at the moment for top outfield prospect Kyle Tucker.

    The 21-year-old could soon change the calculus. He posted an .874 OPS with 25 home runs and 21 stolen bases between High-A and Double-A last season and has the defensive capabilities to stick in center field or slide to right with his plus arm.

    Either way, he should get a look with the 'Stros this season and feature prominently in Houston's future plans.

         

    Los Angeles Angels: RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani

    Shohei Ohtani can dominate on the mound and in the batter's box. He posted a 2.52 ERA with 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings and put up an .859 OPS in five seasons with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters.

    Now, the 23-year-old will seek to replicate those results stateside with the Los Angeles Angels. The Halos will slot Ohtani into their rotation but also plan to give him at-bats at designated hitter, especially after trading first baseman/DH C.J. Cron to the Tampa Bay Rays, per MLB.com's Michael Baron.

    Considering Ohtani's skill set, it's one of the spring's biggest stories.

       

    Oakland Athletics: LHP A.J. Puk

    Left-hander A.J. Puk ascended to Double-A last season and could make his debut in 2018 for the budget-conscious Oakland Athletics, who are never shy about giving young players a chance.

    The 22-year-old tallied 13.2 strikeouts per nine innings and boasts a mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. He needs to hone his command, but once he does, he profiles as a top-of-the-rotation talent.

        

    Seattle Mariners: 1B Dan Vogelbach

    This spring could be a now-or-never moment for Dan Vogelbach. The Seattle Mariners first baseman boasts prodigious power but has hit a scant .175 in 24 big league games.

    With offseason acquisition Ryon Healy undergoing hand surgery and expected to miss four to six weeks, per Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, the door is open for Vogelbach to earn playing time and translate his .866 career MiLB OPS to The Show.

        

    Texas Rangers: OF Willie Calhoun

    After lighting up the minor leagues with 31 home runs and a .927 OPS in 2017, Willie Calhoun is poised to make his MLB mark.

    The 23-year-old was shipped from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Texas Rangers at the 2017 trade deadline, and now he has an opportunity to win a starting job in the Rangers outfield with an eye-opening spring. 

    That'll be up to him, but as SportsDay's Gerry Fraley correctly opined, "There is nothing left for him to accomplish in the minors."

American League Central

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    Chicago White Sox: RHP Michael Kopech

    After posting a 2.88 ERA with 172 punchouts in 134.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017, Michael Kopech is pounding on the door of big league stardom.

    The rebuilding Chicago White Sox will likely play service-time games and keep Kopech in the minors to start the season, but they won't be able to keep him or his triple-digit heater down for long.

         

    Cleveland Indians: C Francisco Mejia

    The Cleveland Indians could roll with the serviceable yet offensively challenged duo of Roberto Perez and Yan Gomes at catcher. 

    At a certain point, however, the Tribe will turn to Francisco Mejia, who owns a .293/.349/.447 slash line across five minor league seasons and gunned down 30 percent of would-be base stealers at Double-A.

    Mejia will need to impress in the spring to earn an immediate place in Cleveland's catching hierarchy, but his moment is coming sooner than later.

        

    Detroit Tigers: 3B Jeimer Candelario

    Acquired from the Chicago Cubs in the trade for reliever Justin Wilson, Jeimer Candelario looks like a foundational part of the Detroit Tigers' rebuild.

    The 24-year-old hit .330 in an impressive 27-game audition with the Tigers in 2017 and should be Detroit's everyday third baseman this season.

    There are painful days ahead in the Motor City. Candelario represents a glimmer of hope.

        

    Kansas City Royals: INF Raul Mondesi

    Yes, you can argue the Kansas City Royals' decision to re-sign shortstop Alcides Escobar equals a vote of no confidence in Raul Mondesi.

    The 22-year-old is now looking up at Escobar and Whit Merrifield on the Royals' middle infield depth chart. He also posted an .855 OPS with 21 stolen bases and 13 homers in the minor leagues last season. 

    As K.C. lurches between a reload and a rebuild, it'll afford Mondesi every opportunity to bust out.

        

    Minnesota Twins: RHP Fernando Romero

    A 23-year-old who sacrificed two seasons to Tommy John surgery isn't anyone's ides of a sure thing.

    The Minnesota Twins should be high on Fernando Romero, however, especially after he posted a 3.53 ERA with 120 strikeouts in 125 innings at Double-A and dodged injury setbacks. 

    The Twinkies won't rush Romero in 2018, but a strong showing in the upper levels of Minnesota's system will earn the hard-throwing righty an MLB showcase.

American League East

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    Baltimore Orioles: C Chance Sisco

    After Welington Castillo exited via free agency, the Baltimore Orioles' catching competition comes down to Caleb Joseph and Chance Sisco.

    The safe money is on Joseph winning the gig out of spring, but the 32-year-old and his .225 career average are vulnerable. 

    Sisco, meanwhile, sports a .311/.390/.426 slash line in five minor league seasons and threw out a career-best 23 percent of would-be base stealers at Triple-A Norfolk in 2017. Don't be surprised if he's the Orioles' primary backstop by early summer or sooner.

         

    Boston Red Sox: LHP Jay Groome

    Most of the players at the top of the Boston Red Sox's farm system are at least a year away from making a big league impact.

    Jay Groome fits that description at the tender age of 19, but he's also enough of a talent to warrant mention.

    The big southpaw fanned 72 hitters in 55.1 innings in his second professional season and boasts a high-90s heater and power curveball that could get him to the majors ahead of schedule. Roger Clemens comps come with heaps of hyperbole, but these aren't unwarranted.

        

    New York Yankees: INF Gleyber Torres

    After trading third baseman Chase Headley to the San Diego Padres and second baseman Starlin Castro to the Miami Marlins, the New York Yankees' infield depth chart is riddled with holes.

    Enter Gleyber Torres, who hit .287 with an .863 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017 before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his non-throwing elbow in June. Provided he's fully recovered, Torres will be a front-runner to win a starting job out of spring (probably at second) and join New York's cast of glistening young stars.

        

    Tampa Bay Rays: RHP Brent Honeywell

    The Tampa Bay Rays are in full-on sell mode, as they've demonstrated by jettisoning third baseman Evan Longoria, outfielder Steven Souza Jr. (via the Arizona Diamondbacks' official Twitter feed) and right-hander Jake Odorizzi (via the Associated Press).

    The latter move opens a clear path for 22-year-old screwball artist Brent Honeywell, who struck out 11.3 per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A last season and now seems ticketed for the Rays' Opening Day roster.

        

    Toronto Blue Jays: OF Anthony Alford

    At the moment, Anthony Alford is blocked in the Toronto Blue Jays outfield by Curtis Granderson, Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk, with Teoscar Hernandez, Ezequiel Carrera and Steve Pearce also in the mix.

    The 23-year-old has the skills to break through, however, and showed it by hitting .299 with 19 stolen bases across three minor league levels last season.

    The Jays are at a crossroads in the top-heavy AL East and could soon shift into rebuild mode with franchise player Josh Donaldson headed for free agency. If they do, Alford will be a name to follow.

National League West

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    Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Yoshihisa Hirano

    The Arizona Diamondbacks will have an open competition for the closer's job after Fernando Rodney left via free agency. 

    Right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano is in the thick of it after posting a 3.10 ERA with 156 saves in 11 seasons with Japan's Orix Buffaloes and inking a two-year, $6 million deal with the D-backs this winter.

    Already, the 33-year-old is drawing high praise from Arizona skipper Torey Luvollo, per MLB.com's Steve Gilbert: 

    "The thing that stood out for me is that he first established fastball command, and he threw a lot of fastballs before he was satisfied and moved on to the split. The split, it's hard to gauge until you have a hitter up there, [but] it looked like he was able to throw it, bury it—possibly at two-strike location, and also throw it up there for a strike."

          

    Colorado Rockies: INF Brendan Rodgers

    For now, the Colorado Rockies' middle infield is set with Trevor Story at shortstop and DJ LeMahieu at second. 

    Brendan Rodgers could soon force the issue.

    The 2015 third overall pick lit up the minors last season, hitting .336 with a .940 OPS. If the 21-year-old keeps raking like that at Triple-A, the Rocks will clear a place for him at Coors Field.

        

    Los Angeles Dodgers: OF Alex Verdugo

    The Los Angeles Dodgers outfield is an open competition between Yasiel Puig, Joc Pederson, Chris Taylor, Andrew Toles and Matt Kemp.

    Will there be room for top prospect Alex Verdugo? Perhaps.

    The 21-year-old tasted the big leagues last season after hitting .314 with an .825 OPS at Triple-A. He may soon join shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger to form a potent homegrown core for the defending Senior Circuit champs.

        

    San Diego Padres: OF Manuel Margot

    Despite a nagging calf injury, Manuel Margot hit .263 with 13 home runs and 17 stolen bases in 126 games with eight defensive runs saved in center field for the San Diego Padres.

    At age 23, this could be the season he fully breaks through for the Friars and establishes himself as top-shelf MLB outfielder.

    Buy stock in this kid.

        

    San Francisco Giants: OF Steven Duggar

    The San Francisco Giants acquired Andrew McCutchen from the Pittsburgh Pirates and signed free agent Austin Jackson.

    McCutchen will slot into right field, with Hunter Pence sliding to left and Jackson serving as the de facto center fielder.

    San Francisco could platoon the righty-swinging Jackson with lefty prospect Steven Duggar, who slashed .262/.365/.445 across three MiLB levels in 2017 with superlative defense.

    From a fallow farm system, Duggar offers the Giants much-needed optimism.

National League Central

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    Chicago Cubs: OF Mark Zagunis

    The Chicago Cubs' formerly gilded farm system has been depleted by trades and promotions. But the cupboard isn't entirely bare.

    An on-base artist who sports a career .402 OBP and .842 OPS across four minor league seasons, Mark Zagunis could crack the Cubbies' Opening Day roster and play into the hands of mix-and-match manager Joe Maddon.

    The Cubs have enviable depth, and the 24-year-old Zagunis has the ability to cut through it.

         

    Cincinnati Reds: RHP Luis Castillo

    In 15 starts with the Cincinnati Reds, Luis Castillo posted a 3.12 ERA and struck out 98 in 89.1 innings last season. He's an ace in the offing.

    Now, the 25-year-old will try to replicate those results over a full season with his high-90s heater and a devastating changeup.

    As FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan put it, "He already has the arm. He already has all of the pitches. Eight months from now, it might not be very hard to identify the best starting pitcher in the NL Central."

         

    Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Luis Ortiz

    The 30th overall pick by the Rangers in 2014, Luis Ortiz entered the Milwaukee Brewers system after a trade-deadline swap in 2016.

    The 22-year-old can reach the high-90s with his fastball and augments it with a solid slider while displaying plus command. 

    After some seasoning at Triple-A, it's easy to picture Ortiz slotting into the Brew Crew's rotation—possibly near the top.

        

    Pittsburgh Pirates: OF Austin Meadows

    The Pirates waved goodbye to an icon and an era when they dealt McCutchen to the Giants. They also opened up a place for prospect Austin Meadows.

    The 22-year-old has wrestled with injuries, but he sports a .292 average and .818 OPS in five minor league campaigns.

    "It's been a tough road, but I feel like that's behind me now," Meadows said of his disabled-list stints, per MLB.com's Adam Berry. The Bucs undoubtedly hope he's correct.

        

    St. Louis Cardinals: RHP Alex Reyes

    Alex Reyes posted a 1.57 ERA with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. He appeared destined for ace-level stardom.

    Tommy John surgery wiped out the right-hander's 2017 campaign, but the 23-year-old is one of the best bets for a 2018 breakout. 

    Maybe it'll be in the bullpen, maybe it'll be in the rotation. Either way, it'll be worth watching. 

National League East

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    Atlanta Braves: OF Ronald Acuna

    Outfielder Ronald Acuna rose from Single-A to Triple-A for the Atlanta Braves in 2017 while hitting .325 with 21 home runs and 44 stolen bases. He's 20 years old and sits on the precipice of MLB domination.

    "He's a better athlete than everybody else," Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson said of his soon-to-be teammate, per David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "You'll just have to wait and see. I mean, it's pretty special."

        

    Miami Marlins: OF Lewis Brinson

    Miami Marlins fans have every right to be furious about the team's decision to trade its stars and start from scratch. 

    Still, the Fish acquired some intriguing pieces, including outfielder Lewis Brinson.

    Netted from the Brewers in the Christian Yelich trade, Brinson posted a .962 OPS at Triple-A last season and could be Miami's center fielder of the near future. 

        

    New York Mets: OF Brandon Nimmo

    Brandon Nimmo hit .260 with a .797 OPS in 69 games last season for the New York Mets and could see time while Michael Conforto works his way back from shoulder surgery. 

    Assuming the 24-year-old slots capably between Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce, it'll be tough for the Mets to keep him off the field.

    They already rejected an opportunity to trade him to the Pirates for McCutchen, per Kevin Kernan of the New York Post.

    "It makes you feel that other teams recognize what you can do on the field and help out at the major league level," said Nimmo. "I felt good about that." 

        

    Philadelphia Phillies: SS J.P. Crawford

    A first-round pick out of high school in 2013, J.P. Crawford wobbled in a 23-game look with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2017 and hit only .243 at Triple-A.

    Still, the 23-year-old profiles as a plus defender at a premium position and is penciled in as the Phils' everyday shortstop in 2018.

    "I just thought to myself that I finally have a chance to start my career and be a part of this team from the get-go," Crawford said after arriving in camp, per Matt Breen of Philly.com. "Hopefully, I can make an impact on Opening Day."

        

    Washington Nationals: OF Victor Robles

    Victor Robles is 20 years old and has yet to taste Triple-A after making the jump from Double-A to a 13-game stint with the Washington Nationals last season and a place on the Nats' playoff roster.

    Chances are he'll begin 2018 in the minors and bide his time until Bryce Harper possibly leaves via free agency.

    No matter what, the toolsy, speedy Robles is an indelible part of the Nationals' future in an (ahem) potentially Harper-less universe.

         

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference.