Top MLB Prospects Who Must Step Up in 2014 to Replace Free-Agent Departures

Mike RosenbaumMLB Prospects Lead WriterDecember 2, 2013

Top MLB Prospects Who Must Step Up in 2014 to Replace Free-Agent Departures

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    Top prospect Xander Bogaerts is ready to replace Stephen Drew at shortstop in 2014.
    Top prospect Xander Bogaerts is ready to replace Stephen Drew at shortstop in 2014.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    With Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings set to begin next week, it’s seemingly only a matter of time until the free agents begin to sign and trade talks escalate.

    Besides Robinson Cano, the big names in this year’s free-agent class are outfielders Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury—all of whom are expected to come at a high price tag and impact the market.

    However, for teams such as the Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, the decision to not re-sign one of the aforementioned players could help open the door at the major league level for a top prospect.

    Here’s a look at five impact prospects who must step up in 2014 to replace free-agent departures.

Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Replacing: Carlos Beltran

    In 2012, Oscar Taveras—who was promoted directly from Low- to Double-A—destroyed Texas League pitching to the tune of a .321/.380/.572 batting line with 67 extra-base hits (23 home runs), 94 RBI and a 56-42 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 124 games. It also marked the third consecutive season in which the left-handed-hitting outfielder posted a .300-plus batting average.

    However, Taveras’ highly anticipated 2013 season—one in which he was expected to make an impact at the major league level—didn’t unfold as expected. After opening the year at Triple-A Memphis, the 21-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain in late May that led to two separate stints on the disabled list and ultimately season-ending surgery. Overall, Taveras batted .306/.341/.462 with 17 extra-base hits and 32 RBI at Memphis but was limited to only 46 games.

    Taveras absolutely rakes. He simply hits everything: fastballs, breaking balls, off-speed pitches, same-side pitching, pitcher’s pitches—you name it, and he can barrel it effortlessly. And while his approach may be challenged more at the major league level, Taveras should always make enough contact to negate any strikeout-related concerns.

    Taveras is expected to be ready for spring training in 2014, and he could potentially contend for a spot in the Opening Day outfield depending on how Carlos Beltran’s free agency plays out during the offseason.

    While he can play a solid center field, Taveras’ defensive profile is better-suited for a corner position. So when the Cardinals recently traded for Peter Bourjos, it eliminated any temptation to open the 2014 season with Taveras in center field. It will also allow him to focus on a career as a right fielder moving forward.

Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Boston Red Sox

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Replacing: Jacoby Ellsbury

    Jackie Bradley Jr. made Boston’s Opening Day roster this past season thanks to an impressive showing during spring training and the fact that several of the team’s outfielders were banged up.

    However, the 23-year-old outfielder struggled to find his groove 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. Bradley 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 up to the dish. Furthermore, he’s a smart hitter who understands how to make adjustments against advanced pitching. For all those reasons, Bradley has the makings of a .280-plus hitter in the major leagues with a top-of-the-order-worthy on-base percentage.

    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.

    Bradley will never wow with his tools, but he’s a consistent, well-rounded player who projects as an above-average center fielder with a hit tool and on-base skills that profile ideally at the top of a lineup. While he’s performed poorly in the major leagues this season, Bradley should settle in nicely once he’s given the chance to play on an everyday basis.

    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 should he replace free agent Jacoby Ellsbury in center field next season.

Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Replacing: Shin-Soo Choo

    Billy Hamilton took baseball by storm after reaching the major leagues 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 Reds gave Hamilton three starts over the final month of the season to see what he could do, and the 23-year-old responded favorably 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 with 155 bases in 132 games across two minor league levels in 2012, Hamilton also made significant strides at the dish, batting .311/.410/.420 with 112 runs scored, 159 hits and a 113-86 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Promoted to Triple-A Louisville for the 2013 season, Hamilton regressed across the board as he struggled to showcase the bat-to-ball and on-base skills that made him so effective the previous year. In 123 games before his call-up, he batted only .256/.308/.343 with a 102-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio but still managed to notch 75 stolen bases (in 90 attempts).

    While Hamilton’s game-changing speed is an obvious asset at any level, 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 be short to the ball. However, his overall inconsistency is worrisome; Hamilton struggles to keep his weight back and will lunge at too many offerings within the strike zone.

    It also prevents him from turning on quality velocity on the inner half of the plate. 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.

    While Hamilton flashed his enormous potential over the final month of the regular season, the Reds desperately need him to be something more than a reserve player. If they are unable to re-sign Shin-Soo Choo, one of the more sought-after free agents on the market, or find a stopgap, Hamilton presumably will open the year as the everyday center fielder in the major leagues.

Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox

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    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Replacing: Stephen Drew

    Regarded as Boston’s top prospect for the last two seasons, Xander Bogaerts was promoted to the major leagues in late August to bolster the team’s roster for the stretch run. While the recently turned 21-year-old’s playing time was limited, he still impressed by batting .250/.320/.364 in 18 games and playing both positions on the left side of the infield.

    Given Bogaerts’ enormous upside and ability to make a game-changing impact at the plate, the Red Sox decided to include him on their postseason roster. The youngster rewarded the team by batting .296/.412/.481 with nine runs scored, four extra-base hits and six walks in 12 games. More importantly, he played a major role in Boston winning the World Series.

    While Bogaerts has always projected to be a plus hitter in the major leagues, he’s raised the bar over the last year by adding strength and tightening his plate discipline. The 21-year-old has effortless barrel control through the zone and smokes tough pitches to all fields. If he wanted to, Bogaerts could easily sell out for more power—easily. But he doesn’t. He stays short and quick to the ball and utilizes his tremendous plate coverage.

    While there used to be concerns as to whether Bogaerts could remain at shortstop long term, he has certainly looked good so far. There’s no question that he has the necessary plus arm strength for the left side of the infield, and he’s always been able to make all the plays and throw darts across the infield. This past year, however, Bogaerts’ improved body control and smoother actions helped improve his future projection at the position.

    And after his performance this October, there’s no doubt that Xander Bogaerts is ready to replace free agent Stephen Drew as Boston’s shortstop in 2014.

Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals

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    Ed Zurga/Getty Images

    Replacing: Ervin Santana

    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 Cleveland Indians, 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.

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

    Ventura has always possessed a lightning-quick arm and fastball in the mid- to upper 90s, but the strength he added over the last year has led to him touching triple digits consistently. Ventura’s breaking ball will flash plus with sharp downer break, and he’s become increasingly comfortable throwing it in any count. The right-hander is still developing a consistent feel for his changeup, though it has the potential to still be highly effective due his arm speed.

    Even though he’s a 5’11” right-hander, Ventura still manages to strike out opposing hitters at a favorable rate. However, his lack of downhill plane on the fastball and raw feel for the changeup has the potential to be exploited in the major leagues.

    Although he’s added considerable strength over the last year, Ventura’s wiry frame and command result in high pitch counts early in games and raise questions about his long-term future as a starter.

    That being said, Ventura took a huge step forward this past season in terms of both his consistency and command and, more importantly, became more than a guy who throws really, really hard. He has the ceiling of a No. 2/3 starter, but there’s no guarantee his frame can handle 200 innings over the course of a season. 

    With the Royals unlikely to re-sign Ervin Santana due to his high price tag, Ventura becomes a strong candidate to replace him 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.