12 Young Players on the Verge of Becoming MLB Superstars
This is the search for Major League Baseball's next superstar.
This tricky, treacherous venture isn't about highlighting youngsters who might be above-average players. No, this is about unearthing those with the potential and ability to be among 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.
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 Paul Goldschmidt, the next Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez."
That player exists somewhere in the baseball world and should rise to prominence in the very near future—even as soon as the 2014 season. This is simply about uncovering him (or them).
All of the candidates that follow 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 contest, players have to have less than two years in the majors on Opening Day. Additionally, any votes received for MVP or Cy Young and/or an All-Star appearance automatically disqualifies a player, since those lofty standards have already been met.
Hence, there's no Fernandez, the reigning NL Rookie of the Year from the Marlins; or Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers' Cuban sensation; or Manny Machado, the all-around Orioles stud; or Andrelton Simmons, the Braves' defensive wizard of a shortstop. Each of those four fit the superstar mold as is, having finished in the top 15 in MVP voting or the top five in Cy Young voting in 2013.
For these purposes, that makes them old news. This is about finding next year's old news—now.
Zack Wheeler, RHP, Mets
Danny Salazar, RHP, Indians (in video)
Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics
Jurickson Profar, 2B, Rangers
Javier Baez, SS, Cubs
Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins
Kevin Gausman, RHP, Orioles
Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers
Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets
12. Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks have spent much of this offseason trying to land a starter who can pitch in the middle or at the front of their rotation, but in the end, they may not have to look outside the organization in order to find said pitcher.
That's because Archie Bradley, the seventh overall pick in 2011 and fellow MLB Lead Writer Mike Rosenbaum's No. 4 overall prospect, is on the verge of making his major league debut. There was plenty of chatter that the 21-year-old could have received a call-up at the end of last season, but that came to an end once Arizona fell out of the playoff picture.
Still, Bradley dominated High-A and Double-A (1.84 ERA, 9.6 K/9) with a plus fastball-curveball combo that is just about ready to take on big league hitters. It's conceivable that he could make the club with a strong spring—especially if another pitcher isn't added—but the more likely scenario has Bradley coming up midseason to show what he can do.
Once he arrives, Bradley won't take long to impress.
11. Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals
Prior to last year, no prospect was bounding to the bigs as quickly or with as much promise as Oscar Taveras.
Alas, the 21-year-old's ascension was curtailed by an ankle injury that cost him all but 47 games in 2013 and eventually required surgery. Provided he's fully recovered in time for spring training, Taveras will have an opportunity to make the Cardinals' 25-man roster, which is already flooded with supreme young talent.
Given his lost season, though, as well as the fact that there isn't a clear spot for him in St. Louis at the moment, Taveras—a career .320/.377/.518 hitter who is Rosenbaum's No. 6 prospect—should begin 2014 at Triple-A, with a shot to force himself into the picture by midseason.
10. George Springer, OF, Astros
On the baseball diamond, there's nothing George Springer can't do. The phrase "five-tool talent" is thrown around more than it should be, but it's 100 percent applicable in the case of this 24-year-old.
While splitting 2013 between the minors' two highest levels, Springer—the 11th overall pick in 2011—hit .303 while falling a mere three home runs shy of becoming the first minor leaguer to achieve a 40-40 season in modern history.
Springer smacked 37 homers and swiped 45 bases.
The Astros traded for Dexter Fowler this offseason, but it would be surprising if Springer—a center fielder by trade who would certainly be capable of handling a corner—isn't on Houston's Opening Day roster.
9. Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds
Calling him a superstar-in-waiting might be a stretch, but Billy Hamilton is here because his speed is simply too game-changing to ignore.
Better yet, the 23-year-old former shortstop-turned-center-fielder is in line to be the starter in center for a contending Reds club now that Shin-Soo Choo is a Texas Ranger.
If Hamilton—owner of the all-time single-season record with 155 steals in 2012—can adjust to big league pitching enough to put the ball in play and get on base to use his wheels, the baseball world will be talking about him non-stop next summer—or more specifically, his legs.
8. Shelby Miller, RHP, Cardinals
Pop quiz, hot shot: which pitcher had the highest game score rating during the entire 2013 season?
Any 23-year-old who can do that on his way to sporting a 3.06 ERA and 8.8 K/9 for the year gets a well-deserved spot on this list, even if the Cardinals somehow forgot about him during the postseason.
If St. Louis gets back to October again next year, Miller won't be left by the wayside again; he'll be one of the reasons they're there.
7. Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves
You're already familiar with Julio Teheran, who finished a distant fifth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting last year in what was an incredibly deep class.
The reason he's here? While he was somewhat overshadowed by his fellow first-year performers, the soon-to-be 23-year-old actually was better than his overall line, which was already impressive, indicates: 3.20 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.2 K/9.
After a brief transitional period at the start of 2013—his ERA was north of 5.00 entering May—Teheran was utterly brilliant, posting a 2.56 ERA, 1.09 WHIP and 8.6 K/9 over his final 25 starts.
If the righty can approach those numbers in just his second full season, he'll have ascended to the role of ace on the pitching-rich Braves staff.
6. Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
Taijuan Walker is at that oh-so-enticing nexus where his talent and experience have dovetailed to perfection and resulted in his arrival to The Show.
A 6'4" right-hander with an athletic frame and power fastball, who was also a first-rounder in 2010, Walker climbed quickly through the minors. He posted a 2.93 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10.2 K/9 across Double-A and Triple-A last year before making a September cameo.
In three starts with Seattle, Walker (Rosenbaum's No. 7 prospect) showed he's well equipped to get big leaguers out. With a solid spring, the 21-year-old should be doing just that from Opening Day onward.
5. Michael Wacha, RHP, Cardinals
Did any youngster take the baseball world by storm late last season more than Michael Wacha?
After debuting in the majors last May—less than a year after being drafted—and then spending some time in the bullpen for a Cardinals club that was deep in pitching, the 22-year-old was absolutely lights out down the stretch and in the postseason.
In nine starts prior to losing the decisive Game 6 of the World Series, Wacha allowed exactly nine earned runs on just 33 hits in 58.1 innings—that's an ERA of 1.39!—with a 56-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over nine dominant outings.
That had everyone wondering how in the world Wacha lasted until the 19th selection of the 2012 draft. Chances are, that'll be a common question going forward.
4. Wil Myers, OF, Rays
Yes, Wil Myers probably has more name recognition than others on this list because he took home the AL Rookie of the Year Award last year.
Although the Junior Circuit's batch of first-year players in 2013 wasn't exactly the strongest, the 23-year-old earned the honor despite debuting in mid-June. Myers hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 homers and 23 doubles in just 88 games.
That made him the first position player ever to win ROY in the AL while playing fewer than 100 games.
Myers is poised to be a force in 2014—over all 162 games.
3. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
With all the recent—and instant—success that's been had by Cuban-born stars, including (deep breath) Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Fernandez and Yasiel Puig, there's plenty of reason to believe that Jose Abreu will be next in line to captivate MLB.
Arguably the premier hitter in the Serie Nacional, Cuba's top pro league, the soon-to-be 27-year-old inked a six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox at the outset of the offseason. That's the most money ever paid not only to a Cuban-born player but also to a White Sox player.
For all that dough, Chicago is expecting Abreu's video game numbers from Cuba—he hit .453/.597/.986 with 33 homers in 66 games in 2010-11 and .394/.542/.837 with 35 homers in 87 games in 2011-12—won't lose much in translation.
Abreu's countrymen are proof that big-time baseball talent speaks for itself.
2. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Xander Bogaerts is a rather unique name, but by the end of the 2014—if not sooner—every baseball fan will know it.
The native of Aruba broke out as a prospect in 2012 and hasn't slowed down since, culminating in his arrival in Boston last August at the age of 20 and also securing his sport as the No. 2 overall prospect on Mike Rosenbaum's top 50.
After slashing .297/.388/.477 while evenly splitting his time at Double-A and Triple-A last season, Bogaerts was used sparingly at both shortstop and third base by the Red Sox over the final month of the regular season.
He showed enough, though, to earn a spot on the postseason roster. As October progressed, Bogaerts actually saw more and more action—two plate appearances in the ALDS, nine in the ALCS and then 23 in the World Series.
That's right. Bogaerts, in his age-20 season, essentially became the starting third baseman for the world champions, batting .296/.412/.481 during Boston's October run, coming up with timely hits (and walks) and generally looking unflappable all the while.
About the only thing that could get in Bogaerts way next season would be if the Red Sox wind up bringing back free agent Stephen Drew on a one-year, team-friendly deal to keep some of the pressure off the youngster.
Then again, Bogaerts has shown his stuff on baseball's biggest stage already.
1. Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates
For all the young talent that's been covered up to this point, Gerrit Cole gets—and deserves—the top spot on this superstar-in-the-making list.
While he impressed after reaching the majors last June—inside of two years of his signing date—the 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick seemed to raise some doubts due to a good-but-not-great showing at Triple-A just before getting to Pittsburgh.
Even before his days at UCLA, Cole has always thrown extremely hard with two types of fastballs (cutter, two-seamer) and a wicked slider. Still, some were unsure if his stuff would translate given a mediocre 6.2 K/9 in 12 starts at Indianapolis last year. He didn't exactly allay those concerns by striking out only three of the first 50 major leaguers he faced over 12 innings in his first two starts as a Pirate.
And then, it all clicked. Over his next 17 outings, Cole sported a 3.16 ERA and 1.17 WHIP—along with a that's-more-like-it 8.3 K/9.
Cole's performance was a big reason why the Pirates reached the postseason for the first time since 1992, and once there, he was just as good. His NLDS Game 2 shutdown of the Cardinals—the NL's highest-scoring lineup—was not only fun to watch (video highlights above), but it also got him the nod in Game 5, over veteran over A.J. Burnett (who only led the NL in strikeout rate).
While Cole wound up losing that series-clincher, he pitched well again, allowing only a two-run homer in five frames while whiffing five and walking one.
If anything, that disappointment is only going to push Cole to pitch even better—not to mention, angrier—and achieve superstar status in 2014 and beyond.
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