One of the old adages of baseball is that you need veteran leadership to succeed. That young players lack the insight, wisdom, and knowledge to lead a team through the regular season. And while that's nice and all, as free agent salaries continue to grow and teams realize they can replace their older players, not with veterans on the free agent wire, but with home grown talent from within, it has become less and less true.
Of course, prospects still flame out an alarming rate, the outcome of Delmon Young's career proof of that. And while we, as fans, enjoy pouring over Top 100 prospect lists, begging teams to give the young guy a chance, we also don't have our jobs on the line should the 20-something-year-old prove not ready for the challenge of the big leagues.
Last year, Yasiel Puig, despite crushing the ball in spring training, was expected to need more seasoning, pundits made into fools with his .925 OPS. Jose Fernandez was expected to start the year in AA, instead finishing second in the league with a 2.19 ERA. But just as they succeeded, Jackie Bradley Jr, expected by some to vie for Rookie of the Year, stumbled badly and soon found himself back in AAA.
What a difference a week makes: The Orioles
After four months of inactivity, Dan Duquette signs Ubaldo Jimenez, Nelson Cruz, and Suk-Min Yoon, drastically redrawing the Orioles offseason.
So what teams are doubling down, relying heavily on that blue chip prospect to make it to October?
Prospect: Billy Hamilton
Thanks to a strong rotation and fantastic seasons from Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, and Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds were able to weather rough performance from the rest of their starting nine, winning 90 games and earning the second National League wild card.
This offseason, having maxed out their payroll in recent years, watching it rise over $100 million for the first time last season, the Reds bid adieu to innings eater Bronson Arroyo and center fielder-in-name-only, Shin-Soo Choo. While the Reds hope to be able to cover Arroyo's 200 innings with a full season from Tony Cingrani, replacing Choo's production will be more difficult.
Last year, Choo hit .285/.423/.462, clogging up those bases at the top of the lineup, scoring over 100 runs along the way. This year, his position will be given to the Flash-like speed of Billy Hamilton.
Forget the hope that Hamilton will replace Choo's slash line. Though Hamilton hit well in a short major league audition, the speedster hit just .256/.308/.343 in AAA with most prediction systems predicting that he'll hit around there in 2014.
Fortunately, Hamilton's value comes not with what he does at the plate, but what he does when he's away from it. Last year, Choo's defense was terrible, whether by scouting or stats, DRS giving him a -17 mark, UZR a -15.5. Though Hamilton is relatively new to the position, coming up through the system as a shortstop, his speed should help him make up for any bad reads on the ball, making him an easy upgrade over Choo.
And when Hamilton does get on base, he can really make things exciting. Last year, Hamilton was nearly unstoppable, stealing 13 bases in 14 attempts, doing it even when the opposition knew he was on the move. Look at how easily Hamilton steals the base even when the Astros pitched out on Hamilton:
(gif by Baseball America)
I mean, how do you even stop that other than the pitcher just standing on the mound, refusing to play the game until Hamilton agrees not to steal?
The question is whether Hamilton will be able to get on base, something that's even more important on a team like the Reds that had only three starters other than Choo with an OBP above .310. While Hamilton's defensive abilities will make the loss of Choo easier to take, he'll need to get on base more than he showed in AAA if he wants to take advantage of his speed and not watch his career take a Wily Taveras-esque turn.
Player: Gregory Polanco
Last year, the Pirates rode an over-performing rotation and an MVP season from Andrew McCutchen to a 94-win season and their first playoff berth since the first creature crawled out of the primordial soup. But despite scoring the 20th fewest runs in baseball last season, the least among all playoff teams, the Pirates did nothing to address their offensive issues this year.
They let Garrett Jones, coming off a down year, head to the Marlins for one year and $5 million, leaving Gaby Sanchez in a platoon with either Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuinness, or Travis Ishikawa. And in right field, the Pirates plan on opening the season with some combination of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata, who, before Marlon Byrd was acquired for the stretch run, had combined for a .232/.297/.369 line.
And while Tabata, a former top prospect, hit .312/.357/.490 over the last two months of the season, he's really only a placeholder for top prospect, Gregory Polanco. Polanco, coming off a .791 OPS between three levels in the minors last year, won the MVP of the Dominican League, hitting .331/.428/.494. Of course, the winter league features plenty of pitchers with fastballs that wouldn't get them out of AA, so it's hard to put too much stock into his performance.
But tall and lean, Polanco would give the Pirates three centerfielders in the outfield, getting pushed to right because he's still raw ($) on his routes and because of the man playing to his right. And while Polanco's power hasn't quite shown itself yet, the Pirates will be hoping for it, especially if Pedro Alvarez's contact issues prevent him from topping the National League in home runs for a second straight year.
New York Yankees
Player: Masahiro Tanaka
After spending enough money for a 1/6th share of a space shuttle, the Yankees bringing in Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran among a host of other names, no player could make a bigger difference than Masahiro Tanaka.
After spending $20 million on the posting fee, the Yankees signed the Japanese starter to a seven year, $155 million contract despite the team expecting him to be a "really solid, consistent No. 3 starter." While some have viewed this signing as an overpay, if Tanaka can perform at that level, the Yankees should be thrilled.
Last year the Yankees struggled as CC Sabathia had his worst professional season, Ivan Nova, Andy Pettite, and Hiroki Kuroda being the only above average starters on the team. But Pettite is gone, Nova has never pitched more than 170 innings in a season, and Kuroda, despite being as ageless as the Highlander, will be 39 this season. Even though CC Sabathia has reported to camp as an entirely new person, it's still unknown if his struggles last year were simply a down year or the cumulative effect of 2,700 innings on his arm.
With that many question marks in the rotation, both this year and in the future, if the 25-year-old Tanaka can give them something approximating 180-200 league average innings, the team will be in much better position should any of those rotation question marks turn into rotation disasters. Given Tanaka's age and his potential upside, he's a much better bet to give the Yankees value for the next four seasons than a pitcher like Matt Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez.
Of course, with Ervin Santana still floating on the free agent wire, the Yankees could still surprise everyone and decide to jump into the bidding at the last minute to grab the starter, further bolstering their rotation.
Player: Nick Castellanos
In one fell swoop, the Detroit Tigers completely remolded their franchise, leaving a nearly unrecognizable team in its wake. Kind of like the new Robocop. After looking old and sluggish in the playoffs, the team swapped big contracts, sending the powerful fury that is Prince Fielder in exchange for the lithe, impeccably uniformed, Ian Kinsler. The team, perhaps tired of watching so many ground balls escape through their porous infield, can now shift Miguel Cabrera back to first base where his increasingly immobile body can do less damage.
But that has opened up at a hole at third base, one that the team hopes top prospect Nick Castellanos can fill next year. Originally drafted as a third baseman, Castellanos was shifted to the outfield, but will be re-transitioning back to third this year, so his defense is a concern. Still, according to Baseball America ($), "at the very least he should give Detroit better defense than Cabrera." But it's Castellanos' bat that has made him the top prospect in a thin Tigers farm system, his .276/.343/.450 line in AAA last year only hinting at bigger seasons to come.
While the Tigers don't appear to face too much competition in the AL Central, their deep rotation and star power in the lineup seemingly giving them the edge over the Royals and Indians, one of the Tigers' flaws last season was how top heavy they were in the lineup. Despite fielding a team with solid regulars at nearly every position, beyond Fielder and Cabrera, there was no truly frightening hitter in the lineup. If Castellanos can develop into the player the Tigers are hoping for, it could make the Tigers a nearly unstoppable juggernaut.
Boston Red Sox
Player: Xander Bogaerts
I once played Little League baseball with guy by the name of Joe Bogardus. That really has nothing to do with Xander Bogaerts, but it may explain why every time I hear his name, I'm reminded of the many, many times when I would miss a fly ball and Bogardus would be forced to run back to the fence to collect the ball following my error.
Anyway, enough Proustian trips through Little League. The Red Sox, fresh off a World Series victory, are returning much of the same club that got them there, minus two big names in Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. Which, given the San Francisco Giants' struggles last year, may not be the most comforting news to the team. (Of course, with Drew still available, the Red Sox could decide to bring him back, presumably for roughly the amount that Ryan Dempster forfeited when he stepped away from the team.)
Heading into the spring schedule, the Red Sox lineup does have holes. Without Ellsbury, center field will be manned by Jackie Bradley Jr, a 23-year-old who hit only .189/.280/.337 in 107 PA last year. Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava, each with spotty track records, will be returning to platoon in left. And Will Middlebrooks, after a midseason demotion, is slated to return at third base.
Which just makes it all the more important that Bogaerts succeeds. Not only will he be expected to hold down the most important defensive position on the field, but the Red Sox could soon find themselves in need of Bogaert's bat.
Fortunately, for Baseball America's #2 prospect, there aren't many question marks. Last year, Bogaerts hit .297/.388/.477 between AA and AAA, holding his own in a late season call-up with the Red Sox. Most impressive was his postseason performance, finding himself starting the last seven games in the postseason, showing good plate discipline during the most pressure-packed games of his career, drawing six walks and lacing four extra base hits in his 34 postseason plate appearances.
But while Bogaerts has the talent and ability to be a premier shortstop in the game, the Red Sox are putting a lot of pressure on their 21-year-old rookie. There aren't many to compare Bogaerts to, only 10 qualified seasons by shortstops 21 or younger since 1990. The list is full of results that the Red Sox would be happy with, those years filled with players like Alex Rodriguez, Starlin Castro, Elvis Andrus, and Edgar Renteria. Of course, save for the case of Rodriguez and perhaps Castro, each of the players listed took some time to find their offensive footing.
But that's the trick that the Red Sox and every other team handing a starting job to a prospect have to ask themselves. Will the natural talent win out when faced against major league players or the first time? That's the unanswerable question that we're all waiting on.