By Cliff Corcoran
The promise of the New Year is right there in the word "new," and one of the delights of each new baseball season is the arrival of new players to watch and discuss. With that in mind, here are 10 names that may be unfamiliar to some baseball fans now, but likely won't be by season's end.
Ronald Acuña, OF, Braves
A year ago, Acuña was a teenager who had yet to crack Double-A or MLB Pipeline's top 100 prospects. Today, he is sixth on MLB Pipeline's prospect list, and by August he could be a star in the Braves' outfield. That's what hitting .325/.374/.522 across the top three Minor League levels at the age of 19, as Acuña did last year, can do for a player's status. Healthy after a 2016 season sullied by thumb surgery, Acuña translated his raw power into 21 home runs and filled out his stat line with eight triples and 44 steals. Given his age and his bat speed (Gary Sheffield comparisons abound), there could be quite a bit more pop where that came from. On a team that didn't already have Ender Inciarte, this five-tool, 20-year-old would be a center fielder. Instead, with Matt Kemp gone and Nick Markakis in his walk year, Acuña's path to a corner job in Atlanta by midyear is wide-open.
Luis Castillo, RHP, Reds
Castillo did appear in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in November, but his single third-place vote came from FanGraphs' Dave Cameron, so I'm going to continue to assume that the average baseball fan still thinks of the former Marlins and Mets second baseman when they hear his name. That should change this year. Castillo combines triple-digit heat with a devastating changeup and a sinker/slider combination that generates a ton of ground balls. As Cameron's vote attests, Castillo proved he can get Major League hitters out last year after making the leap directly from Double-A, striking out 98 batters in 89 1/3 innings across 15 starts with a 3.12 ERA (and a 141 ERA+).
Castillo has had a long journey to this point. He was traded from the Giants to the Marlins for Casey McGehee in December 2014, transitioned from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2015, was dealt from the Marlins to the Padres in the Andrew Cashner/Colin Rea deal at the 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline, returned to Miami soon after and was shipped to Cincinnati for Dan Straily last January. Now 25 with a Major League track record, Castillo is ready to make the leap to stardom.
Teoscar Hernandez, OF, Blue Jays
With Josh Donaldson entering his walk year, 2018 should be a pivotal season for Toronto. Health, particularly that of their middle infielders and righty Aaron Sanchez, will be a major factor in whether or not the Blue Jays participate in the Wild Card chase or remain mired in the middle of the pack. Another will be the performance of Hernandez, a 25-year-old corner outfielder. Acquired from the Astros for Francisco Liriano at the 2017 Trade Deadline, Hernandez hit eight home runs in 88 at-bats down the stretch for Toronto after hitting .265/.351/.490 across 105 games in Triple-A. Hernandez adds above-average speed and an ability to play all three pastures to that considerable power, but his low contact rates and batting averages could send him back to the Minors. Fortunately for Hernandez, Toronto is a great place to be a home-run hitter.
Yoshihisa Hirano, RHP, D-backs
The only chance American fans have had to see this longtime Orix Buffaloes righty pitch was in last year's World Baseball Classic, when he struck out seven while allowing just three baserunners in 5 1/3 innings across six appearances for Team Japan. All but one of those appearances took place in the wee-morning hours stateside. Against Team USA, he struck out Nolan Arenado on three pitches, a feat the D-backs, who signed him to a two-year, $6-million contract last month, hope he will repeat regularly over the next two seasons. Hirano has spent the past five years as the Buffaloes' closer, compiling a 2.65 ERA with 284 strikeouts in 271 1/3 innings. He's more likely to be a set-up man in Arizona. Hirano will be 34 in March, his strikeout rate has been declining and he doesn't throw especially hard, but hitters' unfamiliarity with his three-quarter delivery and nasty splitter could serve him well in his first Major League season.
Michael Kopech, RHP, White Sox
Kopech is the top pitching prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline, and after finishing 2017 in Triple-A, he could find himself in the White Sox's rotation by midseason. His fastball sits in the upper 90s, regularly touching triple-digits, and he has a nasty slider and developing changeup that have combined to help him strike out 11.5 hitters per nine innings as a pro. I'll admit to being a bit skeptical about the 6-foot-3 Texan. The stuff is undeniable, but the control and command are questionable (he walked 4.4 per nine last year). He has a million-dollar arm, but some have questioned whether he has the head to go with it. Most infamously, he was suspended for using a banned stimulant in 2015 and broke his pitching hand in a fight with a teammate in early 2016. A.J. Burnett is the comparison that keeps coming to mind, but then, Burnett had a solid 17-year career and retired after an All-Star season. Kopech, who will turn 22 in late April, should be entertaining, at the very least.
Francisco Mejia, C, Indians
Over the past two seasons, Cleveland's catchers have hit .204/.274/.356, well below even the modest standards of the position. Over that same span, Mejia has hit .318/.363/.497 while working his way from Class A to the Majors. Cleveland still owes Yan Gomes $14.95 million over the next two years (including buyouts of his 2020 and 2021 options) and seems content to give Gomes ample opportunities to retain the catching job at the onset of the 2018 season, but Mejia is pushing him hard. A switch-hitter with outstanding bat control who had a 50-game hitting streak in 2016, Mejia also has a rocket arm behind the plate. He'll likely open the year at Triple-A, a level he skipped last September, but if the Indians want to take their best team into the postseason, they'll find a way to get the 22-year-old in the lineup by August at the latest.
Miles Mikolas, RHP, Cardinals
After posting a 73 ERA+ and 1.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 10 starts and 27 relief appearances for the Padres and Rangers from 2012-14, Mikolas signed with the Yomiuri Giants and posted a 2.18 ERA, 0.99 WHIP and 5.48 K/BB in 62 starts over the past three seasons. In 2017, he struck out 187 men in 188 innings against just 23 walks for a 8.13 K/BB, prompting the Cardinals to bring him back to the States for his age-29 season with a two-year, $15.5-million contract. St. Louis is hoping he has matured both on and off the mound since he ate a live lizard in the bullpen during an Arizona Fall League game in 2011.
Blake Parker, RHP, Angels
Parker had an outstanding season in relief for the Angels last year, posting a 2.54 ERA (166 ERA+) over 71 appearances while striking out 11.5 men per nine innings with a 5.38 K/BB. However, because he was a 32-year-old who saved just eight games, and the Angels finished below .500, I doubt many fans outside of Anaheim noticed. Indeed, Parker has had a long journey to this point. Drafted out of college as a catcher by the Cubs in 2006, he started his professional career as a corner infielder, then switched to pitching in 2007 at the age of 22. Parker saved 22 games for Triple-A Iowa in 2009, but he didn't get his first Major League chance until 2012, a chance cut short by a stress reaction and taking a comebacker off his pitching elbow. He finally established himself in the Cubs' bullpen in 2013, only to struggle in '14 and miss most of '15 with further elbow problems.
Cut loose by Chicago, Parker caught on with the Mariners in 2016 but switched teams via waivers four times over the final five months of that year, with the Angels claiming him twice. In Anaheim, he dramatically increased the use of his splitter at the expense of his curve while adding velocity to his fastball and posting a career-low walk rate. The result is a 33-year-old journeyman pitcher who could emerge as a dominant closer for a vastly improved Angels team in 2018, provided his elbow holds up.
Chance Sisco, C, Orioles
Sisco isn't a particularly good defensive catcher, but he's a heck of a hitter, with a career .311/.390/.426 line over parts of five Minor League seasons from the age of 18 to 22, with an excellent 1.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That he earned a 10-game call-up in September could help assuage some of the Orioles' concerns about his defense, as could the loss of incumbent catcher Welington Castillo to free agency. The O's may toggle Sisco between catcher and designated hitter more than he might like, but he should be a fixture in the Orioles' lineup regardless of his position.
Gleyber Torres, IF, Yankees
Torres, who turned 21 in December, is nothing less than the top non-Ohtani prospect in baseball, and with the Yankees having traded their incumbent second and third basemen, his path to a starting job for what promises to be an excellent Yankees team is wide-open. Indeed, the Yankees were grooming Torres to take over third base last season, but June Tommy John surgery foiled those plans. Nonetheless, the Yankees expect him to be ready to compete for a job in Spring Training and, most likely, to be their starting second baseman by May, at the latest. Last year, at the age of 20, Torres hit .287/.383/.480 in 55 games between Double-A and Triple-A while playing short, third and second. This year, he'll be a name casual baseball fans will need to know.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.