By Marc Normandin
There is no questioning the importance of young talent in baseball today. With contract values for free agents skyrocketing and teams falling over themselves to extend the productive players they bring up on their own, young talent is even more important than usual. As teams have come to recognize that an inexpensive, cost-controlled prospect just might be worth pushing to the bigs in his early or mid 20s instead of paying for a veteran free agent to do the same job, we've seen what seems like an endless stream of talent pour out of the minors and into the majors.
The 2013 season is no different. Sure, we might not get a Bryce Harper or a Mike Trout, but let's not let 2012 spoil us. There are plenty of significant prospects making their way toward permanent big-league jobs right now, and, by year's end, we should have yet another season with an eye-popping number of productive rookies to adore.
Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox
He's already in the majors, even if it isn't supposed to be for very long. He forced his way into the Opening Day lineup of the Red Sox by hitting .419/.507/.613 in spring training. Sure, Boston wasn't swayed entirely by spring numbers, but a combination of need, his offense over two months, and his Gold Glove-caliber defense spurred them towards Bradley when someone was needed to take David Ortiz's roster spot.
Bradley isn't a top-10 prospect, despite the current hype surrounding him. That's not to say he's a nobody in the prospect world, though, as Baseball America rated him No. 31 on its 2013 list, and, before an injury slowed him down in his junior year at South Carolina, he was considered a top-10 or better draft pick. He crushed High-A Salem in his first taste of full-season ball, hitting .359/.480/.526, and even though he tailed off a bit at Double-A (.271/.373/.437), there was still plenty to love about the 22-year-old and his future.
Now, Bradley might only be with the Red Sox until Ortiz is back, in which case Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes would move back from designated hitter to left field. However, if he hits at Triple-A like he has everywhere else in his pro career, Boston might have him back up in time to be its primary left fielder for the season. (Read: After 20 days in the minors, when his 2019 season is secured and under team control thanks to service time shenanigans.) Consider it a prequel for when he ends up occupying center field at Fenway in place of the departed Jacoby Ellsbury in 2014.
Aaron Hicks, Twins
Hicks, like Bradley, is already in the majors. He was Baseball America's No. 72 prospect heading into 2013, and but he's rated as high as 19th on that list. He's just 23 now as well and, like Bradley, has a bat that should produce but is more noteworthy thanks to his glove. Since the Twins traded both Denard Span and Ben Revere this offseason, there was room for Hicks in the outfield. Not to push the comparison too far, but again, like with Bradley, a strong spring likely helped this decision: Hicks hit .370/.407/.644 in 81 plate appearances.
Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, doesn't love the idea of Hicks in the majors right now, forecasting him for a line of just .231/.324/.351 -- about halfway between average and replacement level at the plate. However, PECOTA also works in percentiles, and envisions productive seasons for Hicks at the top. At the 70th percentile, PECOTA sees an average year at the plate, with his defense helping to push his value up, and at the 90th percentile, he's an above-average center fielder both at the plate and with the glove. Granted, that's his 90th percentile for a reason -- it's going to be tough to pull off. But PECOTA thinks it's in the cards, however unlikely, and that's something, since PECOTA tends to be soul-crushingly pessimistic about kids without big-league experience.
Shelby Miller, Cardinals
Miller has major-league experience. Not much, of course, but he tossed 13 2/3 innings for the Cardinals last season, and another 3 1/3 in the postseason. Miller seems like he's been around forever, but that might be because he's made Baseball America's top 100 four times in four seasons, with his "worst" finish coming in at No. 50. This past year, Miller ranked sixth, his highest position yet, and an understandable one given his domination of the Texas League followed by his survival of the pro-hitter Pacific Coast League, even at his tender age of 21.
Miller finds himself in the Cardinals' rotation, now that Kyle Lohse has moved on and Chris Carpenter's injuries mean he'll never pitch again. Like with Hicks, PECOTA isn't in love with Miller in 2013 but does see some high-quality seasons for him at the high-end of the spectrum. And why not, given that Miller punched out nearly 11 batters per nine in a Triple-A league designed to destroy pitchers' psyches? Miller should be very good in his first official campaign in the bigs, maybe better than any other rookie pitcher to take the mound this year. In a park that will forgive his mistakes, in an organization known for developing and resurrecting pitching, in conjunction with his talent, it's not hard to believe.
Jose Fernandez, Marlins
One spot ahead of Miller on Baseball America's rankings is Jose Fernandez, whom the Marlins have popped into their rotation despite the fact he's all of 20 years old and has never pitched above High-A. It's a little harder to envision him succeeding out of the gate than it is for Miller, but at the same time, it's easy to see why the Marlins would be in a rush.
Fernandez threw 134 frames between Low- and High-A in 2012, punching out 158 batters while posting a 1.75 ERA and 4.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Cuban import, who went to high school and pitched in the United States after escaping his home country at age 15, has a devastating fastball that sits in the mid-90s but can ramp up to 99. He has a low-90s two-seamer that can induce grounders, and he has a hard breaking ball that he can use as a change of pace on these two offerings. He's also a smart pitcher, with Baseball America saying, "In one May start, he struck out six hitters in the first two innings, then fanned just two more while working into the eighth. When asked about his change in approach, he told a coach he began pitching to contact to keep his pitch count low so he could stay in the game longer." Smart, highly talented, and with a full repertoire of filth at his disposal, Fernandez might do much better than you expect a 20-year-old to do in their first trip to the majors.
Whether the Marlins are right in bringing him up now instead of in a few weeks, when he would be under control for another year, is a different question entirely, especially given their, shall we say, frugal nature. But hey, let's not discourage Miami from actually putting players with talent on the field.
Travis d'Arnaud, Mets
Unlike the others on this list, d'Arnaud isn't in the majors yet. Unlike the other clubs above, the Mets have focused on his service time. So, despite hitting .333/.380/.595 at Triple-A in 2012, and despite having John Buck as their starting catcher, d'Arnaud will begin the year in the minors once more. This isn't meant to berate the Mets, though: d'Arnaud will be up soon enough, and since they might not be competitive in 2013, there is no reason to push the issue in early April. (Hear that, Twins?)
Plus, d'Arnaud hit well last year, but did so in the PCL, in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is one of the top hitters' parks in a league dominated by them, and has increased offense for right-handed batters by about 20 percent over the last three years according to Stat Corner. While he's likely big-league ready, he's maybe not quite as ready as his line leads you to believe.
With that being said, d'Arnaud ranked No. 23 among prospects, and was the focal point of the R.A. Dickey trade with the Toronto Blue Jays this winter. A catcher that can mash is no small thing, and once he comes up, it's likely he's up for good. That could happen later in April, it could happen in May, but he should be able to make a noticeable impact regardless of when he makes his first appearance.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates
The same goes for Gerrit Cole, the Pirates ace in the making that followed Fernandez and Miller in the prospect rankings. Cole was drafted in 2011, and made his professional debut as a 21-year-old the next season. He began the year at Low-A, finished up at Triple-A, and in between, threw 132 innings of 2.80 ERA ball while whiffing over a batter per inning. In the spring -- yeah, yeah, it's just the spring -- he struck out seven hitters in 10 frames, giving up four runs and two walks. It wasn't enough to get him big-league consideration just yet, but, when combined with his minor-league time and what he's apt to do in the coming months, it won't be long until he's up for good.
The Pirates have an easy path to the majors for Cole, as their rotation is set in slots one through three with A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, and James McDonald, but they're playing around with the likes of Jonathan Sanchez in the back end. Should Sanchez prove as uninspiring as the last two years of his career have shown -- he posted an ERA+ of 66 along with 6.5 walks per nine over 2011 and 2012 -- then Cole will have his in, should he pitch well enough at Triple-A to earn the invitation.
You might be shocked to hear, considering its proclivity for hating the young, that PECOTA is predicting the 22-year-old Cole for a 3.93 ERA in the majors. PECOTA likes Cole so much that, at the 90th percentile, it sees him putting up a 2.78 ERA while striking out 88 big-league batters in 100 innings of work. You have to go all the way down to his 10th-percentile forecast to find him performing at a below-replacement level. If PECOTA is correct in its optimistic assessment, then maybe Cole will be up shortly to join his fellow top-10 pitching prospects in the bigs.
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Let's stress that these are not all of the prospects who could come up and make an impact. It's just a few personal favorites plucked from a sea of promising young players who either are up or could be up today. If the last few seasons are any indication (and if we're lucky), by year's end, we'll have plenty more stories to share besides the above.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.