It's not technically baseball's New Year yet -- the ball will drop, so to speak, on that particular holiday in late March -- but now is as good a time as any to take a look at who might be in the next crowd of superstars. These guys aren't yet household names, but they stand a fighting chance of changing that in 2014, at least in the households of fans of the teams for which they'll be making their big-league debuts. Today, we'll look at three young hitters who should be making their full-time major league debuts early in the 2014 regular season. On Friday, we'll look at three young starting pitchers.
Following baseball prospect development is often niche, esoteric work. It involves a whole lot of people paying attention to a whole bunch of games that are only occasionally televised, then asking everyone in their prospect rolodex about what they saw, then deciding how much of their response was spin or bias, and how much was trustworthy and reliable. It's a pretty subjective line of work, involving guys who aren't very famous -- which is why it's forgivable that this was the first introduction the baseball world at large had to Oscar Taveras, who was at the time the top position prospect in the very organization that Fox Sports is responsible for covering.
By the end of 2012, anyone who paid casual attention to minor league prospects and certainly every Cardinals fan -- Fox Sports employee or otherwise -- knew who Oscar Taveras was. Taveras put up stellar numbers at Double A Springfield, hitting .321/.380/.572, showing the consistently high batting average across levels that's the hallmark of so many recent St. Louis hitting prospects (Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams, etc.), but also great power and good on-base skills. On top of that, he profiled defensively as someone who might be able to handle center field on an everyday basis.
Taveras went into 2013 as the No. 3 prospect in baseball by both Baseball America and MLB.com house charts in his age-21 season, and handled Triple A quite well until May, when he badly injured his ankle, tried to play through the pain, finally got shut down in July and underwent season-ending ankle surgery in August. The major concern with Taveras is no longer the bat; the bat can play, and if the Cardinals' recent track record of player development is any indication, it can play on a level that should allow him to step right in and replace Carlos Beltran in right field. Taveras has the arm for that position, unlike many center fielders.
The question is how his mobility will be affected by the ankle injury and surgery. It's unlikely his defensive profile will take a massive hit, but the risk is there -- so much so that the Cardinals traded David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos this offseason, solidifying the center field position with Jon Jay still on the roster and pretty firmly committing Taveras to the outfield corners for 2014. Still, so long as he shows up to camp healthy and performs, Taveras should be the everyday right fielder in short order.
There are fewer concerns with Nick Castellanos in Detroit. After the Tigers traded Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski confirmed that he and new manager Brad Ausmus see Castellanos as the team's everyday third baseman going into the 2014 regular season. The Tigers don't coddle prospects, and they very rarely play service time games; when they have impact prospects, they put them on a rocket ship through the organization, build their value, and either trade them for major league pieces or (like starter Rick Porcello) throw them right into the fire.
Like Taveras, Castellanos should hit (though probably not quite as much), and like Taveras, defense is going to be the initial concern with Castellanos' promotion and playing time. Unlike Taveras, however, Castellanos isn't recovering from an injury; he's simply not very good at third base. The team moved him to left field last season, finally admitting what prospect followers had known for a while. Castellanos simply doesn't show the instincts necessary to handle the hot corner on the major league level. On the one hand, the Tigers have shown that they're willing to put up with atrocious defense at third base, as long as the bat's there to pick up the slack; on the other hand, the bat picking up the slack won two consecutive MVP awards. Castellanos is a good prospect -- perhaps the only good advanced prospect left in that system that wasn't drafted last June -- but he is not Miggy at the plate. The Tigers just have to hope he isn't Miggy in the field, either.
If Castellanos is the safe pick here, and Taveras is the more-or-less finished product, then Houston's George Springer is the lottery ticket. Springer, who is a center fielder by trade, saw his easiest path to the majors blocked when the Astros traded for Dexter Fowler, formerly of the Colorado Rockies. Much like Taveras, however, Springer has the arm to play right field and was probably going to end up there in the long run, and the Astros don't have anyone ready to fight him for that everyday job, either, in the majors or the minors.
The major questions surrounding Springer are whether he makes the team out of camp, whether or not the Astros are concerned enough about his service time to leave him in the minors to start the season, and how he'll perform on a team that's going nowhere for yet another season on the big league level. But Springer should make the team out of camp simply because the Astros don't have three better outfielders, and they shouldn't keep him down for service time reasons because his clock hasn't even started yet. If he turns out to be the kind of guy you mess around with for service time reasons, there's more than enough time to do that in the future.
Great players are great players regardless of the team around them. Much of Springer's value is tied up in his production at the plate in the hitter-friendly Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues, rather than in his scouted tools and projectability. (Springer went into last season the #37 prospect in Baseball America's Top 100, compared to Castellanos at No. 21 and Taveras at No. 3.) If he's a legitimate major leaguer, talenet will win out.
Another hitter to watch for this season is Xander Bogaerts, of course, who the Red Sox have been extremely pleased with so far, but it's a bit unclear how his playing time situation will shake out on the left side of the Boston infield. Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson is knocking down the door in Los Angeles, as is shortstop Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians. If things break right for one of them (and wrong for the guys on the major league club), either one could find himself getting time on the big-league team. There's a whole lot of great young talent in the league right now, and a whole lot of baseball to play in 2014.