By Marc Normandin
It's spring training, so it's time for optimism. It's also time to familiarize yourself with the next wave -- there is always a next wave -- of youth coming into the majors. Maybe you didn't know much about Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Jose Fernandez or Yasiel Puig before they arrived on the scene and made their mark over the past couple of seasons, but don't worry, there's time yet to acquaint yourself with the next iteration of those talents.
Okay, okay: You can't necessarily expect anyone to be exactly as amazing as that foursome was when they got their chances to shine on the major league stage, but educating yourself on the players you'll find reasons to care about in the coming season will at least give you a leg up on your know-it-all friends. You know the ones. While the ceilings and expected production of this class of rookies varies, the group we're focusing on today is all capable of making a significant impact on their clubs in 2014. They might not be the next Trout, but they're more than worth paying attention to.
Xander Bogaerts, SS
Bogaerts is the best prospect the Red Sox have had since Hanley Ramirez, except this time around, they plan on keeping him for themselves. Unless you skipped out on last October, you're likely already aware of Bogaerts, as he made his presence felt by taking over at third base while Will Middlebrooks (and much of the rest of the Sox' order) slumped against phenomenal playoff pitching. No one has seen what he's fully capable of yet, but scouts have some ideas, projecting him to have a bat capable of manning any position on the diamond, one with 30-homer potential and walks aplenty. If the bat was all he had, that'd be impessive enough. Now pair it with a glove that plays at shortstop, and now you know why Boston is so excited about him.
The 21-year-old Bogaerts picked up just 50 plate appearances in 2013, but in that short time he managed to show off the plate discipline that led to his snagging a starting gig in the postseason. That's basically been how he moved through the levels of the minors: The patience and an ability to make contact would show up first, and then, something would click, and his power would erupt. It's how he blew through the low minors, and then both Double- and Triple-A in 2013, leading to his current job as the starting shortstop for the Red Sox despite his youth and admittedly short minor-league track record.
A similar explosion in 2014 would make the Red Sox' life easier, as they've lost Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees and will likely be without last year's successful shortstop, Stephen Drew. A high-quality line with walks, limited strikeouts and plenty of power might be asking too much from his first full big-league campaign, but at the same time, no one has found success betting against Bogaerts, his immense ceiling and his high baseball IQ yet.
Nick Castellanos, 3B
The Tigers think enough of Castellanos that they dealt Prince Fielder to the Rangers, shifted Miguel Cabrera back to first and allowed Castellanos to move back to his original spot at the hot corner. He was all of 21 years old in 2013, so you can forgive that he didn't set the International League on fire in his 134 games at the level. Half of his games coming in pitcher-friendly Toledo helped limit his line to .276/.343/.450 -- the park is devastating to homers -- and being in the International League itself is a good way to deflate a stat line to begin with. Despite his environment working against him, Castellanos managed a .191 Isolated Power on the road in his first stint at Triple-A,
He might have more power in the majors than he ever showed in the minors, especially since Comerica isn't as hateful to hitters as it used to be. It's unlikely to be 30-homer power, but Castellanos could certainly bash 20-25 bombs at his best while maintaining a high batting average: Production like that would be well above the league-average at either third base or left field, wherever the Tigers decide his future lies.
It helps Castellanos that he struck out under 17 percent of the time in his first taste of Triple-A, while drawing walks nine percent of the time. If he can continue to put bat to ball consistently as he has in the minors, he'll have a quick and successful transition to the majors.
Kolten Wong, 2B
Like Bogaerts, Wong debuted late in 2013, then found himself playing in the World Series. He didn't have nearly as much success in either the regular or postseason, but Wong is just 23, and has plenty of talent to work with.
His .303/.369/.466 line might not look like much considering it came in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but Wong played for Memphis in the league's American North division, far from the likes of Las Vegas, Tucson and most of the rest of the major hitter parks of the PCL. For a left-handed batter like Wong, Memphis is a slog, as it severely limits doubles, triples and homers, resulting in about 15 percent fewer runs than a neutral site. All things considered, Wong did very well, and his low strikeout rates should help him now that he's in the majors to stay.
His defense is solid enough that he can stick at second, and while he's small at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, he has the quick, compact swing that generates more power than he looks like he should. He's capable of producing a lofty batting average in the majors thanks to his ability to make consistent, quality contact, and while he'll likely have to be satisfied with about a dozen homers instead of more, that's certainly plenty when you consider the average potential and the fact he can draw a walk or two when needed.
Jameson Taillon, P
Taillon isn't starting 2014 in the majors, but there is a great chance he'll be up before too long. The Pirates made sure to bring Gerrit Cole up from the minors the moment they had a need last summer, and Taillon might find himself in a similar situation thanks to the many questions in the Pirates' rotation. Should Edinson Volquez pitch, well, like Edinson Volquez to start the season, the Bucs could wise up and send Taillon to the majors to plug that hole, increasing their chances at a playoff spot significantly.
Taillon ranks 16th on MLB.com's prospect list this year, with his scouting report saying he "profiles as a frontline starter" and that he has the potential for three above-average pitches. At the least, his fastball and curve are plus pitches, and the path of a number two starter is in front of him -- that's no small thing, even if it's not an ace, especially with the cost of pitching on the open market these days.
He pitched well at both Double- and Triple-A in 2013, and did so at the tender age of 21, but there are questions about his fastball command, since he sometimes leaves it up in the zone, and his change-up, which is not on the same level as the heater and bender. With more experience and major-league coaching, he might fix those issues, which would be bad news for the rest of the league, and it could happen this summer.
Kevin Gausman, P
Gausman was hit hard in his major-league debut in 2013, but that hasn't stopped the prospect analyst love for the right-hander. After all, the Orioles shot him from Double-A dominance straight to the majors, and even the best of prospects often have something to learn either from that experience or the one they missed by taking that leap. Stacking the deck even more against Gausman was the fact that, at the time he reached the majors, the fourth overall pick (and first pitcher) from the 2012 draft had thrown all of 61⅓ innings as a professional.
Gausman brought his mid-to-high 90s fastball, plus change and a slider-in-progress to Triple-A after his abysmal big-league stint, and rebounded adequately by striking out over eight batters per nine, while punching out 3.7 times more than he walked. He followed that up with 14 relief innings that featured 23 punchouts against just four free passes while limiting opponents to a .595 OPS. He'll likely begin 2014 back at Triple-A, where he can finally cross the 100-inning threshold in the minors -- for his career, mind you, not for a single season -- and will likely join the majors the moment an Oriole starter is injured or they tire of Bud Norris as a starter. This time around, when Gausman steps on a big-league mound, it'll likely be to stay.
Taijuan Walker, P
The 6-foot-4 Walker threw 15 major league frames in 2013, striking out three times the number of batters he walked over three starts. It was an exciting way for the 20-year-old right-hander to end the season, especially after blowing through both Double- and Triple-A en route to amassing 156 total innings. So long as his shoulder is healthy in 2014, he should stick in the major-league rotation and toss over 180 frames this time around, meaning he can be an important season-long rookie contributor in the Mariners' rotation.
MLB.com ranked Walker the #6 prospect in the game, and the second-best pitching prospect behind only Arizona's Archie Bradley. They also mention an important fact about him, one that is scary to consider when you see the success he's had: He's relatively new to pitching, as he played shortstop and basketball in high school, and is still learning the intricacies of pitching. Essentially, he's getting by on natural ability alone to this point, with the finer points of pitching -- rather than throwing -- eluding him as of yet. As more hitters see him (and Walker sees more hitters), he'll be forced to make this transition to pitcher over thrower, or else he'll get hit harder than his immense ceiling suggests he should.
He certainly has the stuff to make it work, though, thanks to an impressive array of pitches that includes a mid-to-high 90s heater, a pair of breaking balls, and a change, with MLB.com stating that all three off-speed pitches could end up above-average. He'll also get a little help from his home park, pitcher-friendly Safeco, though, if he develops as expected, he won't need the assist.
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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 Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.