All-Breakout Team ready to make an impact
Young players on the verge of stardom exist at every position
The Opening Day lineups of the Cardinals and Reds -- two clubs that obviously intend on playing October baseball this year -- told the tale of how upside can trump experience when Major League clubs construct their rosters.
There was Billy Hamilton, owner of just 22 big league plate appearances, in the leadoff spot for the Redlegs. And there was Kolten Wong, veteran of all of 62 plate appearances, in the No. 2 spot for the Cards.
That Hamilton wound up striking out four times and Wong made a nearly back-breaking eighth-inning defensive gaffe (he was rescued by the bullpen) only underscores the gamble clubs take when they go with the kids.
But on measure -- and at a time when nine-figure contracts are being passed out like Halloween candy -- the tactic seems to make sense. Only if you can swallow the hiccups.
"I think teams today are willing to not only create opportunities for players, but to make that bet," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think a lot of it has to do with your outside options. You're looking at some cost-certainty and payroll management, this is one way to have some control over managing that aspect."
Look up and down the rosters not just of the clubs in rebuild or transition mode, but also those with an earnest eye on contention, and you see a number of notable examples of untested options in prominent spots that could go a long way toward determining the direction those teams take this season.
Those are the guys we seek to identify here on the All-Breakout Team for 2014.
C: Josmil Pinto, Twins
Joe Mauer's move to first base was made for the good of his own health, but it has the added benefit of (eventually) opening the catching slot for a young slugger. Pinto hit his way onto the big league club with an impressive spring after turning in a .309/.400/.482 slash line between Double-A and Triple-A last year. As it stands, he's the backup to veteran Kurt Suzuki, but it says here a Minnesota team in need of offensive upside will thrust him into starting duties before long.
1B: Jose Abreu, White Sox
I see another American League Central first baseman, Eric Hosmer, making the jump into the AL MVP Award conversation this season -- but again, we're talking more about the relatively inexperienced. You don't get much more inexperienced than Abreu, who played his first stateside regular-season game on Opening Day and hit four rockets, one of which went for a double, another for an RBI single. This year's Yasiel Puig? This year's Yoenis Cespedes? The comparisons are natural, of course, but Abreu might have more raw power than both of his countrymen.
2B: Anthony Rendon, Nationals
With all apologies to the aforementioned Wong, who is an intriguing young talent in his own right, the pick here is Rendon, and not just because of his Opening Day heroics. Rendon batted eighth in the Nats' opener, but he could eventually slot in the two-hole in Matt Williams' lineup. He added some offseason bulk to go with his quick wrists, so he might be due for a power spike after posting a .265/.329/.396 slash line in his first 394 plate appearances last year. Either way, Rendon has doubles power and has shown discipline at the plate.
SS: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
This one's pretty obvious. The kid's hit at every level, he's got plenty of lineup support on a World Series championship squad and his inner calm was on full display last October, when he became the youngest World Series participant since Miguel Cabrera in 2003. Bogaerts didn't grow up in a baseball hotbed in Aruba, so his personal experience drastically pales in comparison to that of some other guys on this list. But his personal maturity is off the charts, as is his talent.
3B: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
Arenado plays his home games in Coors Field, so his 2013 break-in (.267 average, 10 homers, 52 RBIs) wasn't much to write home about, especially given the plate discipline issues that caused him to give away so many at-bats last year. Remember, though, that Arenado produced those numbers at 22, after essentially making the leap from Double-A Tulsa (he played just 18 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs). He should be more polished this season, and he has the power to hit upwards of 20 home runs -- especially in that ballpark.
RF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
The Pirates' Gregory Polanco will step into the limelight before long. For now, let's focus on Calhoun. He's 26, undersized and was never a particularly high-profile prospect. Maybe Calhoun's ceiling isn't as high as some of the other guys on this list. But what Calhoun has demonstrated both in the Minor Leagues and his small big league sample (247 plate appearances, entering this year) is the ability to get on base, along with some power and speed. And with Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton batting behind him in succession, I reckon you're going to see Calhoun crossing the plate quite often in 2014.
CF: Billy Hamilton, Reds
I'll be honest: I have my concerns that this is all too much, too soon for Hamilton. I worry that the Reds are taking a big risk thrusting him into their leadoff spot after he put up a subpar OBP in Triple-A, and Cincinnati can't be too happy that Grady Sizemore backed out of contract talks at the last minute before signing with Boston. But the Reds are so impressed by Hamilton's aptitude, so compelled by his confidence, so encouraged by the development of his bunting in Spring Training that you have to be open-minded to the idea that he is about to break out in a big way. Obviously, his speed tool is a unique one that can fundamentally change games.
LF: Christian Yelich, Marlins
His first exposure to the bigs in 2013 led to a .288 average and .370 OBP with four homers and 12 doubles in 273 plate appearances. That was an encouraging start. As with Hamilton, there is concern that too much pressure is being placed upon Yelich in the leadoff spot, even moreso given a supporting cast that, aside from Giancarlo Stanton, is not that imposing. But Yelich has shown an advanced approach and gap power, and he could become a complete player if he improves against left-handed pitching. He'll certainly have ample opportunity this season.
Starter: Archie Bradley, D-backs
Lots to choose from here, as many young arms -- the Royals' Yordano Ventura, the A's Sonny Gray, the Rays' Chris Archer, the Yankees' Michael Pineda, the Orioles' Kevin Gausman, the Indians' Danny Salazar, the Blue Jays' Drew Hutchison and the Cardinals' Michael Wacha, to name a few -- are going to have a serious impact on the pennant races. And even on less likely playoff teams, you still have the Astros' Jarred Cosart, the Mets' Noah Syndergaard and the Twins' Kyle Gibson either in the bigs or on the verge.
But though he's not in the Majors yet, I'm going with Bradley here for two reasons: He might have led the spring season in "turned heads," and for the D-backs to have any shot at closing the gap on the Dodgers in the National League West in the wake of the Patrick Corbin injury, the 21-year-old Bradley might have to be the one to lead the way. Bradley, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds with a heavy mid-90s fastball and flustering knuckle-curve, is as good a poster boy as any for the ample young arms changing the face of MLB.