Mallex Smith was once the Atlanta Braves prized centerfielder of the future. The speedy centerfielder became expendable with the Gold Glove season of Ender Inciarte and the emergence of Ronald Acuna and Ray-Patrick Didder in the lower minors. The Braves would send him to Seattle for more pitching — as the Braves have become accustomed to doing — only to see Seattle send him to Tampa for pitching and prospects an hour later.
Today we continue to take a look at some of the minors’ biggest and brightest prospects ready to jump out on the national stage next season. Having already looked at five impact first basemen, second basemen and third basemen, we turn our attention to the shortstops.
There are some big shoes to fill. Shortstop has become one of the more exciting young positions in the game with the emergence of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and even the little we saw of Dansby Swanson this season. Who is the next in line?
Remember, this isn’t a ranking or list of best shortstop prospects. You won’t see Brendan Rodgers because as long as Trevor Story is healthy, the Rockies are pretty set up the middle and can allow Rodgers another season of maturity. You also won’t see Amed Rosario, because even if the veterans at the big league level go down with injury, Gavin Cecchini is likely next in line. Nor will you see the New York Yankees dynamic duo of Gleyber Torres or Jorge Mateo, who are both a little bit away, despite Torres absolutely sizzling in the desert out in the Arizona Fall League. And you won’t see the aforementioned Swanson. Yes, by MLB’s statistical standards, he will still be a “rookie” in 2017, but there is no question that Swanson is the everyday shortstop for the Braves and he already showed his impact in their remarkable 20-10 September run.
It’s hard to call a team’s top offensive prospect a breakout candidate, but that is precisely what Willy Adames did this past summer. While playing his first full season above A-Ball, Adames showed that the potential many saw in him was reality, as he had a career-year across the board.
Jake Bauers has been somewhat of an enigma to start his career. Here’s a kid that has one of the prettiest swings in Double-A, yet thus far, he has profiled much more as a James Loney than a Will Clark. This season, however, Bauers seems to be finding some of that power.
The minor league baseball season kicks off today. As many of you are aware, this is as equally exciting for me as MLB Opening Day. When you cover prospects for a guy like John Sickels for the past year, Minor League Baseball is a pretty big deal.
The first prospect I took a look at entering this season is Tampa Rays Brent Honeywell. You may have heard his name this past week when he attack Bryce Harper via Twitter for his now infamous “Make Baseball Fun Again” hat. One thing is for certain, this kid has the intestinal fortitude to make it in the big leagues.
The Madenss is creeping up on us, folks. I hope you have been enjoying the conference tourneys because there have been upsets galore which should make Selection Sunday quite unpredictable. Surprisingly, Jared Allen, Chris Clemons, and Julian Edelman remain unsigned in this quickly evolving NFL free agency season. And the bats are coming alive and the arms are getting looser in Florida and Arizona as we are just a few short weeks from Opening Day 2014.
THE AL EAST
The AL East is the only division in baseball that the “worst” team has a legitimate chance at winning the division. That’s because no one team is a great team. Their offenses are stacked and all five teams are very good, so they should beat each other up all season long. It will be a war of attrition and who comes out on top will be the team not with the most powerful bats but the deepest pitching.
5. The Toronto Blue Jays
There are three primary factors holding back Toronto. First and foremost, they play in the province that gave us Justin Bieber so they don’t deserve to win anything. Secondly, their pitching is old. Lastly, they simply cannot avoid the injury bug.
Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, and Melky Cabrera are enough to make any line-up powerful and strong, but not one of the three were on the field for over 120 games last season. Edward Encarnacion is a total offensive beast, but he also has never played an entire season. Adam Lind had a nice bounce back last season after a lost 2012 and is slated to bat clean-up in this potent line-up (making him a great option in fantasy). They really need former first round pick Brett Lawrie to play a full season and come into his own at third base. It may be time to move on should he flop again this season.
39-year old R.A. Dickey anchors this staff as its ace, but the crafty knuckle-baller returned to earth after his 2012 Cy Young campaign. Now 34-years old, Mark Buehrle is not much more than a .500, innings-eating pitcher. Brandon Morrow spent last season working his way back from injury after a promising 2012. He showed he can be a solid top-end of the rotation pitcher prior to going down, and the Jays will benefit greatly if he can return to his 2012 form. Where’s Ricky Romero? That guy got a case of the Knoblauchs and completely fell apart!
Casey Janssen leads a rather uninspiring bullpen. He does have former closer Sergio Santos setting him up, so they do have a nice one-two punch. As long as the Blue Jays hold on to those 11-10 leads in the 8th inning these two should shut down a fair amount of games.
Projected 2014 finish: 80-82. To purchase tickets to any game this season check out Ticket Monster.
4. The Baltimore Orioles
(Covers.com has the O/U at 80.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 79-83)
Like the Blue Jays, the Orioles are another power-house line-up with minimal pitching. The O’s did bolster their starting rotation this offseason but it may be the move they couldn’t make that comes back to haunt them.
21-year old all-world third baseman Manny Machado is the key to this offense. Unfortunately he is still recovering from offseason surgery and is projected to start the year on the DL. When he does return, the Os will have one of the best one through six line-up runs in baseball. Nick Markakis is never going to be the superstar people projected but he’s still very good and becoming a quality leadoff hitter no matter how unorthodox he may be in the slot. Chris Davis is a beast and is still maturing. He needs to cut down on the strikeouts (199 in 2013), but there is no reason that he can’t match his 2013 league leading 53 HRs and 138 RBI. Adam Jones is one of the best all around outfielders in baseball and is a 20-20 threat every year. The addition of Nelson Cruz makes them even stronger. Batting behind Cruz, Matt Wieters is one of the best hitting catchers in the biz. They need to improve in creating runs and not solely relying on the long ball. They led baseball with 212 HRs but were near the bottom with a .313 on base percentage.
The Ubaldo Jimenez signing gives them an ace. I personally don’t project him translating well to a full season in the AL East. He’s always had a bit of a problem with the long ball and pitching more games at Fenway, Yankee Stadium, Toronto, and Camden may be bad news for him. They had a shot at Ervin Santana but were unwilling to part with draft picks. That leaves Chris Tillman at number two and a bunch of uncertainty filling out the rest of the rotation.
The Orioles need to replace 101 saves over the last two seasons as Jim Johnson left town. I’m not so sure Tommy Hunter is going to be the answer, but he should do just fine. Johnson got a lot of lucky saves with a high WHIP and a powerful offense to bail him out of his mistakes. Should Hunter fail, Darren O’Day is one of the better set-up men in the game and can quickly jump in to the closer spot.
Project 2014 finish: 81-81. For ticket purchases click here.
3. The Boston Red Sox
(Covers.com has the O/U at 87.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 88-74)
You hairy bunch of bearded buttheads. The Red Sox Nation get to raise another World Series flag on Opening Day, and I am not happy about it. They were Boston Strong last season, so for the city of Boston on the heels of tragedy I applaud them. Now I want to watch them crumble.
There was no one better than the Sox at producing runs last season. They were always on base as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia led a line-up that had 6 players finish with over a .350 OBP. In fact, they led baseball in runs scored, RBI, and OBP. That means a lot has to go right for them to return to those heights. And so far it hasn’t: their leadoff man and newest Boston turncoat left town, they got older at catcher by adding AJ Pierzynski, and they are banking that their elite prospects are ready to mature. Jackie Bradley, Jr. is struggling to beat out Grady Sizemore, who was once elite, but injuries have stolen his best years. Will Middlebrooks needs to finally play a full season because his two partial seasons have shown a lot of promise. Xavier Bogaerts looks ready to take over at shortstop and produce immediately.
The pitching staff only got older this offseason already losing Ryan Dempster to old age. Jon Lester is the most confusing ace in baseball. He can be a shut down, Cy Young candidate one season and a middling .500 pitcher the next. John Lackey and Jake Peavy are crafty veterans who use to be former aces, but they, like Lester, are boom or bust. Clay Buchholz was on his way to becoming the ace until injuries derailed his season.
Their bullpen is deep (how deep is it?). It’s so deep that I project newly signed Edward Mujica replacing Koji Uehara at closer sooner than later. Uehara had a great 2013 but older closers (he is 38) rarely produce back-to-back elite seasons. Andrew Miller, Craig Breslow, and Junichi Tazawa round out a solid back end.
Projected 2014 finish: 85-77. For ticket information click here.
2. The New York Yankees
(Covers.com has the O/U at 83.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 83-79)
They are old. They are beat up. They are prone to the nagging injury. But there is simply no way this team is not going to rally and get Derek Jeter to the playoffs one last time. Plus, I’m a total homer and there is no way I’m ever going to project the Red Sox to finish over the Yankees… ever.
This line-up is barely recognizable from last year’s debacle that finished dead last in the AL East in every offensive category. Jacoby Ellsbury brings a reliable table setter to the top of the line-up. Carlos Beltran brings a veteran presence to the outfield. Brian McCann will make the right field porch his beyotch and handle this pitching staff better than anyone since Hip Hip Jorge left. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts… well I guess they need to play. At least we don’t have A-Rod. All eyes of the baseball world will be on Jeter’s every move. He will be just fine and win the AL Comeback Player of the Year.
The pitching staff is a huge question mark but if they do click, then the Yankees could actually win the division. CC Sabathia is no longer the CC of old, but he still has a bounce back in him. Despite being shelled this spring, he is working on new pitches and simply can’t be as bad as he was last season. Masahiro Tanaka will be under the microscope both for the lucrative contract he signed and the fact that he is coming off of a 24-0 season in Japan. He will be a solid addition to the middle of the rotation. The fifth starter spot is still up in the air, but the Yankees really need Michael Pineda to claim it. He could be the Yankees x-factor if he can return to his 2011 form.
There is absolutely no pressure on David Robertson in replacing The Sandman. He only needs 644 more saves to match what Mo brought to the Yankees for two decades. The Yankees bigger problem is in moving Robertson to closer, they lose one of the best set-up men in baseball. This bullpen is going to be a revolving door all year.
Projected 2014 finish: 87-75 AL Wild Card. For ticket information click here.
1. The Tampa Bay Rays
(Covers.com has the O/U at 88.5 while FanGraphs has them finishing 84-78)
There is one reason and one reason alone the Rays are perennial contenders: Joe Maddon is the best manager in baseball. This team has never had a potent offense and they haven’t had any consistency in the bullpen, but the 2-time AL Manager of the Year will have the Rays back on top again.
The offense begins and ends with Evan Longoria. If he puts up god-like numbers the Rays are tough to beat but when he plays like a mere human, the entire line-up struggles. It will be exciting to see reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wll Myers‘ encore. The coveted Royals’ prospect came over for James Shields and didn’t disappoint. Desmond Jennings needs to continue his growth and become the 20-20 threat he can be.
David Price leads one of the best rotations in baseball. He will bring home the AL Cy Young Award in 2014 as the unquestionable leader to this young staff. The rotation is full of names that will be in Cy Young conversations for the foreseeable future. Matt Moore needs to get his control issues resolved (he led baseball with 17 wild pitches) but still finished 17-4. If he continues to fine tune his stuff, he will be lights out. As long as Alex Cobb can mentally comeback from being hit in the head by a comeback liner, which all signs show he can, he will be a Cy Young winner one day soon. Chris Archer had a strong first season as a full-time starter. All four finished with ERAs under 4.00.
Gone is Fernando Rodney and his wacky antics. Enter Grant Balfour. Balfour has been a dominant closer for the back-to-back AL West Champions As and has the avocados to lock down important games. He brings stability to a deep bullpen that also acquired Heath Bell this off season. Should Balfour struggle at all, Bell can immediately jump in and shut down games. The Rays are going far in 2014 because of their pitching depth both in the rotation and the pen.
Projected 2014 finish: 91-71 AL East Champs. For ticket information click here.