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March 17, 2014

Five to Watch

American League Prospects

by Wilson Karaman

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Last week we kicked off this series in the American League with my look at hitters who could do some targeted damage for owners looking to shore up a category in season, while Craig took a look at some pitchers with elevated BABIP figures to see what kind of bounce-back value he could find. Today, we’ll take a look at some young guns just trying to make it in this crazy world.

By now, everyone’s mostly familiar with the potential impact prospects expected to make their debuts this season. But every year there are always a handful of guys who come seemingly out of nowhere to do some damage right out of the gate and provide a huge boost to the savvy owner who scooped them up. Think of the Kole Calhoun/Danny Salazar types from last year—guys who were nowhere to be found in their organizations’ top 10 lists in the offseason. Here are five prospects who might fit that profile this season and warrant a spot on your watch list.

Jesus Aguilar, 1B, Cleveland Indians
The soon-to-be-24-year-old Aguilar is a big man. We’re talking 6-foot-3, 265 pounds worth of big man. Despite the pressures accompanying first base-only profile, his bat has held its own throughout his six-season rise from the Dominican Summer League all the way up to the Double-A Eastern League last season. His slugging has fallen off as he’s worked his way up the ladder, however, falling to a .427 mark last season despite a decent hitting environment in Akron. But then came a trip to Venezuela for winter ball, where he laid waste to everything in his path. He crushed 18 homers in just 58 games, and Cleveland felt strongly enough about his offensive potential to add him to its 40-man roster. He scuffled terribly this spring, going hitless in 15 at-bats in big-league camp (though he did walk six times). Still, if Carlos Santana proves capable of handling third and/or has to pick up more slack behind the plate if Yan Gomes’ breakout last summer proves unsustainable, there’s a very real possibility that DH at-bats open up in Cleveland. And Aguilar’s got some intriguing upside if he’s able to make those at-bats his own.

Abraham Almonte, OF, Seattle Mariners
Almonte has had a fascinating rise through the minor leagues, and now finds himself with some helium in spring training and a shot at breaking camp with the Mariners. A J2 signee all the way back in 2005, Almonte looked like he was starting to round into something resembling an interesting fringe prospect after posting a solid .288 TAv in a repeat performance in the Sally League in 2009. But he sustained a nasty shoulder injury that required labrum surgery in April 2010 and battled alcoholism through his recovery and into 2011. Finally healthy and sober in 2012, his game took a nice step forward, as he dramatically improved his walk rate, stole 32 bases, and put up an above-average offensive performance in the Eastern League. And after a trade to the Mariners last spring, he cobbled together something of a breakout campaign in the Pacific Coast League. Standard caveats about PCL offensive performance aside, he’s shown steady and significant improvements in his approach for two years running. He survived a cup of coffee with the big club last summer, and with Franklin Gutierrez out for the season, there appears to be a potential path to the 25-man roster for Almonte as the Mariners’ fourth outfielder or everyday center fielder. Whether or not he breaks camp with the team, Almonte should have the chance to play his way into some at-bats this season, and if he can run with the opportunity, he’s got an intriguing blend of on-base ability, 30-steal speed, and even a bit of latent pop.

Andy Burns, INF, Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto’s 11th-round pick in 2011 is not likely to compete for any MVP awards in his career, but he’s shown the ability to refine a nice power/speed package over the last two years as an infielder, and that’s always an eyebrow-raising combination. After managing to play just 28 games after signing, he played his age-21 season in 2012 in the Midwest League, where he showed some patience (11.7 percent walk rate) and pop (.464 slugging percentage), along with some whiffs (23.1 percent strikeout rate). He cut that whiff rate impressively, to 16.3 percent across two levels last season, though it should be noted that he was much better in the season’s first half at High-A (.329 TAv) than he was after a mid-season promotion to Double-A (.256 TAv). Still, the adjustment-to-level issue is not a deal-breaker for a 22-year-old in his first taste of Double-A, and for all his struggles, he still maintained a decent .161 ISO in what was essentially a league-average offensive performance. All told, he’s now posted back-to-back .815 OPS seasons, including a 15-homer, 33-steal campaign last year, while playing all over the infield. He’ll likely get another crack at Double-A to start the season, and while the majority of his playing time to date has come at third base (with some shortstop sprinkled in), I wouldn’t be surprised if he sees an increase in his second-base reps. If he proves capable of manning the keystone and takes another step forward with the bat, he’ll have all of Ryan Goins standing in the way of a big-league trial. He’s probably ultimately more of a utility infielder, but the bat has enough pop and the legs enough spring that he should be squarely on the radar for AL-only managers at the least.

Japhet Amador, 1B, Houston Astros
Sticking with my earlier theme of big-bodied first-base types, if you don’t know the story of Japhet Amador yet, you better get to knowing it. A hitting star for the past several seasons in the Triple-A-equivalent Mexican League, Amador was signed last year by the Astros in an interesting gamble by the Luhnow regime. Amador doesn’t just tip the scales, he might have eaten them just now while I wasn’t looking. He weighs 315 pounds (not a typo). Yet somehow, in spite of this, he draws praise for soft hands and at least viable mobility around the first-base bag. And he can hit a baseball, at least if his Mexican League stats are to be believed. He put up a video game-caliber .361/.409/.655 line with 36 home runs in fewer than 500 plate appearances last year, and at age 27, the clock is ticking on his prime. A late arrival to spring training likely derailed his chances of making the club to start the season, but he’s probably ahead of top prospect Jonathan Singleton on the depth chart as the next guy in line for now, since the Astros may as well see what they have while Singleton continues to work his way back from suspension. If and when he gets his promotion, Amador will make for an interesting option for power-starved teams looking to get lucky on a flier.

Donnie Joseph, RP, Kansas City Royals
I can’t help this one, as Joseph has been on my radar since a three-level demolition of the minor leagues in 2010. Armed with 95-mph gas and a wicked, darting slider, Joseph has struck out 382 minor-league batters in 280 career innings since being taken in the third round of the 2009 draft. That’s a 12.3 K/9 if you’re scoring at home, maintained over four-and-a-half full (for a reliever) seasons. There’s always a “but” with guys like this, however, and with Joseph the Destructor, that takes the form of inconsistent mechanics and poor command. He’s got an accompanying 4.5-per-nine career walk rate that includes an ugly 6.5-per-nine rate last season in the dreaded Pacific Coast League. But he finally made it to the Majors last summer with Kansas City, and while his lot in life may just end up being a LOOGY with periodic control issues, this is your guy if you’re looking for a sleeper bullpen arm for strikeouts this summer. In AL-only leagues especially, I would monitor Joseph closely.

Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Wilson's other articles. You can contact Wilson by clicking here

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