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March 26, 2014

The Lineup Card

10 Players Whose Seasons We're Excited About

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Corey Kluber, Indians
I’ve been high on Kluber all offseason, making a big target in my fantasy leagues. His results from last year don’t jump off the page as being particularly excellent, but when you dig into the 3.85 ERA, you see that he was a few blowups away from a big season. He had three outings in which he allowed six-plus earned runs (including an eight-run bomb against the Tigers), which combined for 32 percent of the earned runs he allowed season. If he can curb the implosions—both his skills and pure stuff suggest he absolutely can—then an ERA down in the low-3.00s is in the offing. He has a deep arsenal capable of missing plenty of bats, and he does a great job of keeping the ball down. Everything adds up to a potential breakout. I can’t wait to see what he delivers in 2014. —Paul Sporer

2. Chris Sale, White Sox
One of these years, if he can stay healthy, Sale is going to win a Cy Young Award. I don't think it will be this year, since the White Sox aren't likely to provide enough offense to help him post an obscene win total, and pitching in The Cell in front of what has been an iffy defense inflates his raw numbers. Yet despite his high-wire delivery he's continued to avoid injury, and because of his high-wire delivery and scarecrow frame, he's the most enjoyable pitcher to watch in baseball. If he can put up another 200-inning season this year, maybe we can all just relax and revel in his ability to do this:

(GIF courtesy of the inimitable Sam Miller) —Ken Funck

3. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
You might think that at this point, even I would be tired of talking about Bogaerts, but I'm not even remotely tired of talking about Bogaerts. I haven't been this excited for a Red Sox rookie season since Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury were called up in 2007, and Bogaerts is easily the best prospect the Red Sox have had since then, and perhaps since Nomar Garciaparra in 1996. While I don't think Bogaerts blossoms into a full blown superstar just yet, I do think he'll finish the season as a top-12 shortstop in terms of WAR, carrying a neutral defensive grade and a .270/.330/.425 line, batting second for the Red Sox by mid-June. There's of course a good chance that Bogaerts isn't quite ready for the big show yet, and that we could be talking about him as a post-hype prospect in 2015. But there's also a chance that my projections are conservative, and that Bogaerts is ready to make a significant impact on the team now. Either way, Bogaerts is a player I've followed intimately throughout the minors and is the rare prospect on the Red Sox who I actually think is worth the hype he receives. I can't wait to see what 2014 has in store for Xander, and for his sake and the sake of my reputation, I hope it marks the beginning of a long, prosperous career. —Ben Carsley

4. Julio Urias, Dodgers
As a Southern California resident who will be taking in a ton of High-A California League games, I personally cannot be more ecstatic for the minor-league season to begin. The league should be stacked with top prospects throughout the state, with the majority of top talent making their rounds in my area. I've already begun writing down names of prospects I need to see immediately, and one of the top names on the list is Los Angeles Dodgers pitching prodigy Julio Urias. While most 16-year-olds are worried about treating an acne breakout, the 16-year-old Urias was busy baffling Midwest League hitters in 2013 with an arsenal and baseball IQ well beyond his years. With the southpaw expected to begin the 2014 season with the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, it is now my turn to take in the Urias experience. —Ronit Shah

5. George Springer, Astros
Partly, I'm looking forward to George Springer's season because I'm looking forward to the Astros actually calling up their best (maybe?) hitter, ideally with a nine-year extension already signed and ready to be announced. But mostly I'm interested because he seems like a guy who should have massive error bars in his projection, coming off perhaps MiLB's most impressive season last year but with the one flaw--swing-and-miss at the minor-league level--that seems to most often doom can't-miss prospects. In the Astros' top 10, Jason Parks called Springer "a more electric version of Chris Young." Considering the range we've seen from the actual Chris Young—replacement level some years, near-MVP level others—you can easily talk yourself into a six-win range of outcomes for Springer going forward. How he shows up this year could easily move the Astros' competitive window up or back by a year. —Sam Miller

6. Burke Badenhop, Red Sox
If you haven't noticed or been pointed to this before, well, now's a good time for you to see it. And you've got to see it to believe it.

In each of the last two years—the first with the Rays, the second with the Brewers—Badenhop has pitched exactly 62 1/3 innings, walked exactly 12 batters, struck out exactly 42 batters, and allowed exactly six home runs.

Coincidence? Well, sure, probably. But the baseball nerd in me can't help but hope he turns in precisely those numbers again. —Daniel Rathman

7. Gregory Polanco, Pirates
Much was made of the Pirates offseason, both the importance of it before the hot stove got going and the disappointment in it after the fact. There were calls for the Pirates to be active on the free agent market, especially with a crop of available outfielders who fit a need in Pittsburgh. The Pirates did not make the move its fans had hoped for, and Gregory Polanco is a large reason why. The Pirates' top position prospect, Polanco will be in the majors by June and will pair with reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte for what could become the best outfield in the National League. The Pirates have no intention of making bad decisions on the free agent market, instead taking an extremely conservative approach to building a team, one that centers around young talent.

Polanco is a five-tool potential star who is expected to join the team in June once the Super Two deadline has safely come and gone. In addition to his talent, many of the expectations for the Pirates rest (perhaps unfairly) on his shoulders. If the team wants to improve on a magical 2013 season, it will take Polanco fulfilling their expectations for him right out of the gate. Additionally, the gaps between Marte, McCutchen, and Polanco in the PNC Park outfield will be the newest graveyard for doubles and triples.

Polanco is going to have a slight learning curve with advanced pitching, but his tools will be on full display, potentially in a pennant race. And that’s always fun to watch. —Jeff Moore

8. Billy Hamilton, Reds
In the 1984 television movie The Jesse Owens Story, the track and field coaches at the 1936 Olympic trials who see Owens run for the first time shake their stopwatches in disbelief, assuming that their instruments have failed them. It seems impossible that a man can run that fast, yet this is exactly what Owens does. Seventy-eight years after Owens’ legendary Olympic performance comes the full season major-league debut of another speed demon who has to be seen to be believed: Billy Hamilton.

If you’re a regular Baseball Prospectus reader or an avid baseball fan, by now you know all about Hamilton. You know about his potentially game breaking speed. You also are all too familiar with all of the potential negatives in his game as well, and know that there is a definite chance that he will not make it as an everyday player. However, if you are fan of the sport you want to see how far he’ll get on those amazing legs of his. Every time Hamilton gets on base this year is going to be one of the most exciting moments in baseball. Every time the pitcher throws the ball to home plate will be an opportunity to see something we’ve never seen before: a chance to see the man who might very well be the fastest baserunner in baseball history sprint down to second base. The stolen base hasn’t disappeared from the game, but the notion of a man stealing 100 or more bases was beginning to look like it belonged to a distant era. The term “game breaking speed” is hackneyed and tired, yet this is the kind of speed that Hamilton has. With the games that count about to begin, I want to see if he can not only stick in the majors, but also change the game—and the way we perceive it —the way all great athletes change their sports. —Mike Gianella

9. Yordano Ventura, Royals
Every time I've watched Ventura pitch, he's been electric. I can see concerns about durability or consistency of command... but did I mention the electricity?

A slightly built, 5-foot-11 pitcher with a whippy arm touching triple-digits as a starter? Yeah, those are practically unicorns. Gather 'round, enjoy the show, and have some sympathy for the batters. Maybe sub-six-foot starters are the next market inefficiency (see Gray, Sonny). It's a story within a story. —Harry Pavlidis

10. Austin Hedges, Padres
Catchers with great gloves are near and dear to my heart, and as the consensus best defensive backstop in the minors, Hedges has the makings of my next muse. We probably won’t see him in the majors until 2015, but this season will still be telling: Not only will we find out more about his bat in his first full year at the Double-A level, but we’ll get a good handle on his receiving skills. We know they look smooth and get great reviews from scouts, but this season, we’ll gain a better sense of what the stats say. Max Marchi’s estimated minor-league framing method (which Harry Pavlidis is hard at work on adapting) works only at Double-A and above, which means that we have just 20 games’ worth of data on Hedges. In that small sample, his framing was worth five runs—and remember, the estimated values tend to be more conservative than those based on PITCHf/x. In 2014, we’ll see how high that total can climb over a full schedule.

In a perfect world, Hedges will be a younger, more durable, better-blocking and better-hitting Jose Molina, or Yadier with a lower average and a little less pop. The quality of his receiving skills could determine whether he fills his OFP as an all-star or his “realistic role” as an above-average starter, and by the end of the year, we might be able to tell which is the more likely outcome. —Ben Lindbergh

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