15 MLB Newcomers to Watch in 2011

 

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The good thing about baseball is that even fans of the perpetually obsolete clubs have hope each year. With the emergence of a hot prospect or still-green major leaguer, a team’s fortunes can change for the better. Take the 2008 Rays — after losing more than 90 games each year since the franchise’s inception and stockpiling young players, they made a sudden 31-game improvement, qualified for the playoffs for the first time and reached the World Series. Second on the team in both homeruns and RBIs, 22-year-old rookie Evan Longoria was a key component of their lineup and the team’s overall success. A productive young player can also transform a good team into a great team — NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey was the World Series champion’s best offensive player after he was called up late last May. So who will be 2011’s Evan Longoria or Buster Posey? Here are 15 youngsters with the talent and potential to make significant impacts this season.

  1. Jeremy Hellickson, SP — Rays: The Rays’ latest super prospect, Hellickson inherits the spot vacated by Matt Garza, who became expendable when Hellickson flashed his goods in four starts last season. In AAA in 2010, he posted a 12-3 record and 2.45 ERA, and tossed 9.4 K/9 and just 2.7 BB/9. He boasts a mid-90s fastball and great command that allows him to effectively throw a curve and changeup. He’ll certainly hit his rough patches in the AL East in his first full year, but he has the stuff to quickly become among baseball’s best starters.
  2. Brandon Belt, 1B — Giants: With Lincecum, Cain and Bumgarner fixed in the rotation, and Posey and now Belt anchoring the lineup, the Giants appear to be just kicking off a long successful run. Belt may essentially become this season’s Posey. Across three levels last season, he tallied 23 homeruns, 112 RBIs, 22 steals and hit .352/.455/.620. At 6’5, 220 pounds, he possesses all the tools to become a well-rounded player.
  3. Domonic Brown, OF — Phillies: Brown got a taste of the majors in 35 games late last season, but the inconsistent playing time hindered him from finding his rhythm. The departure of Jason Werth — Brown made him expendable — opened up a spot in right field, which is now occupied by Ben Francisco because of Brown’s broken hand. When he returns and gains confidence, the Phillies are hoping for the five-tool production he displayed in AA and AAA last season, where in 93 games, he hit .327/.391/.589 with 22 doubles, 20 homeruns, 68 RBIs and 17 stolen bases.
  4. Aroldis Chapman, RP — Reds: Still the setup man for Francisco Cordero, it’s uncertain whether Chapman will be a starter or closer long-term — Cordero’s sometimes erratic ways make one more of a lingering possibility than the other. With a fastball that has been clocked at 105 mph, Chapman has the gas to fluster major league hitters, but he’ll need to refine his repertoire and upgrade his control if he wants to pitch every five days.
  5. Michael Pineda, SP — Mariners: A one-two punch of Felix and Pineda could be daunting for the Mariners’ AL West foes in the coming years. In 2010, Pineda rebounded from a 2009 plagued by injuries, going 11-4 with a 3.36 ERA and throwing 9.9 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9 in AA and AAA. An imposing figure, the 6’5, 255 pound Dominican features a mid-to-high-90s fastball with movement to complement plus control. He should continue to post solid numbers during his rookie campaign in the unfriendly confines of Safeco field.
  6. Freddie Freeman, 1B — Braves: The next wave of promising Braves prospects includes Freeman, a first baseman who’s been compared to Kent Hrbek because of his 6’5 frame and defensive proficiency. His fluid swing and plate discipline enabled him to hit .319/.378/.521 in AAA last season. Currently on the thin side — 225 pounds — he doesn’t appear to be a power threat yet, but he could drive in a lot of runs.
  7. Chris Sale, RP — White Sox: Drafted with the 13th pick last June out of Florida Gulf Coast University, Sale made his major league debut just weeks later, making 21 appearances and posting a 1.93 ERA with a 12.5 K/9 and four saves. In 2011, the southpaw is slotted as Matt Thornton’s setup man, where he’ll continue to use his explosive upper-90s fastball to blow away hitters in the late innings. Sale has good command and resultantly a solid changeup and plus slider. He’ll make an intimidating starter when the time comes.
  8. J.P. Arencibia, C — Blue Jays: Despite struggling in spring training, Arencibia will be entrusted with a lion’s share of the Blue Jays’ catching responsibilities this season. Specializing in power, he hit .301/.359/.626 with 32 bombs in AAA last season. In his major league debut, he hit two bombs, causing Blue Jays fans to lick their chops. Arencibia and Drabek (see below) are among the most intriguing of the AL East’s hot prospects in 2011.
  9. Mike Minor, SP — Braves: Now that Stephen Strasburg is injured, Minor has become the most followed starter of the 2009 draft. A finesse pitcher, the lefty reminds a lot of Braves fans of Denny Neagle with his ability to change speeds. His changeup is an effective strikeout pitch — last season in AA and AAA, he averaged 10.9 K/9. His fastball has gained velocity in the minors, now reaching the low-90s. Although he’s beginning the year in AAA, he’ll get the first shot when a spot frees up in the Braves’ rotation.
  10. Desmond Jennings, OF — Rays: Through most of his professional career, Jennings has been compared to Carl Crawford, who joined the Red Sox last winter. Jennings’ audition for the outfield spot began late last season, but he struggled as he played sporadically. During the spring, he again struggled, hitting .154 while swiping only one base. As a result, he’s beginning the year back in the minors, where last season he hit .278/.362 with 37 steals on 41 attempts. He’s expected to return to the Rays sometime this season — Johnny Damon, after all, isn’t young.
  11. Jesus Montero, C — Yankees: Montero may be the next great Yankees catcher — if he remains at the position — but the presence of the newly acquired Russell Martin is delaying his inevitable emergence. Valued for his bat, Montero has hit .313/.371/.510 during his minor league career, and last season in AAA, he blasted a career-high 21 homeruns. Additionally, he’s made strides on defense, where he’s already known for having a rocket arm.
  12. Dustin Ackley, 2B — Mariners: At some point this season, Ackley will be promoted as the Mariners’ starting second baseman, and will likely become entrenched in the position– a new one for him — for years to come. The former North Carolina star was named the Arizona Fall League MVP after using his smooth swing and impressive hand-eye coordination to collect gaudy stats. His weaknesses in the strike zone are few, he’s patient, and he has plus speed, perfect for the top of the order.
  13. Mike Moustakas, 3B — Royals: In 2010, Moustakas solidified his status as one of baseball’s premier power prospects, leading the minors with 36 homeruns while hitting .322/.369/.630 in AA and AAA. His sturdy strength is expected to translate to the next level, and the Royals, who were 26th in the majors in homeruns in 2010, probably won’t wait long until they pencil him into the lineup alongside Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and fellow slugger Kila Ka’aihue.
  14. Kyle Drabek, SP — Blue Jays: Son of 1990 NL Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek, Kyle battled through high expectations and Tommy John surgery to forge an excellent minor league career. He has developed a multitude of plus pitches on which to rely, but his forte is his curveball, which effectively induces ground balls. Given his pedigree, it’s no surprise that he’s so advanced mentally. Like Hellickson, he’ll need every strength to endure the baptism by fire that’ll occur in baseball’s most difficult division.
  15. Zach Britton, SP — Orioles: After a spring training in which he posted a microscopic 1.35 ERA, Britton proved that he was worthy of filling in for the injured Brian Matusz. He’ll do his part to improve the Orioles’ staff, which placed 28th in the majors in ERA last season. His three-to-one groundout/fly-out ratio in the minors in 2010 indicate that he’ll likely transition well, and could remain in the majors for longer than just a cup of coffee.

 

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