At this time last year
, top-rated first basemen Freddie Freeman (Atlanta Braves) and Brandon Belt (San Francisco Giants) were expected to mash in the National League, while rare talent right-handers Jeremy Hellickson (Tampa Bay Rays) and Kyle Drabek (Toronto Blue Jays) were pegged to stifle the American League.
Expected and pegged being the key words, for Freeman mashed and Belt missed, while Hellickson stifled and Drabek struggled.
The lesson here is that prospects -- even premier prospects about to make their Major League debuts -- are judged on what they're capable of doing, not what they've already done. With this notion in mind, here's to hoping for the best and warding off the worst for this year's crop of first-timers.
Matt Moore, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 1 prospect begins and ends the season as the Majors' best No. 4 starter in the Majors' best rotation. The lefty proves that his seven innings of two-hit ball opposite the Texas Rangers in the 2011 American League Division Series was merely a preview. He receives most of the AL Rookie of the Year votes and even steals a few in the Cy Young Award race from teammates David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. They forgive him.
Worst Case: Moore's fastball straightens out, allowing batters to ignore his unhittable curveball. The 22-year-old hits a wall, is replaced on the staff by Wade Davis and finds himself back at Triple-A Durham looking for answers. He reaches his innings limit, in the range of 175, before he figures things out in time to help the Rays toward another postseason push.
Jesus Montero, C, Seattle Mariners
: MLB.com's No. 12 prospect sprays the ball all over the field from day one, making M's fans forget Michael Pineda (the pitcher he was traded for) and remember designated hitter Edgar Martinez (the slugger he emulates with every swing). Montero's .328/.406/.590 marks in 19 games as a Yankee in 2011 descend slightly in 2012 because of two inevitable variables: Playing at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field and without much support in the lineup. But Seattle couldn't be happier with its offseason acquisition, especially because Montero, 22, stays healthy and behind home plate.
: Montero struggles with the bat in his new environs and is shuttled back and forth between the catcher and designated hitter roles, leaving him -- and his starting pitchers -- in a tailspin. Questions about attitude and work ethic that were raised behind the scenes in New York are asked front and center in Seattle. Oh, and Pineda exits the 15-day disabled list and approaches 20 wins for the Yanks as buyer's remorse sets in.
Devin Mesoraco, C, Cincinnati Reds
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 14 prospect shows why former fellow Reds catching prospect Yasmani Grandal was expendable in the Mat Latos trade. Plugged into a lineup featuring Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce, Mesoraco feels little pressure to produce ... so he does. Many of his would-be two-baggers at Triple-A Louisville become home runs at Great American Ballpark. By July, the 23-year-old assumes full-time catching duties, relegating incumbent Ryan Hanigan to a backup role. He still receives plenty of days off as manager Dusty Baker looks to preserve his backstop of the future for the future.
Worst Case: Splitting time behind home plate stunts Mesoraco's growth defensively. Plus with too many days between starts, he sputters offensively. Baker sees the hitter who batted .180 in his first 18 big league games rather than the hitter who batted .289 in his last 120 Minor League contests. Mesoraco stays in the bigs, contributes occasionally on a playoff team (remember, there are two Wild Card teams) but fails to emerge in the fashion many Cincinnati fans expected.
Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Colorado Rockies
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 24 prospect wins more games than the man he was traded for (Ubaldo Jimenez, Cleveland Indians) despite working half the time from his home office (Coors Field). His nasty curveball helps his cause. He dominates National League West lineups in his first go-around through the division and stays ahead of the competition until he reaches a career-high 150 innings. He and Moore make sure pitchers sweep the two leagues' Rookie of the Year honors.
Worst Case: The 6-foot-5-inch, 240-pound hurler spends more time on the disabled list than on the mound. (He missed 11 days in Spring Training due to a "strained right glute muscle.") When his health returns, his command does not. Left-handed hitters still don't have a prayer against him, but righties are timing his fastball and doing enough with his curve to get into Colorado's bullpen by the fifth and sixth innings of his many so-so starts. The Rox still have a top-of-the-rotation anchor for years to come, but the club's decision-makers regret not handing his roster spot to a right-hander: Tyler Chatwood or Guillermo Moscoso.
Yonder Alonso, 1B, San Diego Padres
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 38 prospect does what Anthony Rizzo could not: Bat .300 at Petco Park. He collects twice as many doubles as he does homers -- and surprising some, eclipses 20 in the latter category -- while becoming the best RBI man on a team sorely lacking RBI men. His Rookie of the Year campaign falls just short, but an MVP award in future years seems possible, if not probable.
Worst Case: Alonso does what Anthony Rizzo could not: Bat .280 at Petco Park. But his sub-.450 slugging percentage leaves Padres exec Josh Byrnes and company wondering just how valuable a singles-hitting, average-fielding first baseman can be. Friars fans hoping for the next best Adrian Gonzalez are left with a player sharing instead the worst qualities of alumni Wally Joyner and Ryan Klesko.
Randall Delgado, RHP, Atlanta Braves
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 41 prospect pitches so well in his first three or four starts that when veteran Tim Hudson returns from injury, the Braves' front office has to make a move and deals from its greatest position of depth. At 22, the Panamanian officially arrives. While he doesn't have quite the ace potential of the man he bested in March, MLB.com No. 4 prospect Julio Teheran, Delgado shows off improved command and less susceptibility to the longball. He approaches 200 innings with ease, aiding Atlanta toward an National League East Division title.
Worst Case: Delgado's Spring Training struggles carry over into the season. He takes the ball three times before Hudson's expected return boots him back to Gwinnett, where he completes his first full season at Triple-A. The Braves, teeming with starting pitching, are no worse for the wear and neither is Delgado, who refines his game until he's called back to help the club (perhaps as a reliever) coast into the postseason. The only possible regret is not giving those three April starts to Teheran, who unlike Delgado, could have used the opportunity as a springboard to sustained success.
Wilin Rosario, C, Colorado Rockies
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 63 prospect begins the season backing up veteran Ramon Hernandez but is thrust into an everyday role -- or nearly everyday role, for he is a catcher -- when Rox manager Jim Tracy realizes he can ill-afford to write out a lineup without Rosario's name on it. His gaudy Spring Training stats -- the numbers that allowed him to force his way onto the Opening Day roster -- taper off considerably, but he's a complementary slugger to the Troy Tulowitzi-Carlos Gonzalez duo at Coors Field. Though he doesn't have Hernandez's experience behind home plate, he is helped by his familiarity with fellow first-year big leaguer Pomeranz (above) and fellow Dominican Juan Nicasio. He learns the rest as he goes along.
Worst Case: Those gaudy Spring Training stats? They prove to be a virtual Arizona mirage. Rosario hovers just above the Mendoza Line -- he batted .204 in his first 16 big league games in 2011 -- and the defensive flaws Tracy thought were fixed reappear as the games start to count. Rosario plays a game or two a week, pinch-hits occasionally but his development is disturbed. The 23-year-old is sent to nearby Colorado Springs, where he should have been on April 1.
Drew Smyly, LHP, Detroit Tigers
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 82 prospect makes 30-plus starts and records a sub-4.00 ERA as the lone lefty in the Tigers' able stable of hurlers. His cutter cuts, his curveball curves and an impressive differential between his fastball and changeup helps keep hitters off balance. Thanks to his presence in an already strong Detroit rotation -- and the offseason addition of one Prince Fielder -- the AL Central is the first division to crown its winner.
Worst Case: Like his first pro season in 2011 split between Class A Advanced Lakeland and Double-A Erie, Smyly throws strikes. Lots of strikes. Without Verlander- or even Scherzer-type stuff, however, Smyly doesn't get away with much, lengthening his learning curve. Whether it's because he gets hit around, or worse, his old elbow injuries resurface, the 22-year-old finds himself at Triple-A Toledo before his 23rd birthday in June. Detroit lives to regret not picking runners-up Duane Below, Andy Oliver or Jacob Turner to round out the rotation.
Addison Reed, RHP, Chicago White Sox
Best Case: MLB.com's No. 99 prospect begins the 2012 season how he finished 2011: By blazing fastballs and breaking sliders past big league hitters. The 23-year-old right-hander who earned four separate promotions last year earns a fifth by June when first-year skipper Robin Ventura picks the closer he wants to grow old with. Reed doesn't disappoint, saving the few games the middling Sox are in a position to win.
Worst Case: Reed learns that striking out Major Leaguers is more difficult than their Minor League counterparts, at least on a consistent basis. His mid-90-mph heater ends up in the outfield seats more often than he and Ventura would like. Chicago remains a club without a reliable ninth-inning option (apologies to veteran lefty Matt Thornton), and Reed returns to the Minors for more seasoning at Triple-A Charlotte. Ventura counts the days he's gone.