Spring Training has arrived, and with it come a few tantalizing storylines. For Minor Leaguers, this is a chance to get experience in a Major League atmosphere and show that they can hang with the big boys. Last March, players like Michael Pineda and Brandon Beachy used strong performances to catapult themselves to impressive rookie campaigns.
This year, there is a new crop of youngsters hoping to make their teams' Opening Day rosters. Phenom Bryce Harper will try to make the Nationals despite not having played above Double-A, while Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes will make his case to start in the Majors as well. Meanwhile, recent draftees and more seasoned Minor Leaguers will also attempt to make their teams take notice.
With exhibition games around the corner, here are the top questions that will be answered in the next month and a half.
Will Bryce Harper make the Nationals' Opening Day roster?
Bryce Harper has been one of the most hyped prospects in recent memory. Featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was just 16 years old, Harper showed incredible power potential even as a youngster and was selected first overall by the Nationals in 2010. He didn't disappoint in the debut, hitting .318 with 14 homers and a .977 OPS in 72 games at Class A Hagerstown. He subsequently earned a promotion to Double-A Harrisburg, where his inexperience caught up to him: He batted .256 with just three homers in 37 games, posting a .724 OPS before a right hamstring injury ended his season early.
In the Arizona Fall League, Harper again started slowly, collecting just one hit in his first five games. He was held hitless just once over his final 20 contests, however, ending the season with a .333 average, six homers and a 1.034 OPS. Harper's ultimate ceiling remains clear -- according to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, he could be "a five-tool threat in the middle of a lineup." But at 19 years old, is he already to meet the challenges of a 162-game Major League season?
When pressed, Nationals manager Davey Johnson said the Harper Era could arrive sooner than expected.
"But I think that the main thing is ... could he handle it mentally? And I think in his mind, he's already figuring to be starting on the club, if you ask him," Johnson said in early February. "And I haven't talked to him, but I know that he's done everything in his whole life to succeed at a higher level and compete with the best. But I think [Harper is] pretty mature. I don't look at him age-wise, as I probably should."
Without Harper, the Nationals would likely start Michael Morse and Jayson Werth in their corner outfield spots, with Roger Bernadina manning center field. If Harper were to make the team, either Werth would slide over to center -- where he would not provide the same range as Bernadina -- or Morse would move to first, benching Adam LaRoche.
Bernadina might not be the most exciting player, but he will be an adequate outfielder for the Nationals. There's nothing wrong with letting Harper get more seasoning without accruing service time. Expect the youngster to start the year at Double-A, with an opportunity to earn a big league call-up before the season is out.
Where will Yoenis Cespedes begin the season?
Last year, the A's offense wasn't pretty. The team ranked 20th in the Majors with 645 runs scored, with only three starters posting an OPS above league average: Josh Willingham, Jemile Weeks and Scott Sizemore. Willingham changed teams as a free agent, as did fellow outfielder David DeJesus, leaving Oakland with a couple of holes -- holes that it has spent the offseason filling with quantity, hoping that quality will emerge.
The A's acquired outfielders Seth Smith, Josh Reddick and Collin Cowgill in trades, while also agreeing to a deal with free agent Jonny Gomes. Their most high-profile move, however, was the seemingly out-of-nowhere signing of Cuba's Yoenis Cespedes. Though Cespedes had been linked to the Marlins, the A's swooped in with a four-year, $36-million contract to land the international sensation.
Playing as a 25-year-old in Cuba last year, Cespedes hit .333 with a league-record 33 home runs. He also stole 11 bases and walked more times (49) than he struck out (40). Those are impressive numbers, but it's worth keeping in mind that scouts generally compare Cuban League baseball to the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League in the Minor Leagues -- where one would expect a 25-year-old to dominate. It should also be noted that Cespedes scuffled during his brief stint in the Dominican Winter League, batting just .143 (5-for-35) with one homer in nine games. He struck out 10 times and failed to draw a walk in those contests, apparently struggling to identify breaking balls.
Those Winter League difficulties do not raise any serious concerns about his long-term potential, but they do raise some concerns about his ability to step into a big league lineup right away. The A's are paying him a lot of money, but they have time to get back a return on their investment -- especially since the team is aiming to compete a few years down the line, as was demonstrated by their fire sale this offseason. A stint at Triple-A won't hurt Cespedes, and the A's have plenty of outfield depth, so don't be surprised if the Cuban starts the year below the Major League level.
Which 2011 Draft picks are worth keeping an eye on?
The first three players taken in June were all pitchers, and they each could make an impact on their teams relatively soon. Selected first overall, Gerrit Cole can top out in triple digits and -- and with a devastating fastball/slider combination -- has the potential to be a true No. 1 starter in the big leagues. Behind him, Danny Hultzen has less upside but more polish, and taken third, Trevor Bauer has already proven to be a unique and cerebral pitcher.
Of the three, Hultzen has the best chance to make the jump straight to the Majors. The right-hander showed his refined game in the Arizona Fall League, where he compiled a 1.40 ERA and won the Rising Stars Game.
After agreeing to a contract with Hultzen in August, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said, "We'll give Danny a shot right off the bat to see if he can make the big league club or not."
With four of the M's rotation spots all but locked up among Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma and Hector Noesi, Hultzen will have to beat out Blake Beaven and Charlie Furbush in order to skip the Minors entirely. onsidering the southpaw's poise and that Mike Leake made the jump only a few years ago, he could find himself in a Major League uniform come April.
Cole and Bauer, meanwhile, are less likely to open the season in the bigs but could certainly prove entertaining with their dominant stuff. Cole fanned 16 batters in 15 AFL innings, while Bauer struck out a whopping 43 in 25 2/3 Minor League frames after signing early last year. The pair of former UCLA teammates have a different approach -- Cole's power vs. Bauer's depth of arsenal -- but both will be fun to watch this spring.
Which Minor League veterans are competing for Major League jobs?
Minor League players spend the season playing in front of plenty of organizational evaluators -- coaches, scouts and team executives -- but it's not often they have a chance to play in front of the staff members on the big league team. Spring Training provides that opportunity. Several players with strong Minor League backgrounds will be doing their best to finally make it to the Majors, with a few notable ones outlined below.
Ryan Lavarnway: Though Jarrod Saltalamacchia is lined up as the starting catcher and Kelly Shoppach as the backup for the Red Sox, one has to think Ryan Lavarnway will get a long look in Spring Training for a spot on the team. The Yale product hit .290 with 32 long balls and 93 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A last year, putting up the best offensive season of his impressive Minor League career. Lavarnway won't win any Gold Gloves behind the plate, but neither will Saltalamacchia or Shoppach. If Lavarnway gets an honest look, he could prove to be the best of the bunch.
Jacob Turner/Drew Smyly: The fifth spot in the Tigers' rotation is open to more than just these two -- Andy Oliver, Duane Below, Casey Crosby and Adam Wilk are also candidates -- but as the team's top two pitching prospects, they have to be considered the favorites. Though Turner struggled to the tune of a 8.53 ERA in a brief Major League stint last year, he's coming off a season in which he put up a 3.44 ERA over 131 Minor League innings. Smyly posted more impressive numbers last year, compiling a 2.07 ERA, but he also played at lower levels than Turner. With such a wide-open competition and the team trying to win right now, expect to see some high-pressure starts in the normally relaxed Spring Training atmosphere.
Jorge Vazquez: The Yankees have signed Raul Ibanez ostensibly to be their right-handed designated hitter, but that doesn't mean Vazquez won't put on a show playing for the job. The 30-year-old first baseman has an all-out swing that leads to all-or-nothing results, which is both his strength and his downfall. Last year, he slugged 32 home runs for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but he also struck out 166 times. In the same vein, his .516 slugging percentage was impressive, but his .314 on-base percentage left plenty to be desired. The former Mexican League All-Star quickly became a fan favorite last spring for his prodigious blasts, so at the very least, expect him to generate some buzz again.