The time has come for players to solidify roles on a Major League club and show that they're worthy of hearing their name introduced to starved fans on Opening Day. This is especially true of prospects, who by definition don't have much, if any, Major League experience. The burden of proof that they're ready for the big stage can be high, but that's what makes these next few weeks so exciting.
This edition of Toolshed looks at which MLB.com Top-100 prospects have something to show in Major League camps this Spring Training, grouped by organization:
Shohei Ohtani, RHP/DH, Angels: MLB.com's top overall prospect will perhaps be the most watched player this spring as he moves to Major League Baseball for the first time and fans and clubs get a look at how the 23-year-old's game translates on the mound and at the plate. Unlike some of the other names below, there's no drama as to whether Ohtani will start the season in the Majors. Instead, the intrigue will come from how the Halos choose to utilize him. His five-pitch mix will make for must-watch starts in the Cactus League, but it might be even more interesting to follow how well he does at the plate to see if he's worthy of as many DH at-bats as possible or if the Angels should keep turning to Albert Pujols or C.J. Cron in that role.
Ronald Acuna, OF / Luiz Gohara, LHP / Max Fried, LHP, Braves: Atlanta lost an excuse to start the Major League-ready Acuna in the Majors when they dealt Matt Kemp to the Dodgers in December. The 20-year-old, multi-tooled outfielder will get a long look over the next six weeks, but it's more likely the Braves -- who are at least a season away from seriously contending in the National League East -- will value a delay in his service time via a return to Triple-A Gwinnett over a few weeks of Major League action.
The Braves' rotation could be an interesting mix of young and old with Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, Lucas Sims, Gohara, Fried and a host of other 27-and-unders competing with veterans Brandon McCarthy and Scott Kazmir -- both acquired in the Dodgers deal -- for the five spots. (Read more in MiLB.com's recently wrapped Prospect Projection series.) That might seem like a long list, but Gohara, who posted a 4.91 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings in the Majors last year and earned Steamer's highest projection among Braves starters, should be a strong candidate, even if he's one of the youngest at 21. Fried has a more uphill battle, but after he showed impressive stuff in the Arizona Fall League, don't be surprised if he's a late cut in Lake Buena Vista.
Gleyber Torres / Miguel Andujar, infielders, Yankees: Let everyone else focus on the daily home run derbies between Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. The most intriguing story line in Tampa will involve how willing the Yankees are to lean on Torres and Andujar -- the Nos. 5 and 65 prospects in the game -- for a club looking to push for a division title and more. The second- and third-base jobs are open in the Bronx, and New York's American League club just so happens to have two ready or close-to-ready prospects to fill the void. (It's almost as if general manager Brian Cashman planned it that way or something.) Andujar should be considered the more likely of the two to crack the Opening Day roster for a number of reasons, but the biggest is that he's simply the Yankees' best option at third base right now, even if there are defensive concerns. Torres, who's played primarily as a shortstop in the Minors, faces more questions -- namely whether he's fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and how well he might handle a full-time move to the keystone. A return to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre seems more likely, but he could make it a close call against fellow second-base options Ronald Torreyes or Tyler Wade this spring.
Offseason MiLB include
Brent Honeywell, RHP / Willy Adames, SS / Jake Bauers, 1B/OF, Rays: This trio helped Durham win the 2017 Triple-A National Championship, and after playing in a combined 307 games for the Bulls last season, there isn't much else for them to prove in a return to the International League. There also isn't an obvious opening they could exploit this spring, however. Honeywell was the most dominant of the three in 2017, but barring a late trade of Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi (two names popping up in rumors this offseason), the 22-year-old is likely destined for a Minor League return. The same goes for Adames and Bauers, who were successful but uneven at the Minors' highest level. The good news for all three is that they're on the 40-man roster and have ceilings high enough that they should push for Major League time early in 2018. It'll just take an awfully impressive spring to move up their timelines. No. 81 overall prospect Christian Arroyo also deserves a mention as he enters his first camp as a Ray. With 125 at-bats for the Giants last season, he's barely got prospect eligibility remaining, but like Adames, he'll have to show he's capable of breaking into Tampa Bay's infield right away, especially coming off surgery on his left hand.
Walker Buehler, RHP / Alex Verdugo, OF, Dodgers: Read more about these particular battles in the NL West edition of our Prospect Projections, but the short version: Unless the Dodgers prefer to use Buehler as a reliever to limit his innings -- and he could be quite useful in that role -- he's going back to Triple-A Oklahoma City to continue to get stretched out in another year removed from Tommy John surgery. Verdugo will get some looks in an outfield that got a little more crowded with the addition of Kemp (unless the veteran's massive contract can be offloaded), but Los Angeles will prefer to get the 21-year-old everyday at-bats, rather than let him sit behind Chris Taylor or Yasiel Puig in Chavez Ravine. After hitting .314 with an .825 OPS in the Pacific Coast League, he could be ready at a moment's notice, though.
Alex Reyes, RHP / Jack Flaherty, RHP / Carson Kelly, C / Tyler O'Neill, OF, Cardinals: Reyes' role remains up in the air after he underwent Tommy John surgery almost a year ago. The 23-year-old has already started throwing bullpens at the Cardinals' facility in Jupiter, and he even threw 40 fastballs Monday, MLB.com's Joe Trezza noted. The Cards have said they expect the hurler, who threw 46 innings for the big club in 2016, to return in early May and initially work out of the bullpen. He's reportedly said he'd like to start, and when he's healthy, he has the three-pitch mix to work in that role. Can he change the club's mind with a healthy spring? Stay tuned.
Flaherty made it to The Show in time for September roster expansion last season, making him part of the rotation discussion this year. The addition of Miles Mikolas could put him on the outside looking in, though, and that's not a bad thing after Flaherty put up a 6.33 ERA over six Major League appearances. Kelly would be part of the starting catcher discussion anywhere else, but he'll continue to play second fiddle to Yadier Molina. This spring will be another chance for him to develop relationships with the pitching staff, should a Molina absence cause him to be thrust him into the starting spot. O'Neill is the only one of the group without Major League experience. Marcell Ozuna's move to St. Louis doesn't help his cause, but the 22-year-old could be in competition with former Memphis teammate Harrison Bader for the fourth outfield spot. A powerful spring in which he improves his contact rate would be a big help.
Austin Hays, OF, Orioles: Following his 2017 breakout, Hays remains one of the game's more divisive prospects. MLB.com has him ranked at No. 23 overall. Other prospect-ranking publications have him much deeper in the back halves of their top 100s. It all depends on how big-league ready you believe his bat is. Hays hit .329 with 32 homers and a .958 OPS in 128 games between Class A Advanced Frederick and Double-A Bowie. He also showed little desire to walk (taking a free pass only 25 times) and struggled in the Majors, hitting .217/.238/.317 with one homer in 63 plate appearances. But he doesn't face crazy competition for the starting right field spot (Joey Rickard, Anthony Santander), so if Hays can show his Major League issues were the result of a small sample at the end of a long season, he should have the inside track to a Major League gig.
Lewis Brinson, OF, Marlins: The Marlins outfield is going to have a new look in 2018 with Stanton, Ozuna and Christian Yelich all traded, and Brinson is prepared to step right in with his hometown club. In most other cases -- and certainly back in Milwaukee -- any mention of Brinson would include how the 23-year-old needs to prove his health in the spring after hamstring issues limited him in 2017. It'd also point out the benefits of a return to Triple-A after he hit .106/.236/.277 in 55 plate appearances in the bigs with the Brewers. Instead, he'll get a serious chance to flip that script and showcase his five-tool profile in his first camp after coming over in the Yelich deal. The Marlins hope he hits the ground running and gives fans an outfielder to talk about right away, instead of the ones they sent out of town.
J.P. Crawford, SS / Scott Kingery, 2B, Phillies: The Phillies' trade of Freddy Galvis to the Padres was a clear signal that Crawford is their shortstop of the present and future. The only pressure now on the 23-year-old is to make them look right, but even then, he'd have to really struggle this spring for the Phils to consider someone like non-roster invite Pedro Florimon over Crawford at short. Kingery is a much more interesting case. MLB.com's No. 35 overall prospect is coming off a breakout season in which he hit .304 with 26 homers and 29 steals at Triple-A and Double-A. The Phillies would love to see the second baseman prove his Major League readiness early on in 2018. The issue is he's blocked by Cesar Hernandez, who led Phillies position players with a 3.3 WAR last season. Kingery, who is considered a plus fielder at second, did get time at short and third last season, and he'll likely move around the infield again in Grapefruit League play. It'll be interesting to see whether he can show enough in Clearwater for the Phillies to clear out Hernandez for him -- a la Galvis -- or if he shows his arm could handle a full-time move to the hot corner to take over for the stock-dropping Maikel Franco.
Ryan McMahon, infielder, Rockies: As things stand, McMahon would be the Rockies' starting first baseman. That's more because he's blocked by Nolan Arenado at third and DJ LeMahieu at second than a commentary on his profile as a first-base prospect. McMahon can be above average with the bat when it comes to average and power, as he showed with a .355/.403/.583 line and 20 homers in 119 games at Double-A and Triple-A. But he's not necessarily a plus in either skill, and the bar to provide offensive value at first base is considerably higher. The Rockies have been rumored to be talking to Mark Reynolds about a potential return to help out at Coors Field, but with nothing done yet, McMahon should get an opportunity in Scottsdale to prove he can seize the job for himself on a full-time basis.
Willie Calhoun, OF/DH, Rangers: Nobody doubts Calhoun's bat. The 23-year-old left-handed slugger hits for a good amount of power (31 homers at Triple-A last season), a solid average and rarely strikes out. The Rangers believed his offensive ability was Major League-ready last year, bringing him up in mid-September -- just weeks after acquiring him from the Dodgers for Yu Darvish. But can Calhoun's glove get him another spot this spring? A second baseman with LA, Calhoun has moved to left field in the Texas system and will continue to get more looks there in the coming weeks. It's easier to hide his lack of range and arm strength there, but it could also be the Rangers' excuse for sending him back to Round Rock come the end of March. Don't be surprised if they move him to the DH role full-time either.
Franklin Barreto, infielder, Athletics: Barreto played 111 games at Triple-A and 25 in the Majors in 2017. It's reasonable to wonder whether this is the spring that he'll get a full-time role with Oakland. It's also reasonable to point out that he'll only turn 22 on Feb. 27, his position isn't settled between shortstop and second base and he's blocked at each position by Marcus Semien and Jed Lowrie right now anyway. As much fun as it would be to see Barreto join Matt Chapman and Matt Olson in Oakland's youth movement on the dirt, he likely heads into spring with a return to Triple-A Nashville already planned. To speed his movement up the depth chart, he'll need to improve his contact rate in the Cactus League after striking out in 174 times between the Majors and Minors in 2017.
Jesse Winker, OF / Tyler Mahle, RHP / Nick Senzel, 3B, Reds: Winker seemed to show enough during his 47 games in the Majors (.298/.375/.529) to enter spring on the inside track to win an Opening Day job in either corner outfield spot. Power remains a question, however, and that happens to be the strengths of both Scott Schebler (30 homers in 2017) and Adam Duvall (31 homers). Winker will have to continue to make tons of contact and reach base at a high clip to hold one of those two off. The Reds' rotation battle should be fairly wide open, and that could be an opportunity for Mahle to exploit. He had mixed results in four Major League starts (2.70 ERA, 1.50 WHIP in 20 innings), but he's got the plus fastball, above-average slider and impressive control to potentially beat out a crowded field. That said, Senzel might be the most intriguing prospect story in Cincinnati camp this spring. The Reds have already said they'll move the 2016 No. 2 overall pick to second some this spring during his time as a non-roster invite, and he also has time at short dating back to his college days, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see him there either. If he can handle all that and show no dip with the bat after hitting .321/.391/.514 last season, this could be the last spring Senzel is talked about as a prospect.
Brandon Woodruff, RHP, Brewers: After going 86-76 and finishing one game out of an NL Wild Card spot, the Brewers seem to be going for it this offseason with the additions of Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. They're also rumored to still be looking for a quality starting pitcher, and that could put another roadblock in Woodruff's path back to the Majors. The 25-year-old posted a 4.81 ERA in 43 innings with the big club last season, likely putting him on the outside looking in at a rotation spot entering camp. A strong spring could prove that Woodruff is worth a quick return to the Majors if injuries or bad performance open up a spot in Milwaukee. Undoubtedly, the Brewers would love to find their starter solution internally rather than paying a price on the trade or free-agent markets before Opening Day.