By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.READ MORE: Gov. Charlie Baker: Decision Not To Run For Third Term Was 'Complicated And Difficult'
This MLB offseason was one of the oddest in recent memory. An unprecedented number of talented players remained on the free-agent market well into February, with many still yet to find a team. While much of this winter was quiet, the division that arguably made the most noise was the American League East. The New York Yankees made one of the first big splashes, acquiring reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins.
Since then, the Yankees have made a number of additional moves, the Boston Red Sox signed one of the best hitters on the market in JD Martinez, and the Tampa Bay Rays have unleashed a flurry of transactions in recent weeks, unloading a number of players in a bit of a roster overhaul. To go along with all of that movement, each team boasts a number of talented young players worth keeping a close eye on in 2018. Here’s a look at one from each team who can have an impact this season.
Rafael Devers, Third Baseman, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox were expecting a big rookie season from No. 1 prospect Andrew Benintendi last year, and he delivered. But the No. 2 prospect, Devers, wasn’t initially in the plans for last season. At just 20 years old, Devers had never played above Class A Advanced entering the year and appeared on track to make an impact in ‘18, but after mashing 18 homers with a .300/.369/.575 slash line in 77 games in Double A, he played just nine games for Triple-A Pawtucket before making his Red Sox debut on July 25.
Devers’ success continued in the Majors and he hit 10 homers and 14 doubles while showing a disciplined eye and keeping his average up. Devers exceeded his rookie limits playing in 58 games which obviously kept him out of the Rookie of the Year discussion, but what Devers did in that limited time gave the Red Sox enough confidence to pencil him into the middle of their lineup this season.
Still just 21 years old, Devers has plenty of room for growth at the plate. Devers struck out a good amount, but if he can keep his K% in the low 20s he can still have success in this MLB, where strikeouts are now commonplace and accepted as long as they are accompanied by home runs.
There is one major question with Devers, and that’s whether or not he sticks as a third baseman in the long run. He struggled mightily in the field, committing 14 errors in only 56 games in the field, but if he continues to hit, his job won’t be in jeopardy no matter how poor his defense is. ZiPS projections on Fangraphs have Devers hitting 27 homers with 80 RBIs and a .273/.324/.487 line in 146 games, a bullish projection that Devers shouldn’t have any issues matching or even exceeding.
Gleyber Torres, Infield, New York Yankees
It was evident last season the Yankees are not low on young talent, but one top Yankees prospect who didn’t have a banner season was Torres. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs in ‘16 for current Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, Torres was rated a top-five prospect entering ‘17 and appeared poised to make his Yankees debut after a strong two months in the Minors at Double-A and Triple-A. Unfortunately, his season was cut short with Tommy John surgery.READ MORE: Massachusetts Reports 4,838 New COVID-19 Cases, 25 Additional Deaths
Fortunately for Torres and the Yankees, the timetable for a return from TJ surgery is much shorter for position players, and he has begun Spring Training with no limitations. The Yankees have an opening at second and third base, and Torres was an early favorite for one of those positions before the team acquired Brandon Drury from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The addition of Drury and the issue of service time will keep Torres down at the start of the season. After 12 days in the Minors the Yankees will get an additional year of control, and it’s likely he’ll remain in the Minors a bit longer to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy and to get more reps at positions that are relatively new to the natural shortstop. ZiPS projections have the 21-year-old hitting 17 homers with a .247 average and 12 steals in 99 games with the Yankees.
Jake Faria, Pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays
If there’s one thing the Rays are known for, it’s developing starting pitching. Jake Faria, a 10th round pick in ‘11, became the latest in a long line of successful Rays pitching prospects in ‘17. Faria began the year in Triple-A, and after vastly improving his strikeout ability (bumping his Triple-A K/9 from 8.5 to 12.89), he earned a spot in the Rays’ rotation and never wavered.
Faria rattled off seven straight quality starts to begin his big league career, and despite an abdomen injury that cost him a month late in the summer, he finished the year with a 3.43 ERA in 16 games (14 starts). Much of Faria‘s success came from his best pitch, a filthy split-changeup. According to Fangraphs, Faria’s change averaged 10 MPH lower than his 92 MPH fastball. That helped him maintain a 12 SwStr% (swinging-strike percentage), which ranked in the top 25 among starters with at least 80 IP. According to Statcast data, batters managed a .143 average vs. his split-change, which produced 35 strikeouts. With top prospect Brent Honeywell now out for the season and Jake Odorizzi traded to Minnesota, the Rays will lean heavily on Faria in the middle of their rotation.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Third Baseman, Toronto Blue Jays
By the time Vladimir Guerrero is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this July, there’s a good chance his son, top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., is playing in the Major Leagues for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Much like his father before him, the soon-to-be 19-year-old Guerrero Jr. boasts all the tools. In his first full season in the Minors, Guerrero produced a .323/.425/.485 line with 13 home runs in 119 games between Class A Lansing and Class A Advanced Dunedin. Yes, Guerrero Jr. has had just one full season in the Minors and yes, he’s only 19, but given the number of young rookies who have had major success in the bigs over the past few years, there’s no reason a healthy Guerrero Jr. couldn’t find his way into the Toronto lineup this year. Boasting eerily similar mechanics to his father at the plate, a Blue Jays team that is aging fast in a very competitive division won’t shy away from finding a spot for Vlad Jr. if needed. ZiPS is in line with this thought process, projecting 14 homers and 60 RBIs in 115 games with the Blue Jays this season.
Trey Mancini, 1B/OF, Baltimore Orioles
An 8th round draft pick in ‘13, the surprising Mancini parlayed consistent Minor League success into a big league gig in ‘17, and he didn’t disappoint. After hitting 44 homers in two seasons between three levels, Mancini didn’t skip a beat with 24 homers, 78 RBIs and a .293/.338/.488 line for the Orioles to finish third in the AL ROY voting.MORE NEWS: Trump: 'Selfish' Gov. Baker 'Bad News' For Republican Party
In addition to his consistent power, Mancini has never hit below .280 at any level. He was able to not skip a beat at the plate during a move to the outfield, and he now enters the year as the projected starting left fielder for the Orioles, locked into a spot near the top of the lineup. The strikeouts are high but, as mentioned earlier, that’s common among young power hitters, and it especially doesn’t appear to be an issue for Mancini, who hasn’t sacrificed his batting average for home runs. A jump to 30 home runs is certainly possible for Mancini entering his age-26 season, the question will be whether he can make that jump while still getting on base at a high rate.