With spring training winding down and Opening Day just around the corner, optimism is high across Major League Baseball. While every team is still 0-0 and the World Series is theoretically a possibility for all 30 teams, there also is a handful of players hopeful of breaking out and becoming household names in 2016.
It happens all the time. Prospects reach or even surpass their potential and veterans find new life after overcoming injury or embracing a change of scenery. For example, Jose Bautista was a fringe major leaguer from 2004-08 until he blossomed into one of the game’s best power hitters with the Toronto Blue Jays at age 29. Teammate R.A. Dickey didn’t hit his stride until his mid-30s.
More recently, J.D. Martinez has hit 61 home runs with 178 RBIs for the Detroit Tigers over the last two season after the Houston Astros gave up on him and Edinson Volquez saved his career in Pittsburgh in 2014 and became a World Series hero after posting a 3.55 ERA and making a career-high 33 starts for the Kansas City Royals last season.
Will another player make a similar jump from also-ran to stardom this year? Though we couldn’t name every player that is trending up heading into 2016, we do take a close look at five on the rise, plus others to keep an eye on this season.
Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota Twins
2015 Statistics in 46 games: .209/.250/.326, 7 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 2 SB
With players like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and Noah Syndergaard among the most highly publicized prospects to make their big league debuts last season, 2015 was the Year of the Rookie.
Like Bryant and Correa, the Twins' Buxton was one of the ballyhooed position-playing prospects to ascend to the big leagues last year. However, Buxton – considered by many to be the No. 1 prospect in baseball ahead of both Bryant and Correa heading into 2015 thanks to a blend of power, speed and defensive ability that has drawn comparisons to Mike Trout - didn’t set the world on fire in his debut season. Far from it, in fact.
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Buxton has hit .301/.383/.489 with 28 home runs, 158 RBIs and 94 stolen bases in four seasons in the minor leagues, but was rushed to Minnesota from Double-A in June last year. He struggled early by hitting .189/.231/.270 with just two extra-base hits in his first 11 games and also suffered a significant thumb injury. After a trip to Triple-A, Buxton rejoined the Twins in late August and hit .217/.258/.348 in 35 games (24 starts), and collected eight extra-base hits, including the first two home runs of his young career. He has hit .225/.267/.300 in 45 plate appearances across 14 games this spring.
Don’t expect the 22-year-old Buxton to immediately blossom into an MVP candidate like Trout did after a sluggish beginning to his big league career, but expect him to make significant strides in his first full season at the major league level. Buxton is capable of hitting 10 or more home runs (and 20 wouldn’t be a shock) and could steal 40-50 bases if he improves his walk rate (4.3 percent in Minnesota last year but 11.0 percent as a minor leaguer). He’s also capable of playing Gold Glove defense in center field. All together, a Rookie of the Year campaign similar to Bryant and Correa isn’t out of reach.
Of course, Buxton wasn’t the only Twins rookie to major his big league debut last year – and he isn’t the only youngster Minnesota expects to improve in 2016. Miguel Sano, the former infielder that mashed 18 home runs in 335 plate appearances last year, is expected to join Buxton as an everyday outfielder this season after making the move to right field. A 30-100 campaign wouldn’t be a major surprise from Sano.
Patrick Corbin, LHP, Arizona Diamondbacks
2015 Statistics in 16 games: 6-5, 3.60 ERA, 78 SO, 85 IP
The Diamondbacks made a huge splash by adding free agent Zack Greinke and trading a boatload of prospects to the Braves for Shelby Miller, but having Corbin fully healthy following Tommy John surgery could be just as important to Arizona's playoff hopes.
An All-Star in 2013, Corbin missed the entire '14 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery near the end of spring training and returned to the big leagues on July 4 last year. Though he was limited to 91 pitches or fewer in each of his 16 starts and never pitched longer than seven innings in a game, Corbin was often even better than he was prior to injuring his elbow. Corbin improved his strikeout rate from 20.7 percent in 2013 to 21.8 percent last year, and his walk rate dropped from 6.3 to 4.8 percent.
And, he’s already off to a great start in 2016. Sure, it’s just spring training, but Corbin has been simply dominant in March and has posted a 1.71 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just three walks in 21 innings across five Cactus League starts. Opponents have hit .211 against the 25-year-old lefty.
Kevin Kiermaier, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
2015 Statistics in 151 games: .263/.298/.420, 25 2B, 12 3B, 10 HR, 40 RBI, 18 SB
Though he is already a star for those that enjoy Web Gems and is considered a budding legend for those that put a heavy emphasis on defensive metrics, Tampa Bay's center fielder has yet to become a household name. Arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball at the age of 25, Kiermaier (above, right) has great top-end speed that allows him to cover tremendous amounts of ground in the outfield. He also is a weapon on the base paths, having stolen 18 bases in 23 attempts last season.
However, the left-handed hitter could do far more damage by improving his ugly .298 on-base percentage from last season that was weighed down by a pitiful 4.5 percent walk rate. A problem his entire professional career, Kiermaier walked just 5.2 percent of the time in five minor league seasons. But, there’s hope Kiermaier will improve his offensive numbers across the board as he continues to develop at the big league level – especially since he already has more career home runs in 260 games with the Rays (20) than he did in 410 games in the minors (15).
Kiermaier, a 31st-round selection in 2010, is off to a great start at the plate this spring, hitting .324/.361/.500 with a double, a triple and a home run in 36 plate appearances through 12 Grapefruit League games, but he’s also walked only once.
Juan Nicasio, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
2015 Statistics in 53 games: 1-3, 3.86 ERA, 65 K, 58 1/3 IP
Francisco Liriano. Edison Volquez. Juan Nicasio?
Several starting pitchers have gone through a career resurgence in Pittsburgh recently, including Liriano, Volquez, J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton. Nicasio, the 29-year-old former Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers hurler (along with former New York Mets lefty Jon Niese) could be the next pitcher to benefit from an offseason move to the Pirates.
After struggling with injuries and the unfortunate task of regularly pitching at Coors Field, Nicasio seemingly turned the corner as a reliever with the Dodgers last year by posting a 3.86 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 58 innings across 53 appearances. However, the Dodgers let Nicasio walk away over the winter, and he landed with the Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage – the man credited with helping those listed above turn their careers around.
A hard thrower that has struggled to develop a third pitch in the past, Nicasio is already making strides under Searage’s direction. In 15 innings across five spring appearances (four starts), he has yet to allow a single run. Nicasio also has struck out 24 of the 59 Grapefruit League batters (40.7 percent) he’s faced to date, and has allowed five free passes (8.5 percent). While he may not pitch quite as well once the team heads north, it’s a great sign of Nicasio’s 2016 potential.
Randal Grichuk, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
2015 Statistics in 103 games: .276/.329/.548, 23 2B, 7 3B, 17 HR, 47 RBI, 4 SB
Overshadowed by hotshot rookie prospects like Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Miguel Sano, Kyle Schwarber and many others that emerged in the Year of the Rookie, Grichuk quietly surfaced as an offensive force while hitting all over the lineup at just 23 years old for St. Louis last year.
Few MLB players hit the ball as hard as Grichuk, but the 6-foot-1, 195-pound right-handed hitter doesn’t have a long history as a slugger. He hit 86 home runs in six seasons in the minor leagues, which makes some prognosticators doubt he can improve upon – or even repeat – his power numbers from 2015, but there’s reason to hope he’ll continue to develop for the Cardinals. Often young for his league as he rose through the professional ranks, Grichuk hit 22 homers as a 21-year-old in Double-A in 2013 and connected for 25 long balls in Triple-A the following season (plus three in the big leagues during a 47-game debut).
And, if this spring is any indication, Grichuk isn’t likely to suffer a sophomore slump. In 42 plate appearances across 14 games, Grichuk has hit .333/.381/.615 with five doubles and two home runs while driving in five runs and scoring six.
Others to Watch:
Pedro Alvarez, DH, Baltimore Orioles
Joey Gallo, 3B/OF, Texas Rangers
Yasmani Grandal, C, Los Angeles Dodgers
Jeremy Jeffress, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Steven Matz, LHP, New York Mets
Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers
Hector Olivera, 3B/OF, Atlanta Braves
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Miguel Sano, 3B/DH, Minnesota Twins
Domingo Santana, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
Kyle Schwarber, OF/C, Chicago Cubs
Tyler Skaggs, LHP, Los Angeles Angels
Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies
Trea Turner, 2B/SS, Washington Nationals
Vince Velasquez, P, Philadelphia Phillies
Yordano Ventura, RHP, Kansas City Royals
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Randal Grichuk photo courtesy of Getty Images)