The one nicknamed Bocaton grew up in a shack in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. At 6-foot-3, 243 pounds, he looks like Jadeveon Clowney in a baseball uniform. He doesn't speak much English, but he's the loudest player in the dugout -- Bocaton means loudmouth, after all. He hit 35 home runs last year in just 123 minor league games and thinks he can hit 55 this year. "He's the game's next great power hitter," says a scout who gives the 20-year-old the highest possible grade for power. "Guys with 80-raw power, you don't see them as much anymore. He's an 80, easy." Twins officials like to tell the story of how Bocaton, in a big tryout in front of execs and scouts at the team's Dominican training facility, ripped eight straight balls out of the park. He was 15. "Even then, the sound of the ball off his bat was like a gunshot," said Minnesota scout Fred Guerrero.
The one nicknamed Buck grew up in a small house off a dirt road in rural Georgia. He drives a pickup truck, listens to country music, eats breakfast alone almost every morning at Denny's, and to unwind, he cuts grass. He talks so quietly you have to lean in to hear what he's saying. He's also 20 years old, and he's such a freakish all-around talent on the baseball field that it's not insane to compare him to Mike Trout. Twins scouting director Deron Johnson likes to tell the story of how Buck, in a game last year, tripled on a ball he hit down the leftfield line that was fielded by the leftfielder on three hops and didn't even reach the wall. "Fastest player going from first to third that I've ever seen," says a scout. "And I saw Bo Jackson."
Despite an improved rotation, Minnesota looks like it's headed for a fourth-straight losing season, but Twins camp in Fort Myers is a must-see destination this spring because of Miguel Sano (Bocaton) and Byron Buxton (Buck), both of whom are non-roster invitees to the start of big league camp for the first time. No team in baseball has a pair of prospects this talented. Buxton, the second pick in the 2012 draft, is the game's No. 1 consensus prospect; his ETA in the majors is 2015. "What he proved last year is that he's way more advanced at the plate than anyone thought," says the scout. "Some concern coming out of rural Georgia was that he hadn't faced the competition. Right now for him it's just pitch recognition on offspeed pitches. He's very close."
Sano, meanwhile, is ready for his close up. He has an outside chance of making the team out of spring training; a strong showing in the Grapefruit League will at least force the Twins to consider an early season callup. He impressed club officials last year with his smooth transition to third base, and now he'll have to prove that he's recovered from a strained ulnar collateral ligament that ended his Dominican Winter League season in October. (No structural damage was found in his elbow in a late-January exam at Target Field.)
We've been hearing a lot about the scarcity of righthanded power in the game, and it's particularly scarce at the corners. Sano is a third baseman capable of putting up 30-40 home run seasons with an OBP in the mid-.300s. "He could hit 25 home runs in the big leagues right now -- the only concern is his defense, and given that he's only going to get bigger, that's a concern at that position," says the scout. "But the bat? From a pure offensive standpoint, he's the best prospect out there."
Bocaton and Buck lead our list of intriguing players of the spring. With position players still reporting to camp in Florida and Arizona this week, here are eight other players to watch, presented in alphabetical order.
He's not the Next Yasiel Puig because really, he's nothing like Yasiel Puig. "Different kind of player," says one scout. Abreu is not nearly as athletic as fellow Cubans Puig or Yoenis Cespedes. The first baseman hits the ball hard and far and doesn't do much else, but in this pitching dominated era, power -- especially righthanded power, as we've mentioned -- is valuable.
The White Sox got a glimpse of their $66 million investment in January when Abreu took some swings in Glendale, Ariz., for the first time in front of many team coaches and execs. "That's a strong man right here," hitting coach Todd Steverson told Comcast SportsNet Chicago. "That's a big man. He has a nice smooth, compact approach. He didn't try to do too much with the ball and the ball was flying off his bat."
Says the scout, "The power is legit. But there's concern about the bat speed and whether he can catch up to inside pitches." Is he the real deal? We'll soon find out.
The kid who could have been slinging it for the Sooners -- a star quarterback at Broken Arrow High School in Oklahoma, Bradley turned down a football scholarship in 2011 for a $5 million signing bonus with Arizona -- made huge strides last season in the minors and has a huge opportunity to win a starting job this spring. Bradley, who posted a 1.84 ERA in 152 innings in High A and Double A, has emerged as a key player for the D-backs after the club missed out on free agent starters Masahiro Tanaka and Jeff Samardzija.
"He has a chance to be successful right away in the rotation," says a scout. "Fastball is 93-98, his curveball is plus. The question was always command, but he's made big time improvement there. I think he's a future ace -- hell, he may be their ace [in 2014]."
The Rangers look like World Series contenders again, especially now that the lineup, punchless a year ago, has added on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo and slugger Prince Fielder. The X-factor is the bullpen, which ranked second in the AL last year with a 2.91 ERA but lost closer Joe Nathan to free agency. So much now rests on Feliz, who returned from Tommy John Surgery last year.
"My arm is perfect. When I threw in winter ball, my command was perfect," Feliz recently told the Star-Telegram, which reported that the 25-year-old righty "was clocked at 98 mph while pitching on the second day of back-to-back outings." When healthy, Feliz is one of the best closers in the game; we'll soon find if he is really all the way back.
"We're working on a lot of good stuff this year -- some good surprises," the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year winner said one January morning in Tampa. I visited Fernandez in Tampa for a recent feature story in Sports Illustrated, and the Marlins' 21-year-old ace looked noticeably slimmed down. (He says he's lost more than 20 pounds since the end of last season, from 240 to under 220.) He's eating better, and he's also biking between 60 and 100 miles three days a week on his new S-Works Venge (which retails at $10,000). "That thing is like his wife," says Jose's stepsister Yadenis Jimenez.
With his weight loss and an expanded repertoire, Fernandez will be the center of attention in Jupiter, Fla., as he takes the next step after his brilliant rookie season. "He will be better than last year -- he will be great," says his longtime coach in Tampa, Orlando Chinea, who has been working with Fernandez six days a week during the offseason. "He'll be throwing 100 mph, with a better, sharper breaking ball, a better sinker, and more maturity. He made mistake last year because he was so young. But this season he comes with more maturity, with more knowledge."
This spring will be huge for Hamilton, the base stealing marvel who thrilled Cincinnati fans with his speed in his September callup last year but still has lots of questions to answer. We know that Billy can run, but will Billy hit? Is he a leadoff man? A pinch-running specialist? "He has trouble with fastballs inside," says one scout. "Until he makes adjustments, he's going to struggle at the plate."
The Reds think Hamilton is ready to replace Shin-Soo Choo in centerfield and atop their lineup, but they may be asking too much out him. After all, despite his 13 steals in 13 games, he is a 23-year-old who in 2013 posted just a .308 on-base percentage and .657 OPS at Triple A. That could make Hamilton a big liability in a lineup that will struggle in the OBP department with Choo gone.
The big wild card in Dodgers camp is Kemp, who could give the team anything from an MVP-caliber year to another maddening, injury-plagued season. The next few weeks will tell us a lot about what Kemp we'll see in 2014.
Kemp had left ankle surgery during the offseason but there is still no date for his return. The good news? The centerfielder, who hit just six home runs in 290 plate appearances last year coming off shoulder surgery in 2012, says his shoulder feels stronger than it did a year ago. "My main concern is that shoulder," says a scout. "If he can get that healthy again, I think he can get back to being an MVP candidate."
Let's remember just how good Machado, also known as Brooks Robinson 2.0, was last season: he was an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner, finished ninth in AL MVP voting last year and led the AL in doubles (51) on his way to a .283/314/.432 line with 14 home runs. At 21, he's already the most valuable player in Baltimore.
All eyes in Sarasota, Fla., will be on Machado and his recovery from knee surgery; he's been cleared for baseball activities but his status to start the season remains up in the air. It's hard seeing the Orioles contending in the AL East with their phenom out for a significant stretch.
Forget the $240 million second baseman. Taijuan Walker will be the most scrutinized Mariner in Peoria, Ariz., this spring. The 21-year-old who was the youngest pitcher in the Triple A Pacific Coast League last year (he was 5-3 with a 3.61 ERA in 11 starts for Tacoma, with 64 strikeouts in 57⅓ innings) could be huge for Seattle behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation. Is he ready?
"He'll be a front of the rotation guy down the road, but for me, the curveball isn't there yet," says one scout. "He needs that to be more consistent. If I'm Seattle, I be careful here -- the worst thing they can do is rush him."
The Mariners are in win-now mode, and after the impact that rookie hurlers like Jose Fernandez and Michael Wacha made last year for the Cardinals and Marlins, respectively, the organization will be tempted to fast-track their phenom. "I'd be very disappointed if he's not [in the rotation]," new M's manager Lloyd McClendon told reporters at a recent media event in Seattle.
Think McClendon has high hopes for Walker? He's already compared him to Justin Verlander.
No pressure, kid.