We are now just four days away from Opening Night in Chicago, and teams are making final cuts and naming starters for their last open positions. We've gotten a few surprise additions already, such as veteran non-roster invitees Roberto Hernandez (Phillies), Jason Marquis (Reds), and Wandy Rodriguez (Braves) landing rotation spots and former Royals prospect Johnny Giavotella emerging as the Angels’ second baseman, but those are relatively familiar faces. Here, then, are six players whose names you may not know, but will be taking the field on Opening Day as starters.
James Benjamin Gosewisch may have the most recognizable name on this list, given that he goes by “Tuffy.” Gosewisch started 31 games at catcher for the D-Backs last year as the primary backup to Miguel Montero and has appeared in 55 games for Arizona over the last two seasons. Still, it’s startling that a 31-year-old with a career .213/.225/.287 line in 180 major league plate appearances is going to be the D-Backs’ starting catcher this year. That’s not a show of confidence in Gosewisch, who hit .239/.306./370 in his minor league career. It’s Arizona punting a key position.
An 11th-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2005 and minor league veteran, Gosewisch is the definition of a replacement player who was forced into a starting role by new general manager Dave Stewart’s failure to replace Miguel Montero, now on the Cubs. Gosewisch has a strong arm but can’t hit, and he’s nothing special as a receiver, but his job is nonetheless relatively safe. He’s currently the only catcher on the D-Backs’ 40-man roster, and his likely backup is 35-year-old Gerald Laird, whom Arizona signed to a five-day extension on Monday just so they wouldn’t have to add him to the roster just yet. Rule 5 pick Oscar Hernandez is out until May following surgery to remove the hamate bone in his left hand, and the man Stewart was hoping would claim the job, slugging prospect Peter O’Brien, is already a questionable defensive catcher who developed the yips throwing the ball back to the pitcher in spring training, resulting in a shift to the outfield.
Kendall Graveman, RHP, Athletics
Brett Lawrie and shortstop prospect Franklin Barreto were the key players acquired by the A’s in November’s Josh Donaldson trade. But the 24-year-old Graveman, who was also part of that deal, impressed Oakland enough in camp this spring—allowing just one run in 21 1/3 innings over five starts—to win a spot in the rotation.
Graveman’s first start for the A’s this season will be his first in the major leagues; his only MLB experience to this point was five relief appearances for the Blue Jays last September. An eighth-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2013, he raced up the Blue Jays' minor league ladder last season, journeying through four levels and posting a 1.83 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 3.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio before making his major league debut in September. Still, most of his starts last season (16 of 27) came in A ball, and he has made just seven starts above that level in his career.
A groundballer with low strikeout rates but good control, Graveman is a pitch-to-contact sinker-slider pitcher, but his cutter took a big step forward last year and could be the offering on which his MLB fortunes depend. He’ll certainly benefit from Oakland's pitcher-friendly ballpark and strong infield defense. The big question is if he can survive until Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin are ready to return from Tommy John rehab, and if so, if he can pitch well enough in the interim to keep his rotation spot beyond that.
Odubel Herrera, CF, Phillies
Signed out of Venezuela by the Rangers in 2009 at the age of 17, Herrera had the misfortune of being a middle-infield prospect in an organization that already had Elvis Andrus, Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor. Blocked by Andrus at shortstop and passed by the younger, more highly-regarded Profar and Odor on the organizational depth chart, Herrera appeared to hit a wall in Double A in late '13 and spent '14 repeating the level while getting his first exposure in the outfield, consisting of a grand total of 13 games in the pastures and just two in center.
Herrera did rebound at the plate in Double A, however, hitting .321/.373/.402 in 408 PA, prompting the Phillies to select him in the Rule 5 draft, just weeks before his 23rd birthday. He spent the winter playing centerfield in Venezuela and has acquitted himself well there this spring while also hitting .321/.356/.339. As a result, manager Ryne Sandberg has moved incumbent centerfielder Ben Revere to left and Herrera to center, strongly indicating that is how the Phillies will line up to start the year.
It will be interesting, however, to see how long Herrera is able to hang on to the centerfield job. If you look at the slash lines above, there’s a lot of batting average but not much secondary skill. Herrera doesn’t walk much, has very little power, is a low-percentage base stealer and is still inexperienced in the outfield. If his average drops upon exposure to major league pitching, which it is extremely likely to do, he will be of little value. However, because he’s a Rule 5 pick, the Phillies will have to leave him on their 25-man roster all season to keep him beyond 2015. Given that the Phillies have no real hopes to contend this season, they may just let him learn on the job, but it may not be much fun to watch.
Jace Peterson, 2B, Braves
Of the four players the Braves acquired in December’s Justin Upton trade (two of whom were named Peterson), Jace Ryan Peterson is the only one expected to make the Opening Day roster, and he should do so as the Braves’ starting second baseman. Unlike Herrera, Peterson, who will turn 25 in early May, is ready for this opportunity.
A compensation-round pick out of McNeese State in 2011, Peterson hit .287/.381/.411 across parts of four minor league seasons, including a .306/.406/.464 line in 299 PA in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year, his first Triple A opportunity. A shortstop in his first three seasons, he diversified his defensive résumé last year with exposure at second and third base. He also got several looks at big league pitching in a series of call-ups, none of which were terribly lengthy or productive, resulting in a 6-for-53 debut.
Peterson is athletic (he played cornerback at McNeese), has a good plate approach (217 walks against 233 strikeouts in 389 minor league games), can steal a base (he stole 93 in 2012 and '13 combined but just 16 at a low percentage last year) and has raked this spring to the tune of .352/.444/.426. He stands an excellent change of representing an upgrade at second for the Braves, who got a mere .224/.295/.296 line out of Dan Uggla, Tommy La Stella and company last year, and could be Atlanta’s second baseman for years to come.
Ryan Rua, LF, Rangers
If you averted your eyes from the mangled car wreck that was the second half of the Rangers’ season last year, you missed Rua’s major league debut on Aug. 29 and his time as Texas's starting leftfielder in September. A 17th-round pick out of Lake Erie College in 2011, Rua didn’t really merit attention until '13, when he hit 29 home runs in the Sally League. Last year, he carried that big bat to the upper minors, hitting .306/.378/.488 in a season fairly evenly split between Double and Triple A, then managed a respectable .296/.321/.419 in 109 major league PA down the stretch.
This spring, Rua has hit .298/.344/.544 to firm up his hold on that leftfield job (with Shin-Soo Choo moving to right to replace the departed Alex Rios), but what should we expect from the 25-year-old righty? At best, he has probably a No. 5 or 6-hitter profile: 20-plus homers, maybe 50 walks, but a middling batting average, all of it undermined by his play in the field. Rua played a lot of third and second base in the minors, but has just 44 games in the outfield under his belt and is probably best suited for first base. At worst, the power won’t show up, pitchers will come right after him, and he’ll have little remaining value. It’s hard not to think of him as a righthanded Mitch Moreland, another former 17th-round pick who the thin Rangers simply have to play. At least there’s still room for optimism regarding Rua.
Devon Travis, 2B, Blue Jays
When the Blue Jays flipped fading outfield prospect Anthony Gose to the Tigers for Travis in mid-November, it looked like a nice little move for Toronto that could help them shore up a weak organizational position. But the Jays had bigger plans for Travis: The 24-year-old will man the keystone for Toronto in April, joining rookie centerfielder Dalton Pompey in the lineup and rookie starters Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris on the team.
Those other Jays rookies, however, were expected to be battling for jobs this spring. Travis, meanwhile, leapfrogged the injured Maicer Izturis, 2014 platoon second baseman Steve Tolleson, Ryan Goins, team mascot Munenori Kawasaki and veteran non-roster invitee Ramon Santiago to nail down the second base job. And he did that despite playing just 100 games above A ball, all at Double A.
Rated the 84th-best prospect in the game going into last season and the top prospect in a weak Tigers farm system just before the trade, Travis is a nice player, but he may not be ready for the majors. A 13th-round pick out of Florida State in 2012, Travis lit up the full-season Midwest and Florida State leagues in '13 and hit .298/.358/.460 in Double A last year, showing power (seven triples and ten homers in 441 PA), speed (16 steals in 21 attempts) and a good approach at the plate (1.67 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio). With another year of development in Triple A, he could have been ready to take over at second base next year or even later this year. But the Jays, who were clearly enamored of his spring stats (.352/.397/.462), see an opportunity in their division and are going all-in after it.
That’s to be commended in its own way, and it will be easy enough to send Travis down if he struggles. But his strong spring looks like a small-sample batting average spike, and there’s real concern that the Jays could be spoiling a good thing due to lack of patience. That said, if Travis succeeds, giving him the second base job out of camp could make the difference between a wild card berth and yet another season that falls short in Toronto, a city that hasn’t seen playoff baseball in 22 years.