By Jay Jaffe
With the World Baseball Classic over and less than two weeks to go until Opening Day, teams are honing in on the selection of 25 players with which they'll break camp. At this point, several top prospects have performed so well that they've not only earned longer looks with their parent club before being assigned to their teams' minor league complexes but generated buzz about accelerating their timetables.
Atop the list is Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., a 22-year-old 2011 supplemental first-round pick out of the University of South Carolina, whom he helped lead to back-to-back College World Series titles. Bradley has all of 138 minor league games under his belt, and split last year between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland, batting .315/.430/.482 with nine homers and 24 steals in 575 plate appearances. That was good enough for Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and MLB.com to rank him among their top 40 prospects. ESPN's Keith Law described him as "a potential Gold Glove defender in center… who should hit for average and get on base as long as he doesn't overextend himself and try to hit for power," while Jason Parks noted in Baseball Prospectus 2013 that he has "the type of natural baseball feel that makes everything in the tool chest play beyond expectations."
Coming into the spring, Bradley's path to the majors appeared to be about as clear as that of any top prospect. With incumbent centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury due to become a free agent at the end of the year and unlikely to re-sign with Boston, Bradley figured to take over the starting job in 2014, perhaps getting his feet wet later this year if the Sox trade Ellsbury or if he suffers yet another major injury after missing more than half a season twice in the past three years. Having torn the cover off the ball this spring (.439/.549/.561 in 51 plate appearances*), Bradley has put pressure on the Boston brass to reconsider shipping him out, particularly with David Ortiz slated to start the year on the disabled list after a setback in his recovery from a right Achilles heel injury. With some outfield juggling, Bradley or Ellsbury could play leftfield with the other one in center, and leftfielder Jonny Gomes serving as the primary DH during Ortiz's absence.
*All spring stats should be taken with caveats regarding sample size and variable levels of competition. They are presented here more for illustrative purposes than analytical ones.
Complicating Bradley's situation is the fact that he's not yet on the 40-man roster, and the usual service time issues regarding eligibility for arbitration and free agency come into play. If he starts the year on the big club's roster but spends at least 20 days in the minors, or if he stats in the minors and doesn't come up until after April 12, his free agency could be forestalled until 2019 instead of 2018 (why the two dates are different is unclear, but the Providence Journal's Tim Britton has been all over the issue). If Bradley stays in the minors until the second half of June or early July (or perhaps longer if he starts the year in the majors), they could prevent him from becoming a "Super Two" after the 2015 season. As Britton pointed out, the Sox are likely to face four lefthanded starters during the season's first nine games, which could push the lefty-swinging Bradley to the bench or down to the minors, since the short-term gains would be even smaller.
Here's a quick look at a handful of other prospects who could force their way onto rosters sooner than previously expected, listed alphabetically.
Aaron Hicks, Twins OF: The offseason trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere opened up centerfield for Hicks, a 2008 first-round pick who has cracked BA's Top 100 list four times in five years, though he's fallen from a high of 19th in 2010 to 72nd this year. On the heels of a breakout season in Double-A (.286/.384/.460 with 13 homers and 32 steals), the switch-hitting 23-year-old still figured to start the year at Triple-A while either Joe Benson or Darren Mastroianni kept the spot warm in the big club's lineup until summertime, but Hicks is forcing the issue. He's now hitting .306/.352/.633 with four homers in 54 plate appearances, though three of those homers came in a split-squad game against the Phillies where the wind may have been a factor. General manager Terry Ryan has yet to anoint him the frontrunner in the centerfield race, even if others have, but Ryan is on record with the possibility of Hicks skipping Triple-A entirely if his performance merits it. The Twins have every reason to slow his service clock, but they've also got a lousy team that will need more compelling players to engage fans, and Hicks may be one of the best.
Jurickson Profar, Rangers SS-2B: The consensus top prospect in all of baseball, Profar hit .281/.368/.452 with 14 homers and 16 steals at Double-A Frisco as a 19-year-old with an exceptional arm and approach at the plate, plus wisdom well beyond his years. He offers "an incredible combination of tools, skills and baseball instincts rarely found in players who play in the middle of the field. His feel for the game is unusual for a player of any age," wrote Law. Profar hasn't lit up the Cactus League (.222/.349/.306), and with Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler both entrenched in the middle infield, he doesn't have an open position, but the Rangers have given lengthy consideration to using him in a utility role. They have yet to tip their hand as to which way they're leaning.
Yasiel Puig, Dodgers OF: I wrote about the 22-year-old Cuban defector on Tuesday, and he followed up with his biggest game of the spring thus far, going 4-for-4 with a triple, homer and a stolen base against the A's, missing the cycle only because he didn't hustle out of the batter's box. At this point, Puig is hitting .500/.489/.804 in 47 spring plate appearances this spring (see caveats above). He has yet to draw a walk and his batting average on balls in play is a ridiculous .540. According to Baseball-Reference's new opponent quality measure, which is based upon the levels that the pitchers he has faced played at last year, he has done that damage against the equivalent of a parade of Triple-A pitchers; his OppQual is 8.3, where a major leaguer is 10, a Triple-A pitcher is an 8, a Double-A pitcher a 7, a High-A pitcher a 5… and so on. With no open spot for him in the outfield, the Dodgers sound as though they're avoiding the irrational exuberance such a performance can elicit.
"At this point he's creating an expectation that he can't live up to, that nobody could live up to," said manager Don Mattingly on Tuesday. "I just try to temper it, where we take a realistic look." Added GM Ned Colletti, "It's certainly not the regular season. You have to measure it, and you have to put the proper value on it."
Even so, the availability of slow-healing Carl Crawford for Opening Day remains in question, which could tempt the Dodgers into taking a quick peek. Oscar Taveras, Cardinals OF: By consensus the game's second-best position player prospect behind Profar, Taveras tore up Double-A last year in his age-20 season, hitting .321/.380/.572 with 23 homers and 10 steals, leading the hitter-friendly Texas League in batting average, coming within seven points of doing so in slugging percentage and taking home the circuit's MVP honors. Citing his elite bat speed and control, Parks wrote in BP2013 that Tavares "projects to be a .300 hitter with 30-plus homer potential, which could make him a perennial All-Star and middle-of-the-order monster at the highest level." He hasn't put up video-game numbers this spring (.296/.333/.481 with two homers in 57 PA), but he has shown off a strong arm in centerfield in addition to his bat, and Cardinals general manager Jon Moleziak has already conceded, "If you needed him to play in the big leagues now, he could do that." But with Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran in place in the St. Louis outfield, it would almost certainly take an injury for the team to deviate from its plan to start him at Triple-A.