Impact is a beautiful word. Two quick syllables, a breadth of possible meanings and just a dash of onomatopoeia. When Giancarlo Stanton sends a baseball to its retirement it almost sounds like the word itself, compressed into a fraction of a second. Mike Trout impacts the game in pretty much every way a player can, and does so dynamically. Jose Molina impacts the game by framing pitches better than nearly any other catcher, and he’s rarely called dynamic. They couldn’t be much more different, but both are impactful in their own, unique way.
Dozens of rookies will log innings this year. Some will be Opening Day starters, others will be called up in May or June, even more will be called up at the end of the season. The rookies that are promoted early are being asked to provide consistent, quality innings and at bats by their teams. They’re key pieces to their team’s season — tent poles — players to be relied upon for the year.
Then there will be the other rookies that come up later in the season. A starting pitcher goes down with an injury or a second baseman is hitting below the Mendoza Line in June and a prospect gets the call up from Triple-A. A team’s making a playoff push, their bullpen’s a little thin and they’ve got a starting prospect who sits 92-94 mph but can dial it up to 96 out of the bullpen. Teams aren’t looking for these players to carry them down the stretch, just to get a few outs or a hit or two in a big spot. Teams are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle, but they’d settle for just a spark.
Today we’ll bring you the American League rookies that should make an impact this season. The players below run the gamut above. Some will play all season, some just for a brief stint, but their impacts will help define 2014. And since baseball’s the best, a rookie not on this list will have a huge stretch this season, too.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B — Baltimore Orioles
The trade for Steve Lombardozzi makes it more likely Schoop starts the year in Triple-A Norfolk, but Lombardozzi’s not the kind of player that will block Schoop if he’s earned a big league promotion. Spring reports on Schoop have been glowing — both his attitude and ability have been lauded. Posting a spring OPS over 1.100 certainly makes it easier to heap praise on him, but it seems like he’s earned a shot at the starting second base job in Baltimore. He might have to wait a few weeks, but his opportunity will certainly come this season.
Kevin Gausman, SP — Baltimore Orioles
Before the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez, it looked like Gausman was going to start the year in the Orioles’ rotation. Despite having a fantastic spring, including his last start where he struck out eight Pirates in four innings, it looks like Gausman will start the year in AAA. The O’s are a team with playoff aspirations and a narrow window of opportunity, so it wouldn’t make sense to keep one of their five best pitchers in the minors for too long this season. He’ll most likely get the call up sooner rather than later.
Dylan Bundy, RHP — Baltimore Orioles
Bundy is coming off of Tommy John surgery, and will be eased into a big league role much more gradually than Gausman will. Right now Bundy is just throwing off of flat ground and the earliest reasonable return for him is sometime in June, but his stuff is so electric that he’ll be an asset to the Orioles as soon as he’s ready to take the mound. He could be used as a starter or a reliever this season and will have an impact regardless of his role.
Xander Bogaerts, SS — Boston Red Sox
Bogaerts’ time has arrived. The Red Sox could have brought back Stephen Drew but decided that the 21 year-old is ready to man shortstop full time. The consensus top prospect in baseball not named Byron Buxton, Xander has consistently improved as he’s moved up each rung in the minors, both on offense and on defense. The Red Sox are fully committed to him taking over and he’ll be given time to weather any troubles he may have making the full time transition to the bigs. He has nothing left to prove in the minors and there’s nothing more that needs to be said.
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF — Boston Red Sox
Sizemore has the inside track on starting in center field for the Red Sox as of right now. It will be a fantastic story if he can stay healthy for anything resembling a full season, but his injury history reads like a Dostoevsky novel — long and melancholy. Bradley Jr. is ready to be one of the best defensive centerfielders in baseball right now and his bat isn’t far behind. If Sizemore falters, Bradley will take over the starting job and will make it his own for the foreseeable future.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP — New York Yankees
More than anything else, the Yankees need innings from Tanaka. The rest of their rotation is littered with question marks, and they a need steady hand to take the ball every five days. Tanaka has had a solid spring, steadily building up innings and pitch counts. He’s been healthy, he’s been solid and the Yankees need him to throw 180 to 200 innings this year.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP — Tampa Bay Rays
Odorizzi is the latest in the seemingly endless stream of starters the Rays have developed over the past six or seven seasons. And, over the weekend, the Rays announced that he won the fifth starter’s spot in their rotation. His stuff isn’t dominant and he projects as more of a mid-rotation starter, but he’s been healthy and consistent ever since he made the jump to full-season ball in 2010. Those types of pitchers may not be flashy, but they’re incredibly valuable.
Marcus Stroman, RHP — Toronto Blue Jays
Stroman has had a difficult spring. Hitters facing him haven’t, as he’s given up 19 hits and 15 runs in less than 10 innings pitched. Spring stats don’t mean much, but when a rookie’s on the roster bubble, getting torched doesn’t help his chances of making the club in April. He doesn’t have much left to work on in the minors and Toronto’s rotation inspires apprehension and doubt, so he should get his opportunity sometime this summer. If the Toronto rotation manages to stay healthy and effective as currently constructed, Stroman will certainly be able to help out of the bullpen.
Jose Dariel Abreu, 1B — Chicago White Sox
The early reports on Abreu have been positive — he’s getting along with his teammates, he puts on a show in batting practice and his spring stats have been solid. Again, spring stats really don’t mean anything, but the preference is always for good numbers over bad. If he stays healthy, Abreu should get 600 at-bats this season and be a centerpiece of the White Sox lineup.
Erik Johnson, RHP — Chicago White Sox
Johnson’s never going to be an artist’s muse, but he should have a long and successful baseball career. If crafty righties existed, he’d be their Patron Prospect. Johnson should be a fifth starter for the White Sox this year, and he’ll probably be a mid-rotation to back of the rotation starter for the next dozen or so years. Sometimes being pretty good works out really well.
Matt Davidson, 3B — Chicago White Sox
Davidson hits bombs and Conor Gillaspie doesn’t. Well, technically, Gillaspie hit thirteen last year, but he could barely get on base at a .300 clip and he couldn’t slug .400. Davidson was acquired by the White Sox to play third base for them in the immediate future, and Gillaspie isn’t going to stop him. He’ll get his chance to man the hot corner full time this season.
Marcus Semien, 2B/3B — Chicago White Sox
The story of Gordon Beckham is a strange one. It’s rare that a highly touted prospect comes up at 22, has an excellent rookie campaign, and then isn’t good again. He’s been barely above replacement level for four years now, and his career as a starter may be coming to a close. The White Sox aren’t going to hand Semien the job at second base, but he might force them to give it to him this summer.
Nick Castellanos, 3B — Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera is back at first, Prince Fielder is in Texas and third base in Motor City belongs to Castellanos. He’s gone ahead and posted an OPS over 1.000 so far this spring, smoking seven doubles and a couple taters in his first 22 games. He’s played solid defense at third and seemingly made the transition back from the outfield unscathed. Castellanos should get plenty of rope at third this season, and it’s a fair bet that he’ll have a good, though maybe unspectacular rookie campaign.
Yordano Ventura, RHP — Kansas City Royals
Ventura’s another prospect that’s had a fantastic spring. Striking out 18 while walking only four in 20 innings pitched makes it much easier for a team to hand a starting spot to a rookie. Ventura lights up the radar gun — that velocity leads to strikeouts, and those strikeouts will lead to Royal wins. Ventura has all the tools to be the best pitcher in Kansas City this year.
Kyle Zimmer, RHP — Kansas City Royals
They Royals hope to contend for a playoff spot, and Zimmer’s arsenal would certainly help get them over that near 30 year hump. The stuff is there – he can touch 100 and his secondary pitches are improving. Zimmer’s not ready for a rotation spot yet, but he could throw some of his unrepentant filth down the stretch and put up zeroes for a club that’s going to need them. If the Royals do make the playoffs this year, odds are Ventura and Zimmer will have both done something beautiful.
Josmil Pinto, C — Minnesota Twins
Joe Mauer‘s a first baseman and Kurt Suzuki was brought in by Minnesota to be the everyday backstop, but the job should ultimately be Pinto’s. Pinto blew up in 2012, maintained his explosion through 2013 and hopes to keep burning in 2014. Reports are that his defense is improving but not yet where the Twins would like it, but his bat is ready for a big league trial. Catching 60 games while learning from Mauer and Suzuki will help him considerably, and he should be ready for a starter’s share of the workload in 2015.
George Springer, OF — Houston Astros
The Astros reportedly offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million dollar deal last year, before he played even an inning in the majors, and he turned them down. Why? Presumably because he has faith in his ability to be an elite defender who will post offensive numbers that make arbitrators hand out sacks of cash. Springer will most likely get called up sometime in late April or early May, and he’ll immediately become the Astros best position player. That may sound like faint praise, as the Astros have been baseball’s worst team three years in a row, but that’s still something of which any player can be proud.
Jonathan Singleton, 1B — Houston Astros
Singleton recently went public about his addiction to marijuana, and it’s admirable that he’s sharing his story with the masses. Being able to control his addiction is the most important thing in his life, and hopefully the structure that comes with baseball will help him through this time. He probably won’t be the open the season as the Astros first baseman, but he will get that opportunity this season.
Addison Russell, SS — Oakland Athletics
The A’s have a famously small margin for error. Someone wrote a book about it. That’s why as soon as Russell shows Billy Beane and company that he’s ready to play in the majors, he’ll be in the majors. Last year was the first season in Jed Lowrie‘s career where he played more than 100 games — if he goes down with an injury again, it’s a virtual certainty Russell will get promoted to Oakland. His defense is ready now and his offense isn’t far behind. He strikes out more than you would like, but he also turned 20 two months ago, so cut him some slack. The amount of talent at shortstop in the high minors right now is silly.
Taijuan Walker, RHP — Seattle Mariners
Walker has responded well to his first stint this spring, a one-inning outing in a minor league game, throwing in the low–to-mid 90s. He threw only fastball and changeups, but the shoulder didn’t bark afterward and it appears he’s set to experience a true spring training from this point forward. A Mariners team with a healthy Walker where everything else goes perfectly right might win 92 games or so. And that might get them into the playoffs. But regardless of that, a healthy Walker is just great for people who like to watch pitchers do mean things.
Rougned Odor, 2B — Texas Rangers
Now that Jurickson Profar tore a muscle in his shoulder and is out 10-12 weeks, Odor makes the list. Odor just turned 20 in February and has only 30 games played above A-ball and Rangers GM Jon Daniels told the press that Odor will stay in the minors to start the season, but now he’s on the list. His talent is too immense and the Rangers are too committed to winning now that they won’t consider bringing him up. Yes, Odor will start the year in the minors, but if he is hitting .330 and the Rangers second baseman, whoever he may be, is doing decidedly not that, then Daniels will make the move. This is a smart club that’s come too close to winning the World Series to let an opportunity slip by.
Jason A. Churchill
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