By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
The Houston Astros ran away with the American League West in 2017 and then went on to cap it all off with an incredible World Series win. Houston developed a young core amid some trying seasons, and it all came to fruition last year. The ‘Stros are built for now and for the future, and they should have no problem winning the division once again this year. Despite the clear gap, the Anaheim Angels made the move of the off-season signing Shohei Ohtani from Japan, the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers won’t go quietly, and the Oakland Athletics have major prospects nearing their debuts. Here’s a look at one young player from each team who can break out in ’18.
Derek Fisher, Outfielder, Houston Astros
The defending World Series Champion Astros are loaded, and with so much of their talent young and locked in for some time, it’s not going to be easy for any additional prospects to make their mark on the ’18 Astros. Houston’s top position player prospect, outfielder Kyle Tucker, was recently sent down to the Minors, as was expected. A major reason for that — other than service time and the fact that Tucker hasn’t played at Triple-A yet — is Fisher. The Astros want to give Fisher, a top prospect and former first-rounder in his own right, a long look in left field in order to see what he can do. If Fisher isn’t getting it done, it’ll be Tucker’s time to shine by mid-summer. If Fisher becomes a consistent force in the lineup, Houston could even opt to shop Tucker at the trade deadline for the right deal. The important thing is that it’s becoming clear Fisher is going to get his shot as a starter in left field, so he’ll be one player fans will want to keep a close eye on early this season.
Fisher appeared in 53 games for the ’17 Astros, but didn’t hit much (.212/.307/.356). In 84 games at Triple-A, however, the 24-year-old stole 16 bases and hit 21 homers with a .318/.384/.583 line, so it’s clear why the team wants to give Fisher a crack at a steady role on the team this year. The 20-20 potential is clear, and ZiPS projections are actually quite bullish this year. They have Fisher playing 131 games with 22 homers, 17 steals and a .243/.322/.438 slash.
Shohei Ohtani, Pitcher/DH, Anaheim Angels
The story of the off-season, the ‘Babe Ruth’ of Japan signed with the Angels and has everyone talking about what he could do this season as the first player in quite some time to attempt to be both a starting pitcher and everyday player at DH for Los Angeles. When Ohtani signed, the 23-year-old was immediately ranked as the No. 1 or 2 prospect in baseball. It’s a rarity that Japanese players come to MLB this young, especially players with the hype surrounding Ohtani. The 6-foot-4 right-hander was bit by the injury bug last year, but he played 169 games the past two seasons in Japan and hit a combined 30 homers with 98 RBIs and a .326 average — but that’s not all. Over that same span, Ohtani ALSO went 13-6 with a 2.06 ERA and 203 strikeouts.
The possibilities are endless with Ohtani, though there is also some concern. Aside from the obvious difficulties of transitioning from Japan to the Majors and the unknown commodity of being an pitcher who plays everyday, Ohtani has a somewhat lengthy injury history and has also struggled this Spring. Ohtani had just two hits in his first 29 at-bats (.083) with nine strikeouts, and on the mound he gave up eight earned runs in just 2 2/3 innings in his first two starts. Nonetheless, Ohtani will have all eyes on him this season for a reason. ZiPS projects the Japanese phenom to go 10-7 with a 10.16 K/9 and 3.47 ERA in 23 starts and hit 14 homers with a .252/.313/.438 slash.
Willie Calhoun, Outfielder, Texas Rangers
The Texas Rangers have much of their lineup locked in, but the outfield is one area of intrigue. Aside from obvious starter Nomar Mazara in right, it’s expected to be Delino Deshields in center and Drew Robinson and/or Ryan Rua in left to start the season. Deshields has plenty of value on the team given his speed, but left field is a spot Calhoun could be taking very soon. The Rangers’ No. 2 prospect, who came to the team in the July Yu Darvish trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hit 31 hrs with a .300/.355/.572 slash in Triple-A last year, Those aren’t really the numbers of someone who needs more seasoning in the Minors, but the Rangers are concerned about his defense and did send him down last week after he hit .243 with one home run and five RBIs in 13 Cactus League games.
Formerly a second baseman, Calhoun was recently moved to the outfield where he has struggled. While that added to the hesitancy in giving Calhoun the job right away this year, it’s not something that’s going to stop him from being an everyday player with the Rangers soon if he continues to mash baseballs. The 23-year-old not only hits for power, but average as well. He is a career .286 hitter in three Minor League seasons and has struck out in just 12 percent of his at-bats during that span. ZiPS buys big into Calhoun, projecting him to hit 28 homers with a .277 average in 142 games. Look for Calhoun in Texas sooner than later.
Dan Vogelbach, First Baseman, Seattle Mariners
Spring Training doesn’t always have a major impact on starting lineups, but it does when you do what Vogelbach is doing. The 25-year-old slugger is forcing his way into the starting lineup as he is near the top of the Spring leaderboard in extra-base hits (10) and was 16-for-40 (.400) through 15 games. An injury to Ryon Healy cracked the window open for Vogelbach and he has burst through it. A former second-round pick of the Cubs, Vogelbach came over to the Mariners in a trade in ’16 and has done nothing but hit in the Minors. The 250-pounder hit 17 homers with a .290/.388/.455 slash line last season in Triple-A and has 100 homers and a .287/.390/.476 slash in 669 Minor League games.
It was expected that Vogelbach would spend at least the early part of the season in Triple-A, but the Mariners are not going to turn away from him as long as he stays hot. Given his Minor League pedigree, his spring performance shouldn’t come as much of a shock. While he’s obviously not going to hit .400 this season, Vogelbach has the legitimate pop and on-base skills to stick around. He’ll have to keep hitting though, as Healy recently made his Spring debut and is coming off a 25-homer season with the A’s. ZiPS has Vogelbach with 17 homers, 64 RBIs and a .333 OBP in 133 games for the Mariners this year.
Franklin Barreto, Infielder, Oakland Athletics
The 22-year-old Barreto, the A’s No. 1 prospect, was the key return in the ’14 Josh Donaldson trade with the Blue Jays. Barreto has been climbing Baseball America’s Top 100 since ’15 and is now having a torrid spring while trying to force Oakland’s hand in winning an infield spot despite the prevailing thought that he may still be a year away. Through 15 games this Spring, Barreto went 13-for-40 (.325) with two triples, three homers and seven RBIs. Despite the hot start, it’s very unlikely Barreto begins the season in Oakland with incumbent veterans Marcus Semien and Jed Lowrie blocking his way at shortstop and second base, respectively. Fortunately for Barreto, the rebuilding A’s won’t waste him down in the Minors if he continues to hit, and 33-year-old Jed Lowrie isn’t going to be much help on a team focused on the future.
Oakland would like to see Barreto’s 27.6 K% drop this year, and his .197 average in 25 games with the big club last year didn’t do him any favors. His power has steadily developed throughout the Minors, and the middle infielder hit a career-high 15 homers and stole 15 bases with a .290/.339/.456 line in his first full season in Triple-A last year. ZiPS projects Barreto with 16 homers and 17 steals in 137 games this year. Look for his strong defense and speed/power combo to be benefiting the Athletics in no time.