Even after they had contended all season, even after their starting rotation took off in the second half, even after a five-game winning streak in early August propelled them into a three-way tie for the wild card, the Orioles didn't have many believers. They had crushed preseason expectations, reaped surprise contributions from multiple players, but still had many question marks, especially with their leaky defense on the corners.
That's when Baltimore called up top prospect Manny Machado and the team took off from there. Wilson Betemit, the butcher who had taken over the starting third-base job from fellow butcher Mark Reynolds, got shoved to the bench. And while the 20-year-old Machado showed some holes in his swing, he also came through with some big moments, with the bat and especially with the glove. The O's went 33-18 the rest of the way, storming to their first playoff berth in 15 years.
Finding two prospects who can dominate as quickly as Mike Trout and Bryce Harper did last year might be a challenge. Still, this year's prospect crop is another impressive one, and one filled with players who could play a big role in this season's pennant races. With that in mind, we decided to count down the 16 players most likely to impact those races — the Machados, if you will.
Honorable Mention: Gerrit Cole (Pirates) and Trevor Bauer (Indians)
The no. 1 overall pick in the 2011 amateur draft, Cole reached Triple-A at the end of last season, and would likely be one of the Pirates' top five starters if he went north with the team out of spring training. Ditto for Bauer, who has some rough edges to work out with his command as he adjusts to a new organization following an offseason trade to the Indians. The problem, in both cases, is the roster each player's hoping to crack. The Pirates remain heavy underdogs in the NL Central and wild-card race after a quiet offseason, while the Indians, fortified by Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and other winter moves, still face an uphill climb against the loaded Tigers and a passel of fierce AL rivals. Same goes for the Mariners' collection of near-ready young talent and other top prospects: We don't have a crystal ball to predict which teams will make the playoffs this year, but this list does at least attempt to narrow things down to players who could end up on teams with a decent shot at the postseason.
16. Kolten Wong (Cardinals)
Of all the players on this list, Wong probably comes with the most modest skill set. The 22-year-old Hawaiian hit a solid but unspectacular .287/.348/.405 in his first go-round at Double-A last season and doesn't project as a major power threat. He's here because the Cardinals' incumbent second baseman, Daniel Descalso, has shown very little value in the first 300-plus games of his career, hitting just .245/.318/.337, with below-average defense according to advanced metrics. In fact, it's entirely possible the Cardinals have a different double-play combination altogether sometime this summer, given Descalso's limited ability and Rafael Furcal's combination of age and injuries.
15. Martin Perez (Rangers)
If we were ranking based solely on opportunity, Perez would be a top-five nominee. The Rangers failed to land a big-ticket free-agent starter like Zack Greinke or pull down a big name in trade. Thus with Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis both rehabbing from serious injuries, Perez projects as the likely fifth starter out of the gate. Problem is, Perez is coming off a season in which he struck out just 69 batters in 127 minor league innings, walking 56 and totaling nearly twice as many hits allowed as he did Ks. He still has great stuff by scouting measures, and doesn't turn 22 until April, so there's upside here. Just don't go betting the farm on Perez being a big difference-maker for the Rangers — or even your fantasy team — this season.
14. Jake Odorizzi (Rays)
With a perennially excellent defense behind them and one of baseball's most underrated pitcher's parks in play, young Rays pitchers always have a shot to contribute, even at the start of their careers. Odorizzi's problem is that he's probably no. 7 on the current depth chart for major league starters. Jeff Niemann is starting to get expensive, and his health is no sure thing, so it's not hard to envision a scenario where he gets replaced in the rotation at some point this year. That could present a great opportunity for Odorizzi after coming over from Kansas City in the James Shields trade, if it weren't for this next guy
13. Chris Archer (Rays)
The kid has got Sterling stuff, though with only two major league–caliber pitches and minor league struggles against lefty hitters, there's some thought that he might end up in the bullpen, where he could pull off more heroics like this. Whatever his role, you have to figure that Archer will help the Rays at some point this season, one of several reasons why Tampa Bay figures to be in the mix again this year, even with Shields and B.J. Upton shipping out.
12. Mike Olt (Rangers)
Big bat (.282/.391/.521 in 1,037 minor league plate appearances), but where to put him? The signing of Lance Berkman and continued presence of Adrian Beltre mean Olt is blocked at two of his likeliest lineup spots. Mitch Moreland is a below-average option at first base, but there's a reasonable argument to be made that he's still a better all-around there than Olt, especially vs. right-handed pitching. Still, with Olt staying put after being mentioned in 42,000 winter trade rumors, he's just an injury or deep slump away from getting a chance to mash.
11. Billy Hamilton (Reds)
Hamilton has no power, has played just 50 games above Single-A, and per Reds GM Walt Jocketty, is definitely starting the season at Triple-A Louisville, where "he'll be playing center field and working on his offense and his overall game." Bet on him cracking the big leagues this year anyway. Shin-Soo Choo likely isn't a big league–caliber starting center fielder, nor is anyone else on the projected Opening Day roster. Granted, Hamilton only started transitioning to center field from shortstop last season, but the defensive reports on him from the Arizona Fall League were positive, with Hamilton using his blazing speed and athleticism to make up for a lack of experience on outfield routes. Oh, about that speed: All Hamilton did last season was steal 155 bases, an all-time record for any level of professional baseball. We'll see exactly how much impact he offers the 2013 Reds. But if nothing else, give the guy a spot on your fantasy roster. You'll kick yourself if you don't.
10. Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals)
Overflowing with rotation candidates last year, the Cardinals find themselves in a bit of a bind this season, with Cardinals management giving no indication they'll re-sign Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter very possibly done, and Jaime Garcia's health a question mark. On the other hand, Rosenthal cemented himself as a big bullpen weapon last year, and might end up sticking there, with another Cards rookie a better bet to pitch every fifth day. There's still a good opportunity for Rosenthal's electric arm to impact the NL Central race, just not as much as if he'd been a stronger candidate for 180 innings.
9. Nick Castellanos (Tigers)
Andy Dirks is penciled in as the Tigers' starting left fielder, but Jim Leyland and his history of trusting dynamic young players with significant roles are standing by with a big, fat eraser. Castellanos hit .320/.365/.451 while reaching Double-A last year, a feat made all the more impressive given he was 20 years old at the time. Avisail Garcia saw some high-leverage at-bats for Detroit in 2012 given the team's terrible performance at the corner outfield spots, and Garcia figures to be in the mix for playing time this year, too. But Castellanos is the upside play, capable of complementing Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Austin Jackson in the Tigers' star-laden lineup, maybe as soon as this summer.
8. Julio Teheran (Braves)
Once regarded as a monster prospect (Baseball America ranked him no. 5 overall in each of the past two years), Teheran met up with that most common of prospect hype killers last year: exposure. Still, Teheran's 5.08 ERA at Triple-A in 2012 is hardly a deal-breaker, not when it came at age 21, and not with the Braves having an opening at the back of their rotation that's likely his job to lose this spring. For all the hype surrounding the addition of the Upton brothers, Atlanta's starting rotation could hold the key to the team's playoff hopes this year. The hope is that Teheran makes the kind of leap this year that fellow homegrown starter Mike Minor did in the second half last year.
7. Dylan Bundy (Orioles)
Will the Orioles contend again this year? Unsurprisingly, Dan Duquette says yes. Also unsurprisingly, given what a 29-9 record in one-run games must look like to a computer, the projection systems say no. The Orioles GM has strongly hinted that Bundy, the teenage phenom who crashed his way onto the big league roster last year, needs more seasoning and might not compete for a starting-rotation job until 2014, or at least deep into this season. Thing is, unless the Orioles can pull off another series of late-inning miracles in 2013, a flashy performance from a wild card like Bundy might be the only way they repeat last year's run, given Toronto's big improvement and the Yankees and Rays remaining viable threats. There's plenty of room in this rotation for a pitcher with all-world stuff who posted a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and yielded just six homers in 23 minor league starts last year. Hell, there should be room in any rotation for a pitcher like that.
6. Oscar Taveras (Cardinals)
You can flip a coin on Taveras and Bundy, both top-five prospects who aren't ticketed for a starting major league job just yet but have a chance to become stars in a big hurry when the opportunity does come. We'll give the slight edge to Taveras, because pitchers are always iffier and because the Cardinals look like the better team on paper heading into the season. Taveras hit a gaudy .321/.380/.572 as he turned 20 last season, and could very well hit from day one in the Show. More than just taking their time with a top prospect, though, Taveras is blocked by two big-time hitters in Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday; he's played both center and right in the minors and could break in up the middle, though Taveras's long-term future may lie at a corner spot, and Jon Jay is a solid player in his own right anyway. Beltran's got a history of injuries, and a talent like Taveras simply can't stay bottled up for long, so stay tuned for potential fireworks.
5. Jurickson Profar (Rangers)
The no. 1 prospect in baseball according to several sources, Profar has an excellent glove, hits for average and extra bases, runs well, and happens to play shortstop; that's the recipe for a future seven-win player. He also doesn't turn 20 until Wednesday, the Rangers have the very able of combination of Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler up the middle, and GM Jon Daniels has a firm grasp on development curves and optimal usage of young talent. "We're not interested in having a young prospect sit on the bench and play 30 games over the course of the season," he said recently. On another team, Profar could add a no. 1 (or at least no. 2) 2013 impact projection to his top-dog status on prospect lists. As is, he'll wait for an injury, a slump, a role change — anything to get his deep, deep toolkit into a starting major league job.
4. Adam Eaton (Diamondbacks)
The Diamondbacks' huge outfield reshuffle job this offseason, combined with their lack of trust in Gerardo Parra as an everyday player, leaves Eaton as the odds-on favorite to be the team's starting center fielder on Opening Day. He doesn't have much power, and you should be spectacularly suspicious of the .375/.456/.523 line he posted last year in the minors, playing mostly in the hitter-massaging confines of Reno in the Pacific Coast League. Still, Eaton's batting eye is well regarded, and he more than held his own in a 103-plate-appearance debut last year, posting a .382 on-base percentage. The D-backs might be considered fringe contenders, but projection systems like PECOTA see them as viable threats to play into October. A bunch of doubles, 80 walks, and respectable defense from Eaton would go a long way toward making that happen.
3. Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks)
Apparently we're in the Diamondbacks/Cardinals portion of our program. Though Trevor Bauer got more hype (partly for his quirky personality, college experience, and legendary long-toss habits), Skaggs emerged as a surer bet among Arizona pitching prospects, and Bauer ended up in Cleveland. In Skaggs, the D-backs have a lefty who fanned nearly a batter an inning in the minors last year and made it all the way to the big leagues by year's end. Barring a miserable spring, Skaggs figures to head north as the no. 5 starter. The Diamondbacks deserve a lot of the flak they got for a weird progression of moves this offseason. But even if ditching Upton, Bauer, and Chris Young, playing outfield roulette, and trading for multiple shortstops who might not hit doesn't work out in the long run, there's enough young talent here for Arizona to make a run this year. Skaggs could loom larger than anyone on that front.
2. Shelby Miller (Cardinals)
Baseball America's no. 8 prospect last year, Miller whiffed 160 batters in 136 2/3 innings at Triple-A Memphis. But he also showed so-so command, ceded 24 homers, and, per Keith Law and other prospect watchers, struggled with his delivery early in the year. By season's end he'd reportedly ironed out those issues, even giving the Cardinals a handful of lights-out innings out of the bullpen. Rotation attrition now has Miller looking like the team's fifth starter come April, thus giving us the trinity of talent, opportunity, and a playoff-caliber team needed for any high-ranking player on this list.
1. Wil Myers (Rays)
Rays manager Joe Maddon was recently asked about the ideal path for a top prospect close to the big leagues — starting the season in the big league lineup, or going back to the minors for more seasoning. "I totally believe [in the latter]," Maddon said. "I guess Trout did that, and also Bryce Harper did that. [Evan Longoria] did that several years ago. I know a lot of people bend toward the argument based on the finances, free agency, arbitration or whatever. For me, it's a baseball decision. I don't make those other decisions."
Well, it isn't entirely a baseball decision, not when the conservative-minded Rays are involved. The centerpiece of the huge James Shields deal this winter, Myers is the big, young, cost-controlled bat the Rays desperately needed to keep the team in contention as Evan Longoria moves forward with an evolving supporting cast. To that end, the Rays would need to wait until mid-April to push Myers's free agency eligibility back a year, and until roughly June to prevent him from gaining super-two arbitration eligibility after the 2015 season. Acknowledging the financial considerations, and that Myers is still working out the kinks as a full-time right fielder, the Rays sport multiple lineup holes, and have the reigning minor league player of the year, the guy who just hit .314/.387/.600 with 37 home runs last year, waiting in the wings. Assuming Andrew Friedman & Co. don't pull off the impossible and get Myers to agree to another Longoria 1.0 contract six days into his big-league career, we might see some bullet-biting at the Trop before long. The Rays will likely hold out long enough to stall Myers's free-agency clock, but if they hope to return to the playoffs this year, waiting until June to call up their next star would be a surprise, even for one of the penny-pinchingest teams in baseball. If they do move early to get him up, Myers might be good for 30 homers this season — and the biggest race-swinging role of any prospect in the game.