Whether it be the emergence of Boston’s seven-position leadoff batter Brock Holt or the lights out late-inning dominance of Yankees’ setup man Dellin Betances, the American League East certainly showcased its share of unforeseen breakout performances throughout the summer of 2014.
The following players, all a part of A.L. East organizations, have little to no experience in the majors and are not necessarily some of the league’s more well known prospects. However, similar to Holt and Betances last year, each could end up as vital components of their respective big-league clubs before the conclusion of the 2015 campaign.
Christian Walker (1B, BAL)
After being an integral part of the University of South Carolina’s back-to-back National Championship teams in 2010 and 2011, Walker has surged through the Orioles’ farm system over the past three seasons. In 139 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk during 2014, the fourth-round draft selection posted an impressive .288/.357/.489 slash line with 26 home runs and 25 doubles across 599 plate appearances.
Walker’s success at the plate led to his first stint in the majors last September, in which he went 3-for-18 with a homer. The young first baseman struck out in exactly half of those big league at-bats while drawing just one walk. Obviously, plate discipline is an area that he must improve upon.
As far as Walker’s outlook for 2015, it seems that will depend largely on the bounce-back bid of slugger Chris Davis, who saw his .OPS drop a dramatic 300 points from 2013-to-2014. Much of Davis’ struggles last season came on the back of a poor .261 OBP and 30.9 K% against left-handed pitching. That is where Walker could make his mark in Baltimore, at least in the short term.
The Orioles have done nothing as of now to makeup for the loss of Nelson Cruz this offseason, meaning the team is in search a desperate search for pop from the right-hand side of the plate. Walker fits that description and is the best in-house option to fill the role. Approaching his 24th birthday, he will likely get that opportunity at some point over the course of the upcoming summer.
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Jose A. Ramirez (RHP, NYY)
Will Ramirez be this year’s version of Betances in the Bronx? Well, to put it mildly, that is a stretch. However, a starter turned reliever, Ramirez is equipped with possibly the best arsenal, which includes a mid-90s heater and a baffling changeup, in the Yankees’ system and appears ready to make his mark in the majors.
Ramirez has struggled with lingering obliques issues and symptoms related to a tired arm over the past couple of seasons, but did manage to compile 22.1 innings between New York (10.0) and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (12.1) in 2014. Though the cup of coffee at the big-league level did not produce great results, Ramirez did flash a glimpse of his top-notch repertoire, averaging 94.6 mph with his fastball while striking out a batter per frame.
Beyond durability concerns, the real question with Ramirez is control. The soon-to-be 25 year old has issued nearly 5.0 BB/9 over 96.0 total innings the past two years. Harnessing command will be vital to his future progression as an MLB reliever, or potentially a starter.
MLB.com currently ranks Ramirez as the Yankees’ No. 13 overall prospect with a possible future as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. For now, it is easy to envision him collecting punchouts at an excellent rate while donning the pinstripes in middle relief.
Devon Travis (2B, TOR)
Acquired by the Blue Jays in exchange for outfielder Anthony Gose back in November, Travis spent his first three professional seasons playing in the Tigers’ organization. Detroit originally drafted the Florida State product in the 13th round of the 2012 Amateur Draft, but the sweet-swinging second sacker has since turned himself into a prime prospect.
Though he has yet to play above the Double-A level, Travis has piled together some impressive statistics across 1,124 plate appearances during the past three years. Included in those numbers is a .323/.388/.487 triple slash, 50 doubles, 41 stolen bases and 29 home runs.
With run-of-the-mill names such as Maicer Izturis, Steve Tolleson and Ryan Goins blocking his path to the show as potentially the starting second baseman in Toronto, Travis may be making his debut in the bigs sooner rather than later. Given the offensively-inclined environment of the Rogers Centre, which ParkFactors.com ranks as MLB’s eigth-best hitting venue, the young infielder brings a lofty ceiling into play for 2015.