The Washington Nationals (96-66) claimed the National League East crown in 2014 by a convincing 17-game margin over both the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets. Much of that discrepancy was due to the efforts of two breakout players.
Without the emergence of infielder Anthony Rendon, who led the N.L with 111 runs and finished fifth in MVP balloting, or the mound mastery of Tanner Roark, which resulted in 15 wins and a splendid 2.85 ERA across 198.2 innings, the story could certainly have had a different ending for the Nationals.
Now, players such as Rendon or Roark are not exactly of the variety in which we will look at over the next couple of months in the "On-Deck Circle". Those two young stars did spend notable time at the highest level before last season, but their respective impacts on the Nationals' success was unforeseen to say the least. With that in mind, the theme for this six-part column should be a bit more clear.
The following players, all from the N.L. East, have little to no experience in the majors and are not some of the league's more well known prospects. However, each could end up as vital components of their big-league clubs before the conclusion of the 2015 campaign.
Matt Skole (WAS, 1B/3B)
Originally drafted by the Nationals in the fifth round back in 2011, Skole is a power-hitting corner infielder whose career in the majors will likely see him at first base more often than not.
A former standout at a Georgia Tech program that has produced several big-league sluggers over the last couple of decades, Mark Teixeira and Matt Wieters immediately come to mind, Skole has the potential to follow the lead of his fellow alumni. The 25 year old has slugged .466 over 325 games in the Nationals' farm system while demonstrating impressive knowledge of the strike zone.
Given the opportunity to reach his ceiling, Skole is similar in makeup to Adam LaRoche, who manned first base 481 times for the Nationals during the last four seasons. However, Skole has yet to see action above Double-A Harrisburg and played just two games in 2013 due to Tommy John surgery. In other words, following a .241/.352/.399 slash with 45 extra-base hits across 544 plate appearances in 2014, he needs a bit more seasoning
Nevertheless, Skole could hit his way to the nation's capital at some point in 2015. Considering the current health situations of veterans Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, not to mention the histories of both, the Nationals could definitely find themselves in need of some thump.
Arquimedes Caminero (MIA, RP)
Caminero is already 27 years of age with 19.2 big-league innings under his belt, but has yet to become a consistent contributor to the Marlins' cause. That could definitely change in 2015.
Originally signed by the Marlins out of the Dominican Republic back in 2005, Caminero has amassed 369.1 innings in the minors over the past nine years. Control, or lack thereof (4.5 BB/9), has been the main issue that has kept the 6'4", 250 lbs righty from taking the next step. However, his stuff has never been in question.
Armed with a heater that regularly sits in the mid-90s and often touches 100 on the gun, Caminero projects as a potentially dominant setup man at the highest level. He has posted an impressive 11.0 K/9 while allowing just 0.5 HR/9 in his years down on the farm.
With a solid spring, Caminero should have a great shot to break camp with the fish. If that turns out to be the case, the rocket-armed reliever could take on a roll that allows him to rack up strikeouts and holds at a steady rate. As is often the case with such late-inning hurlers, Caminero might also find his way into a few save opportunities.
Manny Banuelos (ATL, SP/RP)
As of this moment, the Braves have the top four spots in their 2015 rotation set. Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Mike Minor and Shelby Miller should be a formidable quartet. However, the role of fifth starter appears to be wide open. That is where Banuelos potentially comes into the mix.
Banuelos was acquired from the Yankees in exchange for relievers David Carpenter and Chasen Shreve back on January 1 of this year. The young hurler may not bring much name recognition for the casual fan in Atlanta, but was once a highly heralded prospect in the Bronx before Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2013.
Heading into the spring of 2012, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus named Banuelos the No. 29 prospect in the game. At that point, the Mexican native was coming off a season that saw him post an 8.7 K/9 and 3.75 ERA over 129.2 innings while getting his first taste of Triple-A ball at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
Fast forward to the present, Banuelos is fresh off a comeback campaign in which he was able to complete 76.2 innings across three levels of the minors. Granted, he did not produce eye-popping numbers in 2014 (4.11 ERA, 3.6 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9), but the return of his three-pitch repertoire is the more notable takeaway. That arsenal includes a fastball that regularly crosses the plate at 94 mph along with a swing-and-miss curveball and changeup.
Whether or not Banuelos can pitch his way into the fifth spot in the Atlanta rotation is a question that is yet to be answered. However, it is easy to imagine the 23-year-old southpaw making his long awaited MLB debut during the upcoming summer.