One starting pitcher stood out from the pack of unexpected breakouts in the American League West during 2014. Collin McHugh of the Astros had appeared in 15 big-league games (nine starts) before last season, but had pitched to the uninspiring tune of an 8.94 ERA while posting a pedestrian 5.3 K/9. Last summer, the 27-year-old hurler sang a completely different song, as he won 11 games to go along with an impressive 2.73 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 157 strikeouts over 154.2 innings.
The following players, each currently part of A.L. West organizations, have little to zero experience in the majors and are not necessarily some of the league's more well known prospects. However, similar to McHugh and Elias last year, each could end up as vital components of their respective big-league clubs before the conclusion of the 2015 campaign.
Carson Smith (RP, SEA)
Originally drafted in the eighth round out of Texas State back in 2011, Smith has breezed his way through the Mariners system over the past three years. The 6'6" right-hander has seen significant time in the closer role at three different levels of the minors over that stretch, racking up a combined total of 41 saves while sporting a 2.83 ERA and a stellar 11.1 K/9 across 175.0 frames.
Smith got his first taste of the bigs last September and responded brilliantly for the Mariners as they came up just short of claiming a Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Granted it was indeed a small sample, but the debuting reliever allowed just two hits and three walks while racking up 10 punchouts in 8.1 shutout innings.
Though he does infrequently utilize a somewhat unrefined changeup, Smith fits the mold of a typical two-pitch setup man who may eventually develop into a closer at the highest level. In the short stint with Seattle last year, he regularly registered in the 93-94 mph range with his heater. However, it is Smith's slider, which he deploys as much as the fastball, that ranks plus-plus to most knowledgeable onlookers.
Even if Smith never seizes control of a closing job at the show, he seems more than ready to offer an elite strikeout rate, steady ERA and plenty of holds for fantasy owners. Pay attention closely in Spring Training, as he could easily force the Mariners' staff to bring him back north as part of the 25-man roster.
Billy Burns (OF, OAK)
Burns originally came to the A's organization in a trade that sent veteran reliever Jerry Blevins to the Nationals back in December 2013. The fleet-footed outfielder played a total of 266 games in Washington's system from 2011-13. Though he only managed 46 extra-base hits (one HR) over that stretch, Burns batted .312 with 125 stolen bases and an impressive 12.9 BB%.
Obviously Burns came to Oakland with plenty of promise, but many have now soured on him a bit after some struggles between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento in 2014. The product of Mercer University put together a poor .237/.315/.302 slash line across 542 plate appearances in the minors last season. However, the speed and plate discipline were still there for the most part, as he swiped 54 bags in 60 attempts and drew 53 walks.
According to MLB.com, Burns now ranks as the franchise's 18th best prospect. At 25 years of age and with Oakland getting set to patrol the outfield with a fairly mediocre group of oft-injured veterans like Craig Gentry, Josh Reddick and Sam Fuld, Burns is likely to see an extended opportunity to prove himself at some point in 2015.
Fantasy managers know how quickly a commodity such as speed can often fly off of the waiver wire during the season, especially in deeper formats. Burns may very well turn out to be a one-category guy, but he has the potential to be one of the few elite speedsters in the game. For a reasonable player projection, just take a look at what Jarrod Dyson has been able to contribute in Kansas City over the past three seasons.
Kyle Kubitza (3B, LAA)
Following four years in the Braves farm system, Kubitza could be the future at the hot corner for the Angels. The third-round draft choice from 2011 was acquired from Atlanta just last month, but is already slotted as one of his new organization's top-10 overall prospects.
Kubitza has yet to play at the Triple-A level, but put together a sensational campaign for Double-A Mississippi in 2014. In 132 games at Atlanta's second-highest level, the young left-handed hitter posted a .295/.405/.470 triple slash with 31 doubles, 11 triples, eight homers and 21 stolen bases.
With the largely lackluster production of David Freese in recent years, not to mention his various nagging health issues and significant lefty/righty split from 2014, Kubitza could force his way into at least the strong side of platoon in mid-to-late 2015. If and when he begins to see regular at-bats for the Angels, the 24 year old could provide fantasy owners with a steady 15-15 power-speed combo from third base.