Five to watch: Big talents poised for stardom
Anticipation is high for Moore, Darvish, Harper, Trout, Cespedes
Matt Moore: Classic southpaw form.
Yu Darvish: More pitches than a used-car salesman.
Bryce Harper: More power than a locomotive.
Mike Trout: Faster than a speeding bullet.
Yoenis Cespedes: Able to leap tall fences in a single bound.
Every year at this time, young performers arrive on the scene with abundant talents and hype to match, summoning images of comic-book heroes.
Some prove to be everything we'd imagined -- and even more, in special cases. Some are around for years but never seem to reach their full potential. Then there are the unfortunate few who fall by the wayside, knocked down by injuries or a fatal flaw in their game or makeup.
This season is like any other in the level of anticipation building over five players we can't wait to see. It could be a season almost unlike any other if all five manage to connect on the big stage and show they are every bit as good as we'd anticipated.
FIVE TO WATCH
|Five we can't wait to see|
|Five who will make an impact on new team|
|Five who can leap to stardom|
|Five who need to get it together|
|Five who need to get and stay healthy|
|Five who could bash or crash|
|Five facing rake or break seasons|
The quintet has an international flavor, with a man from Japan (Darvish) and another from Cuba (Cespedes) joining budding stars from Nevada (Harper), New Mexico (Moore) and New Jersey (Trout).
Tampa Bay's Moore and Texas' Darvish are the most likely candidates to be instant hits. Both are being counted on to contribute handsomely to deep rotations capable of leading their clubs back to a third consecutive postseason confrontation between the Rays and Rangers.
Moore, who turns 23 in June, already has delivered a postseason performance for the ages. With only one big league start on his resume, during his September callup, he was the surprise choice of manager Joe Maddon to open the American League Division Series in Texas.
Showing remarkable poise and command, he shut down the powerful Rangers across seven innings in a 9-0 victory. It would turn out to be the Rays' final triumph in an amazing late-season run.
"He looks like he's barely throwing and it's 97 [mph]," said slugging Texas catcher Mike Napoli. "He got a lead and attacked. That's what you want to do. We've done it before against guys we haven't seen. I was seeing the ball good. He just got me."
Moore, solidly constructed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, has dominated at every level with his smooth, easy delivery and exploding fastball, complemented by all the right off-speed stuff.
Before yielding three earned runs in 9 1/3 September innings while striking out 15 big league hitters, Moore was 12-3 at two Minor League stops with 210 punchouts in 155 innings.
Slotted in as the fifth starter behind James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis, Moore would be the lead dog on a number of Major League staffs -- right now.
Darvish, billed as the most polished young pitcher ever to come out of Japan, was the subject of a bidding war before Texas prevailed with the highest bid -- $51.7 million -- ever posted for a Japanese star.
The total investment for the 25-year-old, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract, came to $111.7 million. Texas appears happy with its commitment in the right-hander, whose repertoire is estimated to include nine to 10 pitches. They all revolve around a 95-97 mph heater he can pinpoint on both corners.
It quickly became clear as Spring Training opened that Darvish is all business.
"I'm not here to play around," he said through an interpreter upon his arrival in Arizona. "I'm here to play baseball. That's what I do."
As for the rock-star treatment he's received, especially from his homeland's media, "it's definitely not normal," he said. "Am I the type of player who should get all this attention?"
When you're 93-38 in 167 professional appearances with a 1.99 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 55 complete games and 18 shutouts, the answer is a resounding "yes" in any language.
It's unclear where Darvish will open the season in a Texas rotation that lost 16-game winner C.J. Wilson to free agency. But it wouldn't be surprising to find Darvish leading the staff in wins and innings by season's end.
Harper and Trout, teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, are in the same position: they are seemingly can't-miss athletes whose only obstacles are a lack of professional experience.
Harper's thunder would be welcomed with open arms by highly supportive Nationals manager Davey Johnson, who has a history with right fielders blessed with almost supernatural talent -- and light-tower power. With the 1980s Mets, Johnson managed a young Darryl Strawberry, giving him a personal road map to follow with Harper.
"It's great having him on my side, keeping an open mind and telling everyone to keep an open mind," Harper said. "That is really helping me. It takes a lot of pressure off of me. He just lets me go out there and just play my game, have fun like I do. Hopefully, I can show him a little bit, just keep going every single day, getting better every day and work hard."
Harper, one of the most natural hitters to come into the game in years, was getting early exposure to Grapefruit League play before a calf muscle interrupted his progress. If it's determined that he needs more Triple-A seasoning, Harper isn't expected to be gone for long. Johnson is a big believer in nurturing young talent with on-the-job experience, and Harper's confidence is visible in his body language and words.
"If I can come out here, work in the outfield, work hard [on my] hitting, I'm going to try and make their decision hard," Harper said. "That's the most I can do. ... I want to be up here, I want to play, and I want to play in D.C."
In 109 Minor League games last season, he hit a combined .297 with 17 home runs and 58 RBIs for Class A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg. Moving on the Arizona Fall League, Harper hit .333 with six homers and had a .400 on-base percentage in 93 at-bats.
"When I'm out on the field, I think I play the game a certain way, I play hard," Harper said. "That's what they like. I go out there and I bust my butt every day. That's what they are going to get from me. I play 110 percent. I'm going to go out there and try to beat the team that is playing in the other dugout. That's the fire in me. I want to win every single game."
That same passion is apparent in everything Trout, 20, does on the field. A quarterback before focusing entirely on baseball in high school in Millville, N.J., he brings a football mentality to the game -- and a wide receiver's speed. Scouts have compared him to a young Mickey Mantle in his ability to get down the line to first base in under four seconds.
While Harper has a real shot at nailing down an everyday job, Trout is blocked by an Angels outfield featuring Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter, with Bobby Abreu as the fourth outfielder and Mark Trumbo also a candidate to play one of the corners.
Equipped with plate discipline, a line-drive bat with emerging power and skill at all three outfield spots to go along with his blinding speed, Trout is destined to find regular work in the near future. The early consensus is that he'll open the season at Triple-A Salt Lake, unless one of the veterans goes down with an injury. He had a .326/.414/.544 line at Double-A Arkansas last season and has stolen a total of 93 bases the past two seasons.
Trout is more concerned with his progress than his destination, knowing it's not his decision.
"I don't know," he said. "They always made the right decision in the past. If they're going to win, they're going to put the right lineup out there. ... It's still up in the air right now. If they put me in Salt Lake -- or wherever they're going to put me -- I'm always going to accept that. It just makes you want to work harder."
Trout had two flings in the big leagues in 2011. He struggled the first time around but was much more comfortable in his second stint, finishing with a .220/.281/.390 line in 123 at-bats. When he settles in as an everyday player, those numbers could jump close to 100 points in each category. He's capable of hitting anywhere in the top third of the order with his multiple skills and emerging power.
Behind closed doors, the Angels must be salivating at the prospect of lining up Bourjos and Trout - two of the fastest players in the game -- in front of Albert Pujols when the two young outfielders are ready to take full flight. That could be as early as next season, perhaps even later this year.
Cespedes is the wild card in this hand of aces. Cuban players often have been difficult to read as they come to the Majors, but this is an experienced player at 26, with all five tools at his disposal. How well he adapts to a new culture and uses his skills will determine whether he gives the Oakland A's bang for their four-year, $36 million free-agent investment.
Given his salary and the lack of star power on the Oakland roster, the A's naturally want to see Cespedes earn a starting role out of the chute, whether in center field, his natural position, or a corner spot. Coco Crisp, an accomplished veteran, is the incumbent in center.
"Based on the contract, the sooner [he gets to the big leagues] the better," A's general manager Billy Beane said. "I think we're going to be open-minded, but I think we also don't want to immediately say, 'He's going to be here on Opening Day.'"
Cespedes appears to have the explosive skills similar to those of former Houston Astros center fielder Cesar Cedeno, an All-Star in the 1970s. If that talent translates into production, the A's will have a much-needed star and draw on their hands. Fellow Oakland newcomer Manny Ramirez won't be eligible to play until his 50-game suspension ends on or around May 29.
The six-foot, 215-pound Cespedes played eight seasons for Granma in the Cuban League, producing 33 home runs, a .333 average and 99 RBIs in 90 games during the 2010-11 season. Cuba's starting center fielder in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, he batted .458 in six games.
"Really, to find a potential center-of-the-diamond player in the prime of his career, those players usually aren't available," Beane said.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.