It's easy to forget, but Bryce Harper and Mike Trout weren't stars at this time a year ago—they were prospects. They both began the 2012 season in the minor leagues: The Nationals called up Harper on April 28, the Angels summoned Trout the same day, and each hoisted a Rookie of the Year trophy in November.
Everyone hopes to win an Opening Day job, but—largely because teams want to delay their best young players' eligibility for free agency—the top ROY candidates often arrive after the season starts. This year is no different: The countdown is on for the promotions of four highly touted prospects who turned heads in camp. In three cases (sorry, Pirates) these phenoms could even be keys to a pennant race. Sound familiar, Bryce and Mike?
OF, CARDINALS AGE: 20
BIO: Signed as an amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic at 16; ranked No. 3 on MLB.com's 2013 prospects list
RÉSUMÉ: Hit .321 with 23 homers, a .953 OPS and 10 stolen bases at Double A last year; St. Louis's best hitting prospect since Albert Pujols
COMP: Vladimir Guerrero
SS, RANGERS AGE: 20
BIO: Signed as an amateur free agent from Cura√ßao at 16; ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's 2013 prospects list
RÉSUMÉ: Switch-hitter with power and speed; had 14 homers and 16 steals at Double A last year; homered in his first major league at bat, in September
COMP: Tony Fernandez
RHP, PIRATES AGE: 22
BIO: Top pick in the 2011 draft after three seasons at UCLA; ranked No. 9 on MLB.com's '13 prospects list
RÉSUMÉ: Prototype power pitcher, with 100-mph fastball and devastating slider; had a 2.80 ERA with 136 strikeouts in 132 innings in the minors last year
COMP: Stephen Strasburg
OF, RAYS AGE: 22
BIO: Drafted by the Royals in 3rd round in 2009, traded to Rays in December; No. 4 on MLB.com's '13 prospects list
RÉSUMÉ: Young power hitter the pitching-rich Rays have long been waiting for; belted 37 home runs with a .988 OPS in Double and Triple A last year
COMP: Dale Murphy
One-run and Done
Ah, 2012—a year Orioles fans will always cherish. The franchise had its first winning record and postseason appearance in 15 years, thanks to a slew of taut, dramatic victories. The O's went 29--9 in one-run games, the best one-run winning percentage (.763) in major league history. But here's the problem with such marginal success: It's fluky, maybe even lucky, and almost impossible to replicate. Of the 12 teams that led the majors in one-run winning percentage each year from 2000 to '11, only four were above .500 in that category the following season. And only one—the '10 Phillies—had a better overall record. (Granted, the '01 Mariners "slumped" from 116 wins to 93 in '02.) On average, those 12 teams won 11.2 fewer games the year after their one-run dominance.
Height of the Matter
Last year Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, at 5'5" the smallest active player, hit seven homers. Doesn't sound like much, but it's a feat not to be looked down upon—no player that height or shorter had hit that many in more than 50 years. Suddenly, setting slugging records doesn't seem like such a tall order for Altuve: The single-season home run king for the 5'5"-and-under set is Bill Keister, who swung from his keister and whacked nine for the Washington Senators in 1902. Here are last year's other long ball leaders by height, and the historic totals they're looking up to.
Hack Wilson, 1930: 56
Yogi Berra, 1956: 30
Jimmy Rollins, 23
Kirby Puckett, 1986: 31
Shane Victorino, 11
Mel Ott, 1929: 42
Andrew McCutchen, 31
Willie Mays, 1965: 52
Adrian Beltre, 36
Mickey Mantle, 1961: 54
Robinson Cano, 33
Sammy Sosa, 1998: 66
Curtis Granderson, 43
Barry Bonds, 2001: 73
Edwin Encarnacion, 42
Babe Ruth, 1927: 60
Jay Bruce, 34
Hank Greenberg, 1938: 58
Miguel Cabrera, 44
Ryan Howard, 2006: 58
Jason Heyward, 27
Mark McGwire, 1998: 70
Adam Dunn, 41
Dave Kingman, 1979: 48
Frank Howard, 1969: 48
Tony Clark, 1998: 34
The 2013 season will be a well-deserved lovefest for Mariano Rivera, 43, who has announced this will be his last campaign. Rivera is the alltime saves leader (608) and has the second-lowest WHIP (0.99) in history among pitchers who have thrown at least 1,000 innings. A generation of fans can't remember an Opening Day with anyone else as the Yankees' closer.
Then there's the other end of the stopper spectrum. While established closers such as Francisco Cordero, Francisco Rodriguez and Brian Wilson sit home unsigned, several teams have handed the job to pitchers with little or no experience finishing games. The Tigers anointed 22-year-old Bruce Rondon, who has never appeared in the majors but owns a 102-mph fastball and last year fanned 11.2 per nine innings in the minors. Other clubs are turning to veterans with minimal closing experience. The pitchers at left—all 30 or older, with 31 or fewer career saves and less-than-dazzling K rates—have teams depending on them.
Houston's move from the NL Central to the AL West created two leagues with an odd number of teams. So for the first time, there will be interleague play every day, which has its pros and cons. Imagine the Tigers fighting for the AL Central title, needing to win their final series ... in Miami, where Detroit will play without a DH. Let's hope one of those games doesn't come down to a Justin Verlander at bat: He's 0 for 24 with 14 strikeouts.
The interleague slate will also add sizzle, especially in the first half. Here are some of the must-attend games. Find more at SI.com/mustattend.
APRIL 1-4 ANGELS AT REDS: For the first time since Cincy traded him in 2007, Josh Hamilton returns to the town where his career got rolling.
APRIL 5--7 ROYALS AT PHILLIES: Philadelphia opens its home schedule with a rematch of the 1980 World Series.
JUNE 18--19 DODGERS AT YANKEES: These teams have lots of history—in October. This is the Dodgers' first regular-season visit to the Bronx.
JULY 2--4 CUBS AT A'S: Cubs Nation's final frontier: The Cubbies travel to Oakland, the only big league city they have never visited.
Underaged and Overworked
For more than a decade, SI senior writer Tom Verducci has tracked what he calls the Year-After Effect, a pattern of young pitchers getting hurt or regressing after their workload has greatly increased. The rule of thumb: A hurler 25 or under who sees a spike of at least 30 innings over the previous season (including those pitched in the minors) is at risk for injury or ineffectiveness the following year. In the past seven years Verducci has red-flagged 69 pitchers; 55 of them experienced the Year-After Effect.
The YAE could have a new poster boy this year: White Sox starter Chris Sale, who moved from the bullpen to the rotation in his age-23 season, threw 192 innings and put up by far the largest increase ever (+121) in Year-After tracking. (The previous high was Paul Maholm's 981/3 innings, in 2005.) Perhaps it's no surprise that the skinny lefty faded down the stretch. In his last seven starts, Sale, who finished the year with a 3.05 ERA, went 2--4 with a 4.62 ERA. Here are five other pitchers who bear close watching.
CASEY JANSSENBLUE JAYS
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY GLUEKIT; JEFF ROBERSON/AP (TAVERAS); JOHN BIEVER FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PROFAR); CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/AP (COLE); DOUGLAS JONES/USA TODAY SPORTS (MYERS)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ROLLINS)
CHRIS O'MEARA/AP (VICTORINO)
FRED VUICH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (MCCUTCHEN)
ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BELTRE)
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CANO)
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GRANDERSON)
TOM SZCZERBOWSKI/US PRESSWIRE (ENCARNACION)
JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRUCE)
BRAD MANGIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CABRERA)
AL BEHRMAN/AP (HEYWARD)
JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DUNN)
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (ALTUVE)
CHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (RIVERA)
J. MERIC/GETTY IMAGES (GRILLI, JANSSEN, VERAS)
ROBBIE ROGERS/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (PERKINS)
JOHN BIEVER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SALE)
JAMES ANTRIM/GETTY IMAGES (OYSTERS)
TONY CORDOZA/GETTY IMAGES (SALMON)
CHRIS RATCLIFFE/BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES (STARBUCKS)
ANDREA BRICCO/GETTY IMAGES (CHERRIES)
ERICK W. RASCO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BEER)
COURTESY OF GILROY'S (FRIES)