1. Evan Longoria (Tampa Bay Rays)- Given that he has been in the league since 2008 and has been an elite player for essentially his entire career, it’s hard to believe that Longoria is just 28 years old. However, he is just 28 and is now moving into his prime, which is incredible given that he has put up a career 136 OPS+ in his first six seasons with the Rays. Longoria did not set any new records in 2013, but just put up another chapter in his excellent career as he posted a .269/.343/.498 slash line with 32 home runs and 88 RBIs– just a typical season for the third baseman. If Longoria can stay healthy in 2014, expect more of the same: elite production and defense at the hot corner.
2. Manny Machado (Baltimore Orioles)- After bursting onto the scene down the stretch of the Orioles’ playoff run in 2012, Machado had a great sophomore season last year. The fresh-faced 20 year old slashed .283/.314/.432 with 14 home runs, 71 RBIs, and a league-leading 51 doubles. The former top prospect will enter the 2014 season at just 21 years old; however, there are some concerns about the youngster’s health. Machado is recovering from knee surgery, which was necessary after a freak injury at the end of last season, and may not be ready for Opening Day. However, as long as the injury does not halt his development too much, Machado should become one of the brightest young stars in baseball in coming seasons.
3. Brett Lawrie (Toronto Blue Jays)- So far in his career, Lawrie has failed to live up to the hype that he generated after his stellar rookie campaign (.293/.373/.580 in 43 games). With that in mind, 2014 should be a make-or-break year for the 24-year old as he has followed up that 2011 debut with a .265/.320/.401 slash line and has fallen into the ranks of average players, rather than the bright young stars like Machado. However, Lawrie has also dealt with some health concerns in those seasons and it’s conceivable that a fully healthy 2014 could restore him to something close to his 2011 form.
4. Will Middlebrooks (Boston Red Sox)- Perhaps nobody in baseball was hit harder by the dreaded “sophomore slump” than Will Middlebrooks last season. After gaining recognition as a young star after a .288/.325/.509 slash line across 75 games in 2012, Middlebrooks was expected to anchor the middle of the Red Sox’ lineup last season and usher in the “Next Great Red Sox Team.” Instead, he disappointed everybody and slashed .227/.271/.425 with 17 home runs and 49 RBIs, even meriting a demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket over much of the summer. This will be a make-or-break year for Middlebrooks to an even greater degree than Lawrie, as he will be proving whether he is a major league player or not.
5. Kelly Johnson (New York Yankees)- The suspension of Alex Rodriguez leaves the Yankees a bit short-handed at third base, and while it’s still possible that they could make a late acquisition, Kelly Johnson is currently projected to start at the hot corner. Once a promising player for the Atlanta Braves, Johnson has fallen into the depths of mediocrity in recent seasons and posted just a .235/.305/.410 slash line in his first and only year with the Tampa Bay Rays last season. Johnson is a fine option as a utility man, but as a starting third baseman, he leaves quite a bit to be desired.