For remarkably few athletes, years of playing on sandlot fields may culminate in signing a professional baseball contract. Hard work, sore body parts and countless hours working in the batting cage or on the mound are all part of refining skills and bringing the end of the rainbow within view.
Only a few of the best athletes in the world ever play for a Major League club. In fact, only about seven to eight percent of Minor Leaguers make the Majors. Next season, the door will open for a few highly talented pitchers and position players. Countless others will remain in the Minors, waiting to achieve a lifelong dream. For most, the dream will not be realized. They will remain Minor League players continuing on their quest or leave the game entirely.
Several players, including those noted below, are on the verge of finding the "pot of gold." Each may have stiff competition from incumbents while entering Spring Training. Here are a few of many players on the cusp of big league jobs:
Logan Schafer is a left-handed-hitting 25-year-old former third-round Draft choice of the Brewers. Beyond being a solid contact hitter, Schafer is a very reliable defender with plus speed and the athletic ability to provide Milwaukee with stability and quality play in center. In fact, in four seasons of professional baseball in the Minors, he has made only seven errors.
Schafer is the type of prototypical leadoff hitter that many clubs covet. He can hit the gaps with a level and measured swing, he can steal bases with a very quick first step and he can defend his position by taking good routes and closing quickly with above-average range and excellent speed. He doesn't have any one great tool, but he has the ability to be a very reliable and consistent hitter for average with good pitch recognition and patience at the plate.
Schafer has a chance to become the Brewers' Opening Day starter in center field. He was sidelined a bit in the Arizona Fall League earlier this month with a wrist injury. However, his absence was brief. Upon his return, Schafer tripled twice in one game. He's having an excellent fall.
The Brewers have Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan on their roster, as well as Schafer. It would not surprise many if Schafer emerged from among those center fielders as the starter in the coming season.
Pending a free-agent signing or surprising trade, Brandon Crawford could be the shortstop next season for the San Francisco Giants.
If he hits. There is no doubt about Crawford's ability to play defense. His footwork and arm strength are both pluses in his defensive game. His range is solid to both sides as well as coming in on short-hop grounders. He has sure hands and good carry on his throws. Crawford's first-step quickness allows him to reach many balls that would normally go for hits. The pitching staff in San Francisco will be grateful for Crawford's defensive presence.
Crawford is a wiry and strong 6-foot-2 left-handed hitter. He can drive the ball to the gaps or over the fence if he gets his pitch. He continues to refine his approach at the plate, with a swing that looks consistently shorter and more measured than in the past. Crawford's hitting reflects better plate discipline and pitch recognition.
Cincinnati Reds right-hander Brad Boxberger is only 23 years old, but he has a chance to either start or close for the Reds at some point in 2012. Boxberger has enough arm strength to pitch in any role on the Reds' pitching staff, but he may be best suited as a closer.
Boxberger has a wide repertoire of quality pitches for a late-inning relief pitcher. Rather than entering games and throwing fastballs exclusively, Boxberger can select from among a very good slider, a curveball that he throws from 84-86 mph and a changeup that usually comes in at 74-76 mph. Those pitches are effective options following Boxberger's 90- to 95-mph fastball. The pitch variation and velocity differential are major factors in hitters looking off balance and confused at the plate. In addition to using his pitches in good sequence, Boxberger has improved his command with experience. This past Minor League season, Boxberger walked only 28 while striking out 93. That type of ratio and the improvement he has shown in repeating his delivery could carry him to Cincinnati.
While Boxberger is young and has had only two years of professional experience, his stuff is advanced. He has a chance to help a Reds pitching staff that didn't meet expectations last season. His versatility and continued growth as a reliable, consistent pitcher bodes well for his immediate future.
Catcher Wilin Rosario is built like ... well, like a catcher. The Colorado Rockies prospect is 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds of solid strength. Rosario has a quick, short swing and plus power generating from a very strong lower body.
Rosario was set back by a right knee injury that required surgery in 2010. He has since fully recovered, having hit 21 homers as he repeated Double-A at Tulsa this past season. However, he has to improve upon the .249 batting average.
While Rosario is rather slow running home to first, he does move well behind the plate. He is agile and quick, showing excellent footwork blocking balls in the dirt. His strong and accurate arm helps keep runners in check.
Rosario is hitting well while playing in his native Dominican Republic this offseason, driving in runs and making an impact. Rosario's plate approach and his ability to hit for power should play very well at Coors Field.
While he isn't guaranteed a position on the big league roster, Rosario possesses a skill set that appears to be just what the Rockies need behind the plate.
Another catcher with a chance to join a big league club on a full-time basis in 2012 is Cincinnati Reds backstop Devin Mesoraco. Mesoraco, a prototypical athlete, is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds.
Mesoraco has the ability to hit both for power and average. His home park should be a tremendous asset for Mesoraco, as he generally gets some loft on the ball and the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park should be to his liking.
If there was any real concern about Mesoraco's development, it had been in his inability to block balls in the dirt. In the 2010 Arizona Fall League, he had a particularly difficult showing defensively. His blocking and footwork problems have improved this past season. Scouts now view him as a better handler of high-velocity pitchers. Mesoraco has a strong arm, although he is not always as accurate as he will be with more experience.
The Reds may still pursue signing Ramon Hernandez, their primary backstop this past season. Even if that should take place, Mesoraco could be included on the roster as a solid hitter from the right side of the plate.
At some point during the coming season, the players above should make an impact on their respective big league clubs. Most will likely be there sooner than later.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.