The baseball season is still several months away, but that doesn't stop us from taking a look at which top prospects could be targeted by clubs over the coming year.
It will take a lot to wrestle studs such as Shelby Miller and Nolan Arenado from their clubs, but if the right trade partner comes along at the trade deadline, there's no telling what could happen.
I didn't think the Cincinnati Reds would move Yonder Alonso this offseason. Few people thought the San Francisco Giants would move Zack Wheeler to the New York Mets for Carlos Beltran until it actually happened.
The point is there are very few true "untouchable" prospects. You're not going to see Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Jesus Montero on this list—although the Yankees have shown in the past that Montero is not untouchable—but you will see the next big crop of stars.
Here's a breakdown of 15 prospects who could draw heavy interest from clubs at next season's trade deadline. For the benefit of clarity, I'm using MLB's criteria for rookie eligibility to determine prospect status.
The Pittsburgh Pirates took Jameson Taillon second overall in the 2010 draft, and that alone makes it virtually impossible for the club to move him this early.
That said, there should be plenty of teams who would love to ask for Taillon in a deal with the Pirates.
The 20-year-old has an imposing 6'6", 225-pound frame on the mound, and he uses the leverage and momentum that his body generates to deliver a nasty fastball from a high release point.
The righty was surprisingly effective against left-handed batters (2.29 ERA, .205 average) in his first season in the South Atlantic League, and the general feeling is that there's only room to improve.
Taillon has a high floor and an even higher ceiling. If I'm dealing with Pittsburgh, I'd almost certainly want Taillon or a combination of Starlin Marte and another pitching prospect like Stetson Allie in return.
New York Yankees catching prospect Gary Sanchez is one of the most exciting teenage backstops in all of professional baseball.
The 19-year-old native of the Dominican Republic has fewer than 500 minor league at-bats to his name, but he’s already earning quite a reputation as a future star in the making.
He slugged 17 homers in 82 South Atlantic League games with Charleston last season, and there’s every chance he’ll be playing at the Double-A level this summer.
With Jesus Montero and Austin Romine already ahead of Sanchez in terms of experience, it will be interesting to see whether the Yankees are interested in listening to offers for Sanchez, who is three years younger than the other catchers in the system.
Right-handed starter Randall Delgado is a 21-year-old Panamanian who cracked the Atlanta Braves' roster in 2011.
He has had command problems at times, but his overpowering stuff has allowed him to get away with mistakes that would have otherwise been punished.
The thing I love about Delgado is that, after five years of average minor league numbers, he's finally where he wants to be.
Now that he's tasted life in The Show, his best chance at remaining there may come in a trade.
Delgado would offer teams a young arm with a little upside who could contribute right away in the middle of a rotation or as a pitcher to shape over the coming year.
The Braves aren't going to move a stud like Julio Teheran, which might allow other teams to lure Delgado elsewhere.
Christian Yelich was selected 23rd overall in the 2010 draft out of Westlake High School in California.
After appearing in 12 games in his first year, the lanky 20-year-old left fielder suited up for the Greensboro Grasshoppers 122 times in 2011.
He batted .312, hit 15 homers and plated 77 runs.
He also stole 32 bases in 37 attempts, making him a threat at the plate and on the basepaths. His speed probably makes him more suited to covering ground in center field, but he showed he was more than capable of playing a good corner outfield role.
Yelich is arguably Miami's top hitting prospect other than Matt Dominguez, and there's no reason that almost every club should consider him as trade bait.
He's still a couple years away from making an impact, but once he arrives, it will be worth it.
In one of the most memorable minor league games of last season, Yelich delivered in the clutch, smacking a two-run homer in the bottom of the 15th inning to lift the 'Hoppers to a 5-4 playoff win over the Hickory Crawdads.
Overshadowed by uber-prospect Manny Machado, infield prospect Jonathan Schoop doesn't get the attention or respect his game deserves.
The 20-year-old from Curacao played alongside Machado for parts of 2011, but Schoop deserves to be recognized on the merits of his own game.
He has average power that will likely increase as he adds bulk to his 6'1" frame, he has decent speed and good instincts and he has soft hands defensively.
2011 was his first full season, so it's no surprise to see career highs across every offensive category.
He made the jump from the Sally League to the Carolina League look smooth, and now the onus is on him to continue this progression in 2012.
People started taking a proper interest in Schoop around the time he was selected to the Futures Game this past season. With the increase in exposure that platform has given him, he'll be looking to take his game forward again this coming year.
Teams on the lookout for a future star to fill the left side of the infield should pay close attention to Schoop out of the gates.
This is the biggest reach on the list, I recognize that.
The Rays don't want to lose him, and few teams will have the resources to acquire him and take on his contract.
But that doesn't mean teams can't look. It's almost like window shopping.
Left-handed starting pitcher Matt Moore made it to the major leagues in 2011, and he has both the ability and makeup to be a strong top-of-the-rotation workhouse in the coming years.
With just nine starts in the International League and one more regular season start with the Rays, Moore may lack the experience to jump right into the rotation out of spring training.
Considering the maturity he showed in the postseason, however, don’t be surprised to see him make it back to the big leagues before the season is out.
Moore is a hard-throwing strikeout machine who uses good command and outstanding breaking balls to baffle hitters. The former eighth-round draft pick just got locked up with a lucrative contract this offseason, and that is the one huge thing that stops him from being at the very top of this list.
Teams will have to give up an awful lot to get him, but everyone should be interested. Playoff contenders and teams in rebuilding mode may be willing to move a veteran team in order to get him, while any other team who can afford the haul should definitely consider it.
Robbie Grossman put up MVP-like numbers for the Class A Advanced Bradenton Marauders in 2011.
In doing so, he became the first minor leaguer to score 100 runs and draw 100 walks since Nick Swisher did so back in 2004.
Grossman has a solid bat, he can hit for power (13 homers) and average (.294), and he can steal bases (24 in 34 attempts).
His eye is remarkable and his plate discipline is unmatched in the system.
He's also a switch-hitter, and while he likes to take pitchers deep, he knows his role as a leadoff hitter is to get on base and score runs. He did both of these as well as, if not better than, any player in the past decade.
If somebody would have told you that Grossman would break out like this, it would have been pure luck. Nothing from 2010 pointed to the record-setting year he put together.
Now that it's behind him—plus the success he had for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League—scouts will be keeping a close eye on his progress outside of the Florida State League. If he replicates the form of the past 12 months at the start of 2012 at a higher level, he could be a big target in June.
He wasn't even on the prospect radar last year.
At 22 years old and having mastered the FSL at the second time of asking, this next year could make or break his career.
People often overlook Miguel Sano when they're considering the top prospects in the Minnesota Twins system.
There are several reasons—he's just 18 years old, he's played just 127 games in the minors (and none in a full-season league) and he's not named Aaron Hicks, the team's top prospect.
But people need to start taking note of this kid.
Signed as a non-drafted free agent, Sano has serious pop.
He smashed 20 homers in 66 games in the Appy League with Elizabethton in 2011—almost three times the number he posted between two lower levels the previous year.
I remember speaking with hitting coach Jeff Reed in August after Sano drilled his league-leading 14th long ball of the season. Reed's observation? Ridiculous bat speed from a special talent.
"The kid is only 18 years old, and he'll only keep getting better," he told me. "He'll be a real good major league player one day, and he'll be there for a lot of years. Teams will find a way to get him in the lineup. He can be as good as he wants to be.
"I saw him hit [a home run] at Kingsport that almost smoked our team bus, and that must have been 90 or 100 feet beyond the fence. Watching him take batting practice, you notice that the ball is unbelievably loud off his bat."
While Nolan Arenado was fantastic in the Cal League in 2011, it was a remarkable offseason in the Arizona Fall League that has put the rest of the baseball community on notice.
The 20-year-old third baseman hit .298 with 55 extra-base hits—including 20 homers—for the Modesto Nuts this past season in his second full year, earning a selection to the Futures Game and the postseason All-Star team.
From there, the California native impressed with the Salt River Rafters in the finishing school that is the AFL.
He hit .388 with six homers and 12 doubles in 29 games, posting a 1.059 OPS against the best pitching prospects in baseball.
The former second-round draft pick is right at the top of the Colorado Rockies' list of prospects, so expect teams to show heavy interest in him this summer.
The Texas Rangers picked up Martin Perez as a non-drafted free agent in 2007, and the 20-year-old has quickly started to repay the club for their faith by shooting up the prospect rankings.
The 6'0" southpaw spent more than half the year repeating the Texas League in 2011, but he had clearly grown from his previous experiences with Frisco.
He lowered his Double-A ERA by more than two runs, halved the number of home runs he allowed and limited to hitters to a .245 average compared with a .290 clip the previous year.
Perez went 4-4 in 10 starts with Triple-A Round Rock. He still has holes in his game that need to be addressed before he can move to the next level, but with three or four more months of seasoning in the Pacific Coast League, there's no reason to think he won't be major league-ready by 2013.
After throwing a rain-shortened perfect game in April, Perez told MiLB.com that he has been working on throwing the ball in front of his body and using any pitch at any time in the count.
Perez has improved his command and he has also developed an above-average curve. Combined with a big league changeup and a low- to mid-90s heater, Perez isn't far from making an impact.
What’s not to like about Drew Pomeranz?
He has a mid-90s fastball and a devastating curve, he collected three years of collegiate experience at the University of Mississippi despite being drafted out of high school, and he went from the Carolina League to the majors in the space of six months in his first year as a professional.
The sample sizes are small after just 101 innings between three levels in the minors and 18.1 innings across four starts with Colorado, but his tool-set is right there.
It’s not easy to project his progression from here, and that may ultimately be what convinced the Cleveland Indians to move him.
If the right trade partner comes along and the Rockies feel the same way, a club might be able to snatch him away from the pitchers’ death trap that is Coors Field.
Teams should be excited about his baseline skills while gambling on the ceiling of his upside. He’s a pretty low-risk, high-reward kind of target for a club looking for an imposing young left-hander who could contribute immediately and grow into a No. 1 or No. 2 guy.
Jake Odorizzi is just one of a number of future stars within the Kansas City Royals' organization.
The 21-year-old right-hander has a fastball, a curve, a changeup and a slider that will all be usable pitches once he arrives in the majors, and he has above-average command.
The former Milwaukee Brewers first-rounder struggled at times during his first look at the Texas League in 2011, but the 22-to-103 walks-to-strikeout ratio with Wilmington shows what people can expect going forward.
If he can get back to working low in the zone, he'll find success where ever he goes. He ran into trouble with Northwest Arkansas when he left the ball above the belt.
That led to 13 homers in 68.2 Double-A innings, the worst mark of his four-year career.
If the high school standout relies on his command and stays confident enough to throw any pitch at any time, he'll be a top target this summer. Considering the depth in pitching the Royals have coming through, a cub might be able to get them to part with Odorizzi.
Shelby Miller is the top pitching prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, but he was suspended indefinitely toward the end of last season after violating team policies.
While the suspension in August didn’t amount to much, reports on stltoday.com said he Miller had been involved in two alcohol-related incidents.
Miller’s talent is not in question.
He posted 11 wins, a 2.77 ERA and 170 strikeouts over 139.2 innings in 2011.
But at 21 years old, his maturity and discipline may be.
I’m not going to get on my high horse and preach about morality.
Teams will like the makeup of this 6’3” right-hander, a first-round draft pick from 2009 who excelled in the Double-A Texas League this season. Even if he begins 2012 slowly, he will be a hot commodity at the trade deadline. He has the talent to become a major league All-Star by 2014.
MLB.com prospect expert Jonathan Mayo described Tyler Skaggs as a “projectable leftie” last year, and that sums up the pitcher’s value nicely.
Teams are always looking for good southpaws to anchor a staff and there are few better minor leaguers who fit this role better than Skaggs.
He came to Arizona in exchange for Dan Haren, and if he wasn’t already the best pitcher in the system, he assumed the No. 1 spot when Jarrod Parker was traded to the Oakland A's.
The Diamondbacks are set up very well in terms of pitching prospects and that could make Skaggs expendable.
The odds are lessened because of the Parker deal, but with Trevor Bauer, Wade Miley, Charles Brewer and Pat Corbin all waiting in the wings, there may be room to maneuver.
Jurickson Profar graduated to a full-season league in 2011 and looked remarkably comfortable for someone who was just 18 years old.
The switch-hitting shortstop showed speed (23 steals and eight triples), power (12 homers and 37 doubles), discipline (65 walks to 63 strikeouts) and the ability to make contact (.286 average) en route to becoming one of the best hitters in his class.
The league’s MVP, Profar was also a postseason All-Star and MiLB.com’s Class A hitter of the year.
Profar showed he was ahead of the curve, and in 2012 he will have the chance to prove he has what it takes at the next level.
The Texas Rangers aren’t exactly stacked with talented infielders, and that makes it harder for clubs to lure him away—but don’t think opposing GMs won’t try.
I could see a team like the Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees or Minnesota Twins try to strike a deal.
Follow me on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB