This time last year, the presence of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout in big league camp dominated spring training headlines. Fans from all over flocked to both Cactus and Grapefruit League games with the hope of catching a glimpse of either future All-Star.
That being said, this year’s assemblage of top prospects participating in major league spring training is far more impressive due to both the quality and quantity of high-level talent. In fact, every player who was recently ranked within the top 10 of Prospect Pipeline’s top 100 prospects will be on display over the month.
Furthermore, due to the vast number of players who have committed to participate for their respective countries in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, many of baseball’s top prospects should see consistent playing time early in the spring.
For those of you planning to catch a few games this spring—or those who will be scouting from the couch via MLB.TV—I’ve composed a list of prospects with certain must-see tools who are well worth the price of admission.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
I can’t say it enough: Billy Hamilton’s speed is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on the baseball field. It’s not that he’s just insanely fast; the 22-year-old outfielder is in perpetual motion on the field with lightning-quick feet that never stop moving.
Whether he’s stealing a base—something that he did a record-setting 155 times last season—running down a fly ball in center field or outrunning a routine ground ball to second base, Hamilton’s elite speed is on constant display and is arguably the most exciting tool in the minor leagues.
Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Making an aggressive jump from Low-A to Double-A prior to the 2012 season, Taveras established himself as the best pure hitter in the minor leagues by batting .321/.380/.572 as a 20-year-old. Additionally, the left-handed-hitting outfielder began to tap into his above-average raw power, as nearly 44 percent of his hits were for extra bases, including a career-high 23 home runs.
Beyond his eye-popping stats, what exactly distinguishes Taveras as the best offensive prospect? Well, he employs a powerful yet balanced swing that enables him to keep the bat head in the zone for an unusually long period of time without sacrificing power
However, it’s his unparalleled hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball ability that separate him from all other highly regarded young hitters. In addition to his knack for consistent, loud contact, Taveras’ feel for driving the ball to the opposite field is already more advanced than a lot of major leaguers'.
George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
As I detailed earlier in the week, there’s an impressive collection of power-hitting prospects participating in big league camp this year. However, if I were only allowed to watch one player this spring, it would be the Astros’ George Springer.
In his full-season debut last year, the highly athletic outfielder amassed 55 extra-base hits (24 home runs) in 128 games between High-A and Double-A. With legitimate plus raw power and a lofty bat path, Springer launches tape-measure home runs to all fields with ease.
However, the 23-year-old’s all-or-nothing approach and raw pitch recognition led to an uncomfortably high strikeout total last season—one he’ll have to reduce in order to continue his ascension toward the major leagues.
One final piece of advice: Due to his propensity to swing and miss, Springer has developed a hit-or-miss reputation among scouts; he’ll look like the best player on the field in one game and completely overmatched in the next. Therefore, if you want to ensure a glimpse of his absolutely robust power, make sure to get to the field when the gates open and get a front-row view of his batting practice.
Jorge Soler, OF, Chicago Cubs
Signed to a nine-year, $30 million contract in late June, Soler made a strong initial impression last summer by batting .338/.398/.513 with eight extra-base hits and a 6-6 ratio of strikeouts to walks in 20 games for Low-A Peoria. As a result, everyone is curious as to how the soon-to-be 21-year-old will fare against legitimate pitching this spring.
At 6’3”, 205 pounds, Soler possesses a projectable blend of strength and athleticism that could result in 70-grade power at maturity. However, whether he ultimately reaches his high ceiling will depend on the development of his other tools.
Video: Thanks to Tim Sheridan, here’s a high-definition look at Soler’s first at-bat of the spring during Wednesday’s intrasquad game. Spoiler alert: It’s a no-doubt bomb.
Zack Wheeler, RHP, New York Mets
Wheeler is one of six right-handed pitchers who ranked within the top 10 of Prospect Pipeline’s recently released top 100 prospects. In his first full season with the Mets last year, the 6’4” right-hander registered a 3.26 ERA with 148-59 K/BB in 149 innings across Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo.
Boasting an advanced four-pitch mix that’s highlighted by a plus, mid-to-high-90s fastball and sharp, late-breaking curveball, the 22-year-old is nearly big league-ready. With an explosive delivery and insanely quick arm speed, the ball seemingly jumps out of Wheeler’s hand. He’s certainly not afraid to attack hitters, as he’ll spot his fastball on the hands of both right- and left-handed hitters.
Wheeler’s ability to make hitters look absolutely foolish at the plate is well worth the price of admission. Due to the late arm-side life on his fastball, the right-hander draws tons of defensive swings from right-handed hitters and will also jelly-leg his share of batters with the devastating curveball.