With Adam Wainwright hurt, Miguel Cabrera battling alcohol addiction and the Yankees' rotation in shambles, it only makes sense that most of the talk about minor leaguers so far this spring has surrounded who can fill a need for his team at the big-league level in 2011. So much uncertainty encircles inexperienced prospects that only the most hardcore fans really take interest in minor leaguers still two or three years from MLB readiness.
Still, those players can be the organization changers. Albert Pujols played just three games above Class-A, in late 2000. In 2001, he was the National League Rookie of the Year.
There is no Albert Pujols lurking in the Midwest League right now—at least, not that we know of. But there are studs in almost every farm system in baseball, and many of them are not yet far enough up the ladder to get the full attention they deserve. Let's remedy that: Here are the best prospects in each minor-league system to have never played above Class-A.
Milwaukee had a crummy system when the offseason began. Then the Brewers traded their four best players under 25 years of age to improve their woeful starting rotation, adding Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum at the cost of Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi and Brett Lawrie. The result is a farm system without so much as an above-average prospect, and Heckathorn—who is not close to big-league readiness even as he enters his age 23 season—symbolizes the lack of depth or impact talent coming through the Milwaukee pipeline.
A huge, athletic hurler with a strong arm and the fluid delivery of a long-time basketball player, Walker is a great prototype of what a guy in Class-A ought to be: He is raw, has plenty of things upon which to improve but also plenty upon which he can build. The tools, the raw skills to be a top-of-the-rotation starter, are all there. Walker just needs time to tap into them; he was the Mariners' first-round pick last June.
Lopez is raw and needs to build arm strength to project as a starter in the big leagues. It could be fairly argued that he should have spent his age-19 season in short-season ball rather than at Class-A, where he struggled at times. The Cubs got Lopez as part of the July trade that sent Derrek Lee to the Braves, a deal that already looks like a winner for Chicago. The more Lopez produces and eventually adds to the big-league squad, the more one-sided that deal may someday look.
If nothing else, d'Arnaud will always be the answer to a trivia question after being traded (along with others) for Roy Halladay last winter. His development was supposed to take off in 2010, but it did not go that way. At 22, d'Arnaud will likely start the season in Single-A again, and the team may move him out from behind the plate just to let him focus on hitting the way he can: He is an accomplished receiver and assuming his bat holds up, he will have no trouble staying at catcher long-term.
Makeup issues abound for Colvin, who was arrested last winter and just seems to lose focus on the mound at times. Still, he controls his offerings well and can miss bats. The Phillies do not ask much of their lower levels right now, after having emptied the system in trades over recent competitive seasons and graduated Domonic Brown into the majors this spring. Colvin could break out in 2011, though, and round out an exceptional rotation in 2012 and beyond.
Lee signed with the Dodgers rather than go on to LSU, where he had a scholarship waiting to pitch and quarterback the football team. He has three plus pitches and good command. There are two key red flags:
1. Lee is a big guy whose lower half is much bigger and stronger than his arms and chest. That can create problems for a young pitcher in building stamina.
2. His mechanics are iffy, and his arm action short and smooth but his body poorly aligned. His shoulder could be at undue risk for injury.
Brody Colvin is not alone: DeShields has all sorts of trouble with makeup issues both on and off the diamond. When he is putting in full effort and devoting his focus to the game, though, DeShields is a tremendous speed demon with the opportunity to hit for a solid average and use his athleticism in the field. His father played second base, but DeShields profiles better as a center fielder.
This picture tells you a lot about what Wheeler is: He has a long, lean frame that needs to fill out, but his arm action also needs to get much shorter to make his delivery both repeatable and safe. His fastball can hum and his slider is a buggy whip in action, but Wheeler comes with risk. He might develop really nicely, or he might lose the plate for good before he reaches San Francisco, or he might blow out his elbow.
Mitchell's development derailed last March when he tore a ligament in his ankle and missed the whole season. Prior to that, he was a high-floor, low-ceiling guy: He does everything fairly well but nothing especially well. Still, he could develop into a good defensive outfielder with 20/20 potential. This year is especially critical for him in his return from such a tough injury.
Joe Saunders was the key piece of the package Arizona received in return for Dan Haren at midseason, which led many to balk at the deal overall. Skaggs, though, could one day make Diamondbacks fans appreciate the deal much more. He needs to adjust his delivery but has shown the ability to drill the strike zone and miss bats consistently.
Yelich is very polished for a high-school hitter drafted in 2010. He should hit for average and could someday have big-league pop. He could rise quickly, but the Marlins hardly need to rush him with Mike Stanton, Chris Coghlan, Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez already having graduated to the parent club in the past two years.
Speed to burn and a cannon arm make Hamilton a prospective climber for 2011. He will start the season in Class-A but could reach the Reds by the start of the 2012 campaign. He may or may not be a shortstop in the end, but moves to either third base or center field would be feasible with his athleticism. Chone Figgins is a fair comparable to Hamilton's upside potential.
The Red Sox swapped away some of their best talent to land Adrian Gonzalez, but Ranaudo—their first-round pick in 2010—was never going anywhere. He throws a good fastball and projectable curve, but his change-up will need to be more deceptive going forward for Ranaudo to become a true impact pitcher.
The Indians have to love the relatively low risk Pomeranz presents as the fifth overall pick in last June's Draft. He throws 92-95 miles per hour, mostly on the lower end of that spectrum, but he also throws a very polished spike curve and a changeup with good arm action that should make him tough on right-handed hitters.
Decker is the antithesis to the prototypical low-level prospect: He isn't raw, he isn't an athlete and he doesn't really project well. All he does do well is hit the ball hard, demonstrate plate discipline and work on every aspect of his game all the time. Donovan Tate, who also qualifies in the San Diego system, is a premier athlete but lacks Decker's savvy for the game.
With the seventh pick of the first round last June, the Mets pounced on Harvey and his great all-around fastball. It does not stop and start with velocity for Harvey: His heater moves and deceives hitters well. He needs to bone up on his breaking stuff and often struggles with command, but there is no ceiling on a fastball that good.
Sano will not even turn 18 until May, but it is never too early to recognize a pure hitter. Sano is a pure hitter, and he has plenty of power to boot. He signed as a shortstop but will be a third baseman in the long run. The position hardly matters, though: Sano is a fine athlete who will field whatever position he chooses well enough to support his excellent stick.
Matzek continues to add velocity to his fastball, which now hovers in the mid-90s. His breaking stuff is patchy so far but has all kinds of projectability, and scouts say he has a great feel for his change-up—although that is a stupid line scouts love to feed people about pitchers they like.
Matzek has a high arm angle, but when he lets it slip as games go along, he comes across his body and puts himself at risk for injury. Overall, though, his stuff and mound presence are superb.
Vizcaino is big and has a live arm, but his most impressive tool on the mound is control: For such a young player, Vizcaino has exceptional command of the strike zone. Last year, at age 19, Vizcaino pitched at two levels and struck out 79 batters against 12 walks in 85 innings. He will slowly build up arm strength, and one day join Tommy Hanson, Julio Teheran and the 6.4 million other superb pitchers in the Braves' system on the parent club.
Yes, that picture is from the Little League World Series in 2005. Jurickson Profar has been a world-class baseball player since he was 12.
Now Profar is 18—although just barely—and he continues to rock. His hit tool is almost non-existent, and that could limit his ceiling, but Profar can run and plays a sparkling, glistening, exceptional defensive shortstop. He needs time, but he will hit someday. Get ready, Rangers fans. This should be fun.
If this were the 1950s, back when minor-league teams were loosely affiliated with big-league teams and fought for every win, there would be a revolution going on: Everyone who is not the Rays would be protesting the competitive imbalance that is the Rays' farm system. The Royals have the best system right now, but the Rays have been good for fully a half-decade from Low-A ball on up.
Matt Moore is just one more pitcher who will come up and replace whoever goes somewhere else soon. In 144.2 innings last season, he struck out 208 batters. Enough said.
Taillon has some kinks to work out in his delivery, but the Pirates were not crazy to take him second overall last June. He throws in the mid-90s without effort, and adds both a slider and a hook that will eventually be well above-average pitches. The Pirates will ease him toward the show slowly, but Taillon will one day be a true ace and impact starter barring injury.
The arm to be an everyday shortstop may or may not be there for Green, but his bat plays almost anywhere on the field. He could easily slide to second and become the next Ryne Sandberg, a plus hitter with steady hands and good instincts at the keystone sack. He has pop and makes such good contact that not hitting for average hardly seems a possibility.
What kind of ceiling do you put on a catcher who has shown monstrous power at a very low level, will be able to catch in the majors thanks to good hands and puts bat to ball consistently? Please keep in mind that said player is 18 years old. While all the talk is about more advanced prospects like Jesus Montero and Manny Banuelos, the Yankees have a true five-star guy in Sanchez.
Miller has something yet to add: His control is not nearly big-league ready so far. The package already in place, though, is highly enticing. Miller throws 96-98 miles per hour, and should have a devastating curveball as his command and refinement develop. He might be at risk for injury; he might also struggle to find the plate. Eventually, though, a healthy Miller is going to be a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Cardinals.
The raw hitting skills are there in spades. Machado will hit .300 without breaking a sweat for a long time. He should also get bigger and add power to his game over time. That added size might push him to third base instead of shortstop, but Machado can hit more than enough to justify a corner infield spot. He is an all-around talent.
He throws three plus pitches, already has terrific control and has succeeded without interruption through his early pro auditions. He has not pitched above Class-A yet but will start the season at Double-A, and no one ought to be surprised if Turner is a co-ace to Justin Verlander by Opening Day of 2012. One note of caution: This guy will not even turn 20 until May and needs to be handled with that in mind.
Myers' hit tool is through the roof. So enamored of his upside are the Royals that they have pulled him from behind the plate and dumped him in right field, where Myers will race up the ladder and try to join Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer in the lineup as soon as humanly possible.
Harper is special. He hits the ball so hard, and so far, that drawing comparisons seems almost a waste of time. He will contend for and win multiple home run titles in the big leagues someday, but for 2011, he does have to start at the bottom. He does not and will not field or run well, but he has a great arm and the power alone makes him a future star.
Look at this photo of Trout. He is not a small man. He could hit 20 homers a year someday down the line. He certainly will hit for average, get on base a ton and defend very well in center field. Yet the runaway winner for Trout's most valuable tool is his speed. The man pictured runs faster than all but a handful of other prospects in the game, and then only because those prospects don't don anything else well. Trout does everything well. He is a future superstar.