Bryce Harper and MLB's All-20-and-Under Team
The minor leagues have as much talent in 2011 as ever. The system is overflowing with No. 1 starting talent (Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Zach Britton), 30-plus homer hitters (Mike Moustakas, Jesus Montero) and future batting champions (Lonnie Chisenhall, Freddie Freeman).
And those are just the guys who are playing at Double-A or higher.
Down a little lower, in the short-season to high-A bracket, in the 17-20 age range, there is a wealth of talent. Future aces, sluggers and closers galore. Projecting their success, or even their future positions, are quite a difficult thing to do, but entrusted with my handy Baseball America 2011 Prospect Handbook, thus is my quest.
To put together an All-20-and-Under Team, headlined by who else...Washington's Bryce Harper.
But Harper isn't the only impressive name on this list. It also features eight other hitters, each of whom is a supremely talented prospect in his own right, as well as eight pitchers, five starters and three relievers, each of whom has "top-of-the-rotation" potential or "shut-down" closing ability.
So let's check it out, and let the debate begin.
Catcher: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees
The Yankees have a pretty deep farm system, and no position has as much talent as catcher, where they boast three potential top-100 prospects: Jesus Montero, Austin Romine and Gary Sanchez.
While Sanchez is the youngest (18 years old) and the least experienced of the group (only 60 at-bats in rookie ball), he very well might have the highest ceiling, which is impressive, considering Montero has one of the most loaded bats in all of the minors.
What Sanchez offers that Montero does not is impressive defensive ability. His bat is viewed as a plus tool, with both the threat for above-average power and the ability to hit for a pretty high average.
After signing for $3 million, the Yankees assigned Sanchez to the Gulf Coast League, where he was arguably the circuit's best player, hitting .353 with six homers and 36 RBI in 31 games. He received a late-season bump to the New York-Penn League, where he faced more of a challenge, but responded by hitting. 278 in 60 at-bats.
This season, Sanchez will tackle the Low-A South Atlantic League, where Montero hit .326 with 17 homers and 87 RBI back in 2008 as an 18-year-old.
Runners-Up: Christian Bethancourt, ATL (19 years old), Max Stassi, OAK (20 years old), Tommy Joseph, SF (19 years old), Sebastian Valle, PHI (20 years old), J.R. Murphy, NYY (19 years old), Carlos Perez, TOR (20 years old)
First Base: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
As you browse through the names of the top first base prospects (Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, Chris Carter, Yonder Alonso, Eric Hosmer), you'll find one thing in common—each player is 21 or older.
For some reason, it's hard to find first basemen who play the position when they first arrive in pro ball. Usually, it's after a few seasons of a future first baseman's career at another position that the organization, coaching staff, or the player's own shoddy play, decides on a switch to first—a less demanding position.
As such, the most likely first base candidate in the minors, under the age of 21 is—as of right now—a third baseman. Colorado's Nolan Arenado, the team's second-round pick in 2009, and now all of 19 years old, played shortstop in high school, before moving to the hot corner after being drafted. And while his defense there hasn't been terrible, it certainly hasn't been flawless, and many, including Baseball America, project Arenado as the long-term heir to Todd Helton as the Rockies first baseman.
Which really shouldn't be too much of a problem, assuming Arenado continues to hit like he did in 2010. As a 19-year-old in Low-A ball, Arenado hit .308 with 41 doubles, 12 homers and 65 RBI. According to BA's 2011 Prospect Handbook, Arenado is the best hitter in the system when it comes to hitting for average, and he's the Rockies' No. 3 overall prospect.
He'll continue his progression through the minors, with this year's first stop in High-A Modesto, and should arrive in Colorado sometime around 2014.
Runners-Up: Bobby Borchering, ARZ (20 yrs old)
Second Base: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds
You'd be hard pressed to find a more exciting player than 20-year-old Billy Hamilton. The Reds second baseman has made quite an impact since signing as the Reds second-round pick in 2009.
Hamilton has yet to make an appearance in rookie ball, but the tools he's flashed have made the Reds very excited about his future, which, assuming he continues his development, would be as the team's future lead-off hitter.
The first thing you notice about Hamilton is his blazing speed. He showed a good bit in his 43-game debut in 2009, stealing 14 bases for the Reds' Gulf Coast squad. He took his game up a notch last season, stealing a ludicrous 48 bases in 69 Pioneer League games. He also improved his contact rate, and as a result, his batting average skyrocketed from .205 in his debut to .318 in 2010. He showed dramatic progress in his approach at the plate as well, leading many to believe he could be a .300 hitter in the majors.
The Reds will take Hamilton's development slowly, but will show no hesitation advancing him if he proves he can handle advanced pitching. He showed such great progress in 2010 that the Reds will send him to full-season ball in the Low-A class Dayton.
Runners-Up: Delino DeShields, HOU (18 years old), Scooter Gennett, MIL (20 years old)
Shortstop: Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles are pretty sure they've struck gold with 18-year-old Manny Machado, the team's first selection in the 2010 MLB draft and the O's first franchise cornerstone shortstop since Cal Ripken.
There are few things that Machado doesn't do above-average. As a potential five-tool player, he has great hitting ability, the chance for borderline above-average power, excellent fielding ability, a strong arm and borderline above-average speed.
He showed all five tools in a shortened cameo for two O's squads at the end of the 2010 season. He hit .306 in nine games with the team's GCL squad and Aberdeen of the NYPL. He had a double, a triple and more walks (three) than strikeouts (two). A small sample size no doubt, but a good indication of the kind of impact Machado will have as a pro.
Unlike most young shortstops, Machado also has the added bonus of being likely to stick at short, a position that the O's have suffered a severe lacking of over the past decade and a half.
Machado is the top shortstop prospect in the game and will start the 2011 season along with Bryce Harper and Jameson Taillon, the two players selected ahead of him, in the Low-A South Atlantic League.
Runners-Up: Jurickson Profar, TEX (18 years old), Nick Franklin, SEA (20 years old), Chris Owings, ARZ (19 years old), Matt Lipka, ATL (19 years old), Yordy Cabrera, OAK (20 years old), Hak-Ju Lee, TB (20 years old)
Third Base: Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
Castellanos was a first-round talent, but his asking price scared off most teams. Detroit finally bit in the first-round supplemental and then shocked everyone by giving him a $3.45 million bonus.
When Castellanos reported to rookie ball, he looked as good as his label as the top high school hitter, hitting .333 in 24 at-bats, posting a solid walk-to-strikeout rate (4-to-5). Not only is he the best at hitting for average that Detroit has, but he's also their best power threat.
The 19-year-old Castellanos shifted to third base as a pro after playing mostly shortstop in high school, and he'll continue in 2011 at the hot corner. He profiles as a slightly above-average defender there and appears to be solid enough at the position to force Tigers No. 4 prospect Francisco Martinez to another position.
Castellanos' bat is good enough for him to start the 2011 season in Low-A.
Runners-Up: Miguel Sano, MIN (17 years old), Kaleb Cowart, LAA (19 years old), Garin Cecchini, BOS (19 years old), Francisco Martinez, DET (20 years old)
Outfield: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
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You don't get much more impressive than Mike Trout.
The 19-year-old wunderkind did a number on minor league baseball in 2010, blowing away all projections, jumping to High-A ball and finishing the year with some pretty video-game-like numbers: .341, 106 runs, 28 doubles, nine triples, 10 homers, 58 RBI, 56 steals and a 73-to-85 BB-to-K ratio.
He bookended his performance with impressive showings at the Angels' big league spring training in 2010 and this March.
Like Machado, there is very little that Trout doesn't excel at. His speed is as good as anyone in the minors. He has an uncanny eye and approach at the plate. He has the power to generate tons of doubles and possibly even 20-plus homers in the majors. And his defense is top-notch.
It's no wonder that he's surpassed even Bryce Harper as the top prospect in most preseason publication rankings.
Trout will head back to High-A ball to start the 2011 season, but like in 2010, a midseason jump to Double-A isn't out of the question. He's really putting himself in position to arrive in the majors around 2012.
Runners-Up: Josh Sale, TB (19 years old), Ryan Westomerland, BOS (20 years old), Yorman Rodriguez, CIN (18 years old), Levon Washington, CLE (19 years old), Christian Yelich, FLA (19 years old)
Outfield: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
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Between Harper and Trout, there are enough tools to fill at least two sheds.
And where Trout might be the best all-around player of the two, there's no denying that Harper has quite possibly the highest ceiling of any prospect to come around in the past 20 years. His power is that real.
Harper showed everyone what he's capable of during Nats spring training, hitting .389 and driving in five runs against pitchers three, four, even 10 years older than himself. The fact that the 18-year-old Harper even stuck around for as long as he did is a testament to how impressed the Nats were with him.
Harper's calling card as a pro will be his power. He's got as much of it as any other hitter in the minors, and he easily profiles as a 35-40 home run hitter in the majors. Even without his power, he still has other impressive tools, like his cannon right arm, which is possibly the strongest of any minor leaguer. He's also got pretty good speed, enough to steal 15-20 bases per year.
Harper will begin his trek to D.C. in the Low-A South Atlantic League.
Runners-Up: Reymond Fuentes, SD (20 years old), Oswaldo Arcia, MIN (19 years old), Max Kepler, MIN (18 years old), Cesar Puello, NYM (19 years old), Slade Heathcott, NYY (20 years old)
Outfield: Wil Myers, Kansas City Royals
The 20-year-old Myers would have ranked as the top catcher on this list, but the Royals' decision to move him to the outfield to speed his advancement to the majors, most likely to ensure his arrival around the same time as the rest of KC's top prospects, has bumped him to the No. 2 outfielder spot.
Myers' bat is special. He has shown the ability to hit for average and power and has looked much more advanced at the plate than a kid drafted out of high school has the right to be. He put together one of the more impressive seasons in 2010, hitting .315 with 37 doubles, 14 homers and 83 RBI splitting time between Low- and High-A. He posted an 85-to-94 BB-to-K ratio and showed possibly the best plate discipline in the system.
Myers was a bit of a question mark behind the plate. Not bad, but just not advanced and seasoned enough to justify moving him up the ladder thanks to his bat, but at the expense of his defensive improvement. Hence the move to the outfield, where he'll be more than athletic enough to handle a corner spot, freeing up the possibility of the team to potentially take a catcher in the 2011 MLB draft.
Myers will likely start this season back in High-A ball, but a quick promotion to Double-A isn't out of the question.
Runners-Up: Jonathan Singleton, PHI (19 years old), Drew Vettleson, TB (19 years old), Anthony Gose, TOR (20 years old)
Designated Hitter: Wilmer Flores, New York Mets
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Only 19 years old, Flores is already heading into his fourth professional season and with greater expectations than ever before, coming off of his most impressive year.
As one of the youngest players in both the Low-A Sally League and the High-A Florida State League, Flores raked, hitting a combined .289 with 36 doubles, 11 homers and 84 RBI. He showed a decent eye at the plate, especially for an 18-year-old hitting against pitchers two and three years older than him.
While still technically a shortstop, Flores is a bit of a question mark defensively. He doesn't have the footwork to play shortstop long-term, especially at the rate he's putting on the pounds. That makes a move to the hot corner all but inevitable. Unfortunately, the Mets already have a franchise cornerstone playing there, in David Wright.
Flores could probably handle an outfield position, and it might make the most sense to find a home for his special bat there.
Starting Pitcher: Jameson Taillon, Pittsburgh Pirates
There's a reason that Taillon was the first pitcher taken in the 2011 MLB draft.
He's one of the best pitching prospects to come along in quite some time, and he's already drawn comparisons to Josh Beckett without even throwing a professional pitch yet.
Taillon features one of the best fastballs in the minors, a pitch that he can run up to 98 and even 99 mph. With a little pro grooming, there's little doubt he could touch triple-digits somewhat regularly. Complementing his impressive fastball is the best curveball of any 2011 MLB draft pick. The two pitches made Taillon nearly unhittable in high-school and made him an easy choice for the Pirates with the second pick in the draft.
There have been numerous reports that the team would have taken him No. 1 overall, AHEAD of Bryce Harper had Pittsburgh had the top pick.
Taillon is a beast, at 6'5" and 225 pounds, and has the looks of a major league workhorse. He has the potential to move incredibly quickly through the minors, a la Beckett, but he's still just 19 years old, so the Pirates, who have shown an incredible ability to destroy pitching talent, will take it easy with him.
Like Machado and Harper, Taillon will start in the South Atlantic League.
Runners-Up: Martin Perez, TEX (19 years old), John Lamb, KC (20 years old), Zach Lee, LAD (19 years old)
Starting Pitcher: Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals
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In Miller, the Cardinals have one of the best, most-promising pitching prospects in the minors.
The 20-year-old had a terrible start to his debut season, so the Cards shut him down for a few weeks and let him straighten out his mechanics and get his head right. When he came back, he was a new pitcher. He finished the season on a tear, posting a 7-5 record and a 3.62 ERA with 140 strikeouts in 104.1 innings.
That incredible finish has primed Miller for a breakout 2011 season, one that could see him knocking on the big-league door by the end of the season and challenging for a rotation spot out of spring training next year.
Miller was one of the top high school pitchers available in 2009, and the Cardinals, usually a very college-heavy drafting team, went against the grain and selected the hard-throwing right-hander, knowing he would be a quick mover.
He has proven to be just that and will start the 2011 season in High-A ball, with a Double-A promotion appearing very likely sometime during the season.
Runners-Up: Arodys Vizcaino, ATL (20 years old), Alex Wimmers, MIN (20 years old), Manny Banuelos, NYY (20 years old), Ian Krol, OAK (19 years old), Brody Colvin, PHI (20 years old), Jarred Cosart, PHI (20 years old), Taijuan Walker, SEA (18 years old)
Starting Pitcher: Jacob Turner, Detroit Tigers
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Along with Miller, Detroit's Jacob Turner was one of the top high school pitchers coming out of the 2009 draft.
And while Miller almost slipped out of the top 20, Turner only lasted nine picks, and the Tigers had to shell out a $5.5 million big-league contract, that included a $4.7 million bonus, to get him to sign.
Now that he has, Turner has rocketed through the minors, needing only 10 starts to reach High-A ball. He ended the 2010 season in Lakeland, pitching better than he did in Low-A ball, finishing the year with a combined 6-5 record, a 3.28 ERA and a 102-to-23 K-to-BB ratio in 115.1 innings.
Turner and his mid-90s fastball, along with his two potential above-average offerings (changeup and curveball), will return to High-A ball, but shouldn't be there too long, especially if he pitches like he did in 2010. Turner looks to be on a similar track as fellow top pick Rick Porcello, although Turner is slightly less advanced, so he could need an extra year to reach the bigs.
Runners-Up: Jesse Biddle, PHI (19 yrs old), Luis Heredia, PIT (16 yrs old), Robbie Erlin, TEX (20 yrs old), Drew Cisco, CIN (19 yrs old), Matt Lollis, SD (20 yrs old)
Starting Pitcher: Julio Teheran, Atlanta Braves
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Very few pitchers have as high of a ceiling as Atlanta's Julio Teheran.
The Braves struck gold with the scrawny right-hander, an international sign from Colombia back in 2007, netting him for only $850k, a literal steal considering what the 20-year-old has developed into.
Teheran features one of the most electric fastballs in the minors, running the pitch up to 96-97 mph, and complimenting it with two above-average pitches, a curveball and a changeup.
He maximized the potential of all three pitches last year, blowing through three levels, all the way to Double-A, where he posted a 3.38 ERA and struck out 38 batters in 40 innings. For the season, he posted a 9-8 record, a 2.59 ERA and 159 strikeouts in 142.2 innings.
Not only did he put on a show during the season, but he also shined during an impressive inning pitching for the World Team in the Futures Game during the MLB All-Star break. He dazzled scouts with his velocity and the movement on his pitches.
After shooting from Low-A to Double-A, Teheran will take things a little slower in 2011, starting back at Double-A and likely seeing some time in Triple-A as well.
Runners-Up: Tyler Skaggs, ARZ (19 years old), Jason Knapp, CLE (20 years old), Peter Tago, COL (18 years old), Chad James, FLA (20 years old), Jordan Lyles, HOU (20 years old)
Starting Pitcher: Tyler Matzek, Colorado Rockies
Matzek was the top lefty in the 2009 draft class and has justified his No. 11 selection and $3.9 million bonus with an impressive 2010 season that confused and confounded both hitters and scouts.
Matzek was nearly unhittable, allowing only 62 hitters in 89.1 innings and posting a 2.92 ERA. He only took the loss in one of his 18 starts.
The 20-year-old lefty was also all over the place in 2010, issuing 62 walks in those 89.1 innings, good for a walk-rate of 6.2 per nine innings, a terrible number. Matzek's walks were somewhat silenced by his 88 strikeouts, but he's going to have to reign in his command if he wants to succeed past Low-A ball.
Matzek throws in the low-to-mid-90s and complements his fastball with three potential above-average pitches—a curveball, slider and changeup. His command for all three pitches is lacking, but if he can improve in that area, he could shoot through the rest of the minor league levels.
His ceiling is as high as any pitcher in the minors, save for a few (Teheran, Taillon and Miller), and he should anchor the Rockies rotation for a good chunk of the next decade.
Runners-Up: Zack Wheeler, SF (20 years old), Carlos Martinez, STL (19 years old), Tyrell Jenkins, STL (17 years old)
Closer: Stetson Allie, Pittsburgh Pirates
The top fastball in the 2010 MLB draft belonged to No. 2 overall pick Jameson Taillon, who was happily scooped up by the Pirates as the Bryce Harper consolation prize.
The second-best fastball belonged to fellow high-schooler Stetson Allie, who the Pirates were also lucky enough to snag with the second pick in the second-round.
Now, the Pirates have two of the more impressive fire-ballers in the minors, and while Taillon profiles as a top-of-the-rotation ace, the 20-year-old Allie's future appears likely to be in the bullpen. This appears likely because of Allie's dominating two-pitch repertoire (fastball-slider) and also because of his lack of a true third pitch.
If Allie can develop a changeup, he could find his way out of the pen and into the rotation, but if he struggles, it might be too appealing for the team to keep his 98-99 mph heat and upper 80s slider in a late-inning role, possibly grooming him to be the team's closer of the future.
Baseball America is already projecting Allie as the team's future closer, as well as Pittsburgh's No. 3 prospect.
Closer: Madison Younginer, Boston Red Sox
Younginer took home a first-round bonus ($975 thousand) as a seventh-round pick in 2009, thanks to his ability to throw in the mid-90s.
After that, most of the 20-year-old right-hander's game is spotty. He has had trouble developing another pitch to compliment his fastball, so it appears very likely that he's going to stick as a reliever, even as the Sox try to give him the chance to start in 2011 in order to get him more innings.
Boston sees Younginer as a potential closer, but only if he can develop another pitch and work on the other finer aspects of pitching, such as holding runners. According to BA, he led the New York-Penn League in steals allowed in 2010.
He's also going to have to sharpen his command. He did strikeout 40 batters in 62 innings, but he also issued 31 walks.
Younginer will spend the bulk of the 2011 season in Low-A ball, racking up some innings and trying to work out the kinks in his raw overall game.
Closer: Aaron Kurcz, Chicago Cubs
20-year-old Aaron Kurcz is the epitome of the word "opportunist."
After starting his career pitching for the Air Force Academy, Kurcz decided to transfer so he could focus on becoming a major league pitcher. He transferred to Southern Nevada, where another 2010 top pick happened to be enrolled—a guy by the name of Bryce Harper.
Kurcz maximized his opportunities pitching for the same team that got tons of attention as Harper threatened to break just about every home run record known to man. And for his efforts, he was rewarded with a $125k signing bonus as a 10th-round pick. He's now one of the fastest moving prospects in the Cubs' system. He already breezed through a trial in the short-season Northwest League, striking out 46 batters in 26 innings.
Kurcz is a tiny guy (6'1", 170 lbs), but he throws pretty hard (low-to-mid-90s) and features one of the best changeups in the system. The development of his changeup, along with his average curveball, has led some to think the Cubs might give him a chance as a starter, but he's been so good as a reliever they might not want to risk it.
Word is that he might begin the 2011 season in High-A ball, with an eye on the big league club later in the year.