MLB Predictions 2011: Each Team's Prospect Who Will Break Out This Year
Picking prospects who are on the verge of "breaking out" is such a tricky thing.
Last year, Brandon Belt failed to make the Giants' list of top 30 prospects according to Baseball America. He ended the season as the team's top prospect, came into 2011 with the same status, and just a few days ago earned his first start on Opening Day, starting at first base.
Not too many people pegged him as a breakout star of 2010, and why would anyone have? Belt was a solid hitter at Texas, but flashed nowhere near the potential he fulfilled last season.
Likewise, there were few "experts" that could have envisioned the kind of bounce-back, breakout season that New York farmhand Andrew Brackman had. A year after posting a 2-12 record, a 5.91 ERA and 76 walks in 107 innings, the Yankee fireballer pitched to a 3.01 ERA in Double-A, posted a 126-to-39 K-to-BB ratio for the season and positioned himself for a big-league call-up as early as this season.
Like I said, it's a tricky game.
Keep that in mind as I present my top 30 candidates to break out this season—one from each team—with players from every level, ranging from Triple-A to the Gulf Coast League to the DSL.
Wagner Mateo, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Even the most casual fan should be familiar with the story of Mateo, who signed a $3.1 million deal with the Cardinals, only to have that deal voided when St. Louis found some problems with the Dominican's vision. He dropped back into the market, and signed a $512,000 deal with the D-Backs.
He hit .257 with four homers and 45 RBI in 67 contests for Arizona's Dominican League squad as a 17-year-old. He just turned 18 on March 30th and will get his first taste of pro ball here in the States in 2011.
Mateo's best tool is his above-average raw power that's capable of producing 25–30 homers, but only if he can refine his approach at the plate, which left him susceptible to good breaking pitches and led to his league-leading 83 strikeouts in just 237 at-bats.
His second-best tool is his above-average arm that should be an effective tool in an outfield corner. He's already a pretty big guy (6'2" and 190 lbs) and will probably put on some more weight as he progresses, making him a power-only kind of guy. He has below-average speed that will likely get worse as he fills out.
Most important, the D-Backs think they solved Mateo's vision issues by having him use a different type of contact lens.
If Mateo can reign in the strikeouts and translate his raw power into games, he could vault into the upper echelon of prospects.
Carlos Perez, LHP, Atlanta Braves
In a system full of high-upside arms like Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and Randall Delgado, the Braves may have found another gem in left-hander Carlos Perez, who Atlanta signed out of the D.R. in 2008 for $600,000.
Perez ranked as the Appalachian League's top prospect last year before a broken rib sidelined him for the remainder of the 2010 season. He did, however, work his way up to the Low-A South Atlantic League, making his debut before his 20th birthday.
Perez throws his fastball in the low 90s, but can run it up to 94–95 mph. The pitch is overpowering and is one of the best in the system, and his control of it is advanced beyond his age. He complements it with two other pitches—a curveball that has above-average potential and a changeup that he's still working on.
Aside from his stuff, Perez's intangibles are what make him a candidate to break out in 2011. He has a great pick-off move, maybe the best in the system, and he's great at holding runners.
Most importantly, Perez is a hard worker who has the work ethic to make it to the majors. He's already pretty developed at 6'2"and 205 pounds, so putting on extra bulk shouldn't be a concern for him, like it is for Teheran and Vizcaino.
Perez will head back to Low-A to start the season, but in a system like Atlanta's, he could move pretty quickly if he shows the same level of domination that he did in 2010.
Tyler Townsend, 1B, Baltimore Orioles
I'm in a growing majority of Orioles fans that believe that all Tyler Townsend needs to prove that he is the future at first base is time.
For the first two seasons of his career with the O's, Townsend has been plagued by multiple injuries, including hamstring troubles and a cyst on his wrist. Through it all though, Townsend has continued to rake, hitting a combined .325 last year with six homers and 45 RBI in only 220 at-bats.
Project that out to the 508 at-bats that fellow first baseman Joe Mahoney got, and he could have finished with 48 doubles, nine triples, 14 homers and 104 RBI. Those are the kinds of numbers that would get scouts' attention.
When looking for a comparison for Townsend, most scouts turn to Mark Grace, another smooth-swinging lefty who hit for average with a little bit of power. Luckily for the O's, everyone seems to agree that their star has more power in his bat than Grace did.
Unfortunately for the O's, Townsend is nowhere near the defender that Grace was. The 22-year-old has below-average speed and doesn't have the footwork to play in the outfield full-time.
He could be just the first baseman that the O's have been looking for.
Townsend will likely begin back at High-A Frederick, where he finished 2010 hitting .284 with three homers and 14 RBI in 19 contests, but could move pretty quickly once he gets healthy and gets going.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox solved their issues at third base this offseason (after the departure of Adrian Beltre) by trading for Adrian Gonzalez and shifting Kevin Youkilis back to the hot corner.
Their long-term answer, however, appears to be 22-year-old Will Middlebrooks, who has not only shown good power and the ability to hit for a decent average, but has also improved every season, to the point that he profiles as the Sox future player there.
One potential area of improvement for Middlebrooks is in pitch selection. He's incredibly prone to strikeouts, whiffing 121 times last year, and 123 in 2009.
Fortunately, he compensates with borderline-plus raw power that he's only just begun to tap. He hit 12 homers last year in 435 at-bats, but has at least 20-per-season potential.
On defense, Middlebrooks is the best the Sox have at the position. He was rated as the best defender at the hot corner by the managers of the Carolina League in 2010 and he also has a cannon for an arm, one capable of making all the throws.
If Middlebrooks can cut down on the strikeouts in 2011, he could end the season as one of the top third-base prospects in the game. He'll start this season at Double-A and, if he plays well enough, he could earn a late-season promotion as a reward for his progress.
D.J. LeMahieu, INF, Chicago Cubs
LeMahieu was a huge part of the LSU Tigers 2009 CWS championship team and is now one of the top hitters in the Cubs organization. And while he and the team have had trouble finding him a long-term position, I can think of no better organization for a player like him.
Ryan Theriot helped bring sexy back to the "super-utility" position in Chicago, and now that he's in St. Louis, the Cubs have replaced him with Darwin Barney, another versatile guy capable of playing multiple positions without sacrificing defensive ability.
LeMahieu is next in a long line of Cubs utility guys, and he might very well have the best bat out of any of them. He offers little-to-no power, but gets on base at an alarming rate, and finds a way to drive in runs (he had 73 RBI last year). In addition to being a great average hitter, LeMahieu also has a little bit of speed, enough to swipe 15 bags last year.
He's patient at the plate, and certainly good enough to work the count at the top of the Cubs lineup.
And while he may not find a long-term home at any one position, he could be the go-to guy off the bench for the Cubs starting in 2012.
Jacob Petricka, RHP, Chicago White Sox
The White Sox got a huge steal in Petricka, whom they signed for just over $500,000 in the second round in last year's draft.
In him, they got arguably the pitcher with the best velocity from that 2010 draft class. Actually, combined with Chris Sale, they probably got the two best pitchers in terms of velocity.
But while the Sox have talked the talk about moving Sale back to the rotation, they're actually walking the walk with Petricka, keeping him as a starter, at least for the time being.
Petricka flashed a 92–96 mph fastball in college at Indiana State, but flashed triple digits this past summer with the White Sox's affiliates in the Appy and Sally Leagues, usually while pitching in relief.
If the Sox can get the 6'5", 170-pound righty to maintain that velocity, they would be wise to keep him in a starting role, especially since they don't have too much starting talent in their system.
If he falters, or fails to develop a quality third pitch, he would do well with a switch to the bullpen, where he'd be able to consistently reach back for 99 and 100 mph.
As I said before, Petricka often has trouble repeating his delivery, which could lead to a move to the 'pen sooner rather than later, but either way, prospects who can throw 100 mph are going to be prized possessions.
Drew Cisco, RHP, Cincinnati Reds
The Reds selected Cisco with their sixth-round pick in last year's draft, and in him they got one of the most polished high-schoolers to come along in quite some time.
Cisco didn't throw a single inning last year, but will still likely start his career in Low-A ball, thanks to an advanced feel for pitching shepherded by his grandfather, a former big-league coach, and his brother, a pitcher for the Phillies.
He throws in the low 90s, which isn't all that impressive, but his feel for the pitch is. He has an uncanny ability to make his fastball run, cut or do pretty much whatever else he wants it to do. He also has an above-average curveball, which gives him a stellar one-two punch that will be enough to make him a bullpen ace if he bombs at starting.
I wouldn't bet on that happening though, as Cisco has been developing a changeup that has above-average potential and would give him three solid, major-league pitches.
The knocks on Cisco are that he doesn't throw hard enough and that, for a high-schooler, he features very little projectability. He's already grown into his frame and doesn't stand to gain any more height or weight, meaning his velocity likely won't increase as he gains more experience.
Still, Cisco is talented enough and has the stuff to thrive in Low-A.
Tony Wolters, SS, Cleveland Indians
Wolters was one of the most underrated picks of the 2010 draft, signing with the Indians as a third-rounder for $1.35 million.
He signed too late to get enough at-bats, but the team is already pleased with the progress he's made.
Unlike most of the high-school shortstops of the 2010 class (Castellanos, Cecchini and Yordy Cabrera), Wolters is actually a pretty safe bet to stick at the position. He has excellent footwork, soft hands and a very strong arm.
At the plate, Wolters is uncharacteristically patient for a prep hitter. He has an unusual batting stance, but shows good ability to hit to all parts of the field. He doesn't offer much power, but enough to be a nice plus for a top-of-the-order hitter.
Wolters is advanced enough, both offensively and defensively, to skip short-season ball altogether. He'll make his full-season debut in the Low-A South Atlantic League.
If he blossoms at Lake County, he could end the year as one of the game's top "true-shortstop" prospects.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Colorado Rockies
There was a reason that the Rockies made Wheeler, one of the hitting stars of the 2009 college season, their first-round pick in the same year.
And it wasn't to save money.
The Rockies are believers in Wheeler's potential, especially his above-average power, which has struggled to break through in his first 197 pro contests. He did hit 12 homers last season in High-A ball, but is capable of hitting 20–25 per season once he gets his approach straight.
The team challenged Wheeler by starting him in High-A ball last year and he struggled, rightfully so, for the first few months to keep his average above .220. He ended the year at .249, which is actually quite an improvement from the first half of the season. He also responded well by drawing 60 walks, although the 114 strikeouts scared lots of scouts off of him.
I, however, am still a huge believer in Wheeler.
He stole 22 bases last year and refined his approach to stealing bases and should continue to improve that number as he continues to worry less about his performance at the plate.
I think the Rockies will get a season out of him in 2011 that looks like this: .270, 23 homers, 73 RBI and 26 steals.
That's good enough to put him back in good standing with the scouts and more than good enough to make him one of the team's top prospects.
Bryan Holaday, C, Detroit Tigers
Aside from the big-league talent (V-Mart and Alex Avila), the Tigers don't really have a lot of depth at catcher in their system, which makes Bryan Holaday stand out even more.
Holaday was a star player at TCU, helping lead the Horned Frogs through the CWS tournament last year with his clutch hitting and his stellar defensive play.
Now, he's a polished pro with 159 at-bats under his belt and is looking to start his season in High-A ball. Holaday was a bit run down after the Horned Frogs' late-season run in 2010, so his .220 average in 44 games was justifiable.
He showed the same consistent leadership behind the plate that made him so appealing to the Tigers, although he's got a few kinks to work out.
He struck out way too much in his debut, and while it may have been a product of a very long season, it's something to keep an eye on in 2011. He also threw out only 21 percent of base-stealers, which is subpar for a defensive-minded catcher like Holaday.
I expect a bounce-back season for an energetic, healthy Holaday in 2011—one that shoots him up the Tigers depth chart and into their long-term future.
Tom Koehler, RHP, Florida Marlins
Posting a 16-2 season in the minor leagues should get you noticed, and still just about everyone is sleeping on middle-tier prospect Tom Koehler, a starting pitcher for the Marlins.
Last year, Koehler had a season to remember, not only winning 16 games, but also posting a 2.61 ERA and racking up 145 strikeouts in 159 innings. Every pitching category that Koehler didn't lead the Southern League in, his teammate, Elih Villanueva, did. Between the two of them, they posted a 30-6 record and were the primary reasons the Jacksonville Suns won the SL championship.
Koehler, however, is more of a prospect than Villanueva. The 24-year-old right-hander throws in the low 90s, touching 94 and 95 mph, complementing his fastball with a plus-changeup and an improving cutter that he began throwing last year.
Kohler is a beast on the mound (6'3", 235 pounds) and has a ceiling as a mid-rotation innings-eater. If he can bring along his secondary pitches, especially his curveball and cutter, he could make a big jump in 2011. He'll start the season in Triple-A, but will turn 25 in June, so time is running out for him.
He could see time in Florida's big-league rotation if anyone is felled with an injury.
Mike Kvasnicka, 3B, Houston Astros
Kvasnicka has been all around the diamond since signing with the Astros as the team's supplemental first-round pick last year. He began his pro career at catcher, the position the team drafted him for, but also split time between third base and the outfield.
Entering his first full season, Kvasnicka is a full-blown third baseman.
The Astros drafted Kvasnicka for his power, and he showed he still has it in a 68-game debut in the New York-Penn League last summer. He hit 10 doubles and crushed five homers in 261 at-bats, but like Holaday, appeared to wear down as the season drew to a close.
A healthy, revitalized Kvasnicka has 20–25 homer potential as a pro, and should also be a much better hitter for average than his .234 number last year indicates. He's a switch-hitter with decent pop from both sides, and he seems to have a pretty good idea of what he's doing at the plate as well, despite his high number of strikeouts last season for Tri-City.
The Astros had some doubts about letting Kvasnicka take on the hot corner, but he put on a good show during the offseason and played his way into the conversation. Now he looks like he's the Astros' best bet for a long-term third baseman.
He has considerably more power than current third baseman Chris Johnson, and is on par with him defensively. And since Kvasnicka has only really played third for just a handful of games, he should get much better defensively as he progresses through the Astros system.
The Astros (and I) will be watching Kvasnicka very closely this season.
Johnny Giavotella, 2B, Kansas City Royals
Another personal favorite of mine, Giavotella is one of the unsung prospects of a historically loaded system.
One of the game's most complete second basemen, Giavotella combines average defensive ability with a stellar hitting approach. He is arguably the best offensive second baseman outside of Cleveland's Jason Kipnis, and even with the addition of Christian Colon, who profiles at second long-term, I'm a firm believer that Giavotella can make himself a part of KC's long-term road back to respectability.
It all starts at the plate with the 23-year-old. He has possibly the best batting eye of any Royal prospect, and he has a career 152-to-155 BB-to-K ratio in three seasons. He's a doubles machine (35 last year), has enough speed to rack up 5–10 triples per season, and has some good pop. He hit a career-high nine homers last season and drove in 65 runs, scoring 92 of his own.
On the base paths, he's no slouch. He stole 26 bases in 2009 and 13 last year, although he could be better at picking his spots (caught stealing seven times).
Defense is the one question mark for Johnny G. He's not the most agile defender, but he has improved his game rapidly from where he was a few years ago. Adding Colon helped, and the competition should help him continue to improve his game.
Hitting-wise, Colon and Giavotella are similar, and although Colon is two years younger, Giavotella will likely get the first shot at the big leagues, meaning it's his job to lose.
Randal Grichuk, OF, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
It's shocking to think that Mike Trout wasn't the Angels' first overall pick in the 2009 draft, but it's good to remember that the player taken one pick before him, Randal Grichuk, isn't any kind of slouch, even if he's not rocketing through the minors at a record pace like Trout.
Whereas Trout has been fit as a fiddle since signing, Grichuk has hit some speed bumps, losing time with a torn ligament in his thumb and then breaking his wrist late last season.
Still, that hasn't soured the team's opinion of him, and he still has some of the best power in the system. Now, it's just a matter of bringing it out of him.
Grichuk got off to a really good start, hitting .322 with 13 doubles, 10 triples and seven homers in his 53-game debut in 2009. Of course, he was overshadowed by Trout's league-leading .360 average. Story of his life, eh?
He got off to another strong start in 2010, tearing up the AZL again before getting a promotion to Low-A ball. He performed well, hitting .292 with 19 doubles, four triples and seven homers, but injured his wrist and missed the final few days of the season.
He'll enter 2011 with tons to prove, and a long way to go to catch back up to his draft-buddy, Trout.
One thing he'll have to work on is his approach at the plate, or rather, his lack of one. He strikes out a lot—123 times in 487 at-bats for his career—and in order to better harness his power, he's going to have to get a lot better at identifying breaking pitches, and laying off pitches he can't hit.
If he can do that in 2011, he could put himself back on the map, and if he can stay healthy, he's good for at least 20-plus home runs.
Brian Cavazos-Galvez, OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
Cavazos-Galvez was a sleeper pick (12th round, 2009) who has turned into quite a steal, posting back-to-back seasons with 16 or more homers and 63 or more RBI.
Last season, he really made some ears perk up. He had arguably the best offensive season of anyone not named Jerry Sands, hitting .318 with 43 doubles, four triples, 16 homers, 77 RBI and 43 steals for Low-A Great Lakes.
Not exactly the kind of production you expect from a 12th-rounder.
That's what Galvez does, though. He hits. He hit .322 in rookie ball in 2009. He hit .392 his junior season at New Mexico and a combined .495 during two seasons of JUCO ball.
He does so well thanks to his incredible bat speed and his aggressive approach. He's very much a Jeff Francoeur-type hitter, willing to swing at the first pitch if it's a good one. That's also the primary reason behind his 22 total walks in 192 games for his career.
It's obvious that lower-level pitchers were no match for Galvez's advanced approach at the plate, and therefore the Dodgers are skipping him a level in 2011, sending him straight to Double-A, where he'll get more of a challenge.
If he hits well there, the 23-year-old could be on the fast track to L.A., where the team could use his high-average ability.
Kyle Heckathorn, RHP, Milwaukee Brewers
Talk about a guy who is in the wrong role for all the wrong reasons.
For two seasons now, the Brewers have had Kyle Heckathorn pitching out of a rotation, when it's clear to everyone that he's best suited for a relief role. And why?
Because the Brewers farm system is so bad, and is so deprived of starting pitching, that they force it on pitchers against their best interests.
Hopefully, 2011 is the year that the Brewers come to the realization that Heckathorn not only can reach into the upper 90s out of the 'pen, but also that his ability to succeed as a starter thus far is reliant solely on the fact that he only averages 4–5 innings per game.
As a reliever, Heckathorn would be near big-league ready. With his high-90s fastball and his sinker, he could be a major addition to that team's bullpen right now, and from the looks of John Axford's recent meltdown, they could use some help.
He also throws a slider, but it's usually all over the place because he doesn't control the pitch well. He throws a decent changeup, but his combination of pitches just isn't all that conducive to starting.
Still, it looks like Milwaukee wants to stick with him in a starting role.
Dakota Watts, RHP, Minnesota Twins
Watts is arguably the hardest thrower in the Twins system, touching 99 mph with a wicked fastball that he pinpoints wherever he wants to.
The pitch sits around 93–96 mph, but it's the main reason why Watts is primed for a breakout season in 2011—one that could result in a midseason promotion if he looks as dominant as he did in 2010, when he worked his way from Low-A to Double-A.
Watts complements his fastball with a great curveball that helped him sit down 89 batters via strikeout last year in only 82 innings. His control of the curveball gets away from him sometimes, leading to a decent number of walks, including 30 in 47 innings at Low-A Beloit last year.
Watts is a big guy though (6'5", 210 lbs), so control might always be an issue for him. For the time being, though, his focus will be on reaching the Twins bullpen, which has a few holes and could use a power-arm like Watts'.
He'll be starting the 2011 season back at Double-A, but will likely split time between multiple levels again. He should be spending a good chunk of the season at Triple-A, and will likely see time with the big-league club.
Jeurys Familia, RHP, New York Mets
Familia was the organization's Pitcher of the Year in 2009, and was primed for a huge 2010 campaign.
Unfortunately, he lost his stuff and his control and spiraled to a 6-9, 5.58 ERA season that saw him issue 74 walks in 121 innings and lose track of 25 wild pitches. He was terrible in just about every outing for the first half of the season and appeared to regress from the progress he made during the '09 season.
He rebounded with a strong end to the season before running out of gas.
Still, there's plenty to like about Familia, starting with his mid-to-high 90s heat that can touch 100 mph. Not too many pitchers can claim that. He has a great slider that he uses to make hitters look foolish. He utilized the one-two combo for 137 strikeouts in 121 innings last year.
It's his lack of a true third pitch that makes some believe Familia would be better suited in the bullpen, where he could consistently reach back for that 99–100 mph heat. That and his slider would make him nearly un-hittable.
For the time being, however, they'll keep him in a starting role in order to get him some more innings. He's still only 21 years old and will be pitching in Double-A, and the Mets are such a mess at the big-league level that there's no need to rush him like they did Jenrry Mejia last year.
J.R. Murphy, C/3B/OF, New York Yankees
If you thought the Yankees' collection of top-notch catching talent was good, or even really good, take another look and you'll find Murphy, a second-round pick back in 2009 who takes the team's depth at the position to historic heights.
Like Jesus Montero before him though, it looks like Murphy isn't long for the position, and a switch to either third base or the outfield is in the works.
It won't matter where Murphy plays though, as his bat is special. The Yankees were aggressive with the 19-year-old, sending him to Low-A Charleston, where he played a good chunk of the season at 18. He performed better than expected, hitting .255 with seven homers and 54 RBI and a more than respectable 36-to-64 BB-to-K ratio.
It was behind the plate that his progress slowed, though. He made a good amount of errors and threw out a pedestrian number of runners attempting to steal. Hence the move to third, where the team thinks he has good-enough footwork and a strong-enough arm to stick there.
Now that he's out from behind the plate, Murphy should really start to flourish. Having to learn a new position might hinder his start to the 2011 season, but not having to worry about the daily rigors of playing catcher should advance his approach at the plate, if only because he'll get to devote more time to hitting.
Murphy could start back in Low-A ball, but will definitely see time in High-A.
Steve Parker, 3B, Oakland Athletics
It's hard to believe, but back in 2007, Parker tied some fellow named Stephen Strasburg for Freshman of the Year honors in the MWC.
And while Strasburg has graduated to the majors, Parker has had to bide his time in the minors, slowly working his way up the A's depth chart, and no player is better poised to take a big leap up in 2011.
Parker is arguably the best power hitter in the system, combining a powerful, efficient swing with an excellent approach at the plate. Parker hit 21 homers last season, his first full season since being drafted in the fifth round out of BYU in 2009. He also rapped 38 doubles, hit .296 and walked 84 times in 139 games.
Parker is already 23 years old and had his breakout season last year in the High-A Cal League, a circuit that has been known for producing career years and creating false hope for tons of mid-level prospects throughout the years.
The one knock on him is his defense. He led the Cal League in errors at his position, and doesn't profile as a top-notch defender. He's played a little outfield—anything to get his bat in the lineup—but it looks like he might have to move across the diamond to first. He certainly has the power to profile there.
It's always hard for a prospect to repeat performances after leaving the homer-happy Cal League, but if Parker can prove his 2010 season, in which he led the A's system in RBI, was no statistical fluke, he could shoot up the charts and force his way into the team's long-term plans.
Phillippe Aumont, RHP, Philadelphia Phillies
Aumont has been quite the enigma since signing with the Mariners after being drafted 11th overall in the 2007 MLB draft.
At first, the Mariners wanted him to start, so they dropped him in a rotation and watched him blossom in his debut season, posting a 2.75 ERA and 50 strikeouts in 59 innings.
The next season, however, the M's decided to move him to the bullpen in order to speed his ascension to the majors. That worked for a season, and Aumont emerged as one of the top relieving prospects in the minors, notching 16 saves. Towards the end of the season, though, Aumont experienced his first bit of failure, struggling to a 5.09 ERA in 15 Double-A outings.
Another change was in the works the next season, as the M's not only traded him to Philadelphia, but the Phillies decided to move him back into the rotation, where understandably, he struggled, posting a 1-6 record and a 7.43 ERA. He issued 38 walks in 50 innings.
Confused by the lack of any consistent instruction—not to mention the uncertainty of whether he was going to be a long-term reliever or starter—Aumont once again struggled last year, as the Phillies switched him back and forth between roles. His ERA improved by three runs, but his walk total actually increased pitching in High-A ball.
It seems the Phillies have finally resigned themselves to Aumont as a full-time reliever, and will enter 2011 with that plan in mind. He has all the tools to be a top-notch closer, including a fastball that touches 97–98 mph, and a plus-curveball.
With his confusing past behind him, Aumont is poised for a breakout season, and could end up playing a major part in the team's plans late in the 2011 season.
Chase D'Arnaud, SS, Pittsburgh Pirates
Despite having a tough season last year in Double-A, D'Arnaud still represents the future of the Pirates at the shortstop position.
And it's the team's lack of any competition at the position in the minors that has put the 24-year-old in position for a breakout season that could result in a late-season promotion to the big-league club.
D'Arnaud has all the tools to be an everyday shortstop in the big leagues, including a rocket arm that could play in the majors right now. His defensive ability is average, but solid enough to convince the organization that he can remain at the position long-term, despite the many appearances he made at second base this spring.
At the plate, D'Arnaud is no slouch. He's not a big power guy, but he'll rack up the doubles with the best of them. He racked up 33 last year in a season when he hit .247. He could be an effective top-of-the-order bat, whose skills at the plate are further enhanced by his talents on the base paths.
D'Arnaud has great speed, and stole 33 bases last year, a year after stealing 31 between two levels in 2009.
If D'Arnaud can have a bounce-back season in 2011, and potentially raise his average back into the .280–.290 range that he saw during his first two seasons, he could make a huge splash and position himself to win the big-league job heading into the 2012 season.
There's no doubt the big-league club could use his speed and his enthusiasm.
Carlos Martinez, RHP, St. Louis Cardinals
It's tough to look at a guy who is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect in his team's farm system for a breakout season, because it's pretty much guaranteed that that player has already received a good amount of attention to this point.
Not Carlos Martinez.
The Cardinals' prized signing from their 2010 international signing class, Martinez exploded onto the scene last year, striking out 78 batters in 59 innings and posting a 0.76 ERA in 12 starts for the St. Louis' Dominican Summer League team.
Now, the 19-year-old is poised to take on his first full-season assignment, and a decent season could result in him being included in the conversation regarding the top prospects in baseball.
Martinez caught the Cards' attention after being consistently clocked in the 96–99 mph range and flashing three potentially average-to-above-average secondary pitches, including a stellar curveball. After signing for $1.5 million, Martinez blew away hitters in the DSL, priming himself for a breakthrough 2011 campaign.
The Cards would love to see him have a season similar to Shelby Miller's 2010 campaign, and if he can come through, the team would have two of the top right-handers in baseball.
Drew Cumberland, SS/2B, San Diego Padres
If Drew Cumberland could just manage to stay healthy, he would be constantly mentioned among the top infield prospects in baseball.
Instead, he's had to struggle to put together piecemeal seasons that have flashed his enormous potential, while showcasing the downside of his all-out, run-through-the-wall attitude.
Still, to me, no player is as greatly positioned to have a breakout season as Cumberland.
A career .316 hitter, the 22-year-old hit .350 last season, including a .278 average in 15 Double-A contests, before cutting his knee on a railing trying to make a play in foul territory, ending his season prematurely. Before he went down for the count, though, he was ranking near the tops of the minor-league charts in batting average.
The Padres have a vision of their future, and in that vision, Cumberland is their leadoff hitter. He certainly has the contact skills, as well as the patience. He walked four more times than he struck out in 2009. He also has excellent speed and the Padres have challenged him recently to use it more.
As a result, he stole a career-high 21 bases in 2010, and is poised for a potential 30-steal season in 2011.
If Cumberland can stay healthy, he could potentially maintain a .300-plus average in the big leagues, with 25-plus steals per season. And in the team's spacious big-league park, his all-out style would greatly help a young pitching staff.
Defensively, Cumberland is capable of handling shortstop duties, but he might be moved to second to cut down on the errors caused by his sometimes-erratic arm.
Tommy Joseph, C/1B, San Francisco Giants
Joseph was one of the top high-school catchers available in 2009, and the Giants were lucky enough to scoop him up in the second round. They were even luckier to ink him for a relatively low $712,000 bonus, especially considering what he's done for the team since signing.
Make no mistake—Joseph is no Buster Posey, but if the Giants didn't have Posey around, they'd be making their long-term catching plans around the 19-year-old.
Despite a relatively low average (.236), Joseph had a breakout season in 2010. He hit 16 homers and drove in 68 runs. His low average and poor BB-to-K rate (23-to-116) are evidence of a young hitter in slightly over his head, but the fact that Joseph was able to focus and show good pop is a great sign.
The fact that he did this in Low-A ball, as an 18-year-old, is even more impressive.
Because the Giants do have Buster Posey, there is talk of letting Joseph play some first base this season, but now that avenue appears to be blocked with the big-league ascension of Brandon Belt.
It will be tough sledding for Joseph to make a long-term home out of either position, but as long as he keeps hitting, the Giants will find somewhere for him.
Joseph will make the jump to High-A ball for 2011.
Josh Fields, RHP, Seattle Mariners
The Mariners had big plans for Fields, whom they drafted as a college senior in 2008. Coming off a stellar college career, in which he was one of college baseball's elite closers, the M's expected Fields to fill that same position for them.
Unfortunately, the sides couldn't agree on a contract until 2009, and Fields has been plagued by multiple injuries and spotty performances ever since. His 2009 season in the Double-A Southern League was rough on him.
He pitched to a 6.48 ERA and struggled to make it through an inning without surrendering a hit or issuing a walk. Even worse, he showed an inability to pitch for more than an inning at a time, a staple of today's best closers.
Fields rebounded nicely in 2010, saving six games in 21 contests back at Double-A, but was hit with multiple injuries, limiting him to only 29 innings, bringing his career total to 62.
While the M's have all but scrapped their plans for Fields to be their closer, he could still be a real, useful part of a big-league bullpen, thanks to his polished repertoire of pitches and his advanced approach on the mound. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90s and his curveball is an above-average pitch. The two should allow him to succeed in a relief role.
The M's thought enough of him to bring him to spring training this year to take a shot at fixing his mechanics in hopes of getting him back into the mid 90s. Fields didn't break into any games, but did benefit from the big-league instruction.
He could be poised to make the leap from middling middle-relief prospect to a stalwart in the M's revamped bullpen, as early as mid-2011.
Zach Quate, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Quate doesn't get the publicity or attention that a lot of other high-profile Rays pitchers do, but he has quietly gone about his business and has emerged as one of the Rays' most effective throwers, while developing into quite the relief prospect.
A long-time college reliever who never posted an ERA below 5.40 in three seasons at Appalachian State, Quate has taken quite nicely to pro ball.
The 23-year-old saved 13 games and compiled a 0.35 ERA in 2009, his debut season, striking out 34, while walking only four batters, and followed up that impressive start with an even more amazing 2010 season. He saved 25 games for the Rays' High-A affiliate and posted a 1.49 ERA, striking out 90 batters in only 72.1 innings.
Quate makes his mark with a low-90s fastball and a slider that is so devastating it would be ranked among the best in baseball if he were more than just a reliever.
There isn't much room for starting pitchers on the Rays roster, but the team's need for relief help is borderline dire, so a guy like Quate could move very quickly if he can get off to a quick start in 2011.
David Perez, RHP, Texas Rangers
While all the attention in Texas has been centered around the prospects of a top-notch pitcher named Perez, another young fireballer with the same surname has quietly snuck up and positioned himself for a breakout 2011 campaign—one that could find the Perez's swapping spots on the depth chart.
In case you couldn't figure it out, the top-notch pitching prospect is Martin Perez, who has ranked among the top arms in the minors since signing with the team back in 2007, despite struggling to survive in Double-A the past two seasons. The latter Perez is David, a 2009 signee from the Dominican Republic.
D. Perez signed for $425,000 and wowed team officials in the Rangers' instructional league by adding a few ticks to his velocity. He now sits at 93–96 mph, and complements the pitch with two potentially above-average offerings—a curve and a changeup.
Perez immediately took to pro ball, posting a 1.41 ERA and a 68-to-8 K-to-BB ratio in 70 innings for the team's DSL squad. He established himself as the ace of the rotation and thrived in the role.
Perez, only 18 years old, already has a big-league body at 6'5" and 200 pounds, and therefore should be able to climb through the minors more easily than most other international pitchers who enter professional ball with a more underdeveloped frame.
He'll get his first taste of pro ball in the States in 2011, and could be a quick mover if he can harness the same control that made him so effective in 2010.
Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Blue Jays fans and team officials alike are pinning high hopes on 2010 first-round supplemental pick Aaron Sanchez.
A lanky right-hander from California, Sanchez has a great combination of size and project-ability that makes him a prototypical pitching prospect. At 6'4" and 190 pounds, Sanchez could stand to add about 20–30 pounds, and could potentially add a few extra inches, possibly causing an increase in his velocity and making him even more appealing.
His velocity is already pretty good. He can touch 95 mph, but sits more comfortably in the 90–93-mph range. He has a very easy delivery and the pitch comes out of his hand very naturally.
His curveball was one of the best in the 2010 high-school class and looked sharp and un-hittable in his 10-outing debut last fall. His changeup has the look of a solid-average pitch, but should be his focus during the 2011 season.
The Blue Jays had Sanchez on a very strict pitch limit last season, but he proved to be very effective and even earned a promotion to the New York-Penn League, where he struck out nine batters in five innings. For the season, he posted a 2.16 ERA in 25 innings, and struck out 37 batters.
Sanchez could be a top-of-the-rotation starter, especially if he can add a few more MPHs to his fastball and sharpen his changeup. He'll begin the 2011 season in Low-A ball, and could end the season as one of baseball's best young arms.
Rick Hague, SS/3B, Washington Nationals
A polished hitter that shared the same infield as probable 2011 top pick Anthony Rendon, Hague is a talented prospect in his own right.
Baseball America ranks him as the Nats' 14th-best prospect, and like Rendon, he projects as a third baseman long-term. Obviously, that isn't going to jibe in Washington, where the Nats have Ryan Zimmerman locked down for the considerable future. Still, the team is willing to focus on that when, and if, Hague can hit his way to the majors.
It helps that Hague is a great hitter with an advanced feel at the plate.
He had first-round helium towards the beginning of the college season, but took a tumble when he suffered a meltdown defensively, making error after error. He finished the season with 23 of them and the resulting tumble caused him to fall to the Nationals in the third round. He signed for less than $500,000.
Hague didn't let the tumble hurt his enthusiasm or his play. He immediately got to work and ended the season with Low-A Hagerstown, hitting .327 with 12 doubles, five triples, three homers and 27 RBI in 39 contests.
He'll probably make the jump to High-A for the 2011 season, and if his bat continues to look as good as it did last season, he could end the year in Double-A and make himself a major part of the Nats' plans.