MLB Prospects 2012: Each Team's Most Improved Prospect
When MLB general managers and scouts implement plans to draft players out of high school and college, they formulate plans for each drafted player, outlining strengths, weaknesses and different facets of each drafted player’s game that need to be worked on in order for that player to develop into a possible major league performer.
Each player has unique skills; therefore, each player has a different timetable set in order to maximize his abilities to the fullest.
Some drafted players quickly ascend the ladder through the minors, while others take years to develop but make an impact later in their careers.
Bleacher Report will take a look at each team’s minor league system and determine which player seemed to improve the most through the 2011 season.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Collin Cowgill
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It would be hard to look at Collin Cowgill’s minor league numbers in 2011 and not see incredible improvement over the prior year.
Cowgill hit .285 the for Double-A Mobile in the 2010 season, earning him a promotion to Triple-A Reno to start the 2011 season. Cowgill absolutely tore up the PCL, hitting .354 in 98 games. His slash line of .354/.430/.554 was way up across the board, his strikeout rate was considerably lower and he added 30 stolen bases, the most ever in his minor league career.
Cowgill got a chance to show his stuff at the major league level, hitting .239 in 92 at-bats over the last two months of the season for the D-Backs, and he will no doubt get his chance to make the D-Backs roster and make an impact next season during spring training.
Atlanta Braves: Christian Bethancourt
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When the Atlanta Braves signed 16-year-old Christian Bethancourt, he was a skinny catching prospect who caught the eye of scouts with his sheer athleticism. Three years later, Bethancourt is starting to show off the skills that captured the Braves’ attention in the first place.
Spending his first two seasons in extended spring training followed by rookie league ball, Bethancourt started to progress in Single-A in 2010, honing his catching skills and trying to develop his swing that scouts called “raw.”
This season, between Single-A and Single A-Advanced, the bat finally started developing for Bethancourt. He hit .289 and continued to impress behind the plate with a strong arm, soft hands and very quick feet.
Thus far in the Arizona Fall League, Bethancourt has impressed just about everyone who has seen him, hitting .367 with four home runs and 11 RBI in his first 13 games. While Brian McCann may be firmly entrenched as the Braves catcher, Bethancourt is opening eyes to his potential in a major way.
Baltimore Orioles: Kyle Hudson
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During the 2011 season, outfielder Kyle Hudson, the Baltimore Orioles’ fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, was clearly on the fast track.
Hudson started his season at Single A-Advanced ball but quickly escalated, ending his minor league season at Triple-A Norfolk before getting a September call-up for the O’s.
Hudson easily handled each rung of the ladder, ending his minor league season hitting .296 with 41 stolen bases. Hudson clearly projects as a top-of-the-lineup guy who can get on base (.375 on-base percentage) and present a lot of speed on the basepaths.
Boston Red Sox: Ryan Lavarnway
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With the rapid progression of catcher Ryan Lavarnway for the Boston Red Sox, is there any way he doesn’t make the major league team in spring training?
Lavarnway hit 32 home runs with 93 RBI last season between Double-A and Triple-A ball, and contributed mightily to the Red Sox postseason hopes with a two home-run game on the second-to-last day of the regular season against the Baltimore Orioles.
With Lavarnway’s obvious hitting skills, there may not be a way to keep him from the Red Sox roster in 2012.
Chicago Cubs: Bryan LaHair
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First baseman Bryan LaHair has been waiting for his shot at the big time after spending nine seasons at the minor-league level. After the monster season he put together in 2011, his time may have finally arrived.
LaHair has always hit for decent power in the minors, hitting 25 home runs with 81 RBI and a .308 average at Triple-A Iowa. However, in 2011, LaHair’s numbers shot through the roof: he hit 38 home runs with 109 RBI and a .331, earning him a September call-up with the Cubs.
The Cubs will likely go after either Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder on the free agent market, so LaHair’s place at first base would likely be blocked with a significant free-agent signing. However, LaHair has experimented in the outfield, so the Cubs could very well try to accommodate him if he continues with a hot bat in spring training next year.
Chicago White Sox: Dylan Axelrod
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Drafted in the 30th round of the 2001 MLB Draft by the San Diego Padres, Dylan Axelrod originally started in the minor leagues as a relief pitcher, with varying degrees of success.
After the Chicago White Sox traded for Axelrod in 2009, they returned him to the starting rotation, and the results have been nothing but terrific.
In 2011, between Double-A and Triple-A, Axelrod was 9-3 with a 2.69 ERA in 24 starts, giving up just 126 hits in 150.2 innings, striking out 132 and posting a WHIP of just 1.069. Clearly, moving Axelrod to the rotation has produced great results, and Axelrod could very well compete for a roster spot in spring training.
Cincinnati Reds: Neftali Soto
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After the Cincinnati Reds drafted Neftali Soto in the third round of the 2007 MLB Draft, Soto bounced all over the infield between third, shortstop and first base in his first four years in the minor leagues, even logging 10 games behind the plate in 2010.
However, the Reds loved Soto’s bat and power potential, and with good reason. In 2011, between Double-A and Triple-A, Soto hit 31 home runs with 80 RBI and a .278 average. At just 22 years of age, Soto’s potential is clearly being realized.
Now, it’s just a matter of where in the field he will play.
Cleveland Indians: Jeanmar Gomez
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In the 2011 season, Cleveland Indians pitching prospect Jeanmar Gomez took such a huge step forward that he ended up in the majors much earlier than projected.
In 2010, Gomez floundered, posting an 8-8 record and 5.20 ERA at Triple-A Columbus, and looked to be struggling with his confidence and his command.
In 2011, Gomez completely turned things around, going 10-7 in 22 starts, with a 2.54 ERA, a 1.249 WHIP and a renewed command of the strike zone. Gomez’ efforts paid off, as the Indians called him up on several occasions to make spot starts; he ended up with a 5-3 record and 4.47 ERA in 10 starts for the Tribe.
Gomez will clearly get a shot to make the starting rotation in spring training, and if he can continue to build on his performance in Triple-A and his action at the major league level, he could make an impact for the Indians in the future.
Colorado Rockies: Tim Wheeler
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If there is any prospect who is currently on the fast track to success, it would have to be Colorado Rockies outfield prospect Tim Wheeler.
Wheeler has progressed quickly since being selected in the first round (32nd pick overall) of the 2009 MLB Draft. At Double-A Tulsa, Wheeler’s home run production from the previous season practically tripled: He hit 33 home runs with 86 RBI and a .287 average, and he could very well compete with Charlie Blackmon for the left-field spot for the Rockies in spring training.
Detroit Tigers: Jacob Turner
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The Detroit Tigers were careful with young pitching prospect Jacob Turner in the minors, keeping an eye on his innings and pitch counts, hoping that he would continue to rapidly develop. Their handling of Turner has turned out pretty well thus far.
Turner made the jump from Double-A to the majors in 2011 and has been impressive at every stop. In 2011, Turner posted a 3.48 ERA in 17 starts at Double-A Erie before being promoted to Triple-A Toledo, where he again posted solid numbers, with a 3.12 ERA and 1.038 WHIP in three starts.
Turner made his major league debut on July 30 against the Los Angeles Angels, pitching 5.1 innings, giving up just two runs on three hits and striking out six. Turner pitched twice more in September and will definitely compete for a roster spot in spring training.
Florida Marlins: Jose Ceda
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It would have been very difficult for Florida Marlins pitching prospect Jose Ceda to improve on his 2010 season for Double-A Jacksonville, during which he posted a 4-1 record with a 1.39 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. However, he somehow topped those numbers in 2011.
Moving up one notch to Triple-A New Orleans, Ceda was absolutely brilliant, posting a minuscule 1.36 ERA with 24 saves, striking out 53 batters in 39.2 innings. Ceda could very well be the Marlins’ closer of the future if they don’t hold on to current closer Leo Nunez.
Houston Astros: Jake Buchanan
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The Houston Astros took a bit of chance in drafting pitcher Jake Buchanan out of North Carolina with their eighth-round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. An average fastball pitcher with two plus-breaking pitches, Buchanan will never be confused with Nolan Ryan.
However, Buchanan has quietly impressed those in the Astros organization. Last season, even though his 5-10 record wouldn’t indicate success, Buchanan posted an impressive 3.91 ERA in the hitting-rich California League, and his 1.21 WHIP indicated great command of the strike zone. Buchanan probably will never project as a No. 1 starter, but with his great command plus secondary pitches, he could serve as a very useful back-end rotation starter.
Kansas City Royals: Lorenzo Cain
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Outfielder Lorenzo Cain came to the Kansas City Royals last offseason in the deal that sent Zack Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers. Drafted out of high school by the Brewers in the 2004 MLB Draft, Cain has taken a long time developing, but the long wait may be paying off.
Last season, Cain, who had never shown much power in the minors, suddenly exploded for 16 home runs and 81 RBI, hitting .312 on the year. Cain got a September call-up and acquitted himself well with the big club. Cain could very well compete for playing time in the outfield for the Royals in spring training, although he’ll have to continue his hot 2011 campaign with a crowded outfield.
Los Angeles Angels: Garrett Richards
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Los Angeles Angels pitching prospect Garrett Richards was a late first-round pickup in the 2009 MLB Draft, and while he was certainly impressive in his first full year of professional ball in 2010, last season Richards was absolutely outstanding.
Pitching for the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, Richards was 12-2 with a 3.15 ERA in 21 starts, and his 1.14 WHIP suggested a clear command of the strike zone. Richards’ solid performance earned him a couple of spot starts with the Angels in mid-August and again in September with the expansion of the major league rosters.
Richards will definitely compete for a spot in the starting rotation for the Angels in spring training, and with his lively secondary pitches, Richards could very well have an impact during the 2012 season.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Scott Van Slyke
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Drafted out of high school in the 14th round of the 2005 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Scott Van Slyke, son of former Pittsburgh Pirates/St. Louis Cardinals star Andy Van Slyke, has been slow in developing at the minor-league level, but in 2011, Van Slyke took a giant leap forward.
At Double-A Chattanooga, Van Slyke easily posted the highest batting average of his minor league career, hitting .348 for the Lookouts, with 45 doubles, 20 home runs and a 1.022 OPS.
It might be a stretch to think that Van Slyke could impact the Dodgers in 2012. However, if Jerry Sands can’t figure out major league pitching, Van Slyke could very well get his shot in left field.
Milwaukee Brewers: Taylor Green
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With the struggles that Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Casey McGehee faced in the 2011 season, the Brewers could very well turn to a prospect who took a major step forward—Taylor Green.
Green, drafted by the Brewers in the 25th round of the 2005 MLB Draft, stepped it up big time for the Triple-A Nashville Sounds in 2011, hitting .336 with 22 home runs and 88 RBI. Green was called up on August 31 by the Brewers and acquitted himself quite well in the final month of the season, hitting .270 in limited action.
Minnesota Twins: Liam Hendriks
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Australian-born pitcher Liam Hendriks has opened eyes in the Minnesota Twins organization over the past two seasons and will definitely compete for a rotation spot in spring training next season.
Hendriks was 12-6 overall last season between Double-A and Triple-A ball, with a 3.36 ERA and 1.134 WHIP. Hendriks made four starts for the Twins in September and could find himself competing for the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.
New York Mets: Jeurys Familia
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2008, 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Jeurys Familia took a major step forward in the 2011 season. Between Single A-Advanced and Double-A ball, Familia posted a 2.90 ERA in 23 starts, striking out 132 batters in 124 innings.
Familia features a mid-to-high 90s fastball with movement and is working on developing his secondary pitches. However, with his continued development, Familia is not long from being seen at Citi Field.
New York Yankees: George Kontos
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Since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB Draft, pitcher George Kontos has been slow in developing at the minor-league level. However, in 2011 Kontos put it all together, earning him time on the big-league roster late in the season.
For Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Kontos put together a solid 2.62 ERA in 40 relief appearances. He then acquitted himself in seven appearances with the Yankees, with a 3.00 ERA and five scoreless relief appearances.
Kontos could very well find himself competing for a bullpen spot for the Yankees in spring training.
Oakland Athletics: Michael Choice
If Oakland Athletics center field prospect Michael Choice continues hitting the way he did in 2011, it may not be very long before he is seen in Oakland.
In 2011 with Stockton in the Single A-Advanced California League, Choice tore up pitchers, hitting 30 home runs with 82 RBI and a .285 average. It's a stretch to think he can make the A's roster in spring training, but Choice could certainly make some noise at some point in the 2012 season.
Philadelphia Phillies: Michael Schwimer
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Selected in the 14th round of the 2008 MLB Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies, reliever Michael Schwimer vastly improved his numbers in the 2011 season over the prior year.
In 47 appearances with the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, Schwimer was 9-1 with a 1.85 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 68 innings. Schwimer was called up by the Phillies in late August, making 12 relief appearances with mixed results.
Schwimer will clearly get a chance in spring training to show that his progress in 2011 was not in vain.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Alex Presley
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The Pittsburgh Pirates may have a difficult time keeping prospect Alex Presley off their 25-man roster in 2012, as the 25-year-old continues to impress with his development.
Presley was impressive at the major league level after hitting .333 at Triple-A Indianapolis, hitting .298 in 52 games with the Pirates. With current left fielder Ryan Ludwick not expected back, Presley could get his chance to shine full time in Pittsburgh in 2012.
San Diego Padres: Matt Clark
Since being drafted in the 12th round of the 2008 MLB Draft, outfield prospect Matt Clark has steadily moved up the ladder in the minor leagues, and he took a major step forward in 2011.
Clark hit .292 for the Triple-A Tucson Padres, with 23 home runs and 83 RBI. Whether or not Clark can claim a spot on the 25-man roster for the Padres in 2012 remains to be seen, but it won't be for a lack of effort on his part.
San Francisco Giants: Brett Pill
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At age 27, Brett Pill is certainly a bit older as far as prospects are concerned, but with the season he put together in 2011, it would be difficult for the San Francisco Giants to deny him of a chance to shine in 2012.
Playing for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in the PCL, Pill lit up pitchers for a .312 average, 25 home runs and 107 RBI, and he impressed at the major league level as well, hitting .300 with two home runs and nine RBI in 15 games.
With Aubrey Huff experiencing a disappointing 2011 season, Pill will get a long look by the Giants in spring training.
Seattle Mariners: Alex Liddi
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Italian import Alex Liddi is expected to compete for the third-base position for the Seattle Mariners in spring training, and for very good reason.
In 2011, with Triple-A Tacoma, Liddi hit 30 home runs with 104 RBI, and he has shown steady improvement at the hot corner as well. In 15 September games, Liddi hit three homers for the M's, showing off his tremendous power potential. Strikeouts are still a concern for Liddi, who whiffed 170 times for Tacoma, but with the relative dearth of power in Seattle, 2012 just could be Liddi's year.
St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Adams
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Making the jump from Single-A Quad Cities to Double-A Springfield in 2011, St. Louis Cardinals first-base prospect Matt Adams took a giant leap forward.
In 115 games, Adams, the Cardinals' 23rd-round pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, hit .300 with 32 HR and 101 RBI, and if by some chance Albert Pujols is not re-signed by the Cardinals, Adams could definitely get his chance to shine in 2012. If Pujols does sign, then the Cardinals have a great insurance policy in Adams.
Tampa Bay Rays: Matt Moore
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The Tampa Bay Rays already thought left-hander Matt Moore was pretty special after the incredible numbers he posted in the minors in 2011, with a 12-3 record and 1.92 ERA in 27 starts between Double-A and Triple-A ball, earning Minor League Player of the Year honors as a result.
However, it was after Moore was called up in September when he really opened eyes in Tampa.
In his first major league start on September 22 against the New York Yankees, Moore blanked the Bronx Bombers on just four hits in five innings, striking out 11 batters.
Then, with all of his top pitchers unavailable, Rays manager Joe Maddon, after consulting with general manager Andrew Friedman, made the decision to start Moore in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Texas Rangers. The decision was masterful, as Moore completely shut down the vaunted Rangers offense in seven stellar innings, allowing just two hits and striking out six in a 9-0 victory.
Moore followed up with a three-inning relief performance in Game 4, allowing just a solo home run to Adrian Beltre and keeping the Rays within striking distance of the Rangers.
The 2012 season is now certainly full of promise for the Rays, as their stellar starting rotation will now be complemented by the hard-throwing Moore, who has already made his mark in pressure situations.
Texas Rangers: Jurickson Profar
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It's pretty hard not to be impressed by 18-year-old Texas Rangers shortstop prospect Jurickson Profar. The youngster showed great poise this season for the Hickory Crawdads in Single-A ball, hitting .286 with 12 HR and 65 RBI.
It will be a couple of years before Profar will be seen in Texas, but with his developing skills and great athleticism, that time could rapidly be approaching.
Toronto Blue Jays: David Cooper
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Toronto Blue Jays first-base prospect David Cooper has turned into a hitting machine—that certainly seemed evident judging by his 2011 performance.
At Triple-A Las Vegas, Cooper hit a lofty .361 with nine home runs and 96 RBI, striking out just 43 times while drawing 67 walks. Cooper's ability to hit to all fields, combined with his excellent plate discipline, puts him in good stead to compete for the first-base job for the Blue Jays in spring training.
Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
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Yes, he just turned 19, and yes, he’s only had one full season of professional ball. However, Washington Nationals slugging prospect Bryce Harper has shown he is fearless and ready to take on whatever comes his way.
Harper’s great strength at the plate comes from his natural ability to quickly transfer his weight and square up to the ball in the hitting zone, and his quick hands and tremendous bat speed make him a natural as a pure power hitter. A true five-tool player, Harper could very well be ready for prime-time sometime during the 2012 season.