Prospect #1: 1B/DH/C Jesus Montero

Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.

Who: One of the top bats in the prospect world, Montero shows above-average potential with both the hit tool and power. The headline piece in the recent talent swap between the Yankees and Mariners, the 22 year-old Venezuelan is leaving the gleaming spotlight of New York for the shadows of Seattle; however, the treasure required to land the young slugger was mighty rich, so the spotlight of pressure will still illuminate Montero in the forgotten lands of the Northwest. Yes, the forgotten lands. I have an East Coast bias. I’m admitting it.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: First of all, I want to point out that Montero is a beast; he can flat out hit, with serious opposite-field power that will play in any park in the league. He has excellent hands and strong wrists, and when he fires his hips he can create impressive bat speed and a swing path that keeps his bat in the zone for a long time. I’d have his children if given the chance. He’s a future .300 hitter with 25-30 bombs in the tank per season. At the present, however, Montero isn’t super consistent at the plate, meaning he changes his setup as often as I change my Twitter avatar, and even though the results have been positive, both in the minors and in his brief major league exposure, pitchers at the highest level have yet to read the book on the young masher.

I think Montero could struggle at the major league level in 2012, particularly if he continues to tinker with his setup and swing mechanics, as finding consistency and rhythm is vital to execution at that level; advanced arms can feast on hitters who are out of sync; hitters who are constantly altering their stance or setup. I think he’s capable of making adjustments, and his gifts with the bat (bat control, hand-eye coordination, etc.) should keep his head above water even in the event of mechanical setback. The end result will please fans of the Mariners for years to come, and Yankees fans can pine for their former flame from afar while they erect shrines to Michael Pineda, a pitcher so promising that I would consider having his children as well.

Prospect #2: RHP Taijuan Walker

Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.

Who: If I were to create a pitcher from scratch, you know, just for giggles, there is a good chance I’d make Taijuan Walker. Athletic and physically projectable, Walker has all the components necessary to develop into a top-flight pitcher at the major league level. He still has a very long road to go, and development on the field isn’t always in lockstep with development off of it. (No, I haven’t heard about any makeup concerns, just speaking a reductive truth about emotional and physical development.) With a fastball that looks to be a plus-plus pitch, a hard breaking ball that some scouts drop 7 futures on, a changeup that he is trying to acquire feel for, and a command profile built on a repeatable delivery (despite the length and movement), Walker has a chance to be the real deal.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: As a tall, lanky pitcher with arms as long as legs, Walker has a lot of body to control; he’s also only 19 years-old and actively engaged in the process of physical development, so coordination and balance can be affected by periods of hyper-growth. Harnessing such an electric arsenal is hard enough, but when you factor in the aforementioned combination of youth and the process of physical maturity, you get a potent cocktail that can lead to setback on the way to success. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Walker struggle with his control in 2012; his focus grows beyond the rudimentary establishment of arm strength through a heavy four-seam approach; he will have more on his plate (developmentally speaking), with more secondary pitches used in the sequence against more advanced competition. Walker has freakish upside, but he also has a lot of room between his present and future value, and the laboratory where this pitcher is being constructed now has more visitors and brighter lights. It’s not going to be easy.

Prospect #3: LHP Danny Hultzen

Background with Player: Industry sources.

Who: Taken with the second overall pick in a draft considered to be the deepest in recent memory, Hultzen received a $6.35M bonus attached to a major league deal worth at least $8.5M. A polished arm with a complete arsenal of average to above-average offerings, Hultzen has the floor of a solid-average major league starter and the ceiling of a number two on a championship level team. He’s going to be good. The only question is whether he develops into something great.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Outside of a potential injury or an undiscovered post-game ritual that includes a bottle of whisky, a bag of Bamm-Bamm powder, and a gaggle of working girls, Hultzen probably isn’t going to have many stumbles in 2012. Professional acclimation will require an adjustment, but as a mature 22 year-old, the process won’t be as painful or overwhelming as it is for some.  He could start in Double-A and hold his own, with a chance to stumble if he presses or fails to adjust to the talent at that level. Ultimately, I think he cruises in the minors and won’t hit a roadblock until he reaches the majors, where his combination of stuff and command will find a home for a very long time.

Prospect #4: LHP James Paxton

Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.

Who: Canadian southpaw with big stuff and excellent size, Paxton made the most of his much-anticipated professional debut, reaching the Double-A level and kicking ass upon arrival. The 23 year-old’s arsenal and mechanical profile at present have some scouts suggesting the bullpen might represent his likely destination, with a heater that could hang in the mid-90s in short bursts (while touching higher) and a hammer curve that is just unfair when he stays on top of it. In the rotation, Paxton’s stuff is still impressive, with a low 90s fastball that can touch higher featuring good arm-side life, a plus curve that is a 70 pitch at times, and improving strike-throwing ability, all from the left side. It’s a very good package to have in a minor league arm.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: With long limbs and a lot of ground to cover thanks to a delivery that features a trebuchet-like arm whip, Paxton’s mechanics might not be overly conducive for the nuances of the changeup, a pitch that requires feel and touch to master. As a lefty, Paxton will need to keep glove-side hitters off his fastball with a change-of-pace pitch to have a future in the rotation. I’m a big fan of Paxton and I think he finds the necessary nuance, but he could struggle when placed in an environment where his fastball/curve combo just isn’t enough, especially when a more advanced sequence is required. He crushed righties in his seven Double-A starts in 2011, but you can’t look at that statistical sample and declare that the changeup gets to wear the crown for the results. After speaking with several scouts that saw the majority of those starts, I came away thinking that the pitch was a decent offering but not great, and the ability to dominate with the fastball/curve combo should receive a big dose of the love. The changeup receives average at best reviews; it’s a pitch with some fading movement, but one that doesn’t always partner well with the fastball because of slower arm speed. If the changeup takes a step forward, Paxton could be a rotation horse with a complete arsenal, including two above-average (to well above-average) offerings. If not, the tall southpaw could be a monster in bursts— I’ve seen him pitch a max-effort inning and his stuff was absolutely incredible.

Prospect #5: OF Guillermo Pimentel

Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.

Who: I had a very deep internal debate about the number-five prospect in this system, originally going with infielder Nick Franklin, a player I’ve never been that high on, before finally allowing my love for Latino power hitters to cast the deciding vote. Pimentel is seven-figure talent out of the Dominican Republic, flashing plus-plus power potential erupting from a smooth, leveraged left-handed swing. His other tools lack the same strut as the power, with only average (at best) defensive skills and a hit tool that some scouts are quite suspicious of, but the 19 year-old has the type of power you wait years to find in the Latin American market, a hitter capable of sending tape-measure bombs to all fields.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: As much as I love Latino power hitters, I don’t love them with blinders on. Pimentel has more in his game that can go wrong in 2012 than can possibly go right. The biggest weakness, the one that will no doubt be tested when Pimentel climbs to full-season ball in 2012, is his ultra-aggressive approach at the plate. Now, I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: it’s very difficult to penalize a player in short-season ball for being aggressive at the plate. At that specific level of professional baseball (complex league, short-season A ball), hitters are working to establish the basic fundamentals of their craft, which can often be reduced to see ball-hit ball. On the other side of the ball, pitchers at that specific level are doing the same fundamental establishment, looking to build their arm strength by throwing a preponderance of fastballs (four-seamers) both early and often in counts. What happens when hitters who are looking to hit fastballs early and often in counts are put on a field with pitchers that are looking to establish their fastballs early and often in counts? You get a lot of early contact, poor contact, and hitters that get themselves into trouble early in counts and don’t draw a lot of walks. Call it an environmental deficiency found in the developmental process.

However, having watched Pimentel since he signed, I can say that his approach has question marks that exist beyond the environmental/developmental characteristics that can often distort the evaluation of “approach.” Pimentel swings like the first pitch he views will be his last, often chasing pitches well out of the zone or ones that are impossible to barrel with any efficiency. His pitch recognition skills are underdeveloped at present, but as a lefty he will see more righty arsenals, which could limit exploitation as he develops this skill. As he enters full-season ball, he’s going to face deeper arsenals and better sequencing, and this could really trip the young hitter up. I wouldn’t be shocked if his strikeout totals and batting average scare people into jumping off his bandwagon, even if he is able to show off some of that precocious power in game action. He has a chance to develop into a very gifted power threat down the line, but at the present, the deficiencies in his game far outweigh his strengths. Basically, it could get pretty ugly before it starts to look Verducci.