Prospect #1: OF Mike Trout
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: It’s a little cheap to include Trout in these rankings; after all, he belongs at the major league level in 2012 and already accrued 40 games there in 2011. But this is my series and I can do what I want, and what I want to do is wax poetic about Mike Trout. The 20-year-old prospect is not a mystery to man; he has been on the prospect landscape since a breakout debut campaign in 2009 put him on the map and an even greater sophomore season peeled back the layers of his superiority and left the baseball world with a top tier talent. Trout can do just about everything on a baseball field, with elite speed, a near-elite hit tool, plus power potential, a plus-plus glove, and enough arm to grade around average. That’s a legit five-tool talent, and while we are being honest here, if given a choice of any prospect in baseball to build a team around, I’d take Trout over Harper, I’d take Trout over Moore, and I’d take Trout over Profar. I’ve only seen the kid play five times in two years, but each time his performance triggered an internal existential debate: Is Mike Trout the archetype of the modern player? Is Mike Trout a baseball deity?

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Trout’s physical skills are straight out of your favorite fables, but he’s only 20 and those post-biblical skills aren’t refined. As a right-handed hitter, Trout struggled with his first-taste of major league quality stuff, especially arm-side stuff on the inner half of the plate, be it sharp fastballs, benders with depth, or sequencing that kept him guessing on both. I fully expect to see more struggles of this variety in 2012, as Trout should pound lefties and remain inconsistent against the arm-side. To his benefit, Trout has lightning-fast hands and strong wrists which give him good bat control and contact ability. With those attributes, his contact rates should climb in 2012, but negotiating the difficulties associated with electric arm-side stuff is something you can only overcome through exposure, and setbacks are intrinsic to that process. In the end, Trout could be a perennial MVP candidate as a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder that is going to hit over .300, reach base at a high clip, slug 20 homers and a ton of doubles, steal bases, and change the fortunes of the Angels franchise more than their recent free agent additions. The Church of Trout starts here.

Prospect #2: SS Jean Segura
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: As a 20-year-old in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League (2010), Segura showed off his major league potential at the plate, hitting for average and showing unexpected pop. Considered by many to be a second-baseman, Segura held his own at shortstop in 2011, although his bat didn’t explode in the hitter-friendly California League like many expected. At the plate, Segura has great hands and strength, allowing for contact ability and pop; the now-21-year-old Dominican has excellent barrel awareness and can jump inside fastballs on the black, take off-speed offerings off-the-plate to the opposite field, and power through the ball with explosive extension. I think he has more power in that swing than some of my scouting brethren, possibly a 20-homer type with the doubles to match. He also has a very confidently styled mustache and I value aesthetics. It’s the little things.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: An opinion I do share about Segura is that his body isn’t overly conducive for defensive projection at shortstop. In the abstract, I agree with many who suggested the thick core and the emerging thickness in the lower half could limit Segura’s quickness and eventually push him back over to the keystone. However, after watching him last season, I think he has all the necessary components to stick at the position as he continues to physically mature. He moves well laterally, with quick feet and good reaction time. His actions are clean and smooth and the arm can make all the throws. He’s not a wizard over there and he isn’t going to change the game with his range, but he can handle the position at the present and I think he will maintain that level of play up the chain. What could go wrong is that I turn out to be wrong, and the physical development of his body limits his range and quickness, making a Juan Uribe-esque shortstop, with more thickness than quickness. That outcome will no doubt push Segura to second, and even though his bat has promise, being a “good” hitting shortstop has a lot more value than being a “good” hitting second baseman.  

Prospect #3: 3B Kaleb Cowart
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: A first-round pick in the 2010 draft, many saw the 6’3’’ 190-pound athlete as a prototypical pitching prospect who could already push a fastball into the 90s with an easy arm and tons of projection. Cowart preferred to play every day and he preferred to take his hacks at the plate, showing a lot of miss with those hacks, as was evident in the 81 strikeouts in only 72 games in 2011. But Cowart’s game isn’t just big swings and dreams of contact. The 19-year-old third baseman has legit offensive components in his game that have growth potential and give him high offensive projections. The downside is that Cowart is still raw at the plate, with a lot swing and miss in his game stemming from an aggressive approach and underdeveloped pitch-recognition skills.

In 2012, Cowart is going to be moving up to full-season ball. There, the switch-hitter will face the type of talent that can exploit the holes in his approach. I really like the swing itself, but he’s not exactly quick to the ball; his trigger and path will need to become more efficient to help shorten him up and stay in the hitting zone longer. He’s a long-term project, one that will hear the echo of “pitcher conversion” until he proves the skills he possesses as a position player more than warrant his development in that arena. I think he could emerge as one of the top third base prospects in the game, a player with the skills to excel at the hot corner on defense and a bat capable of plus power, but 2012 might create more doubt than shout, so be prepared for the developmental setbacks.

Prospect #4: 2B Taylor Lindsey
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources.
Who: The 37th overall pick in the 2010 draft, Lindsey isn’t the most exciting player on the diamond; he lacks crazy athleticism, isn’t the cleanest of fielders, his arm doesn’t inspire much confidence when throwing across his body at second, and his power stroke isn’t going to earn him a role on #TeamLegend. But the kid can seriously rip the ball, with a quick-triggered swing that has a knack for sweet spot connection. In 2011, he hit .362 in short-season ball, and even though his hit tool isn’t elite, this isn’t a player pitchers can sleep on.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Lindsey has some pop, but he doesn’t have crazy pop, and sometimes his swing and approach suffer when he buys into the hype surrounding the existence of said pop. He has a sweet swing and he isn’t without  power; I think the potential is there to hit 10-15 home runs per year once the body fully develops and the swing finds stability with the added strength. Once lefties with sweet swings get a taste for the sexual allure of power, they can often sell their soul to return to that fix, a jonesing which can take future .300 hitters and turn them into .220 hitters with more leveraged swings, more strikeouts, and more exploitable approaches. It’s entirely possible that Lindsey falls into the this trap at some point in 2012, trying to build on his impressive 2011 season by stepping up against the superior competition found in full-season ball. Regardless, Lindsey’s hit tool is legit, and despite not having a spot on the diamond where his defensive attributes will really stand out, the hit tool could carry him all the way to the show. Mix in some pop and some patience and you might have a second-division second baseman. Lindsey will need to maintain the fluidity of his swing, with a good path and plane to the ball and good extension through it as he advances a level. If the process is altered to induce more loft or leverage for the promise of power, Lindsey is a good candidate to get hit by the wall of reality.

Prospect #5: RHP Garrett Richards
Background with Player: My own eyes; industry sources.
Who:  A supplemental first-round selection in the 2009 draft, Richards has slowly emerged as a legit rotation option for the Angels, although there are some that would prefer to see the potent two-pitch mix Richards can offer in bursts playing in high-leverage situations out of the bullpen. As a starter, the product of University of Oklahoma (I’m not judging, I promise) shows a lively fastball that sits comfortably in the plus velocity range (and can touch much higher), with good action on the pitch when he keeps it low in the zone. I’ve seen him throw both a curve and a slider, with the mid-80s slider standing out as his best all-around offering, a true plus pitch with excellent corridor tilt and velocity.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: As a 23-year-old pitcher that made the jump from Double-A to the majors, making three starts in seven appearances, Richards is a good candidate to log some innings at Triple-A before settling into his digs as a major league mainstay. At minimum, Richards has two-late inning offerings that he delivers with good angle to the plate, so failure as a starter just opens up another door for the young righty. As a starter, Richards has a few holes in his arsenal that need refinement before he’s ready to toe the major league rubber in that capacity. His overall command/control profile isn’t bad at the present; his delivery isn’t the cleanest and it’s a bit noisy, but the arm works well and he shows the ability to repeat, to stay on his line, and to throw strikes. The problem with throwing strikes versus throwing quality strikes is that upper level hitters can hit balls that are loose in the zone. In 2012, Richards needs to refine his ability to put the ball in desired quadrants of the plate. Using his fastball to get ahead in the count will force hitters to anticipate the knockout slider, putting all the advantage in Richards’s hand; at that point he could even offer the slower curve to disrupt the timing and sight-line before going back to the heater or aiming that slider at the hip (on the arm side) and watching the hitters buckle as the two-plane breaker slices across the zone. Richards has the arsenal to humiliate, but that’s not going to be the case unless he can pitch off the fastball early and often in counts. If he stays loose in the zone, he’s going to find more barrels at the higher levels, and that will lead to statistical setbacks in 2012.