Prospect #1: RHP Casey Kelly
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: A first-round pick in the 2008 draft, Kelly has the all characteristics of a very good major league starter—perhaps even as high as a number two role—but many in the scouting community have been hesitant to buy into such a lofty projection. With prototypical size and well-above-average athletic ability, Kelly brings a clean, repeatable delivery to the table, and a command profile that should be a plus attribute. His fastball has weight and can show easy plus velocity, working in the low-90s and touching even higher. His curveball is another plus offering, with good shape and excellent depth, a pitch he can throw for strikes or locate out of the zone. His feel for the changeup has improved each year in pro ball, going from a pitch that was too firm and lacked movement to a pitch with good action and deception from the fastball. The knock on Kelly has been his inability to dominate, despite showing three above-average pitches and good control. He often threw too many strikes, and his arsenal lacked a true bat-missing weapon, a put-away pitch. This spring, Kelly took a big step forward, with the fastball showing more life, the curveball having more bite, and the changeup diving away from left-handed bats. The package was looking more like the projection than every before.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Kelly throws a lot of strikes, and advanced hitters can make hard contact on strikes. While you want a pitcher to have control (the ability to throw strikes), what you really want is for them to have command, or the ability to throw quality strikes, to be able to locate the pitch within the zone. The knock on Kelly coming into the season was that his stuff was good, but not good enough to survive loose adventures in the zone of quality opponents. He lacked a fear factor, and hitters settled into the comfortable environment. The fastball showing a little more punch will certainly help, as will the ability to drop the curve out of the zone, but hitters in the past have been able to square up Kelly’s fastball, mostly thanks to its friendly location. The athletic profile and the repeatable delivery should allow the control to develop into command, and Kelly should emerge as a very good starter at the major league level. Until this particular aspect of the developmental process is complete, Kelly will be susceptible to hard contact.

Prospect #2: C Yasmani Grandal
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: A first-round selection in the 2010 draft, University of Miami product Yasmani Grandal can flat-out rake, with bat speed and bat control from both sides of the plate—conducive for both batting average and some power—and an approach that allows for on-base ability. Grandal had a reputation coming out of college as a good game-caller behind the plate, and that very well may be the case. His other defensive attributes have never thrilled me, as the footwork is clumsy and his movements lack athleticism, his arm is just a 5, his pop times are fringe-average, and the reviews of his receiving skills are always mixed. I really believe in the bat, especially from the left side, and his overall approach to hitting is major league-quality, and if the defense behind the plate is anywhere close to average, Grandal has All-Star potential.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Grandal is going to be a good hitter, and some people believe he will be a good catcher, but some also believe his defense behind the plate is substandard, especially his receiving skills, and that he could eventually be forced off the position. I asked multiple scouts in multiple organizations for their thoughts on Grandal’s defense, and every opinion was different. Some thought he was much better than people realize, and that not only would his glove play at the highest level, but it would eventually play at a high level. Others were more pessimistic, not loving the body/athleticism, and calling the footwork below average, with little chance to be average. That’s a wide range. What could go wrong is that the more pessimistic opinion proves to be accurate, and Grandal doesn’t emerge as a qualified candidate to catch major league games. This seems very unlikely to me, and I’m not the biggest fan of his defensive profile behind the plate. The more likely scenario will find a fringe-average to average catcher, with some catch and throw skills and a mature approach to game calling. His bat will justify any shortcomings at the position, as Grandal has the swing and approach to offer above-average offensive production.

Prospect #3: C Austin Hedges
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: A second-round selection in the 2011 draft, Hedges was given a $3 million bonus to forgo his commitment to UCLA, a bonus that was more than $2.5 million over the recommended slot. That’s aggressive. I like it. I also really like Hedges’s skill set, especially behind the plate, where his near-elite arm, his impressive footwork and receiving ability, and his mature approach to game calling already rank him among the best at the position in the minors. The bat has the potential to play, with bat speed and strength, and some see plus power potential in his swing.  The defense behind the plate has a chance to be top-shelf and to carry Hedges on its back all the way to the majors. I’ve had more than one source say it’s good enough right now to play in the majors. If the bat can develop into an average weapon—meaning some batting average and some pop—Hedges is going to play in the majors for a very, very long time. If the bat falters, the catch and throw skills and game-calling ability will keep Hedges employed, although not as a regular.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Scouts speak of Hedges’s defense like I speak of Tom Verducci’s smile, so his biggest professional obstacle will be the development of his bat. He’s currently showing good contact, a good approach, and some game power, but there are some concerns about how well the setup and swing will play as he climbs the corporate ladder. He has a good swing, but his setup has some noise and his swing has some length, limiting his plate coverage and giving pitchers something to exploit. It remains to be seen how Hedges will fare in the Midwest League, but the more advanced the pitcher, the more likely they will be able to take advantage of the holes in his swing. His hit tool is never going to be a monster weapon, but if he can shorten up and stay inside the ball, he should be able to become an average (5) hitter. The power is the real mystery here, as some think his plus raw strength and swing characteristics are conducive for plus game power down the line, adding a very valuable dimension to his overall skill set to make him one of the best defensive backstops in the game. If Hedges can become an average hitter, with some pop in the bat to go along with his plus-plus defensive skills, he could be a perennial All-Star. The bat becoming an average tool is the key.

Prospect #4 OF Rymer Liriano  
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, Rymer Liriano has had a wild prospect ride in his brief career, exploding on the stateside prospect scene in 2009 with an impressive complex league run, fading in three stops in 2010, exploding again in 2011 with contact, power, and speed, and now he’s off to a slow start in the California League. Based on the pattern of failure and adjustment, Liriano will win the Texas League most valuable player in 2013. I’ve seen Liriano a bunch, and I’m still not sure how I feel about him. He can show all five tools, but I’ve yet to see the total package flash; it’s also one or the other, not all five tools firing on all cylinders at the same time. He has excellent base running skills and a plus run tool, but he has a thick build and he will not be able to maintain his present grade at maturity; he has a 7 arm, but his accuracy is unpredictable which affects the utility. He shows serious raw power, and he has the bat speed and the strength for a plus projection. His swing isn’t complicated and he handles the bat well, but his approach gets mixed reviews, with some aggressive tendencies and pitch recognition issues. He also gets credit for being one of the hardest working players in the system; it’s always a good sign when the toolsiest guy on the field also turns out to be the hardest working guy on the field. Liriano has a right field profile, with a big arm and power potential, and his tool-based futures would make him a first-division starter. He’s still raw as a baseball player, but lack of effort isn’t going to be one of the reasons he fails.

What Can Go Wrong in 2012: Liriano is an aggressive hitter, and he is especially susceptible to quality off-speed offerings. The swing itself has some violence, and is difficult to control within the zone once triggered. I had one scout say he didn’t like the way his bat speed was generated, and that the loose swing often looked too loose and unstable. He will need to refine his pitch recognition skills and attack the pitches he can drive and avoid those that he can’t, but he has shown the ability to make adjustments in the past. Despite owning all five tools, the ability to adjust to the level of competition around him might be his best attribute. Overwhelmed by the Midwest League in 2010, Liriano returned to the level in 2011 and overwhelmed the competition. Overwhelmed so far in 2012… get the idea. This prospect has a lot of backers, and when you see the tools, the work ethic, and the ability to make adjustments, it’s hard not to join them. When I started this list, I didn’t have Liriano in the top five; as I mentioned, I found it difficult to peg him and I had yet to see all the tools come together on one field. After spending the better part of three days researching him, I have a better handle on the player, and I can certainly see why some are so high on him.

Prospect #5: LHP Robbie Erlin
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: A third-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2009, Erlin might lack size and his raw stuff might not break radar guns or prompt many plus-plus grades, but his pitchability is absolutely off-the-chart. The 21-year-old southpaw has an advanced feel for pitch sequence and ball manipulation, taking a solid-average arsenal and making it play up. His control is near-elite, and his command continues to improve. With an athletic and repeatable delivery, Erlin will work his fastball in the upper-80s/low-90s, showing the ability to touch a little higher on the gun. He can locate the pitch to both sides of the plate, and when he stays over it and spots it low in the zone, can create a good angle, despite standing under six feet tall. His curveball is a tight breaker with good depth, a pitch he can drop for strikes or put in the dirt. His best pitch is probably the changeup, a strikeout pitch to both lefties and righties, playing beautifully off the fastball with great deception thanks to the arm action and good fading movement to the arm side. Erlin’s finest overall weapon is his game intelligence and preparation; of all the pitchers I’ve seen chart a game, I’ve never seen a pitcher as focused, as aware, or as thoughtful with his notes and observations. Erlin has an incredibly cerebral approach to pitching, and he knows exactly what he wants to do and exactly how to go about executing his plan. His tool-based ceiling pegs him as a #4 type of starter, but the pitchability, the intelligence, and the command will carry Erlin beyond his projection.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Erlin can throw strikes like he’s a video game pitcher, but some of those strikes catch too much of the plate and find too many barrels. Because of Erlin’s height (or lack thereof), when he fails to stay over the ball, he provides a flat-plane view to hitters. The combination of strike-throwing ability, a fastball that lacks the punch of plus velocity, and the potential for a flat-plane track to the plate can lead to hitters taking big hacks on balls that they can see very well. Erlin was going to struggle in a hitter-friendly environment like Texas, and he’s likely to shine in the pitcher-friendly environment that is Petco, but he will face exploitation in any stadium if he can’t hit his spots within the zone. Erlin might be a wizard when it comes to approach, but the reality is that regardless of his intellectual prowess and feel for pitching, he has a small margin for error, and his mistakes will be magnified.