Prospect #1: 3B Nolan Arenado
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Selected in the 2nd round in the 2009 draft, Arenado has emerged as the best pure hitting prospect in the system. Armed with fantastic hands that are both quick and strong, the 21-year-old can barrel balls to all fields, showing the ability to hit in all quadrants against a variety of offerings. He’s not as gifted in the field, were his below-average speed creates a limited workspace at the hot corner, but his glove is at least average and his arm is a plus tool, so his overall skill set will play in the majors. The total package is a first-division talent, with a high-6 hit tool that comes with a mature approach, enough bat speed and strength to prompt some scouts into projecting plus power down the line, and enough defense to stay above water at third.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Arenado is a great prospect, and every team in baseball would welcome him into the fold with open arms, but what could go wrong in 2012 is that the realities of the skill set start to become more representational against more advanced pitching, leaving the picture of a good prospect, but not one with impact level talent at the next level. I really like Arenado’s approach to hitting, as he’s aggressive without being reckless, and he shows pitch recognition skills and the ability to adjust in sequence. He’s a smart hitter that can stay inside a pitch and drive the ball, and manipulate the barrel to match the plane of breaking balls. But his swing wasn’t built for over-the-fence power, as his linear stroke works better in the gaps, despite the raw strength and bat speed necessary for power. Some scouts think the power will develop down the line, as Arenado learns to introduce more loft in his swing, but how much hit tool utility will be sacrificed for the sake of power? I asked around to get ceilings on Arenado, and the majority saw him as a potential .275+ hitter with 10-15 home runs and a truckload of doubles. I like this projection, as it's reasonable and realistic, but it’s not a first-division talent, is it? A few other sources saw a .300+ hitter with 25+ bombs a year, which would make Arenado an All-Star and one of the most valuable players at his position in baseball. Because he’s taking his licks at the Double-A level, we are going to get a better view of what Arenado will be able to bring to the table in the future, as the major leagues are very much within his reach. We all know Arenado can hit, but the questions will be: how much can hit, and how much power will he be able to bring into game action? Again, I think he’s a great prospect, but I tend to think his future is closer to a solid-average regular than an All-Star, which is still a very valuable player to have.

Prospect #2: LHP Tyler Matzek
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: The 11th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Matzek has gone from frontline prospect to damaged goods back into the prospect spotlight again since he threw his first professional pitch back in 2010. Let’s focus on when Matzek can actually stay in his delivery and pitch with rhythm and athleticism, because when he’s on, he’s one of the best arms in the minors. From an ultra-quick arm, Matzek is capable of producing plus-plus velocity on his fastball, working in the 91-95 range and showing the ability to reach back and get higher. The pitch has sneaky qualities stemming from the arm speed and extension, and shows a late burst to the arm side as it nears the zone. His secondary arsenal can look equally impressive, with a hard curve that shows impressive depth and attack and flashes 7 potential, a slider that flashes plus and makes left-handed hitters uncomfortable because of its late tilt, and a changeup that has improved in recent years and features some fading action. The ceiling is still extreme, as Matzek is a big, strong lefty with a plus arsenal and a competitive streak, and some in the industry still think he figures it all out and becomes a number two starter at the major league level. Figuring it all out is easier said than done, though.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: We all know what could go wrong in 2012, as it's what has gone wrong in previous campaigns. Despite being athletic, Matzek’s delivery is often anything but, with stiff, mechanical movements, and inconsistencies in everything from release points to landings. When he’s off, Matzek struggles to correct the mechanical hitches in the delivery and falls out of rhythm and goes forward with a schizophrenic pace. When he’s on, he’s a monster, as his stuff can live in the zone without much exploitation, and he can pitch off his fastball and miss bats with a variety of offerings. I’ve seen Matzek several times, and I’ve yet to see him make it look easy, which makes repeatability difficult, which in turn affects command and secondary utility. Everything stems from the delivery, and if Matzek can’t throw strikes, he can’t give his stuff a chance to play. This is his reality. When I asked around, several scouts saw the issue as being more psychological than physical, working under the “if he did it before, he can do it some more” logic. This has floated around the industry for a while, mostly because Matzek can dominate in bursts, working with clean and efficient mechanics one inning, only to have the next inning be a nightmare, with a suddenly noisy and uncoordinated delivery, diminished stuff, and little-to-no strike-throwing ability. It’s a Jekyll and Hide profile, and the more it flashes and fades, the more it looks like an issue in Matzek’s head rather than a problem with his arm. Aside from the obvious mechanical issues that occur when he’s off, I can’t speak to what exactly is going on in Matzek’s head, but I do know that when he’s on, he flashes star potential, and that promise buys a lot of patience. I’m going to stay on-board because of the ceiling, but this bus could be empty after another season of statistical setback.

Prospect #3: SS Trevor Story
Background with Player: Industry sources
Who: Selected in the supplemental first-round of the 2011 draft, Trevor Story is more solid than spectacular, but he’s a gamer with skills and he should be considered a legit major league prospect. The 19-year-old Texan brings a mature approach and a good stick to the plate; his hands work very well and he has a knack for hard contact. The hit tool itself isn’t special and doesn’t project to be an impact weapon, but he can barrel a ball and he forces pitchers to work. In the field, Story has the necessary characteristics to profile as a shortstop as he climbs the ladder, thanks to his clean actions, easy plus arm, and instincts, but he’s clearly not going to force Tulo off the position. He’s not a burner, but he shows good straight-line times to first base, his second gear puts him in the above-average range, and his first-step is quick, so he can make his presence known while on base. Story looks like a future 5 player at the major league level, and his gamer mentality should push those tools to their limits. When we [read: me] hunt for ultra-sexy tools in the low minors, we often turn a blind eye to prospects that can actually play solid, fundamental baseball. Where’s the fun in watching a fundamental player with a 5 ceiling when you can dream on a toolshed that will never become a baseball player? It might not be sexy, but Trevor Story can play baseball.

What Can Go Wrong in 2012: Story has a good bat, but he doesn’t have a great bat, and several sources did raise some concerns about his ability to hit quality stuff. The hands are very solid and the bat speed was praised and not questioned, but several sources did mention his swing mechanics, suggesting that velocity can chew him up because he has a tendency to bar his arm and achieve premature extension, the latter making me chuckle because I have the maturity of a 5th grader.  The better the battery, the better the ability to recognize and exploit weaknesses in a swing; in the case of Story, if you shove quality fastballs into the hands, you should be able to beat the bat. This is just one recipe for exploitation, and one that might not even be utilized at the present level. Despite these minor concerns, my sources seemed confident in Story’s ability to make the necessary adjustments and to figure out how to find utility from his tools in every game situation. Again, this isn’t a light bulb prospect, one that we all sit around hoping will eventually turn on and illuminate the room with his brilliance. Trevor Story's light is already on, with the biggest drawback being that the light emanating from his prospect status is neither bright nor brilliant. It's just….solid.

Prospect #4: C Will Swanner
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources               
Who: Selected in the 15th round of the 2010 draft and signed for late-second round money, Swanner has all the components of a top tier prospect, but the total package has some in the industry debating what is real and what is a low minors mirage. While not a pop-up prospect, Swanner wasn’t exactly a national darling coming into the 2012 season either; Kevin Goldstein had the 20-year-old catcher ranked 19th in the Rockies system, Baseball America ranked him 21st, and Keith Law had him ranked 10th. Swanner has legit power, stemming from above-average strength and an easy swing that features natural loft and produces backspin. His hit tool looks the part at present, making hard contact to all fields against both lefties and righties. Behind the plate he flashes some tools, most notably a solid-average-to-plus arm. He is still raw as a receiver and his catch-and-throw skills are limited by his footwork and release, but you can see the outline of a quality catcher in the developmental fog. Assuming he develops as a catcher and assuming the power continues to play, Swanner will push himself onto a higher tier of prospect talent, where average fans and crazed aficionados alike will follow his development journey with focused eyes.

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: Swanner is showing game power and he’s making good contact, but several sources were skeptical of the hit tool, saying that the swing can get too long and his taste for fastballs makes him susceptible to quality off-speed offerings, most notably, curveballs. This is the rub for most young hitters, and it will take more than a few hot months to erase the doubts that have formed in the mind of some observers. Despite these doubts, I found quite a few people who really liked Swanner, mostly on the back of his power potential and his position on the diamond, with one source going as far to suggest Swanner could eventually emerge as one of the top backstops in the minors. This lofty prognostication prompted another source to question the blood alcohol level of the aforementioned evaluator. I love baseball. At the present, Swanner is playing in a full-season league, he’s crushing the ball, he’s showing a mature approach, and he’s attempting to develop at a premium defensive position, so he has a lot on his plate. It’s not going to be an easy road, but just look at the basics: 20 years old, good body, good baseball mind, promising power potential, raw tools to stick at catcher. We all know what could go wrong with young players, even more so with young catchers, but we also know the significance if everything happens to go right, which is something worth remembering when looking at a player like Swanner.

Prospect #5: RHP Chad Bettis
Background with Player: My eyes; industry sources
Who: Selected in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, former Texas Tech hurler Chad Bettis exploded onto the prospect landscape after an impressive 2011 campaign in which he logged 170 innings, missed bats, and showed good control. When healthy, Bettis shows an explosive fastball, routinely working in the 92-96 range, and touching even higher when he needs the extra juice. His money pitch is a hard slider, a potential 7 offering that features late two-plane break and impressive velocity in the mid-to-upper 80s. Opinions vary as to Bettis’s future role, with some seeing a two-pitch reliever with the stuff and the makeup to close at the highest level while others see a pitcher with the arsenal to start. The debate is currently on hold as Bettis is on the shelf with a shoulder injury, which only adds to the chorus chanting "bullpen!" As with any injury, we will have to wait and see how the player responds once back on the field and healthy (assuming a full recovery).

What Could Go Wrong in 2012: For the sake of argument, let’s just assume Bettis returns to the field in good health at some point during the 2012 season and continues on his journey to the majors. One of the central points in the starter/reliever debate is the grip-it-and-rip-it approach Bettis shows on the hill. Some observers see a pitcher that excels when he can throw hard, leaving the necessity of touch and feel on the sidelines. As a result, his changeup is a below-average offering that gets marginalized in the sequence, which in turn removes a dimension from his game that is vital to success at the higher levels of professional baseball. Bettis has two plus pitches and can throw strikes, but without added feel and nuance to the arsenal, it’s hard to see a pitcher that will find sustainable success as a starter. Again, we have to see what Bettis looks like after he returns to game action, but it’s easy to see a future major league reliever and it’s becoming more difficult to see a future major league starter. I really like the promise of the fastball/slider combo, and if healthy, Bettis has the stuff and mentality to reach the majors in short order.