You’ve stumbled into the midst of a series on this year’s minor league All-Stars. These aren’t, part and parcel, the ones you’ll find on the various and sundry All-Star teams that will soon be squaring off against one another around the minors. Rather, these are the prospects who should be regarded as the luminaries of the minor leagues, at least according to this particular pontificator.
Last week, I cobbled together my Low-A All-Star Team, and if you’d like further ruminations on my methodology for making these selections you should go check out that article. I’ll wait here.
Otherwise, here’s my High-A All-Star ballot. And by “High-A,” I mean the best of the California, Carolina and Florida State Leagues…
C – Brian McCann, Braves (Carolina League), Age: 20
McCann is yet another example of the Braves’ high-round drafting strategy of recent years–a prep hitter from Atlanta and environs. He’s got an aesthetically appealing left-handed swing with good power potential. Last season, McCann had a reasonably strong showing in the Sally League, and this year he’s hitting .257/.316/.461 in the Carolina League. While those numbers don’t impress at first blush, note that he’s younger than his peer group and toiling in Myrtle Beach, which is probably the worst park for hitters in professional baseball. The ISO of .204 points to his power potential, and the Braves like his defense behind the plate. He wore down badly last season, so it’ll be instructive to see how he fares in the latter months of the season. He won’t be moved from catcher because of defensive shortcomings, but there’s a possibility he won’t be able to handle the rigors of the position and still fulfill his offensive potential.
Runner-Up: Ryan Garko, Indians (Carolina League), Age: 23
1B – Michael Aubrey, Indians (Carolina League), Age: 22
The Indians were pleasantly surprised when Aubrey, a Tulane product, slid to them at number 11 in the 2003 draft. He’s a polished hitter who projects to be a .300 hitter with good power at the highest level. Aubrey had a strong showing last year in the Sally League, although that’s not especially noteworthy for an accomplished, college-trained hitter. What is noteworthy is that this season he’s laying waste to the generally pitching-friendly Carolina League. At this writing, he’s hitting .339/.438/.550 and leading the circuit in RARP. He’s also an adroit defender at first and a capable baserunner. Aubrey needs to improve his plate discipline a bit, but otherwise he has a potent offensive skill set.
Runner-Up: Brad Vericker, Giants (California League), Age: 23
2B – Delwyn Young, Dodgers (Florida State League), Age: 22
The Braves originally drafted Young as a draft-and-follow as a 29th-rounder in 2001, but they weren’t able to sign him. The Dodgers, however, nabbed him the following year in the fourth round and did persuade him to sign. Young has tremendous bat speed and an ability to use the entire field. Last season in the Sally League, he batted .323, clouted 60 extra-base hits and topped the loop in slugging. This season he’s hitting .255/.343/.456. That’s obviously a decline in production, though it’s also occurring at hitter-friendly Vero Beach. The Dodgers aren’t wholly enamored of his defense, and an eventual move to third is a possibility. Still, two straight seasons of .200+ ISOs and an improved walk rate this season indicate his offensive potential.
Runner-Up: Kevin Howard, Reds (Carolina League), Age: 22
3B – Jeff Baker, Rockies (California League), Age: 23
Baker, a Clemson draftee, somewhat famously tumbled to the fourth round in 2002 because of a performance decline during his junior season and signability fretting. His numbers last season at Low-A Asheville weren’t very impressive (.289/.377/.479) considering it’s one of the best hitter’s parks in the low minors, but they look better once you consider that Baker had his season truncated after undergoing his third wrist surgery. This year, he’s having a breakout season at Visalia (actually a modest hitting environment by Cal League standards). In 276 plate appearances, Baker is hitting .351/.455/.563, and included in that line are 41 unintentional walks (a nice rate increase over year-ago levels). Baker has excellent power potential and strong plate discipline, but chronic wrist problems have derailed many a young hitter. His defense at third is excellent, and the Rox have even discussed moving him closer to the business end of the defensive spectrum. Between Baker and Ian Stewart (a starter on my Low-A All-Star Team), the organization should have little problem filling the hot corner in the coming years.
Runner-Up: Jamie D’Antona, Diamondbacks (California League), Age: 22
SS – Erick Aybar, Angels (California League), Age: 20
The Angels signed Aybar in 2002 for $100,000, and he’s emerged as arguably the best position prospect in the lower rungs of the system. Aybar has strong defensive tools and should develop one day into a plus defender. Coming into this season, he was a career .315 hitter with some solid gap-power numbers and good speed on the bases. In 2004, Aybar is hitting .343/.395/.451 at Rancho Cucamonga. He shows neither a high walk rate nor a great deal of raw power, so much of his value is tied up in his ability to hit for average. But so far, he’s wielding it as a genuine skill. Once he adds some weight, the power could ramp up. Even so, a more patient approach at the plate would certainly serve him well.
Runner-Up: Joel Guzman, Dodgers (Florida State League), Age: 19
OF – Jeff Salazar, Rockies (California League), Age: 23
In many circles, Salazar is the hot prospect du jour, and once you take a look at his obnoxious batting line of .349/.414/.602, it’s hard to blame them. He had another strong season last year, but college hitters playing in the bandbox at Asheville should most assuredly put up good numbers. With this season’s performance, however, Salazar is battering the skeptics. The 2002 eighth-rounder out of Oklahoma State is presently third in the Cal League in EqA and is on pace for roughly 75 extra-base hits this season. He doesn’t boast a strong arm in the outfield, but otherwise he defense is good enough to stick at center in the majors. On the downside, he’s a bit old for High-A, and his walk rate has declined notably this season. Salazar isn’t long for this level and will soon be plying his trade in the Texas League.
OF – Jeff Francoeur, Braves (Carolina League), Age: 20
Hitting at run-snuffing Myrtle Beach as a 20-year-old is as daunting as sitting through back-to-back screenings of Freejack without chemical assistance. But Francoeur, once you adjust for age and park, is having a very nice season. The 23rd overall pick of the 2002 draft is batting .280/.342/.488 and is on pace for 42 doubles and 23 homers. He’s also made some modest gains in his walk rate (although he still needs to display more patience at the plate). Francoeur is a tremendous natural athlete who had a Clemson football scholarship waiting for him before he signed with the Braves. He has good range in center and a tremendous throwing arm. He’s a good bet to have a huge year in 2005 and emerge as one of the best prospects in the game.
OF – Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks (California League), Age: 22
In terms of hitting ability among 2003 college draftees, Jackson is right up there with Aubrey and Rickie Weeks. Drafted in the first round out of Cal-Berkeley, Jackson had a strong showing in the short-season Northwest League last season, but he was quite advanced for the circuit (he set the league record for doubles with 35). This year, the Snakes skipped him past Low-A to the Cal League, where he’s hitting .345/.438/.562 with 44 unintentional passes in 306 plate appearances. Lancaster Municipal is an offensive cauldron, but Jackson’s skills with the bat are genuine. He was a first baseman/third baseman in college, but the organization has moved him to the outfield. A sore shoulder forced him to DH much of last season, so he’s still refining his glovework. With his patience and raw power, Jackson has the potential to hit .290/.375/.520 at the highest level. In the BOB, those numbers will look even better.
Runner-Up: Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks (California League), Age: 21
Runner-Up: Jeremy Hermida, Marlins (Florida State League), Age: 20
SP1 – Felix Hernandez, Mariners (California League), Age: 18
Without being hyperbolic in the least, I can say that Hernandez is one of the most promising young arms to come along in some time. The M’s signed Hernandez in ’02 as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela. Last season as a 17-year-old, Hernandez lambasted the short-season Northwest League (73 strikeouts in 55 innings) and even looked strong in a 14-inning layover in the Midwest League. Hernandez throws a fastball that reaches 97 with regularity, and it’s possible he’ll be able to touch 100 once his body fills out. But he’s not just a fireballer; he also sports a hammer curve that’s the best breaking pitch in the entire system. This season, despite being one of the youngest players in all of High-A, Hernandez has dominated the hitter-philic Cal League: 85 IP, 103 K, 25 BB, 3.18 R/G. And this is a guy who didn’t light his 18th candle until two-and-a-half months ago. Stories of squandered potential among high-upside young arms are legion, but that said, Hernandez, health permitting, could be a future star.
SP2 – Matt Cain, Giants (California League), Age: 19
Cain was drafted by the Giants in the first round (25th overall) of the 2002 cattle call. Not long after signing, Cain, who throws a mid-90s fastball, power curve and late-fading change, put together a very strong showing in the Sally League, where he was comfortably younger than his peer group. Cain was just recently promoted to the Double-A Eastern League, but he’s spent most of the season cutting a wide swath through Cal League hitters. In 72.2 innings at Fresno, Cain struck out 89, walked 17 and allowed 58 hits and five homers. He tossed seven scoreless innings in his recent debut at Norwich, so if he continues thriving as a 19-year-old in the high minors it’s just more evidence that he’s a special prospect.
Runner-Up: Fernando Nieve, Astros (Carolina League), Age: 21
Next week, it’s on to the Double-A All-Star team.