Today, we're going to look at three of the top teams in the American League East (arguably the best division in baseball). The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are battling at the top with the Tampa Bay Rays; meanwhile, the Toronto Blue Jays are among the biggest surprises in the first half of this MLB season.
Some quick snapshots:
• Scouts are looking at some impressive talent at the Yankees' Double-A affiliate in preparation for July trade talks.
• The Red Sox have had a tough season down on the farm, and a scout chimes in on the struggles of top pitching prospect Casey Kelly.
• While most teams would be happy to have just one good catching prospect, the Jays are loaded with them.
Yankees: Double-A roster generating attention
Many of the Yankees' top prospects are at the lower levels in the early part of their careers and such players are in a position where it's very hard to maximize their value due to the gap between upside and reality. Despite some struggles at Triple-A, catcher Jesus Montero is untouchable unless there's a real blockbuster in the works, but the squad at Double-A Trenton is generating plenty of attention from scouts. Some mid-level talents have stepped up with big seasons and could be attractive trade chips come July.
Third baseman Brandon Laird is one of those guys. A 27th-round pick in 2007 out of a California junior college, Laird has taken the biggest step forward of any player in the Yankees system. The younger brother of Tigers catcher Gerald Laird, Brandon leads the Eastern League in runs (51), RBIs (65) and extra-base hits (33) as part of a .293/.345/.545 line in 67 games; scouts praise his combination of hitting skills and above-average raw power. He's an average-at-best third baseman whose only other defensive option is first, and the big-league squad has some guys you might have heard of at those two positions, so he represents a surplus that the Yankees can deal from.
Right-hander Hector Noesi is the other main guy. A 23-year-old Dominican, Noesi is among the best finesse pitchers in the minors, as last year he walked just 15 batters in 117 innings. The thing that makes him unique is that unlike most who pitch with his style, Noesi has some stuff as well. His fastball is fringe-plus and he throws a quality curve/change combination as secondary pitches. Scouts were initially a bit leery about his game working at the upper levels, but the Eastern League has yet to provide any real problems (four earned runs over 29 innings in his last four starts). He's no more than a No. 4/No.5 starter; as a result, he could be attractive for a team looking to reload.
Red Sox: Casey no longer at the bat, yet struggling
While the Red Sox have righted the big-league ship of late to make the AL East a three-team race, the news is not equally good down on the farm. Several top prospects have struggled in 2010. The system still has the depth to make deals, but many of the team's top prospects coming into the season have seen their stock take a hit. On the hitting side, both first baseman Lars Anderson and outfielder Josh Reddick have met significant struggles at Triple-A Pawtucket, while few pitchers at the upper levels have done anything to impress, other than recently called-up Felix Doubront.
One of the more puzzling performances has been that of right-hander Casey Kelly. Expected to take a big step forward now that he's given up playing shortstop and dedicated himself solely to pitching, the 2008 first-round pick is one of the youngest pitchers in the Eastern League. Here's the problem: the 20-year-old has a 4.85 ERA in 13 starts for Portland. Guys are raking at .308 against him. Maybe more disturbing is the loss of his once-outstanding control, as after walking just 16 batters in 95 innings last year, he's already handed out 21 walks in just 52 frames in 2010.
"I wish I could give you an exact explanation for what's going on," said one veteran scout who has seen Kelly multiple times over the past two years. "His arm strength is there, as in the movement on his fastball and the quality break in his curveball. It's something that's hard to really put your finger on, but every pitch lacks the crispness we saw last year, and he just doesn't have the same location."
He's exceedingly young for his level, and his previous track record gives some room for optimism, but for now, he's lost in some pretty tall weeds. "That said," the scout concluded, "I'd still take him in a second."
Blue Jays: Rich in backstops
There are plenty of teams in baseball that would be happy with just one good catching prospect, but all of a sudden, the Blue Jays are absolutely loaded with them, even beyond young Venezuelan Carlos Perez, one of the early talks of the New York-Penn League. All four full-season leagues are starting a legitimate big-league prospect at the position, an extreme rarity considering the rising scarcity of quality backstops.
In his second year at Triple-A, 2007 first-round pick J.P. Arencibia is having a breakout campaign—.288/.336/.572, including eight home runs in his last 18 games. Extremely athletic for a catcher, Arencibia is first in line for the 2011 job in the major leagues, but he'll have plenty of talent in his rearview mirror.
A pleasant surprise at Double-A New Hampshire has been the play of Brian Jeroloman, one of the better defensive catchers around whose previous offensive value seemed to revolve solely around his ability to draw walks in bunches. He's still walking like it's going out of style, with 45 against just 152 at-bats, but he's suddenly hitting this year as well, while a monstrous line of .303/.465/.507. Always seen as a potential backup based on the glove alone, the 25-year-old could end up even better than that.
At the lower levels are more projection types than 'now' talents, but few players in the Florida State League have been generating more impressive scouting reports than Travis d'Arnaud. Acquired from the Phillies in the Roy Halladay deal, a recent slump has dropped his batting line to .266/.320/.435, but his tools give him true star potential with well above-average bat speed, power and arm strength. The sleeper of the group is 20-year-old A.J. Jimenez at Low-A Lansing. A ninth-round pick in 2008 out of Puerto Rico, Jimenez has shown good hand-eye coordination and the ability to use all fields during his .308/.356/.456 showing for the Lugnuts, but like Jeroloman he's actually earned more praise for his defense in the past, and it's no different this year, as he's gunned down 54 percent of opposing base stealers.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .