Last weekend, I traveled to Kansas City to take in the Royals Futures Game at Kauffman Stadium. With the best system in the game, it was a rare opportunity to see that much minor-league talent on the same field, but with the minor leagues beginning action on Thursday, and corresponding rosters for the 120 full-season teams starting to trickle in, there are plenty of squads worth watching for their deep groups of prospects. Here's my ideal hypothetical four-city road trip in counterclockwise format from my home in central Illinois.
Stop One: Omaha, Nebraska
The Royals have a glut of prospects at nearly every level, but the first wave of potential big-leaguers begin the year with the Triple-A Storm Chasers. The most interesting question regarding the talent at Omaha revolves not around whom, but when. Many scouts think first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas could slug in the majors right now, despite neither being finished products. While Moustakas has a clear path to the hot corner in Kansas City and is the most likely to reach the bigs first, keeping an eye on Hosmer's position will be as important as his numbers. If Billy Butler and Kila Ka'aihue hit well in the big leagues, a hot start from Hosmer could lead to a move to the outfield to give him a clearer path.
Mike Montgomery, who fired four no-hit innings on Saturday and touched 97 mph, and Danny Duffy, who got up to 95, are a pair of power-armed left-handers who are, at the very least, in line for September looks to set up the competition for Opening Day rotation jobs next spring. And while not in the same class as the big four, center fielder Lorenzo Cain and second baseman Johnny Giavotella could also get auditions, as the Royals aren’t just loaded, they're also very close to taking advantage of that talent. Though 2011 is still a transitional year for the team, 2012 is when things get fun in Kansas City. By the following year, the Royals should be legitimate contenders.
Stop Two: Montgomery, Alabama
The Rays are the current model franchise for creating a winning club through scouting and player development, but the scary thing is, there's more young talent coming to add to an already impressive core. The Double-A Biscuits, whose mascot is a biscuit with eyes and a slab of butter for a tongue, have four legitimate starting pitching prospects in their rotation. First there is left-hander Matt Moore, a 21-year-old who has led the minor leagues in strikeouts in each of the last two years and was the most dominant pitcher in baseball during the second half last year, striking out 130 batters over just 84 innings in his last 13 starts. He'll be the Opening Day starter.
The second starter is right-hander Chris Archer, the best prospect received from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. Archer matches Moore's low-to-mid-90s heat, and his slider might even be a better breaking ball than Moore's power curve, but his lack of control still leaves some questions about his future.
While hardly the best position player prospect in the system, shortstop Tim Beckham might be the most interesting; the first overall pick in the 2008 draft is not a bust yet, but he has certainly earned the label of “that guy the Rays took instead of Buster Posey.” This is a make-or-break year for his prospect status. Beckham isn't even the only first overall pick on the roster. The most interesting pitcher in the system holds that status and is in the Montgomery bullpen. Drafted by the Padres as a shortstop in 2004, Matt Bush is trying to revitalize his career in the ‘pen, where his fastball and slider are both plus pitches.
Stop Three: Clearwater, Florida
The Phillies system is difficult to evaluate. The upper levels are nearly bereft of talent, yet they are loaded with young, high-ceiling prospects that still have plenty to prove. Much of that talent will be at Philadelphia's High-A Florida State League affiliate, including a rotation that arguably has the most athletic, hard-throwing trio of right-handers. Brody Colvin, Jarred Cosart, and Trevor May are all 21 years old or younger, 6-foot-3 or taller, and throw at least 95 mph. All three have star-level starting ceilings, and the league's environment could help that produce some impressive numbers.
That same pitcher-friendly setting could hamper first baseman turned outfielder Jonathan Singleton, who becomes the team's top offensive prospect once Domonic Brown returns to the big leagues. Singleton's plus-plus power will certainly be curtailed in Clearwater, but he has enough hitting and on-base skills to overcome that. Scouts are just as interested in seeing how Singleton does in left field, where he moved during the offseason with Ryan Howard signed through at least the 2016 season.
Stop Four: Charleston, West Virginia
The Pirates are hoping to become the next Rays, or in the shorter term, the next Royals. Much of what they're dreaming on in their system for now revolves around young pitching. Prior to the 2010, the club spent big money in late rounds on players who dropped, and three of them will make highly-anticipated full-season debuts this year: right-hander Zack Von Rosenberg ($1.2 million bonus), and southpaws Colton Cain ($1.15 million) and Zach Dodson ($600,000). Still, one might want to delay the drive to Appalachian Power Park for a couple months, as the trio is just an appetizer for the main course, 2010 draftees Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Taillon was the second overall pick in the 2010 draft and the recipient of a $6.5 million bonus; some scouts believe he is the best high school right-hander since Josh Beckett. Allie, who signed for $2.25 million, has already touched 100 mph, but needs to curb his wildness. The Pirates may have their rotation of the future, but the number of things that can go wrong between the Sally League and the bigs is nearly impossible to calculate.
Greenville, South Carolina: Drive to see the Drive, as the Low-A affiliate of the Red Sox features plenty of intriguing picks from the 2010 draft, including pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Brandon Workman, as well as Sean Coyle, a 5-foot-8 second baseman who earns high praise for his bat (sound like someone familiar, Boston?)
Louisville, Kentucky: The Reds will be showcasing a glut of blocked prospects with their Triple-A team. First baseman Yonder Alonso is never going to get a shot in Cincinnati as long as Joey Votto is around, while Zack Cozart provides rare pop for a shortstop. Outfielder Dave Sappelt almost made the big-league squad with a fantastic spring and could force his way to the majors with a strong first half, while Dontrelle Willis is at least entertaining.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: The Rangers had one of the most impressive pitching staffs at Low-A last year, so it's no surprise to see the same at their new Carolina League affiliate. The two Robbies, Erlin and Ross, are the top prospects, but watch out for righty Neil Ramirez, a once highly-touted arm who was suddenly back up to 95-97 mph this spring.
Savannah, Georgia: If there are sleeper players, why not sleeper teams? Outfielders Darrell Ceciliani and Cory Vaughn are coming off big years in the New York-Penn League, while powerful third baseman Aderlin Rodriguez and shortstop Robbie Shields form one of the better left sides of the infield in the South Atlantic League.
Scranton, Pennsylvania: After visiting the fine folks at Dunder-Mifflin, head on over to PNC Field, where the Yankees have a Triple-A rotation with five legitimate prospects, headlined by right-hander Andrew Brackman. Retuning for an encore is catcher Jesus Montero, who will likely either be in Yankee Stadium by the end of July or with another organization.
Trenton, New Jersey: The Double-A Thunder rotation features the much-hyped Yankees tandem of left-hander Manny Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances, with catcher of the future Austin Romine calling the pitches. Keep an eye on toolsy outfielder Melky Mesa, who created a buzz this spring.
Visalia, California: Arizona's High-A California League affiliate features a bounty of high picks from the 2009 draft, including infielders Bobby Borchering, Matt Davidson, and Chris Owings, with a pitching staff headed by Tyler Skaggs, the highly-projectable southpaw that was the key to the Dan Haren deal.