Jose Ceda, RHP, Marlins (Triple-A New Orleans)
A bit of a forgotten man in the world of prospects, Ceda was seen as a future big-league closer when he was traded by the Cubs to the Marlins more than two years ago for Kevin Gregg. Then his shoulder went pop and he missed all of 2009 recovering from surgery, and while his 2010 return featured plenty of missed bats, it also provided plenty of missing of the strike zone, and he did himself no favors this spring when he showed up to camp overweight. At 6-foot-4 and somewhere in the neighborhood of 275 pounds, Smith is a dead ringer physically for a late-career Lee Smith, but with even nastier stuff, including a 94-97-mph fastball and a tick-above-average slider. Pitching in back-to-back games for the first time this year over the weekend, Ceda retired all six hitters he faced, five via the strikeout, and needed just 26 pitches to accomplish the feat. With a 0.75 ERA in 10 games, 15 strikeouts over 12 innings, and a .175 opponent's average, he's close to getting back into the Marlins' good graces.
Chun-Hsui Chen, C, Indians (Double-A Akron)
Despite being a catcher who hit .315/.404/.521 last year split between Cleveland's two A-level teams, Chen was regarded as little more than a sleeper entering the year. That kind of regard seemed well-founded for much of April, but with a 6-for-12, three-home-run weekend and four bombs in his last four games, the 22-year-old native of Taiwan is suddenly up to .288/.316/.493 in 20 games for the Aeros. Catchers with his kind of bat are a rare commodity, but his ability to stay behind the plate remains in doubt. In 160 career games at catcher, Chen has been charged with 35 passed balls and 15 errors, and while he's made some progress so far this year, he remains well below-average defensively. Based on his athleticism, he really has nowhere else to go, so no matter what he hits, all that matters for now is the defense.
Zack Cozart, SS, Reds (Triple-A Louisville)
Cozart has long been a personal favorite, as I've always seen him as an underrated commodity due to the fact that he doesn't hit for much of an average and probably never will. On the positive side of the ledger, he's a plus defender with at least average power and good speed, and more than enough secondary skills to make up for it, especially considering his position. Hitting just .179 heading into Saturday, Cozart had a game for the ages against New Orleans, going 5-for-5 with four doubles and his first home run of the season and raising his OPS 162 points over the course of five at-bats. That assortment of hits (5-for-5, four doubles, one home run) has been recorded only once in a single big-league game, by Lou Boudreau in 1946, and while Cozart still has a long way to go in building up his numbers, Saturday night was a historic start.
Casey Crosby, LHP, Tigers (Double-A Erie)
A fifth-round pick in 2007, Crosby had Tommy John surgery shortly after signing and pitched only 12 1/3 innings last year due to soreness in the joint that never went away. Entering 2011 in his fifth professional year but still with less than 130 innings under his belt, Crosby was pushed to Double-A, and he's beginning to take on the appearance of the power left-hander that got scouts so excited in 2009. Healthy and throwing pain-free, Crosby has been sitting in the low-to-mid 90s with his fastball, and is starting to harness his stuff as well, firing seven shutout innings on Saturday while allowing three hits and striking out seven. He's back on the map, but it comes with somewhat guarded optimism considering his past.
Andy Dirks, OF, Tigers (Triple-A Toledo)
Dirks is hardly a traditional stud prospect. He was an eighth-round pick in 2008 after an impressive college career, but he's still a smallish corner outfielder who doesn't really have a plus tool. At the same time, everything plays up because of effort and baseball intelligence. He became a Jim Leyland favorite this spring while almost breaking camp in the big leagues, and Leyland just might get him on the roster soon—after a six-hit weekend, he's batting .340/.400/.617 in 25 games for the Mud Hens. His power is no more than average, yet he has six home runs. He's not much of a runner, yet he has 10 stolen bases in 10 attempts and can hold his own in center field. His greatest strength might be a lack of weaknesses, and there are plenty of players who have carved out long careers with similar profiles.
Manny Machado, SS, Orioles (Low-A Delmarva)
It's a fantastic year for prospects in the South Atlantic League, as the first three picks of the 2010 draft are making their full-season debuts in a circuit that currently boasts 11 players from last year's first round. With all that talent around, it's still Machado who is generating the most buzz, as a 5-for-10, two-home-run weekend and five bombs in his last seven games have given him a batting line of .337/.451/.639 after 22 games. Beyond the power surge, Machado has impressed in every aspect of the game: his contact ability is evidenced by more extra-base hits than strikeouts, his solid approach is suggested by his 14 unintentional walks against 83 at-bats, and his defensive fundamentals are indicated by a tally of just three errors, a remarkably low total for an 18-year-old in a full-season league. You don't want to get too crazy after 22 games, but both the stats and the scouting reports are screaming that this is a special player.
Jake Marisnick, OF, Blue Jays (Low-A Lansing)
A third-round pick in 2009, Marisnick was one of those all tools/no skills types when he signed, and he looked totally lost last year in a late-season assignment to Lansing, hitting just .220/.298/.339 in 34 games. Returning to the Midwest League for this season, he looks like a changed man, as after going 5-for-11 with a double and a home run over the weekend, he's batting a whopping .350/.447/.575 in his first 22 games. The tools certainly back up the numbers, as he's a tall, sculpted athlete with strength, speed, an outstanding arm, and as much pure upside as anyone in the system. It's not enough of a sample to officially label this a breakout, but it's one of the most intriguing April performances in all of the minors.
Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Royals (High-A Wilmington)
While everyone is busy drooling over all of the prospects at Triple-A Omaha whom we'll see in Kansas City soon, don't forget about Odorizzi, who was the top starting pitching prospect in the Brewers system before heading to Kansas City in the Zack Greinke deal. He turned in his best start as a Royal on Friday, delivering seven shutout innings with ten strikeouts, and over his 20 Carolina League frames, he's now recorded 30 strikeouts while walking just four. A supremely athletic 21-year-old, Odorizzi can scrape 95 mph with a fastball that he delivers with a nearly effortless motion that also provides fantastic command. His power curveball gives him a second plus pitch, while his changeup is still a work in progress. In any other system, he'd be the recipient of much more hype, so don't forget about him.
Daniel Ortiz, OF, Twins (Low-A Beloit)
A fourth-round pick back in 2008, it's been a slow run for Ortiz, who missed all of 2009 recovering from a knee injury and is just now making his full-season debut. That said, he's starting to make up for lost development time, hitting three home runs over the weekend to raise his early-season line for the Snappers to .378/.427/.743 in 21 games. Compact and athletic, Ortiz is a free swinger with a surprising knack for hard contact considering his power, which is generated more from strong wrists and a whippy bat than any kind of raw strength. A below-average runner who lost his speed early in his career, he profiles as a left fielder, so he'd better keep hitting.
Christian Villanueva, 3B, Rangers (Low-A Hickory)
The Rangers have been one of the busiest teams in the international market, and they added to their foreign holdings by signing Villanueva out of Mexico in 2008. After an impressive showing in the complex league last year, the 19-year-old is showing no signs of slowing down in his full-season debut, delivering three multi-hit games over the weekend to lift his season numbers to .346/.404/.513 in 22 games. Despite his young age, Villanueva has a mature game, with outstanding defense at the hot corner and a quick line-drive swing with gap power. A bit on the small side, there are fair questions about how much power he'll develop down the road, but for now, he's a teenage third baseman with a 900+ OPS in the Sally League, so there's nothing to worry about yet.