Shelby Miller (Cardinals)
The Case For: First and foremost, Shelby Miller is a Texan, and therefore already has an advantage over his competition for this title. I’m open about my bias. See the second rule.
From a scouting perspective, Miller has everything I look for in a future top-of-the-rotation arm. With prototypical size (6-foot-3, 195 pounds) and room for additional strength, Miller has the body and the delivery to log innings and maintain his stuff deep into games. His fastball is a legit plus pitch, and can show plus-plus velocity, as he touches the upper 90s at times. The curveball is another above-average offering, flashing plus more than it flashes the potential to be plus, with excellent depth to the break and a tight spin. As with most young power pitchers, Miller’s changeup was underdeveloped in relation to his other offerings when he was drafted, but it has quickly emerged as another plus-potential pitch. It plays well off his fastball with good weight and some arm-side fading action.
With his frame, his tenacity, his smooth delivery, his being a Texan, his power arsenal that could/should leave him with three plus pitches when he reaches maturity, and the overall command that seems to gain refinement by the outing, Miller is the present leader of the pack of right-handed pitchers, and one could make a very convincing case that he is the top prospect in the game itself. After all, legit aces are baseball’s most precious commodities, and Miller has all the characteristics necessary to fulfill this projection.
*Update: Still Texan. Staying with Miller.
Matt Moore (Rays)
Thecase for: Moore has a wicked combination of stuff and is developing command over the stuff. At present, he can bring a plus fastball (that flashes plus-plus) that works in the 92-95 range, but can touch higher when he needs it. The curveball is a 70-grade behemoth, built on velocity and depth, not to mention a sharp break. It’s an above-average major-league out pitch now, and his command of it continues to improve; he can drop the pitch in the zone for a strike or put it in the dirt as a chase pitch.
The changeup projects to be an average major-league pitch at the very least; it already flashes plus potential, with good arm-side fading action and natural weight. The delivery has been considered noisy, leading to bouts of inconsistent command, but reports on the delivery have been positive and the command has been much improved in 2011.
With a strong, durable frame, a collection of above-average pitches, and a preternatural ability to miss bats, Moore projects to be a legit top-of-the-rotation arm at the major-league level. The Rays like to take it slow and low with their prospects, and that could keep Moore in the minors until late 2012. But don’t let the developmental philosophy cloud the legitimacy of his prospect status. Moore is the best left-handed pitcher in the minors, and looks to remain in this position until he vacates the farm.
*Update: Moore is the top arm in the minors.
Addison Reed (White Sox)
TCF: Reed is a 22-year-old with a plus-plus fastball and a good feel for command. His arsenal includes a plus-potential slider with and a split/change that one scout said he liked better than the slider. At present, Reed relies heavily on the fastball to miss bats.
*Update: After starting the season in Low-A, Reed and his plus (to plus-plus) arsenal have reached Triple-A. His stuff has gotten even better, and Reed looks like a future late-innings force for the White Sox.
Devin Mesoraco (Reds)
TCF: Mesoraco is showing a middle-of-the-order bat from a premium defensive position, which basically makes him one of the most valuable prospects in the minors. At the plate, the soon-to-be 23-year-old has plus power, with a leveraged swing and plus-plus raw strength. Seriously, Mesoraco is an incredibly strong man. He can sell out a bit when looking for the power stroke, but his contact ability hasn’t suffered this season; in fact, he is barreling the ball like a plus-plus hitter. The hit tool itself is sound, meaning I think he can hit for average, but I don’t foresee a .300 hitter at the major-league level. Mesoraco is aggressive at the plate, and he likes to take cuts, but he isn’t immune to working the count in his favor or taking the free pass, which adds another dimension to his offensive game.
Behind the plate, Mesoraco is slowly improving, but he’s never going to be a special defender. His arm is in the 60/65 range, and his release and accuracy make him a good weapon in controlling the running game. With enough athleticism to become a solid-average defender, and the ability to stick in the middle of a batting order, Mesoraco is the current Leader of the Pack among his catching brethren, and given the value attached to his position on the field, you can make a case that Mesoraco is one of the top-tier talents in the minors. He’s ready for the next challenge.
*Update: Staying with Mesoraco. He’s still the best catching prospect in the minors.
Jesus Montero (Yankees)
TCF: This is kind of cheap; Montero was born to be a designated hitter, and I doubt he gets the opportunity to play first base for the Yankees. However, as a prospect who could technically find a home at the position, Montero deserves to get his day in the sun.
Montero could be special at the plate, with the ability to hit for a high average and produce well above-average power numbers. In other words, the bat is good enough to have value despite the obvious defensive deficiencies. Montero could have been a major leaguer last season, and should have been at the major-league level to start this season, but regardless of when his time arrives, his bat will carry the burden of success. He is by far the best-hitting first baseman.
*Update: Again, this is cheap, but the cast of characters at the position is weak, and even though Montero is a natural designated hitter, he deserves a place on these rankings, and first base has to be that place. Deal with it.
Also, Montero might have more cracks in the offensive armor than previously recognized. Professional stagnation arguments aside, Montero has struggled to find consistency at the plate (mechanically speaking), and the big-time power potential is still living off the currency of the word “potential.” The youth and projection remain, and until they fade the future is still incredibly bright for the young Venezuelan slugger, but the bat has to be special if he is going to have value as a designated hitter, and some reports aren’t quite that optimistic.
Kolten Wong (Cardinals)
TCF: Wong has excellent bat speed and hit tool projection, with surprising pop for his size. He could end up in left field or second base, and has the tools and instincts to become solid-average wherever he plays. He could develop into a first-division starter, but let’s see how his game transitions to pro ball before building the projection.
*Update: Former “Leader of the Pack (Present),” Jason Kipnis, was promoted to the majors. Wong is my choice to take over the position, although Jonathan Schoop might deserve his day in the sun.
Manny Machado (Orioles)
TCF: Machado entered professional baseball as the third overall selection in the 2010 draft, carrying the lofty expectations attached to the high draft perch and the always provocative “five-tool potential” label. I love seeing that label; it’s like seeing Sherilyn Fenn walk into a room at any point from 1990 to 1993. You just know something awesome is possible.
Machado has acclimated to professional ball like most scouts thought he would, showing off a plus-plus potential hit tool, developing in-game power, a mature approach, and the defensive skills to excel at shortstop. He has yet to turn 19 and his tools still have a long journey to the height of their developmental arc, but if everything continues as planned, Machado will have an All-Star level ceiling, plus offensive tools, and above-average chops from a premium defensive position. He could always physically outgrow shortstop, but from what I can see, he looks like he can handle the part. He’s the Leader of the Pack (Present).
Jurickson Profar (Rangers)
TCF: The 18-year-old native of Curacao might be the most confident player in the minor leagues, and that’s not meant to be read as an insult. The difference between cocky and confident is a narrative crafted by performance, and Profar’s performance so far this season more than justifies his own belief in his skills. At the plate, Profar shows the approach of a seasoned major leaguer, which puts him in favorable hitting situation and allows for above-average on-base ability. His hit tool projects to be at least plus, with some scouts throwing 65s and 70s on its future. He is balanced from both sides of the plate, with a smooth swing and some loft, but his power potential isn’t as exceptional as the hit tool; some scouts and team personnel see plus power developing down-the-line, while others see 15-20 home run potential at his peak, giving only average power.
In the field, Profar can do it all—clean actions, preternatural instincts for the position, and an arm that the majority of baseball wanted to see developed on the mound. He isn’t a burner, but he has quickness and instincts that allow his average-at-best raw speed to play up. Again, I can’t stress the instincts enough. He’s probably the most instinctual player I’ve seen at his age; it’s unreal how often he ends up in the right place at the right time. Profar lacks the elite tools to become an elite player at the highest level, but he could develop into a first-division starter with all-star appearances in his future. Despite being only 18 years old and already playing (read: playing well) in full-season ball, Profar could no doubt handle a more aggressive assignment, and should reach the major-league level before his 21st birthday.
*Update: Profar are Machado are a coin-flip for me at this point, as I view each prospect as a future first-division player at the major-league level. Profar has established himself as one the top prospects in the game, showing the necessary polish and promise to become this year’s model. Machado has struggled with some injuries and some inconsistencies in 2011, but the offensive upside remains. Gun to my head, I’d rank Profar higher on a prospect list because of the age/level/production. But when looking at the bigger picture, I still go back and forth on which prospect tickles my fancy with more persuasion.
Anthony Rendon (Nationals)
TCF: Even though he has yet to play a professional game, Rendon’s combination of tools and polish make him the face of the position. At the plate, the native Texan (another plus attribute) is able to generate tremendous bat speed; his hands and hips work at near elite levels, and his raw strength is above average. Rendon’s hit tool projects to be plus-plus (70 grade)—which should allow him to become a perennial .300 hitter—with the overall approach to work counts, set up favorable hitting counts, and reach base at a high clip. His power potential ranges from average to plus, with a swing that some believe is better suited for gap-to-gap power, rather than a swing with the necessary loft and backspin to produce 25-plus homers per season without selling out his approach.
In the field, Rendon projects as an above-average defender at third, with both the leather and arm grading out as plus tools, and the instincts necessary to bring the physical package together. Speed isn’t a part of Rendon’s game, but his feet aren’t heavy, and he shows good first-step quickness and reactions. Despite not being a physical force, Rendon has all the attributes necessary to become an All-Star talent at the hot corner, with the ability to hit for average, reach base, hit for some power, and play above-average defense. It remains to be seen if Rendon ends up at third base for the Nationals, but that’s a byproduct of organizational depth, not a developmental deficiency in Rendon’s skill set.
*Update: I feel confident about this selection. Rendon is going to be very good. If you assume that Rendon moves off third base, Miguel Sano is next in my queue, although he might end up in right-field after a few more years of left-side of the infield experimentation.
Guillermo Pimentel (Mariners)
TCF: It remains to be seen if Pimentel is a left fielder or a right fielder, as I’ve received mixed performance reviews at both positions. Regardless of which corner of the diamond his body ends up in (I’m going to guess left), his path to stardom is paved by the gargantuan power of his left-handed stroke. His approach is aggressive, his hit tool has its detractors, and his athleticism isn’t overly impressive, but his power has elite potential, and that’s enough to turn a blind eye to the other deficiencies in his skill set. The 80-grade power potential puts Pimentel in a special class, but the development process is going to take time, and you have to show patience when the payout is so extreme.
*Update: Pimentel might end up in right field, which will no doubt taint my rankings and shame my family. But he could end up with elite power, so I’m going to leave him at the top of the left-field rankings. If he ends up as a big-league right fielder, I’ll send you a letter of apology and a basket of tulips.
Mike Trout (Angels)
TCF: Trout has an elite ceiling, armed with 80-grade speed, a hit tool that will eventually allow him to hit over .300 annually, enough pop in the bat for 15-20 homers per season (not to mention a ton of doubles), the glove and range in center to make him a plus-plus defender over time, and the makeup to push those physical tools to the limit. The player I just described might be the most valuable player in the game, and after a few more years of development, Trout could be just that. In my opinion, he’s the best prospect in the minors and on his way to becoming one of the best players in the majors. He just turned 20 years old. Drink that in.
*Update: As long as Trout is in the minors, he’s the best at his position. Period.
Bryce Harper (Nationals)
TCF: This shouldn’t be a hard sell. Harper is the owner of generational talent, and if the projections prove to live in reality, Harper could go down as one of the premiere players of the modern era. Of course, all of this is very conceptual, as the Harper of the present has yet to become the Harper of the future, but his progress so far in the process has exceeded even the most bullish prognostications.
Let’s start with the power, which is already an 80-grade tool, and should make Harper a perennial home-run champ, with video game numbers if everything clicks. The hit tool has been scrutinized by some within the industry, who say it is merely a tool with “average” potential. (The word “average” caused the prospect tide to roll back and the moon to turn black.) With such overwhelming all-fields power in the bat and the ability to reach base at a high clip, Harper could hit .275 every season and still be an offensive behemoth. For Harper, an average hit tool will be enough to let the power beast out of the cage.
On defense, Harper’s arm has easy 80-grade strength, but the utility of the raw physical tool is still in the process of refinement and doesn’t quite grade out at the elite level… yet. The game speed and quickness are above-average at the present, which allow for plus range in right field, and some scouts have suggested the defensive tools could find a home in center for several years before a move to a corner was necessary. The glory rests on the bat, but Harper should develop into an above-average defensive player as well, making him a weapon on both sides of the ball.
*Update: Like Trout, Harper is the best at his position as long as he remains in the minors.
Top Prospects (By Position)