With the minor league regular season coming to an end over the holiday weekend (the Pioneer League goes a couple of extra days for some reason), it's time to celebrate the year with my 10 favorite prospects of the year. These guys aren’t the best, simply who I would always focus on in the box score, who we learned something about, or who we simply had fun with.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
I ranked Altuve as the No. 11 prospect in the Astros system entering the year, and despite taking some heat from the industry for this, it almost seemed too low. The numbers were there, scouts said he really could hit, but it was hard to get past the fact that he was five-foot-six. Jason Parks and I talked about him in the podcast, he became a bit of a thing, and then he went out and hit .435 in his first month at High-A Lancaster. The JetHawks staff was nice enough to arrange a brief interview for us, where he came off as nicely as you'd hope, and then eight weeks later, after showing up in the Futures Game and hitting .361/.388/.569 in a brief Texas League stint, to everyone's surprise, he was in the big leagues. He's hit an empty .295 with the Astros and looks like he'll be a solid-but-unspectacular major leaguer, but he's quickly become a fan favorite, and for me at least, just became of the meme we seemed to start with the podcast, 2011 will always be the year of Altuve.
Gary Brown, OF, Giants
My biggest regret of the preseason Top 101 is not putting Brown on it. Make things worse was that he was the last cut so I could make some sort of stupid point about Donavan Tate (that I still seem to be making). I was the guy who defended the Brown pick and his bonus despite the cries by some that he doesn't walk. I'm the guy who praised the speed, the hitting ability, and the potential power, yet in the end, he was the last cut, and it was dead wrong. Brown crushed the California League with a .336/.407/.519 season that included 14 home runs, 53 stolen bases, and believe it or not, 46 walks. That number might not thrill you, but I'm betting that like the rest of his game, it exceeded your expectations. Quick hint: he won't be cut from this year's list.
Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds
In this year's Reds’ Top 11 Prospects list, I wrote, “Hamilton has the potential to rack up the kind of stolen base totals rarely seen in today's game.” Entering the year at Low-A Dayton, there were whispers of 100, and while he seemed to be keeping pace for much of the year, when he stole his 82nd base of the year on August 19th, needing 18 with 16 games to go seemed a daunting challenge. He had ten hits while swiping nine over his next four games to make it more of a reality, and on Friday he had his seventh three-steal game of the year to reach the century mark, and then swiped three more in the finale to finish with 103. Now to be clear, 100 stolen bases is no way to judge a prospect, as the last Midwest League player to reach the century mark was a Cardinals outfielder named Chris Morris, who accumulated 111 in 2001 and never got past Double-A. But Hamilton isn't just some burner-only guy; he's a real prospect who made very real progress with the bat during the course of the year, including a .318/.382/.387 line after the All-Star break. If you think this year was fun, what kind of numbers could he put up in the California League next year?
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals
Injuries limited him to just 109 games, but Harper entered the year as one of, if not the most hyped prospect in the history of the game, and he didn't disappoint, reaching Double-A as an 18-year-old while hitting a combined .297/.392/.501 at the same age as most high school seniors. The reason Harper makes the list isn't because of what he did but more because of what he's created. It seems like more than any other year, questions about why some teenager isn't in Double-A or why this high school draftee isn't going to the Arizona Fall League seemed to come more than ever. I'm not complaining one bit, as the growth in interest when it comes to scouting and player development is both good for me and good for the health of the sport, but newcomers to baseball below the big leagues also miss out a bit as they might not realize just how special a talent like Harper is. He's not an exception to the rule as much as he's an exception to the exceptions. We can't learn much at all from players like that; we just get to enjoy watching them play.
The Kansas City Royals
Entering the year, the Royals had not only the best system in baseball but one that was easy to see as potentially historic. While fans in Kansas City have been treated to the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Johnny Giavotella, Danny Duffy, Tim Collins, and others, not everyone in the system lived up to expectations, and a quick lesson was given in the unavoidable volatility of the prospect world. Lefty John Lamb lasted 35 innings before succumbing to Tommy John surgery, fellow southpaw Mike Montgomery saw his command collapse (leading to a 5.32 ERA at Triple-A), and outfielder Wil Myers suffered through an injury-plagued campaign at Double-A that saw him limping (almost literally) through a .254/.353/.393 campaign. That's a trio of five-star prospects who ended the season with a lot of questions about their future—so much in fact, that the Royals have already talked about trading prospects for established starting pitchers as opposed to being able to solely depend on what's in house. Best system is recent memory? Fantastic. Turning all of those players into productive big leaguers? Impossible.
Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays
Lawrie was traded to the Blue Jays in the off-season for Shawn Marcum, and while nobody questioned the 2008 first-round pick's talent, there were plenty of public and private statements made to think the Jays had a very promising player who had been dogged for much of his career with makeup questions. He mashed at Triple-A Las Vegas and was on the verge of a call-up when he was hit by a pitch, and while they delayed his ascension, he's been nothing short of spectacular since arriving, including Monday afternoon's walk-off blast in extra innings. Almost more importantly, there was never a whisper about his behavior this year as his efforts were consistent both offensively and (for the first time) defensively, where he always had the athleticism to succeed. Maybe it was the chance to be a star in his native country, maybe it was just the change of scenery in general, and maybe it was just a matter of a kid growing up, but just like skills, makeup can change too, and the only bad thing that could be said about Lawrie this year is the leap onto home plate after winning the game on Sunday. Don't do that kid; you are way too valuable to the future of this franchise to go and get all Kendry Morales on us.
Jake Marisnick, OF, Blue Jays
Marisnick hit .220/.298/.339 in 34 games for Lansing last year, and while the tools were easily apparent despite the poor numbers, so was the gap between athlete and baseball player. A great start to the season was seen as a good sign, as a good season would represent a tremendous step forward, and while he seemed to be slowing down in May, over the next three months his OPS was .800, .949, and .983, leaving him at .320/.392/.496. As a result, the general consensus painted him as the best position prospect in the league. It's not just a tremendous step forward; it's an explosion.
Matt Moore, LHP, Rays
Moore began the year at No. 10 on my Top 101 prospects list and as my top left-handed starting pitcher prospect in baseball, so the most amazing thing about his season is that he actually got better. What was once a dominating 93-95 mph fastball has turned into 94-98, and his once shaky control has become slightly above average as he's put up a 1.92 ERA in 27 starts this year while striking out 210 over 155 innings and walking just 46. The only concern at this point is that he’ll get the Desmond Jennings treatment and be stuck in Durham for no reason. As Jennings was at the beginning of this year, Moore is ready to shine in the big leagues.
Jurickson Profar, SS, Rangers
Bryce Harper wasn't the youngest player in the South Atlantic League to open the year. That would be Profar, who not only began the year just weeks after his 18th birthday but ended the season as the league's Most Valuable Player with a .286/.390/.493 batting line and outstanding up-the-middle defense. With polish beyond his years, Profar could reach Double-A as a teenager, and while he doesn't possess any plus-plus tools, nothing is below average either, leaving him as the rarest of rare—an extremely young player with no obvious weaknesses.
Addison Reed, RHP, White Sox
The following conversation took place between me and a scout in the stands of a Beloit Snappers game in April of this year:
Scout: So I saw Kannopolis . . .
Me: Not much there.
Scout: What do you know about this Reed guy?
Me: Addison? 2010 draft pick, power arm, they put him in the bullpen for some reason.
Scout: He could pitch in the big leagues this year.
Me: [Stunned silence].
I shouldn't be surprised that the scout was right as he's made a series of pretty remarkable calls in the time I've known him, and Reed turned into the best prospect in a weak White Sox system by pitching at all four levels and making his major league debut over the weekend. His fastball and breaking ball are both plus-plus offering, and his season in the minors is hard to appreciate until you add all four lines up and get a 1.26 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings with just 14 walks and 43 hits allowed. He has closer potential and will allow Chicago to move Chris Sale back into the rotation where he belongs.