Making pre-season picks for minor league player of the year honors is a bit more complex than doing the same for big league awards. The biggest issue is, of course, playing time. The trio of Rays lefty Matt Moore and outfielders Bryce Harper (Nationals) and Mike Trout (Angels) are universally seen as the top three prospects in baseball, but none is a good pick for 2012 honors: Moore will open the year in the big leagues, and Harper and Trout will likely follow suit. Instead, you need a player who will spend the entire year away from the majors, either in an environment that is conducive to putting up good numbers, or with an assignment where the player can impress for other reasons. Here are my top ten candidates.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
Arenado's chances might have diminished on Tuesday, but for all the right reasons. The Rockies released Casey Blake, thus making the soon-to-be 21-year-old's path to the big leagues wide open. After leading the minor leagues in RBI last year and putting up a .388/.423/.636 line in the Arizona Fall League, Arenado is generally seen as one of the best pure hitters in prospectland, but all of a sudden, it looks like Player of the Year type numbers will land him in the big leagues sooner than they would have 24 hours ago.
Gary Brown, OF, Giants
The Giants’ first-round pick in 2010, Brown earned consideration last year for a .336/.407/.519 campaign at San Jose that included 14 home runs and 53 stolen bases. There are questions as to why the Giants never promoted the center fielder, and his placement assumes a quick move from Double-A Richmond, where numbers are a bit difficult, to the friendly confines of the Pacific Coast League and Triple-A Fresno, which will help his power numbers. Even without big numbers, he's on pace to patrol the outfield in San Francisco in 2013.
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Pirates
The first pick in last year's draft, Cole's upside makes him an easy choice for one of the ten spots on this list, but he doesn't come without risk. One could argue that no pitcher in the minor leagues can match his stuff; at the same time, though, the results have never consistently followed. Starting the year in the Florida State League, where big parks and humid weather keep the runs off the board, helps his case, and with an upper-90s fastball and devastating slider, he could rack up some big strikeout totals with little worry about his tendencies to give up fly balls.
Travis d'Arnaud, C, Blue Jays
With Jesus Montero–a catcher in name only–now a big leaguer, d'Arnaud will begin the 2012 season as the best catching prospect in the game, and after winning Eastern League MVP honors last season with a .311/.371/.542 line, he's moving to Las Vegas, where the ball flies out of the park. Two years ago, J.P. Arencibia hit 32 home runs and slugged .626 in 104 games before being called up to Toronto, and one wonders if d'Arnaud can force some difficult decisions with an equal performance.
Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds
Hamilton made this list last year because of the potential to put up rarely-seen numbers in the stolen base category, and he responded with 103 in 135 games, although his bat didn't get going until the second half of the season; he hit .233 before the All-Star break and .318 afterward. Now he goes from the Midwest League, where teams averaged 4.36 runs per game in 2011, to the California League, which averaged 5.58. With nearly thirty percent more offense–and even more in the southern division, where the Reds' Bakersfield affiliate plays–the fastest player in baseball could put up some numbers around those stolen bases to earn consideration.
Manny Machado, SS, Orioles
The third overall pick in the 2011 draft, Machado was having a big pro debut in 2011 until it was interrupted by a knee injury; when he returned, Baltimore promoted him from Low- to High-A, where he was challenged by more advanced pitching. He remains a potential middle of the order producer at an elite position, and he's been the talk of Baltimore's minor league camp this spring. He'll return to High-A Frederick to begin the year, and is one of the top breakout picks in the game.
Jurickson Profar, SS, Rangers
Beyond just putting up numbers, players can gain attention for simply meeting a challenge, and that's where Profar comes in. The much-hyped prospect lived up to praise in his full-season debut by hitting .286/.390/.493 at Low-A Hickory as an 18-year-old with 23 stolen bases, more walks than strikeouts, and plus defense. For some, he's already the best infield prospect in the game and, as of this writing, there's a significant chance that he'll begin the 2012 season in Double-A as a teenager, which could make simply good stats look remarkable.
George Springer, OF, Astros
Springer is hardly the best prospect in baseball, but he's the top all-around position player in the Houston system, and he's being set up for greatness if he opens the season as expected, in High-A Lancaster. One of the top offensive environments in professional baseball, teams averaged nearly seven runs a game in Lancaster while hitting close to .300 collectively. For Springer, a first-round pick last year who enters his first full season with a combination of plus power and speed, Lancaster could mask any hitting issues he has for a year and lead to some eye-popping totals.
Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals
Taveras is similar to Profar in that he's getting ready for an assignment to Double-A as a teenager. While he was sidelined for much of the 2011 season with hamstring issues, he flirted with .400 in the Midwest League, batting .386/.444/.584 in 78 games for Low-A Quad Cities. One of the best pure hitters in the minor leagues, Taveras hit .307 in the Arizona Fall League to prove he could handle more advanced pitching; like Profar, even a simple good showing in the Texas League will be awfully impressive.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
The final teenager on this list preparing for a season at Double-A, Walker was the best pitcher in the Midwest League last season, and his likely ascent to the Southern League speaks both to his talent and the desire for Seattle to keep him away from the team's High-A affiliate in High Desert, the friendliest hitting environment in professional baseball. Ultra-athletic and loaded with projection, Walker already can get into the upper 90s with his fastball, and he features a well above-average power breaking ball. Based on his spring showing, he should be able to not only handle pitching at Jackson, but actually succeed there. He might not be the best pitching prospect in baseball, but his ceiling matches with nearly anyone.
Three More to Consider:
Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks: 2011 first-round pick has created huge buzz since last year's instructional leagues.
Dylan Bundy, RHP, Orioles: Some execs saw him as the top talent in last year's draft; only an innings count could hold him back.
Rymer Liriano, OF, Padres: 2011 Midwest League MVP moves to the California League, which could lead to a 20 home run/40 stolen base season.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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