Charlotte Knights (White Sox Triple-A)
The possibility of a Giovanni Soto-Geovany Soto battery would qualify as the most interesting storyline to watch in Charlotte most years. After an offseason focused on the future, homophony takes a backseat to a 2017 Opening Day roster that suddenly boasts three of our top 30 prospects. The highest ranked among them is Yoan Moncada, who’ll hope that some of first year manager Mark Grudzielanek’s contact ability rubs off on him before he ascends to the South Side for good. Charlotte’s pitching staff is particularly rich, fronted by Lucas Giolito. He’s attempting to restore a top-of-the-rotation projection by finding some mechanical consistency and a few missing ticks on his once-and-future 80-grade heater. Joining Giolito in the rotation are Reynaldo Lopez and Carson Fulmer, each of whom face questions about ability to pitch every fifth day because of less-than-ideal size and inconsistent command. If the rotation doesn’t work out, I hope Lopez and Fulmer don’t mind setup roles, because the White Sox spent their 2016 first rounder on Zack Burdi. His triple-digit cheese and wipeout slider will end games in Charlotte for the time being, and could do so in the majors in short order if the Sox continue their rebuild by stripping the current bullpen. The Knights roster may well be typically barren come mid-summer, especially on offense. Until the calls come, they’ll run out one of the best collections of talent on a Triple-A roster in some time. —Greg Wellemeyer
Lakewood BlueClaws (Low-A Philadelphia)
Here comes the Moniak! 2016’s 1-1 Mickey Moniak headlines a loaded group of 2017 Lakewood BlueClaws. I'm certainly excited to see Moniak regularly, though given his reported advanced hit tool and approach I doubt he'll run into much trouble in the South Atlantic League. The team features unusual depth for the level in pitching, led by 91st-ranked prospect Adonis Medina and just-missed 101 candidate Sixto Sanchez, young power arms, both. To even be in consideration for the 101 before making your full-season debut is a huge accomplishment for a pitcher, and the BlueClaws have two guys that were right there. In addition to the two headline names, I’ve heard enough positive things about lefty Bailey Falter to mark him as a potential breakout candidate in the rotation. The hitting behind Moniak isn't quite as tantalizing, but a pair of former July 2 bonus babies, Arquimedez Gamboa and Daniel Brito, will form an interesting pair in the middle infield. It should be a fun season out on the Jersey Shore. —Jarrett Seidler
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (High-A Los Angeles Dodgers)
While much has been written about the potential Lake Elsinore rotation this season (link to February ten-pack?), they might not even have the most exciting rotation in the California League’s south division. Walker Buehler, Mitch White, Caleb Ferguson and Dennis Santana are all slated to open the season in Rancho’s rotation. Buehler may be the best pitching prospect in a loaded Dodgers system. In his return from Tommy John last season, Buehler worked in the high 90s, with an advanced four-pitch mix. White has also touched the high 90s this spring, and when paired with his power slider, he could easily overmatch Cal League hitters. Yadier Alvarez, the consensus top-arm in the Dodgers system, is also expected to join the rotation shortly. That quartet, coupled with talented 2016 draftees Jordan Sheffield and Dustin May in Class-A Great Lakes, rivals the upside of any rotation in the Minor Leagues.
Rancho offers plenty of intriguing position player options as well. While Yusniel Diaz is the highest ranked prospect to open the season in Rancho, he might not even be the most exciting player in his own outfield. 2016 Junior-College draftee D.J. Peters looks the part, at an athletic 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds. Peters creates easy leverage in what is a relatively compact stroke for a man of his size. In addition to flashing plus tools across the board, Peters is a max-effort player that will give you a good time down the line on every at-bat.
In the infield, Cuban teenager Omar Estevez will look to build on a promising second-half (.293/.340/.458) to his 2016 debut at Great Lakes. Estevez profiles as an average fielder at second base, but his compact, line-drive swing should allow him to consistently hit for a high average. Recent trade acquisition Drew Jackson, is a tremendous athlete who may be the best defensive shortstop in the Cal League this season. Last year, playing for Bakersfield, Jackson made the best throw I’d seen all season, a jump-throw from deep in the hole that was on a line to first base. Finally, 2016 first-round pick, catcher Will Smith also features one of the best arms at his position, consistently delivering sub 1.9 pop times to second. Smith has always possessed good hands, and a knack for contact at the plate, but the retooled load he debuted this spring bodes well for his ability to drive the ball with more conviction this season.
Beyond the big names in the infield, keep an eye on the speedy Erick Mejia, who was a 2016 Cal League All-Star, and first baseman Ibandel Isabel, who may possess the best raw power in the Dodgers system. —JH Schroeder
Akron Rubberducks (Double-A Cleveland)
Outside of the outstanding name, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about this Cleveland affiliate’s roster. Much like the major league club, Akron has both star power and a noticeable depth of talent to match. The most highly regarded prospect on the Rubberducks roster is undoubtedly catcher Francisco Mejia. The 21-year-old backstop is best known for his unreal 50 game-hitting streak in Lynchburg last season. However, there’s much more to get excited about with him as a prospect. Ranked 34th on Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101, Mejia has an above-average hit tool and a plus arm, which helped him throw at 44 percent of runners in 2016. Akron also has other notable position players like Bobby Bradley, Greg Allen, and Yu-Cheng Chang. Bradley is a masher at first base, while Allen is a speedster in the outfield. The former sixth-round pick stole 45 bases in the minors last year. Not to be overlooked, Cheng has become a prominent part of the Indians farm system since he signed as an amateur free agent out of Taiwan in 2013. Akron also features some solid position player depth in Tyler Krieger, Dorssys Paulino and former 2014 top 40 pick in Mike Papi. The roster will also deploy some of the organization’s notable starting pitching prospects in Rob Kaminsky and Julian Merryweather. Whenever you can get six or seven of a team’s top prospects on the same roster, it’s something to keep an eye on. Especially when it’s the Indians, whose farm system is nothing to scoff at. —Greg Goldstein
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A New York Mets)
Yes, they have the minors most famous OF/QB—which will likely make my May look at the team in Lakewood a bit of a three-ring extravaganza—but I am more interested in four prospects there coming off injury issues and getting their first taste of full-season ball. We ranked Thomas Szapucki in our top 101 after a very nice season in 2016, but he lost the last month of 2016 to back issues and is currently getting stretched out in extended after a shoulder impingement. Those are significant concerns for a lefty with unorthodox mechanics, but the stuff is so good that if he can stay on the mound for 100 innings this season, he can assuage a lot of doubts and potentially be one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Desmond Lindsay has Top 101 tools, but hamstring issues have dogged him since his senior year of high school, troubling for a profile that needs as many centerfield reps as possible. Catcher Ali Sanchez posted a .530 OPS last year while dealing with an early season hand issue, but catchers are weird man, and I’ve always believed in the bat. And I thought highly enough of Luis Carpio to rank him third in the system coming out of his age-17-season in Kingsport in 2015, but he lost functionally all of 2016 to labrum surgery. I can rarely go into series blind nowadays, and it is tough for me to get genuinely surprised, but there’s excitement in the uncertainty around these four. They could be top 5 Mets prospects on our 2018 list, a couple of them could be high on our 2018 Top 101, or they could just look like 3s or 4s. One of them is a pitcher, so he could just keep being hurt. I really don’t even begin to know what to expect. Oh hey, there’s also Harol Gonzales’ super fun “Pedro-as-Role-3” one-man show. And overall, it’s a better group of arms than you’d usually see in the Sally League, even if most of the rest of them are in the “potential major-league pen arm” class. They throw hard and throw strikes, and getting out of an A-ball game in a brisk 2:35 is always appreciated. —Jeffrey Paternostro
Lake County Captains (Low-A Cleveland)
The Lake County Captains feature an outstanding pitching staff this year that is paired with some decent positional talent as well. The first thing to note about this team is the rotation, which boasts an intriguing pair of southpaws in Juan Hillman and Brady Aiken. Hillman’s résumé is fairly standard for a prospect at this level, carrying an above-average fastball and changeup to go with his projectable body and left-handedness. Aiken, on the other hand, is a much more perplexing arm, as the superficial profile looks more like a backend starter, but a return of the velocity that made him a No. 1 overall pick in 2014 would raise his stock dramatically. The rotation also runs deep, as Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale could both be major leaguers, even though each possesses notable flaws. The Lake County lineup isn’t nearly as enticing as its arms, but there are still some interesting players there. Gabriel Mejia brings 80-grade speed to center field in Eastlake and some solid bat-to-ball skills to the plate as well, Logan Ice is a quality defensive backstop who walked like crazy while doing little else at the plate last year, and Luke Wakamatsu provides smooth defense at short to go with an impressive body. However, Lake County’s calling card is on the mound, and it’s why I’ve got their visits to South Bend circled on my calendar. —Emmett Rosenbaum
Lancaster JetHawks (High-A Colorado)
Yeah, it would be easier to use this space to talk about the impending Lake Elsinore dynasty, but I already went into some depth about what figures to be an absolutely jacked rotation a few weeks ago, and we’ll be dedicating plenty of coverage to the Storm this year. So I’m going to take the opportunity instead to highlight an interesting mix of bats slated to open the year in the Antelope Valley. While Lancaster can’t quite match the elevation of its new parent club’s home in Denver, it still sits at one of the higher altitudes in minor league baseball at about 2,350 feet above the Pacific, and it makes up a good chunk of the difference with 20-plus mile-an-hour sustained winds blowing out to right.
That, of course, will make for a tasty backdrop to welcome top prospect Brendan Rodgers to High-A. Our 11th-best prospect in all the land crushed 19 homers last year as one of the youngest regulars in the Sally, and should have no trouble making a run at that tally again. He’ll team in the middle of the order with hometown hero Brian Mundell, who will return to the backyard of his Santa Clarita home fresh off a minor-league record 58 doubles at Asheville.
The Rockies made an interesting decision to create something of a logjam up the middle, as they’ve fast-tracked last year’s third-rounder Garrett Hampson to Lancaster after a dynamic debut in short-season ball after the draft. Hampson was a shortstop in college and after signing, though I liked him better as a potential keystoner, and it appears unlikely he’ll continue at the six with any regularity playing on the same team as Rodgers. Clouding the picture further, Forrest Wall returns to the Cal League after a wildly underwhelming season for Modesto last year. He struggled defensively all year and saw time in center during instructs, raising the possibility that the grass will be his new, more permanent home this year. The Cal League’s reigning stolen base champion Wes Rogers returns as well, hopefully with a more refined approach to patrolling centerfield.
Frisco Roughriders (Double-A Texas)
While the Rangers’ system is far from its glory days, some extremely solid talent remains—and a good deal of it will start 2017 with the Frisco Roughriders.
On the fielding side, top catching prospect Jose Trevino is projected to take the bulk of Frisco’s catching duties, receiving the likes of top prospects Ariel Jurado, Yohander Mendez, and Connor Sadzeck (of whom Mendez and Jurado were on our Rangers Top Ten). Trevino has some great buzz coming out of spring training this year, and if he proves he can hit double-A pitching, he’ll be the first real success for the Rangers at the position since Pudge. The trio of Mendez, Jurado, and Sadzeck are repeat visitors to the Dallas suburbs, and while it’s somewhat surprising that Mendez and Sadzeck are back, there have been times when the Rangers developmental staff have preferred to have pitchers a little closer to home than Austin. Super-utility man Isiah Kiner-Falefa returns to Frisco to see if he can hit just a little bit more, and three years after he made his debut as a 17-year-old, supreme-makeup shortstop Michael De Leon will look to continue the Rangers’ tradition of ridiculous up-the-middle talent. Though none of these names particularly project as superstars, some have the kind of talent that eventually becomes the solid foundation of a competitive team—the everyday players that can make the addition of a superstar truly great. —Kate Morrison
AZL Padres (Complex-Level San Diego)
The fact that San Diego is rostering two AZL teams is exciting in its own right. Featuring 10 players who received a bonus of a million dollars or more, the Padres put together one of the most impressive international classes in recent memory. The prized prospect was polished Cuban left-hander, Adrian Morejon, who as of today, has not received an assignment. I’m excited to possibly see Luis Almanzar, Jeisson Rosario, Gabriel Arias, Jordy Barley, and pretty much anyone else San Diego puts on the field. Not to mention, the Padres have the third overall pick in this year’s Rule 4 draft and they have serious ties to Hunter Greene (who very well might not last that long).
The thing complex-level ball offers moreso than any other level of pro ball is the great unknown. I’m excited to see which players put in the most work over the offseason and to see those results materialize on the field. There will be an Anderson Tejeda or Fernando Tatis, Jr. in Arizona again this summer, and I can’t wait to try to figure out who it is. —Matt Pullman
Carolina Mudcats (High-A Milwaukee)
The Mudcats have featured some affiliation turnover in the last few seasons, going from Cleveland to Atlanta to this year’s org, Milwaukee, without ever truly lacking for talent. That trend will continue this year, as the 2017 roster features a copious amount of talent led by the dearly departed Mauricio Rubio’s crush Isan Diaz (acquired in Jean Segura deal), Lucas Erceg (2016 second-rounder), who I’ve heard Matt Carpenter comps on, and Trent Clark (2015 first-rounder) in the field. The pitching staff’s intrigue is built into the absurd amount of depth. While there might not be a single front-line arm here, Marcos Diplan and Freddy Peralta can miss bats but might be too small to start long term, Cody Ponce (2015 second-rounder) needs to stay healthy, and Phil Bickford (2015 first-rounder) and Kodi Medeiros (2014 first-rounder) are looking to re-establish value. Toss in 2016 fourth-rounder Corbin Burnes, and, well, that’s a helluva squad for a High-A team. There’s even a power-first project in Jake Gatewood (2014 first-rounder) to dream on, if you’re desperate. While some of these guys might not last in Carolina for too long, the potential additions of Corey Ray (fifth-overall pick in 2016) and Nathan Kirby (2015 first-rounder) could more than make up for any losses.They’ve already rolled through Frederick once, but there’s no way I’m missing their return engagement at the end of the month. —Craig Goldstein
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