Over the past decade, Triple-A baseball has continued its transformation from a place for prospects to put the final touches on their game into more of a holding cell for veteran insurance policies that give teams a safe (if not completely dependable) fill-in for when the injury bug strikes. That doesn’t mean there aren’t prospects at the highest minor league level this year, however, with an impressive group of hitters ready to enjoy the offense-friendly Pacific Coast League, and a tremendous number of excellent starting pitchers ready to ply their trade in the International League. These International League arms should be able to put up some impressive numbers, as the league is almost completely barren when it comes to quality bats.
Predicting standings and/or win-loss records is a silly exercise, as rosters change on a nearly constant basis. Besides, winning not only isn’t everything in the minors, it’s really very little–just like every other level, it’s all about player development. So our best bet is to focus on the players, or in this case groups of players, but keep in mind that even into the first week of the season, rosters are highly flammable.
Pacific Coast League
Best Rotation: Many teams have that one big prospect in the rotation, whether it’s Tim Lincecum (Giants) with Fresno, Yovani Gallardo (Brewers) with Nashville, or Phillip Humber (Mets) with New Orleans. But while they may lack that one top-level guy, the award for PCL’s best goes to Round Rock (Astros), for a one-to-five run where everyone taking the bump has big-league potential. Matt Albers, Chance Douglass, Juan Gutierrez, Fernando Nieve, and Chad Reineke give the Express a shot at a winnable ballgame every night. Bonus points to Omaha (Royals), becuse while it’s not exactly star-laden as rotations go, the unit of Brian Bannister, Dewon Brazelton, Zach Day, Ben Hendrickson, and Tyler Lumsden at least provide a group that most serious baseball fans have heard of.
Best Bullpen: Things surprisingly get a little more interesting here, as opposed to the usual collections of 30-something fringy arms you might normally expect. Once again, Round Rock rules the day, with power-armed former starter Felipe Paulino setting up Paul Estrada, who finished 2nd in the Texas League in strikouts last year (134) while pitching only in relief. Basically, it’s going to be hard to put runs across the board in any inning against this squad. Sacramento (Athletics) also goes deep with Santiago Casilla, Marcus McBeth, Connor Robertson, and David Shafer all being some kind of prospect, although only McBeth might have closer potential.
Best Outfield: Many teams have two quality outfield prospects, but a full threesome is much harder to find. Tacoma (Mariners) comes awfully close with top prospect Adam Jones and raw-power king Wladimir Balentien being joined by big-league disappointment Jeremy Reed. Omaha has four outfielders of note in Billy Butler (who doesn’t turn 21 until mid-April), Shane Costa, Joey Gathright, and Mitch Maier, so it’s hard to figure out where the playing time is going to come from. After that, the league has one-prospect outfields a-plenty, including Felix Pie (Iowa) of the Cubs, Hunter Pence (Round Rock) of the Astros, and Carlos Gomez (New Orleans) of the Mets, who will be at least joined by the at-times interesting Ben Johnson. Lefty-prospect-deluxe-turned-power-hitter Rick Ankiel in center field gives you a reason to check the Memphis box scores.
Best Corner Infielders: If you are looking for two top prospects, the Dodgers‘ combination of James Loney and Andy LaRoche in Las Vegas wins in a landslide, but that’s hardly the only interesting combination. Salt Lake (Angels) boasts Kendry Morales at first and Brandon Wood moving over to his new position at the hot corner, while Colorado Springs (Rockies) boasts Joe Koshansky at first and Ian Stewart (in a pivotal season for his prospectdom) at third base. Nashville is worth keeping an eye on, if only for third baseman Ryan Braun, although former prospect Brad Nelson provides some interest at first.
Best Middle Infield: This is where things get difficult, as organizations stock their top-level squads with versatile veterans who can fill in at multiple positions. With Joaquin Arias (once he is healthy) at short and Drew Meyer at second, Oklahoma City (Rangers) can at least brag that they’ve got one average prospect and a failed first-rounder up the middle. After that, you’re stuck with stuff like Ruben Gotay and Anderson Hernandez of New Orleans, or Colorado Springs’ four-headed monster of Erick Almonte, Clint Barmes, Jayson Nix, and Omar Quintanilla.
Best Catching: There’s no such thing as a good catching duo in the minors, as you can’t go with two prospects that both need consistent playing time. Tacoma comes pretty close with Jeff Clement and Rob Johnson, and Salt Lake is one of the few teams to even offer one prospect behind the plate with the return of Jeff Mathis. Those who miss the Senior League can head on down to the Big Easy to relish witnessing the Zephyrs’ duo of 37-year-old Mike DiFelice and Sandy Alomar, now 40.
Really? He’s Still Playing?
Best Rotation: This is where things get exciting. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees) has the best pitching prospect in the game in Philip Hughes, but the quality in that rotation doesn’t end there, since they have Tyler Clippard, Ross Ohlendorf, Steven Jackson, and a resurgent Matt DeSalvo behind him. It’s the top one-to-five rotation in the circuit, although Durham (Devil Rays) makes a run at it depth-wise with a solid group made up of Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell, Jeff Niemann, Andrew Sonnastine, and Mitch Talbot. Rochester (Twins) has the most premium prospects with Matt Garza, Glen Perkins, and Kevin Slowey, while Indianapolis can give masochistic Pirates fans a treat with Brian Bullington, Sean Burnett, and John Van Benschoten, who at least will be able to impress the ladies by showing off all of the scars on their shoulders and elbows when they’re not actually pitching. Louisville (Reds) has the second-best pitching prospect in the game in Homer Bailey, but that’s it, while Buffalo (Indians) is in much the same boat with Adam Miller and very little besides..
Best Bullpen: Not nearly as many quality relievers as we saw in the PCL. The deepest group is in Buffalo, where Juan Lara, Edward Mujica, Rafael Perez, and Tony Sipp could all play a role in the big leagues at some point in the season. Durham (with Seth McClung and Chad Orvella) and Boston-affiliated Pawtucket (with Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen) have former big leaguers looking to re-right some wrongs and get their careers back in order.
Best Outfield: Very little to choose from here. Buffalo has Brad Snyder and Shin-Soo Choo, with Ben Francisco and Jason Cooper providing depth, so that’s probably the most talented group. With Brandon Moss and David Murphy, Pawtucket is arguably the only other team with at least two prospects in the outfield, although their third starter has to be selected from Kerry Robinson and Alex Ochoa; at least Ochoa might still have the best outfield arm in the minor leagues. Syracuse (Blue Jays) with Adam Lind, and Charlotte (White Sox) with Ryan Sweeney provide at least one name to follow. Columbus (Nationals) will pick from George Lombard, Darnell McDonald, Abraham Nunez, and Michael Restovich. I swear I didn’t just make that up.
Best Corner Infielders: Another weak crop, with Durham winning by default with Wes Bankston at first and Joel Guzman trying to master playing third base, which could be a bit of an adventure. After that, there are a few half-good combos, notably first baseman Joey Votto in Louisville and third baseman Josh Fields in Charlotte.
Best Middle Infield: None of the above? It’s a sad group, with the best combo for the first few days of the season playing in Indy, with Brian Bixler and a rehabbing Freddy Sanchez. After that is a group of good-not-great prospects in search of a decent double-play partner, including Rochester’s Alexi Casilla, Richmond’s Yunel Escobar, and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre’s Alberto Gonzalez.
Best Catching: Next time somebody tells you there isn’t a catching shortage in the minor leagues–and I’m sure this is a conversation you have with your friends on a daily basis–check out some International League rosters. When the best catcher in the circuit–Pawtucket’s George Kottaras–can’t even catch well, there is trouble afoot. Durham’s Shawn Riggans and Jason Jaramillo of Ottawa (Phillies) are at least decent.
Really? He’s Still Playing?