Best Rotation: The new Dodgers affiliate at Great Lakes (which sounds much more romantic than Midland, Michigan) has the best pitching prospect in the league in Clayton Kershaw, with mid-range prospects Steven Johnson and Josh Wall lining up behind him. Dayton (Reds) has the deepest rotation prospect-wise with consistently-disappointing-yet-talented Rafael Gonzalez, hard-throwing Jordan Smith, sleeper Darryl Thompson, and 2006 second-round pick Sean Watson. Wisconsin (Mariners) goes three deep, with Chris Tillman and Josh Butler making their full-season debuts alongside Anthony Vavaro, who was drafted in 2005 with the knowledge that he’d need Tommy John surgery. Interesting one-offs include Brett Fisher at Burlington (Royals) and Mark Pawalek in Peoria (Cubs).
Best Bullpen: Relievers in Low-A ball tend to be marginal arms, and there’s little to discuss here. Great Lakes features lefty Miguel Sanfler, who is undersized but throws hard. Interesting almost-prospects include Peoria lefty Jeremy Papelbon, Jonathan’s brother who has far lesser stuff and lives off a splitter, and converted outfielder Warner Madrigal at Cedar Rapids (Angels), who is raw as sushi but can get it up to the upper 90s. Those with masochistic tendencies can enjoy following Jason Neighborgall at South Bend, who has already walked five of the seven batters he’s faced this year, upping his career total to 96 walks in 36 innings.
Best Outfield: The single best outfielder in the league is Travis Snider at Lansing (Blue Jays), who will play with Brain Pettway and Yuber Rodriguez. The latter pair couldn’t be more different as prospects: Pettway is a classic Toronto prospect, a non-athletic college guy who can hit a little, while Rodriguez is all about tools with nothing to show for it statistically. A far more interesting toolsy player is Gorkys Hernandez at West Michigan (Tigers), who has a polished college bat of his own to team up with: Brennan Boesch. There are more impressive athletes in Dayton’s Drew Stubbs and South Bend’s Gerardo Parra, while Fort Wayne (Padres) delivers 2006 first-rounder Kyler Burke and Cedric Hunter, who will try to prove that his stunning 2006 debut was for real.
Best Corner Infielders: Weak, weak, weak. The only combo of note is Brandon’s young brother P.J. Phillips at third base for Cedar Rapids, where he’s joined by Mark Trumbo at first base, who has yet to live up to anything close to his $1.425 million bonus. Other interesting third basemen include power-hitting Josh Bell at Great Lakes and Wisconsin’s Alex Liddi, who’s also noteable for being signed out of Italy.
Best Middle Infield: As per usual for the level, there are lots of shortstops, but nearly no second basemen. West Michigan actually does have a second-base prospect in Scott Sizemore, and a decent-at-best shortstop in Audy Criaco, while Clinton (Rangers) also at least has a combo with a good prospect in shortstop Marcus Lemon at short and fringy second baseman Jose Vallejo. Other shortstops worth watching include Great Lakes’ Preston Mattingly (who’s not really a shortstop in the end), Dayton’s Chris Valaika (ditto), and the youngest player in the league, Wisconsin’s Carlos Triunfel, who received a $1.3 million bonus last summer.
Best Catching: Fourteen teams in the league, and just one big-name catcher. Luckily that catcher is 2006 first-round pick Hank Conger at Cedar Rapids, who homered in his first game of the year.
Carlos Triunfel, SS, Wisconsin, DOB: 2/27/90
Alex Liddi, 3B, Wisconsin, DOB: 8/14/88
Marcus Lemon, SS, Clinton, DOB: 6/3/88
Chris Tillman, RHP, Wisconsin, DOB: 4/15/88
Matt Sweeney, 3B, Cedar Rapids, DOB: 4/4/88
South Atlantic League
Best Rotation: Rome (Braves) is the only rotation in the circuit that can go four prospects deep. High 2005 draftees Beau Jones and Jeff Lyman return to head a group that includes two high-profile draft-and-follows in Tommy Hanson and Jaime Richmond. Columbus (Devil Rays) enters the season with Wade Townsend coming back from Tommy John surgery, who joins 2006 draftee Josh Butler in the rotation. They’ll add Jeremy Hellickson, who led the New York-Penn League in strikeouts last year, once he recovers from shoulder issues. Lakewood has a pair of fine prospects in 2006 first-round pick Kyle Drabek and Dominican teenager Edgar Garcia. Delmarva (Orioles) has one noteworthy stud in righty Pedro Beato, while Greenville (Red Sox) has the best pitcher in the league with lefty Jon Lester, but only temporarily, as the assignment is officially considered of the rehabilitative variety.
Best Bullpen: In righthander Luis Lebron, Delmarva has one of the hardest throwers in the circuit, but he lacks both control and a second pitch. Lake County (Indians) has a similar one in Cody Bunkelman, while Augusta (Giants) has a solid lefty reliever in Clayton Tanner.
Best Outfield: A deep class, but not exactly loaded with stars. With first-round pick Chris Marrero in left, Hagerstown (Nationals) has the only Top 100 prospect, and he’s joined by oft-injured yet toolsy Justin Maxwell. Rome has Jordan Schafer, an outstanding defender who has the tools to hit but has yet to, as well as Jon-Mark Owings (Micah’s younger brother), who has plus power. Unproven center fielders with tons of tools, tons of upside, and zero track record include Columbus’ Desmond Jennings, Augusta’s Mike McBryde, and Greenville’s Jason Place. Nick Welgarz provides Lake County with an interesting sleeper; the Canadian national has plus-plus power but very little else.
Best Corner Infielders: Unlike the Midwest League, there are some first basemen here, and at times, too many. Both Delmarva and Kannapolis (White Sox) are going with first base/designated hitter rotations, with the Orioles placing Chris Vinyard and recovering 2005 first-rounder Brandon Snyder there, while the White Sox go with a combination of Chris Carter and Brandon Allen, both of whom are big, slow, and as strong as oxes. Greenville’s Lars Anderson is the subject of much debate among experts, and his pro debut will be watched closely. One of the few third baseman of note is C.J. Henry of Lakewood. The former shortstop and Yankees first-round pick is trying to prove he was worth the first-round selection in 2005, but the onus is now on the Phillies, as he was the key player in the Bobby Abreu trade.
Best Middle Infield: Actually good combos here, led by second baseman Adrian Cardenas and shortstop Jason Donald, a pair of high 2006 draftees, at Lakewood. Also of note are Marcus Sanders (moving down after a disastrous 2006) and Sharlon Schoop of Augusta, Wilmer Pino and Eduardo Nunez of Charleston (Yankees), and the West Virginia (Brewers) duo of Kenny Holmberg and the aptly named Brent Brewer. Shortstop Juan Lagares of Savannah (Mets) is off to a tough start, but was one of the talks of the Mets’ minor league camp and has the ability to rocket up the charts.
Best Catching: Max Sapp of Lexington (Astros) was the first high school catcher taken in last year’s draft, while Matt McBride of Lake County was one of the first college backstops taken. Add to any list of highly anticipated season debuts that of Savannah’s Francisco Pena. The son of former big-leaguer Tony Pena, Francisco is the youngest player in the league, and his defensive skills are comparable to those of his four-time Gold Glove-winning dad.
Francisco Pena, C, Savannah, DOB: 10/12/89
Juan Lagares, SS, Savannah, DOB: 3/17/89
Jeanmar Gomez, RHP, Lake County, DOB: 10/2/88
Chris Marrero, OF, Hagerstown, DOB: 7/2/88
Greg Veloz, 2B, Savannah, DOB: 6/3/88