Matt Antonelli, 2B, High-A Lake Elsinore (Padres)

Maybe it’s a rush to judgment, and maybe it’s the California League, but either way, Antonelli is hot. When the Padres took him with the 17th overall pick last June, it looked like bit of a reach for a player whose best skills were working the count and running well. After going homerless in a 205 at-bat pro debut, Antonelli already has three this year in 83 at-bats, going 8-for-18 with eight walks and 11 runs scored in his last five games to lift his season averages to .289/.404/.458. He’s also stolen six bases, and his move to second base had been an unquestioned success so far. One of the worst systems in baseball could use some good news, and here it is.

James Boone, OF, Low-A Hickory (Pirates)

When the Pirates selected Boone out off Missouri in the third round of the 2005 draft, he was seen as a raw, toolsy athlete who would need consistent playing time in order to blossom. Unfortunately, playing time hasn’t been available to him, as a broken foot and a bum shoulder limited him to less than 30 games last year, in which he hit a whopping .192/.302/.222. Boone’s 24 years old, and still in Low-A, but the bat is finally coming alive. The switch-hitter slugged a pair of home runs on Friday, added another on Saturday, and then belted out two more hits on Sunday, raising his season averages to .350/.429/.575 for the Crawdads. Over the course of a month, he’s gone from being all but written off to an interesting sleeper.

Jon Lester, LHP, Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox)

It’s really one of the better stories of the year. Considered the top prospect in the system a year ago, Lester is bouncing back from cancer this year, and after three solid outings at Low-A Greenville, Lester faced his first big test on Friday night, moving up to Triple-A and facing a very good Buffalo (Indians) lineup. Consider this latest test passed with flying colors, as Lester fired five shutout innings, allowing three hits while striking out six. When Lester was diagnosed with lymphoma eight months ago, baseball took a back seat to getting well, and no expectation were put on his potential 2007 contributions. One month into the season, he’s close to taking back his starting job in the major leagues.

Tim Lincecum, RHP, Triple-A Fresno (Giants)

It’s almost becoming boring. Last night, Lincecum made his fifth start of the year for Fresno, and it was his best yet, as he struck out 14 over six shutout innings while allowing three hits and not walking anyone. Let’s review where we are at this point–in 31 innings, Lincecum has allowed 12 hits, walked 11, and struck out 46. Lefthanders are 6-for-53 (.113) against him with 26 whiffs. With runners on base, batters facing him are 1-for-35 with 21 punchouts. With no obvious opening in the Giants’ rotation, he might get promoted to a big league bullpen role soon, just to avoid wasting more time.

Andrew Miller, LHP, High-A Lakeland (Tigers)

There’s a little bit of a concern with last year’s first-round pick. After reaching the big leagues last year just months after being drafted, Miller was put on the Justin Verlander plan–begin the year in the Florida State League, dominate, and move up to Double-A once the weather warms up, all in anticipation of another big league call-up. Only one problem–Miller isn’t dominating. Friday against Clearwater, the former North Carolina star couldn’t get out of the fifth inning, giving up ten hits and eight runs to run up his ERA to 4.76. In 28.1 innings, Miller has given up 32 hits and struck out only 18. Tigers fans were hoping that he would quickly be the next name in what is already a very young, very good rotation, but that timetable needs to be moved back a little.

Steven Pearce, 1B, High-A Lynchburg (Pirates)

Like Boone, Pearce is a 24-year-old Pirate in A-ball. As a four-year college player, Pearce entered the pro game a little behind the age curve, but he put himself on the prospect map with 26 home runs last year in his full-season debut. This year, he’s putting on his own version of the April A-Rod show. Pearce connected for his ninth home run of the year on Saturday, and then the minor league leader in home runs smacked numbers ten and eleven on Sunday, giving him nine home runs in just his last eight games, while also going 16-for-33 over that period to bring his season averages to .347/.412/.867. He’ll likely move to Double-A soon, at which point we’ll get a much better sense of how real this is.

Travis Snider, OF, Low-A Lansing (Blue Jays)

Last year, Snider and Balimore’s Billy Rowell were the two candidates for top high school hitter in the draft, and the debate raged on after both raked in their pro debuts. This year, Snider is pulling away a bit: while Rowell has yet to play this year while recovering from an oblique strain,
Snider has hit the ground running in his full-season debut. By going 8-for-12
over the weekend, the former Washington prep star is up to .392/.407/.649,
leading the league in extra-base hits and slugging while showing surprising
athleticism, reflected by his four triples and three stolen bases. It’s hard to
figure out what the Blue Jays will do with him in the short term, as we have no
patterns to look at when it comes to the organization developing teenage talent, but all indicators are moving in the right direction.

Daryl Thompson, RHP, Low-A Dayton (Reds)

When the Reds and Nationals pulled off their eight-player swap last summer, Thompson earned little mention. He was an interesting arm who the Nats saw as a sleeper in the system before the deal, and now he’s waking up in the Cincy organization. Saturday night, the 21-year-old fired six one-hit shutout innings, his third straight start of six shutout frames, which lowered his ERA to a miniscule 0.39 while allowing just 11 hits in 23 innings with a crazy 19/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Thompson’s fastball is slightly above-average, and the heater as well as his curveball and changeup are all brought up a grade thanks to his outstanding control. He’s still far from the big leagues, but he’s also one of the last hopes for that trade working out in any way for the Reds.

Justin Upton, OF, High-A Visalia (Diamondbacks)

Two weeks ago I lamented Upton’s slow start. He was hitting just .152/.310/.242 at the time, but I received an email from a West Coast scout than contained just one sentence. “Upton is about to break out.” Truer words were never typed–last Wednesday, Upton hit his first home run of the year, and on Thursday, he went deep again. Friday? Home run. Saturday? Another. Yesterday? One more. Since that fateful Ten Pack, Upton is on a 12-game hitting streak in which he’s gone 25-for-49. Now hitting .366/.443/.622, Upton is finally showing why he was the first overall pick in 2005, and is on his way to re-establishing himself as one of the top prospects in the game.

Chris Valaika, SS, Low-A Dayton (Reds)

A third-round pick out of UC Santa Barbara last June, Valaika had one of the best pro debuts of any draftee for any team, batting .324/.387/.520 for Billings while earning Pioneer League MVP honors and setting a league record with a 32-game hitting streak. However, the Pioneer League is a great place to hit, and skeptics wondered just how real this was. Making his full-season debut in the Midwest League, anything but a great place to hit, last year’s performance is looking very real now. Valaika went 6-for-11 over the weekend, and his .411 average leads the league. He’s probably not going to be a shortstop in the end, but even a second baseman with these kind of hitting skills is a pretty nice asset.

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