Daric Barton, 1B, Triple-A Sacramento (Athletics)

2006 was a bit of a lost season for Barton. Sent to Triple-A at 20, Barton got off to a slow start, and just when he started to heat up, he broke a bone in his elbow is a freakish collision on a pickoff play. Back at Sacramento and still young for the league, Barton hit just .221/.306/.314 in April, but he’s been dialed in like no other hitter in the minors of late. After going 9-for-13 over the weekend, Barton is riding a 19-game hitting streak that includes nine straight multi-hit efforts in which he’s gone 25-for-37. In one month, Barton has gone from .226/.344/.366 to .330/.424/.490, and while a brief experiment at third base was a complete disaster, the Athletics will likely be figuring out one way or another to get Barton’s bat into the everyday lineup for 2008.

Manny Burriss, SS, Low A Augusta (Giants)

A first-round pick last June out of Kent State, Burriss showed enough in his pro debut to get an aggressive Opening Day assignment in the High A California League. After he slipped into a 2-for-40 slump that dipped his season averages to .165/.237/.180 in 36 games, the club decided to slow things down a bit and drop him down to the Sally League, and things have gotten back on track. With a 9-for-14 weekend, Burris is hitting .350/.386/.407 in 29 games for the GreenJackets, though there are still issues. Burriss’ primary skills are good defense, very good speed and a knack for contact, but he has no power (126 of his 144 career hits as a pro are singles), and his increased batting average has come with a more aggressive approach and thus fewer walks. An excellent rebound from a tough start to be sure, but hardly a perfect one.

Matt Bush, RHP, Rookie AZL Padres

The Arizona League opened up on Friday, and while there are usually a number of first-round picks to talk about there by the time the season ends, one doesn’t expect to be normally talking about those from three years ago in the complex leagues. After 200-plus games as a shortstop, in which his career on-base percentage and slugging where both under .300, the Padres decided to convert the 2004 number-one overall pick to the mound–understandable because of both his performance at the plate, and the fact that he had early-round talent as a pitcher coming out of high school. Bush made his mound debut on Friday, pitching a perfect inning, and striking out two while sitting in the mid-90s with his fastball. He’s still eons away from being a big-league pitcher, but we’re finally in a position to say something positive about his performance. We won’t pass up that opportunity.

Jeff Clement, C/DH, Triple-A Tucson (Mariners)

Last year, Clement had a messy full-season debut that featured little performance wrapped around minor elbow and knee surgeries, and a far-too-aggressive timetable that had him in Triple-A after just 45 pro games. Like Barton, Clement returned to Triple-A this year, and like Barton, he had a miserable April, batting .212/.316/.365. Since then, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft is finally finding some success. After a 5-for-12 weekend that included three doubles and his 13th home run of the year, Clement is batting .368/.438/.737 in 20 June games, and .279/.366/.522 overall. He has gargantuan platoon splits (.368/.456/.765 vs. lefties as opposed to .246/.332/.432 vs. righties), and he’s still a below-average catcher, so once again, we compare him to Barton in the sense that the Mariners are likely going to find one way or another to get him into the lineup. Even if it’s just as a designated hitter, he’d be a massive upgrade from Jose Vidro for a team that is just three games out of a playoff spot right now.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Low A Columbus (Devil Rays)

Picked as the Devil Rays sleeper going into the season, Jennings is no longer an obscure guy with potential–he’s a very real prospect. Just 20 years old, Jennings is a scout’s dream, with a long frame, above-average strength, and top-of-the-line speed. Expected to be a bit of a project, Jennings’ transition from athlete to baseball player has come at surprisingly breakneck speed, and his ceiling rates with many other elite players in the system. With an 8-for-16 weekend, Jennings is batting .355/.414/.613 in June and .304/.386/.452 overall. He won’t be a sleeper next year; he’ll be a legitimate Top 10 prospect in one of baseball’s best minor league systems.

Chris Mason, RHP, Double-A Montgomery (Devil Rays)

Hey everyone! Look! It’s yet another pitching prospect in the D-Rays organization. A second-round pick in 2005, Mason had a 5+ ERA in the California League last year, but he’s come out as one of the best pitchers in the Southern League this season. He currently ranks second in ERA (2.59) and strikeouts (82), while leading the league with 10 wins. Yesterday, Mason had his best pro start, pitching his first career shutout with a three-hitter than included one walk and six whiffs. Mason doesn’t have the ceiling of better-known pitching prospects in the system like Wade Davis, Jacob McGee and Jeff Niemann–he’s a bit of an undersized righty with average velocity but excellent sink and command on his fastball, and a solid slider and changeup that both come up a grade because of his ability to locate them. His ceiling is that of a number-three or -four starter, but the Devil Rays are going to need some of those, too.

Edwar Ramirez, RHP, Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Yankees)

The Yankees signed Ramirez out of the independent leagues last year, and he’s been nothing but a strikeout machine since. The 26-year-old Dominican lasted just six weeks in the Eastern League, striking out 33 in 16.2 innings before moving up to Triple-A, where with five more strikeouts in just two innings on Sunday, he now has 41 more whiffs in 23.2 frames. That’s a total of 74 punch outs in 40.1 innings with just 19 hits allowed across two levels. His game is not the pure power dominance one would assume from numbers like that. Tall, exceedingly skinny and full of deception, Ramirez has no more than average velocity, but his changeup, which features outstanding arm action, fade and heavy sinking action, is among the best in the minors. Given that the major-league bullpen that’s been problematic at times, Ramirez deserves a shot.

Max Scherzer, RHP, Double-A Mobile (Diamondbacks)

Scherzer’s first three professional starts were nothing short of terrifying, as he struck out 30 California League hitters in just 17 innings while allowing a grand total of eight baserunners. It earned the recent signee a quick promotion to Double-A, where Scherzer learned the important lesson that baseball is very, very hard. Thanks to some leaky defense, Scherzer gave up five runs in five innings, striking out four and getting pegged for his first pro loss. It matched scouts’ projections for him, as those who evaluated the former Missouri star during his brief indy league stint this spring saw a plus-plus fastball that could dominate younger hitters, but no other pitch that excited, as his slider was flat and his changeup non-existent. That three-start run to begin his pro career was remarkable by any measure, but now Scherzer needs to work on becoming less of a thrower and more of a pitcher.

Angel Villalona, 3B, Rookie AZL Giants

It’s the question that comes up during every chat, and the one that landed in my inbox at least once a week. “Any updates on Angel Villalona?” Now, the answer is finally yes. The 16-year-old Dominican, generally considered the top talent in Latin America last year, played his first two pro games over the weekend, and the results were mixed. At the plate, he was most impressive, going 4-for-10 with a pair of doubles, four runs scored, three RBIs and nary a strikeout. In the field, not so much, as he made three errors in just five total chances, meaning his batting average is the same as his fielding percentage. He’s already six-foot-three and well over 200 pounds, and once he’s done growing he’ll likely be limited to first base in the end anyway, so don’t worry about it, the bat is very, very special.

Brandon Wood, 3B, Triple-A Salt-Lake (Angels)

After a historically great 2005 season that included 101 extra-base hits, Wood has regressed a bit to a player with tons of power, but only a decent batting average and a disturbingly high strikeout rate. He’s made slow-and-steady improvement this year, and is now officially hot again, including a 7-for-12 weekend and four home runs in his last seven contests. Batting .321/.396/.667 in June, and .262/.352/.488 overall, Wood currently has no obvious openings in the big leagues, but one will be made for him next year.

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