Jerry Blevins, LHP, Triple-A Sacramento (Athletics)

Blevins began the year as a little-known reliever who began the year with the Cubs‘ High-A Florida State League affiliate, but he’s finishing it in the majors. He was arguably the best reliever in the postseason at any minor league level, finishing up with 20 strikeouts in nine shutout innings, while giving up only four hits. A 17th-round pick in 2004 out of the University of Dayton, Blevins was converted to a sidearm delivery by the Cubs last year, but ‘unconverted’ this year and absolutely took off. Including his postseason run, he recorded 122 strikeouts against just 20 walks in 86 1/3 innings across four levels, and he pitched a perfect inning in his big league debut over the weekend. This is quite likely not a temporary assignment, and Blevins will play an integral role in the Athletics bullpen next year.

Brett Cecil, LHP, Short-Season Auburn (Blue Jays)

The 38th overall pick in the draft this year, and the ninth left-hander taken, Cecil was primarily a closer at the University of Maryland, and while many thought he could move up quickly as a reliever, the Blue Jays are going to develop him as a starter. The results so far are impressive–in 14 New York-Penn League games, Cecil has a 1.27 ERA, striking out 56 in 49 2/3 IP while giving up 36 hits and 11 walks, and in the postseason he was even better, pitching a career-high seven innings in Auburn’s 4-1 win over Brooklyn to clinch the league championship. With a low-90s fastball, very good slider, and decent changeup, Cecil has the repertoire of a starter, and at the rate he’s going, he might move up pretty quickly in this role as well.

Travis Denker, 2B, High-A San Jose (Giants)

The California League is the only minor league still with games to play, as Denker’s Giants play Lake Elsinore tonight in a decisive fifth game. The bad news is that San Jose will likely be without the services of Denker, who injured his shoulder in a collision at home plate on Friday night. It’s a tough break for San Jose, who got this far in no small part on the strength of Denker’s bat, as the infielder was 11-for-21 with three doubles and three home runs in six games. Denker came over to the Giants system just a few weeks ago in the Mark Sweeney trade; he’s basically a guy who can hit, as evidenced by his .300/.379/.461 line in the Cal League this year, mostly with the Dodgers‘ affiliate, Inland Empire. Scouts aren’t especially high on him–he’s small, unathletic, and not an especially good defender–but like
most players with that profile, he’ll get a chance to push many criticisms aside
next year if he proves that he can hit Double-A pitching.

Alcides Escobar and Hernan Iribarren, SS and 2B, Double-A Huntsville (Brewers)

While Huntsville lost the Southern League Championship series to Montgomery (Devil Rays) in five games, they did get impressive performances from their young, Venezuelan middle infield combo of Iribarren and Escobar. Iribarren, the second baseman, went 14-for-39, while Escobar had one more hit in the same number of at-bats. They’re a difficult pair to evaluate–Iribarren already has a couple of knocks against him because he’s two-and-a-half years older and plays on the right side of the infield, but at the same time, he’s proven much more offensively, batting .307/.363/.430 this year for Huntsville, including a .383/.404/.590 line in his last 45 games. Escobar’s offense was much improved this year, and he’s a plus defender, but at the same time there is the notion that he’ll need to consistently hit .300 on an annual basis, and power and walks aren’t really components of his offensive game. With Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy firmly entrenched at the big league level, figuring out what to do with this talented yet hardly perfect pair might be someone else’s issue in the long run.

Wade LeBlanc, LHP, Double-A San Antonio (Padres)

A second-round pick last year, LeBlanc had an outstanding full-season debut, splitting the season between High- and Double-A while compiling a 2.95 ERA in 149 1/3 innings while limiting opposing batters to a .217 batting average. The Missions won the Texas League title by going 6-1 in the playoffs, and Leblanc once again played a pivotal role, winning the clincher in the opening round, and giving San Antonio a critical game three win on Friday with another big start. The big lefty finished the postseason with one run allowed on five hits over 12 innings, while walking four and striking out 16. LeBlanc is not a guy with a truckload of upside–his fastball sits in the 85-89 mph range, and his curveball is a solidly average pitch. What separates him from the pack is his changeup, which features plenty of deception and movement, but the southpaw also shows an uncanny knack to change speeds with the pitch, giving him what one scout called “a changeup off his changeup.” In a system that already is much improved from where it was going into the season thanks to some breakout performances and a strong 2007 draft, LeBlanc just adds to the talent mix, and profiles as a solid third or fourth starter.

Sergio Pedroza, DH, Double-A Montgomery (Devil Rays)

Acquired from the Dodgers last year along with Jose Guzman in the Julio Lugo deal, Pedroza had put up some impressive
numbers offensively, but his bat slowed down this year as the Devil Rays tried to convert him to catcher. He was pretty awful back there, and the experiment was shut down in June. Along with a move back to the outfield, his power came alive, as he finished with a .286/.368/.539 line at High-A Vero Beach, much of it on the strength of a .307/.376/.638 line in the second half of the season that included 17 home runs in 218 at-bats. Sent to Double-A for the playoffs, he was the Biscuits’ most dangerous hitter in the postseason, going 8-for-20 with a pair of home runs, including the game-winner on Sunday night to clinch the title. Pedroza is now a slugger without a position, a player who should put up good home runs and walk totals at any level, but his lack of defensive skills and a high strikeout total work against him. In the end, he’s highly similar to current Devil Ray Jonny Gomes.

Sergio Romo, RHP, High-A San Jose (Giants)

Sergio Romo’s numbers are eye-popping–in 41 relief appearances in the California League this year, Romo struck out 106 in just 66 1/3 innings, allowing only 35 hits and 15 walks. That success has continued in the postseason, as Romo has pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings while retiring 13 of the 15 batters he’s faces, seven of them by strikeout. With all this dominance, it’s still hard to get too worked up about Romo as a prospect. Before you even look at his stuff, his size (5’11”, 185) and age (he’ll turn 25 during spring training next year) are already working against him. Romo’s fastball sits in upper 80s and his curveball is average. So how does he put up such insane numbers? Command and control; Romo can place both of his pitches anywhere he wants them, and his low three-quarters arm slot adds a little deception as well. It’s the kind of combination that stops working at the upper levels, when the margins for error reduce exponentially.

Justin Ruggiano, OF, Triple-A Durham (Devil Rays)

Also acquired from the Dodgers, this time as a throw-in as part of last year’s five-player deal that netted the Dodgers Toby Hall and Mark Hendrickson, Ruggiano was a 25th-round pick in 2004 who had consistently exceeded expectations. He entered the year with a career batting line of .306/.403/.510. This year at Triple-A, he added some extra power to his game, batting .309/.386/.502 with a career-high 20 home runs for the Bulls, though it did come at some cost, as he tallied a career-high 151 strikeouts. While Durham fell short of winning the International League title this year, don’t blame Ruggiano, who went 11-for-30 with four more home runs in eight games, but again with more than a few strikeouts–13 of them. Nonetheless, as a mostly-ignored PTBNL entering the year, Ruggiano is now some kind of prospect, though it’s impossible to figure out where he fits into Tampa’s plans, if at all.

Jeremy Sowers, LHP, Double-A Akron (Indians)

Indians fans have little to complain about, as their team is headed for the playoffs, but one surprising aspect to the season is the fact the Jeremy Sowers is pitching in the playoffs–the Eastern League playoffs. On Friday night, Sowers fired six shutout innings as part of Akron’s only win in the championship series that was eventually won by the Yankees‘ Trenton affiliate. In a season that was in many ways a nightmare for Sowers, at least he got to end it on a positive note. Opening the year in the big league rotation, Sowers quickly pitched his way back to the minors with a 6.93 ERA in 12 starts while striking out a pathetically low 19 in 62 1/3 innings. While his 4.10 ERA at Triple-A wasn’t much better in terms of what it means for his future, he still showed some improvement down the stretch. At the major league level, Sowers lost his
confidence and began to fear contact, a severe no-no for a pitcher whose game
lacks a true swing-and-miss offering. The Indians think Sowers is back on
track and will compete for a rotation slot in 2008, but it’s going to come down to his being able to trust his stuff enough at the big league level and play to his strengths.

Jordan Walden, RHP, Rookie-level Orem (Angels)

Walden entered the 2006 season as the best pitcher in the draft after throwing in the upper 90s prior to his senior season at Mansfield High School in Texas, but he got a case of draft-itis during his senior year, losing velocity and command, and dropping all the way down to the 12th round due to perceived signability issues. After a year of throwing in Junior College where he impressed at the tail end of the season, the Angels gave him a cool million to prevent him from re-entering the draft. So far, that looks like a bargain. In his final start of the year on Friday night, Walden struck out 10 over eight innings while giving up an unearned run on four hits in a 16-inning marathon eventually won by Orem. It only builds on the end of the regular season for Walden, who had a 1.36 ERA in his last six starts with a 35/2 K/BB ratio. Beyond the numbers, the most exciting aspect of Walden is what seems to be a return of his stuff. Walden touched 99 mph with the Owlz after signing, while sitting in the 92-95 mph range, and his curveball and command have both come leaps and bounds since his disappointing high school campaign last year. He’s instantly one of the top prospects in the Angels system, and possibly one of the more intriguing righties around.