Wladimir Balentien, OF, Mariners: Going into the season, the Mariners have an outfield anchored by Ichiro Suzuki in center, with Raul Ibanez and Brad Wilkerson manning the corners. That said, Balentien is trying to prevent a return trip to Triple-A Tacoma, and helped make his case on Friday with a pair of home runs, including a game-tying shot in the ninth inning, and a mammoth home run in the sixth that might be among the hardest-hit balls we’ve seen this spring. The Mariners are weighing their options with Balentien, and with Wilkerson’s injury and a designated hitter job that is always a bit dicey when Jose Vidro is penciled in, they could not give him an every day job and still get him 300 or so at-bats.
David Cooper, 1B, University of California: Teams are always on the lookout for that polished college hitter in the draft, that guy who might lack the upside and athleticism to be a huge star, but nonetheless could help a big-league team quickly. One of the fastest risers so far in the young college season has been Cooper, who on Friday night hit his fifth home run in five games, off top pitching prospect Aaron Crow of Missouri no less, and then got pitched around on Saturday and scored a pair of runs on Sunday. Through seven games total, Cooper is now hitting a nifty .375/.515/1.000, thanks to the five home runs and eight walks in 24 at-bats, and while he might be limited to first base, or even designated hitter in the end, he sure can hit.
Matt Harvey, RHP, University of North Carolina: While the game took place last Tuesday, this is the first Ten Pack of the year, and it’s after last Monday, so I’m counting it. While Harvey was not the highest unsigned pick from the 2007 draft, he was the best. Teams shied away from his bonus demands in June, and while the Angels took a bit of a flier on him in the third round, they were unable to repeat their tendency of finding first-round talent in the latter rounds, as they never came close to singing Harvey as he headed to North Carolina. The Tar Heels are taking it easy so far on Harvey, and let him make his debut in the mid-week home opener against Old Dominion, with outstanding results, including eight strikeouts among his 4 2/3 shutout innings. It’s going to have to wait until 2010, but there a good chance that Harvey will get his money in the end.
Chase Headley, OF, Padres: The logic of Headley heading to the outfield really takes a bit of explaining. Headley is a better defensive third baseman then Kevin Kouzmanoff, but he’s the one out there in left, because the team believes (and rightly so) that Kouzmanoff would be a train wreck in the outfield that would outweigh the advantage of having Headley at the hot corner. At this point, Headley is the favorite to win the left field job as well, with a huge game on Friday that included a home run to dead center field, and a double off the wall that just missed giving him his second round-tripper of the day. Once seen as a highly-sound hitter with somewhat questionable power, Headley is now an on-base/slugging machine who should sit in the middle of the Padres’ order for years to come.
Shooter Hunt, RHP, Tulane: Like most seasons that are still officially in winter, there are an elite handful of college pitching prospects, and then a large group of high-quality arms that have the ability to pitch their way into the first round. Only a few actually do, and right now, Shooter Hunt is one of the ones staking his claim on a seven-figure bonus. After opening the season with six shutout innings against Illinois-Chicago, Hunt faced a sterner test on Friday with a tournament start against Pepperdine, and he was nearly just as good, allowing just four hits and two runs over seven innings while striking out seven. He had some trouble controlling his breaking ball, but that’s understandable in early March, and what was impressive was his consistent low-90s velocity that touched 94, and the fact that he held that velocity throughout the game. Good body, good stuff, he’s already moving up draft boards this early.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: For now, the Rays are saying all the right things, saying that their elite hitting prospect needs to earn a big-league job in spring training and how nothing will be handed to him. Despite the transparent ruse, Longoria is doing his best to keep up his end of the bargain, bashing a double and Friday and a triple on Saturday. Coming off a full-season debut during which he hit .299/.402/.520 while splitting time between Double- and Triple-A, Longoria has nothing left to prove in the minors, and it’s not like the organization has given Longoria much of a challenge, putting only Willy Aybar and Eric Hinskie in his way. Don’t listen to the politically correct camp talk about competition, Longoria is the Rays’ third baseman, and an excellent Rookie of the Year candidate.
Greg Miller, LHP, Dodgers: Prospects come and go pretty quickly, so it’s easy to forget that four years ago, Greg Miller was basically Clayton Kershaw, a 19-year-old big left-hander with power stuff who was going to begin the year at Double-A with a chance of a big-league look by the end of the year. Two shoulder surgeries later, he’s coming off a season in which he led the minor leagues in walks (89) despite pitching just 76 2/3 innings, mostly out of the bullpen. On Friday, Miller faced five Braves, retiring none of them, including a pair of walks and three hard base hits allowed when he was forced to groove fastballs because he was behind in the count. One scout in attendance had him up to 94 mph, and called his slider “unhittable” when it was over the plate, but at the same time he saw a pitcher with inconsistent mechanics, messy footwork, and zero confidence. “I felt bad for him,” surmised the scout. “It was just hard to watch.”
Jon Niese, LHP, Mets: Whenever one compiles prospect rankings for an individual team, there’s always that one player that multiple people talk about as a player who could take a major step forward in the following year. For the Mets, that player was Niese, and he looked the part on Friday, striking out
three Dodgers in a pair of hitless innings on Friday. While he had a 4.29 ERA
in the Florida State League last year, and allowed 151 hits in 134 1/3 innings,
he got off to a slow start due to some conditioning issues, and everything about his game improved during the course of the year, including his signature curveball. In one of baseball’s thinnest systems, Niese could be one to watch.
Rick Porcello, RHP, Tigers: On a pure prospect level, it was the story of the weekend among spring training games. The top prospect in the Tigers system by a country mile, Porcello’s big-league contract forces Detroit to have him in the major league camp, so the team let him pitch a few innings on Friday. Facing the heart of Toronto’s regular lineup, he retired all six batters he
faced, including a strikeout of Frank Thomas, and not a single ball left the
infield. “He’s special; he might be the best pitching prospect in
baseball,” said one scout about the performance. I got a lot of flak for
ranking him No. 11 in this year’s Top 100 Prospects despite having not thrown a
single pitch, and I’m already wondering if that ranking was a little low.
Jemile Weeks, 2B, University of Miami: While the Hurricanes are off to a 5-2 start, their trio of hitting prospects that we’re all seeing mentioned as potential first-round picks have done little to help themselves, as outfielder Dennis Raben has been injured, and slugging first baseman Yonder Alonso has yet to go deep. However, recovering from a slow start over the weekend was Weeks, Rickie’s younger brother, who hit his second home run of the year on Friday, and added a double and stolen base the next day. He’s a different beast from his brother, equally as short but a good 20-30 pounds less than the compactly-built Brewers second baseman. He has his brother’s bat speed, and his power comes from that, not strength, and he’s a much better runner, but he also struggles defensively. Like last year, the draft class is not deep with middle infielders, and that fact, along with Weeks’ bloodline and talent, should get him into the first round in June.