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Josh Barfield, 2B, Triple-A Buffalo (Indians)
Without question, this is a difficult situation. Barfield hasn’t played in the minors since 2005. After an impressive .280/.318/.423 showing during his rookie campaign with San Diego, Barfield collapsed last year to .243/.270/.324 after a trade to Cleveland, losing his job to a fast-rising Asdrubal Cabrera in the process, and now finds himself back in the minors. To his credit, he answered the bell on Opening Day, going 4-for-5 with a double and two RBI in the Bisons’ 9-4 win over Norfolk. His inability to play on the left side of the infield means he can’t really help a team as a bench player, but the Indians are going
to contend for the AL Central title this year, and they have a pretty good bargaining chip in trades in the 25-year-old Barfield, who’s a better player than plenty of big league second baseman right now, and could give the right team an instant upgrade without costing the Indians any of their future.

Dellin Betances, RHP, Low-A Charleston (Yankees)
Betances is the kind of prospect who generates a ton of emails and chat questions. Why, you ask? First off, he’s a Yankee, and second, he’s a bit of an enigma as a six-foot-eight power arm from Brooklyn who can get it into the upper 90s but has pitched less than 50 pro innings after last year was cut short by elbow inflammation. Now all of 20 years old and still a bit of an unknown, Betances began the season in style, striking out eight over five innings while allowing three hits and a pair of runs. Players with his kind of size, body, and upside are still a rare commodity, and he’s definitely a player to keep an eye on this year.

Juan Francisco, 3B, High-A Sarasota (Reds)
Last year, as a 20-year-old prospect, Francisco led the Midwest League with 25 home runs, but the holes in his game were readily apparent, namely some rough defense and a disturbingly poor approach that led to 161 strikeouts and just 23 walks. In the Florida State League opener, Francisco didn’t go deep, but he did hit the ball hard, pasting a trio of doubles, including two off of a more famous Francisco–a rehabbing Francisco Liriano of the Twins. Francisco’s kind of
power is very hard to find, and if he can polish up the rough edges, the Reds
might really have something here.

Justin Jackson, SS, Low-A Lansing (Blue Jays)
Call it a hunch, but there’s something about this guy that makes me feel he was potentially one of the steals of the 2007 draft. Drafted 45th overall, Jackson did little in his Gulf Coast League debut last year, but he’s put on a good 15 pounds in the offseason, and all of it good–it’s simply the case of a 19-year-old growing into his body. While the Lugnuts dropped their season opener to Fort Wayne 7-1, Jackson did his part, going 3-for-4 with a double, delivering half of his team’s hits while also scoring the team’s only run. He cost less than half of what the Cardinals paid for their first-round high school shortstop, Peter Kozma, and while Jackson comes with more risk, he also comes with significantly more upside.

Matt LaPorta, OF, Double-A Huntsville (Brewers)
It’s funny how what looked like a very surprising pick at the time now almost looks like a steal. Selected seventh overall last June, most saw LaPorta as a guy stuck at first base, but the Brewers saw him as the best hitter in the draft, and thought he had just enough athleticism for a transition to the outfield. While that’s still a bit of a work in progress, all he really needs to do is become acceptable out there, because his bat is awfully special. After cracking ten home runs in 88 at-bats at Low-A after signing last year, LaPorta’s full-season debut took place at Double-A, and the pace hasn’t slowed down as he had two hits, a home run, and four RBI in the Stars’ 8-2 win over Mississippi. With Ryan Braun moving to left field, people wonder if LaPorta is already blocked, but note that last night he started in right. It shouldn’t take long for him to force the big league club into some tough decisions.

Warner Madrigal, RHP, Double-A Frisco (Rangers)
The Rangers have one of the deepest collections of young talent in the game, and their Texas League affiliate is loaded with prospects to watch. During the RoughRiders’ 6-3 win over Springfield last night, plenty of those prospects had big days. Shortstop Elvis Andrus, first baseman Chris Davis, and catcher Taylor Teagarden all had multi-hit games, and former Braves farmhand Matt Harrison, almost the forgotten name in the Mark Teixeira deal (and that’s a mistake), was
outstanding for five-plus innings. In the end, it’s a guy who pitched to
only three batters who really caught my eye, though. All but stolen from the Angels due to some paperwork snafus, Madrigal is a converted outfielder who his 15 home runs in Low-A three years ago, but is now a pitcher, and last year he was easily the best closer in the Midwest League during the season’s second half. Now 24, in Double-A and with just 73 innings of experience on the mound under his belt, the Dominican native with mid-90s heat and a nasty slider pitched a perfect ninth with a pair of strikeouts. In the Rangers system, with prospects to talk about at every level, he’s almost lost in the shuffle, but he shouldn’t be.

Jon Niese, LHP, Double-A Binghamton (Mets)
Call it someone else’s hunch. While working on this pre-season’s Mets Top 11, two separate people inside the game pointed at Niese as having breakout potential. That might seem a strange choice–he’s a breaking-ball specialist, and last year’s numbers (a 4.29 ERA and 151 hits allowed in 134 1/3 innings) don’t inspire confidence. But team officials pointed at his slow and steady progress throughout the year and the fact that his fastball is hardly sub-standard. In his Double-A debut last night, a 2-0 win over Trenton,
Niese was much more than sub-standard, needing to face just 17 batters to
complete five shutout innings that including a hit, a walk, a five strikeouts. Mets fans desperate for anything resembling a prospect beyond Fernando Martinez, Niese just might be your guy.

Rick Porcello, RHP, High-A Lakeland (Tigers)
I ranked Porcello the No. 11 prospect in the game in BP2K8 despite his never throwing a pitch as a pro. Forced into big league camp as a teenager because of a big league deal, he nonetheless fired two scoreless innings against the top six of the Blue Jays’ big league lineup. Now, he finally has a non-exhibition stat line as a pro, making his official pro debut in the High-A Florida State League. The player seen by some as the best high school right-hander since Josh Beckett was every bit as good as advertised, allowing just one hit over five shutout innings while walking two, striking out three, and generating nine ground balls. During last week’s State of the Systems, I gave odds for each team’s No. 1 prospect a year from now. If I did odds for all of minor league baseball, Porcello would be right up there.

Colby Rasmus, CF, Triple-A Memphis (Cardinals)
It’s not really surprising or eye-opening, just another great game for one of the top prospects in the game, as Rasmus went 3-for-5 with a double in 4-3 loss to Oklahoma. Team officials want to line Rasmus up for a 2009 job, but at the same time, right field is currently being taken care of by Ryan Ludwick and Skip Schumaker, so it’s not like he’s blocked, and sliding Rick Ankiel over to a corner and bringing up Rasmus would make them a far better team. Even though he’s at Triple-A to begin the year, Rasmus is the player many Cardinals fans are talking about, as fans are eagerly anticipating their future star reaching the big leagues. It might come sooner than you think.

Greg Reynolds, RHP, Triple-A Colorado Springs (Rockies)
Maybe it was nerves, maybe he didn’t warm up well, but whatever happened, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2006 draft had one of the strangest starts you’ll ever see in the Sky Sox’ opener, a 12-10 loss to Tucson. Here’s how his game started: single, double, walk, double, ground out, single, single, single, single (by Randy Johnson), single, sac fly, ground out. Down 7-0, the Sky Sox stuck with him and he pitched three more innings without allowing another hit. His final line–eight hits and seven runs in four innings–is still awful, but not the nightmare it could have been, so kudos to manager Tom Runnels for getting something positive out of the game.

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