Jeff Bianchi, SS, Royals (Double-A Northwest Arkansas)
A second-round pick in 2005, Bianchi received plenty of hype when he hit .408 in his pro debut, but his prospect status dimmed considerably after a pair of sub-.300 OBPs at Low- and High-A. This year, he’s suddenly hitting again, as the 22-year-old was batting .300/.360/.427 in his second go-round at High-A Wilmington before moving up to the Texas League, where he went 5-for-12 with four doubles over the weekend in his first three games for the Naturals. While some question his range at shortstop, he’s a fundamentally sound defender, and if he keeps hitting like this, he’s going to find himself back on many Royals prospect lists.
Starlin Castro, SS, Cubs (High-A Daytona)
One of the most surprising assignments this spring occurred when the Cubs sent 19-year-old Castro to High-A Daytona after he had only played in the complex league last summer, putting him one level ahead of a more polished college product, Ryan Flaherty, a supplemental first-round pick. (Flaherty was instead installed at short for Single-A Peoria.) Castro has certainly held up his end of the bargain, hitting .291/.324/.371 and earning Florida State League all-star game MVP honors on Saturday by going 4-for-4 with a home run. There is still some roughness to his play, as in 59 games he’s drawn just nine walks while committing 22 errors, but overall, his performance has his stock soaring.
Dee Gordon, SS, Dodgers (Single-A Great Lakes)
It’s possible that no prospect excites me as much as Gordon has this year. He’s reeled off seven straight multi-hit games as part of an 11-game hitting streak, during which he has gone 22-for-45 to boost his season averages to .308/.372/.405, with his blinding speed adding eight triples and 40 stolen bases. The thing is, when you ask scouts about him, all they talk about is how incredibly raw he is. He’s getting this done on almost pure athleticism alone, and the gap between what he is now and what he can be is still massive. While it will require more research and discussion, I’m becoming convinced that he’s the top prospect in the Dodgers’ system right now.
Aaron Hicks, OF, Twins (Single-A Beloit)
When Hicks began the 2009 season in extended spring training, most assumed that the 2008 first-round pick would be on the Ben Revere plan and would join the Single-A Beloit squad by May. When that didn’t happen, it looked as if the Twins, who lean toward the conservative side when it comes to pushing players, would simply send him to the Appy League. Then, when the short-season leagues began, Hicks suddenly showed up in Beloit, where he went 3-for-8 with a double and four walks over the weekend in his season debut. The debate over which Twins center-field prospect you’d rather have-the bigger, toolsier Hicks, or the guaranteed hit machine in Ben Revere-will continue to rage throughout the summer.
Casey Kelly, RHP/SS, Red Sox (High-A Salem)
After putting up a 1.12 ERA in nine starts for Single-A Greenville, Boston’s 2008 first-round pick has had little trouble continuing his dominance as a 19-year-old in High-A, and after he threw six shutout innings on Sunday while allowing just one hit, the Carolina League is now batting just .192 against him. The sad thing is that Kelly’s season as a pitcher is about to come to an end. Despite some significant struggles in his pro debut as a hitter, Kelly still wants to give hitting a chance, and the Red Sox agreed to a half-and-half season this year, so after only one or two more starts, he’ll head down to Florida to finish the year as a shortstop. If there’s a silver lining here, his arm should certainly stay fresh, as more scouts than ever are convinced that his true future will find him standing on the mound, as opposed to at the plate.
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Cubs (Short-Season Boise)
Perhaps the biggest prize netted out of Asia last year when the Cubs doled out a $725,000 bonus to sign Lee, Lee’s pro debut has been delayed, as his elbow went pop and he required Tommy John surgery shortly after signing. Still only 18 years old, Lee was impressive enough this spring to earn a surprising assignment to Boise, and so far, so good, as he went 5-for-9 with a double and a stolen base in his first two professional games.
Jordan Lyles, RHP, Astros (Single-A Lexington)
Houston’s supplemental first-round pick last year out of a South Carolina high school, no pitcher in the Sally League has been generating more buzz of late than Lyles. On Sunday, he tied his season high with 11 strikeouts while allowing just two hits over six shutout innings, and it was his third double-digit effort for strikeouts in his past four starts, made all the more impressive by pitch counts that have limited him to 26 batters faced or fewer each time out. With 98 strikeouts in 78
Bud Norris, RHP, Astros (Triple-A Round Rock)
Norris really shined last year when he pitched out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League and his velocity sat in the mid-90s. While most scouts have always preferred him as a future reliever, the Astros are still doing the right thing and not writing him off as a starter until absolutely necessary. On Saturday night, Norris delivered his best outing of the year, firing eight shutout innings while allowing three hits and striking out a season-high ten. His 2.11 ERA leads the Pacific Coast League, and he could be getting a big-league look soon.
Rudy Owens, LHP, Pirates (Single-A West Virginia)
Identified last week as a sleeper in the Pirates’ system, Owens is quickly advancing to full-fledged prospect; he went five perfect innings on Sunday while striking out seven, to give him 20 scoreless innings in his last three starts while allowing only five hits, striking out 24, and not walking a batter. His average-velocity fastball plays up due to pinpoint location, his changeup is a true plus offering, and he’s got a big, physical frame with clean mechanics that are built to last. In a system desperate for pitching prospects, Owens has suddenly become a nice find.
Lance Zawadzki, 3B/SS, Padres (Double-A San Antonio)
A fourth-round pick out of an NAIA school in Tennessee in 2007, Zawadzki hit a solid but unspectacular .273/.352/.399 at Low-A Fort Wayne last year, but still he provided some things to like beyond his athleticism, including a patient approach with 54 walks, as well as 28 stolen bases in 31 attempts. He found his power stroke this year, batting .276/.360/.552 in 36 California League games with ten home runs, and now he’s trying to prove that the showing wasn’t a California League mirage. Pushed to Double-A at the end of May, Zawadzki has just one home run in 78 Texas League at-bats, but he’s certainly hitting, going 15-for-21 in his last five games, including a perfect 6-for-6 night on Saturday to lift his San Antonio averages to .372/.456/.500 in 21 games. It would be inaccurate to suddenly start calling him a big-time prospect, but there is something there.