As another part of our Preseason Previews, I will be looking at the 25 prospects who will be looking to make the biggest impact in 2012. By 'prospect', I mean high-ranking players on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects List; players you should be excited about who should also help their teams this season. The premise of this exercise, I believe, is quite straightforward, so without further ado:
25. SP Shelby Miller, Cardinals
BA Rank: 8
Draft: 2009 - 1st round, 19th overall
Miller is insanely talented, and the only reason he is this low here is that baseball folks expect the Cards to play the long game with him. With a blistering fastball, a big-time 12-6 hook and a frustrating 2-seamer, Miller can get you out any number of ways, though he prefers the strikeout, ringing up 11 batters per 9 across two levels in 2011. With a projectable body, scouts expect him to be an absolute monster in the future. He made it up to Double-A, last season, and will probably see time both there and at Triple-A Memphis before getting a cup of coffee late in the summer.
24. SP James Paxton, Mariners
BA Rank: 52
Draft: 2010 - 4th round
A 6'-4" lefty out of British Columbia, Paxton is a typical power lefty. He features high-mid-90s heat and a mean slider, and commands both of them expertly. Double-A hitters couldn't do anything with him, as he struck out 51 in 39 innings last season. Paxton impressed this spring, but will likely start in the high minors, looking to crack the Mariners rotation as early as June.
23. 3B Nolan Arenado, Rockies
BA Rank: 42
Draft: 2009 - 2nd round
Arenado isn't much of a fielder, but that's really the only knock against him. He makes excellent contact, has decent plate discipline, and despite being billed as a line-drive hitter, shows good (and improving) power, hitting 20 home runs at High-A Modesto last season. Arenado should be expected to play out the year at Double-A Tulsa, but keep an eye on two things: his production, and his position. If he hits and the Rockies start fiddling with his position, it means one thing: a one way ticket to Denver International is probably in the mail.
22. SP Randall Delgado, Braves
BA Rank: 46
The lanky righty shows a heap of promise, offset with the struggles of an electric young pitcher. His fastball, which can touch 95, shows explosive action, and is enough to miss most bats he's faced so far, boasting a career 9.5 K/9 against minor league competition. He has a solid changeup and 12-6 curveball. He only managed to put away 18 guys in 35 innings during his cup of coffee in 2011, which might speak to both his secondary stuff and his work-in-progress command. All signs point to him being sent to Triple-A Gwinnett to put the final touches on a promising repertoire, but he's currently listed as the Braves' sixth starter, having a great spring and drawing fifth starter conversation -- he's on the very cusp of major league contributions either way.
21. SP Manny Banuelos, Yankees
BA Rank: 29
Brian Cashman appears to have bought into the youth movement in baseball, and the Yankees' farm continues to bear fruit. Banuelos features easy low-90s heat and a nice changeup, but probably needs a third pitch in order to succeed at the major league level -- his curve and slider are fringe-average, at best. He hit a bit of a bump in 2011 and struggled to get high-minors hitters out, posting a 1.550 WHIP across AA and AAA along with a cringe-inducing 1.76 K/BB, but it is important to remember that he was one of the younger players in the high minors last season. Control has always been an issue for him, and he clearly needs more seasoning, but if he can take another step forward in 2012, the Yankees just might be able to find him some innings out of the bullpen down the stretch.
20. SP Danny Hultzen, Mariners
BA Rank: 21
Draft: 2011 - 1st round, 2nd overall
Perhaps the most talented pitcher on this list, Hultzen features easy low-mid-90s heat, ridiculous, pinpoint control, and a secondary repertoire consisting of a cutter, changeup and a promising slider. The big lefty struck out about 1.5 men per inning at Virginia, and made a mess out of opposing hitters in the AFL last season, posting a 1.60 ERA in 6 starts. The Mariners gave him a long look this spring, but are going to wait and let him polish off that breaking pitch before letting him play against the big boys. If he does get the call sometime this summer, AL hitters should be on notice: Hultzen looks every bit the part of Cliff Lee.
19. SP Julio Teheran, Braves
BA Rank: 5
At some point in the mid-1980s, Ted Turner sold his soul to the devil in return for a map to the Fountain of Pitching. I could list the names, but I have just the one life to give. This list features two talented young pitchers eying spots in a loaded young rotation, and it doesn't even include Arodys Vizcaino, who may have had the best pure stuff of the trio, but will miss 2012 after recent Tommy John surgery.
Teheran is being billed as the best Latin pitcher since King Felix, and while those are lofty expectations, Teheran doesn't come to the table empty-handed. Teheran is pretty raw, with most expecting more physical maturation out of him yet. He has an excellent three-pitch mix consisting of a mid-90s fastball, a sharp curve, and a changeup with 'significant' sink. He can get a little sloppy with his location (as evidenced by his 9 home runs allowed this March), but he should miss plenty of bats -- as his career 8.6 K/9 will attest. He wasn't quite as sharp last year in a full season at Triple-A, and after a rough spring he's more or less finished as the fifth starter out of camp. The Braves will send him back to Gwinnett to find the zip he had in the lower minors, with the idea being for him to force their hand sometime this summer.
18. SP Jacob Turner, Tigers
BA Rank: 22
Draft: 2009 - 1st round, 9th overall
First things first, Turner's elbow discomfort appears to be nothing more than the annual 'dead arm' that serves to scare fans and bloggers every March. He threw a bullpen session Friday without incident after a brief shutdown, though the hiccup likely cost him any chance he had of taking the fifth starter's spot out of spring training.
Turner is a big, strong right-hander with impressive command of a live, mid-90s heater that he complements with some iffy secondary stuff. He doesn't walk many batters while maintaining a healthy strikeout ratio, even when tested against the higher levels in 2011, posting a combined 3.14 K/BB across AA and AAA. Turner will be starting the season in Triple-A Toledo, but if he pitches well, proves he is healthy, or if the Tigers simply can't get by with Andy Oliver, he should be with the big club in no time.
17. SP Trevor Bauer, Diamondbacks
BA Rank: 9
Draft: 2011 - 1st round, 3rd overall
Bauer is an interesting character, employing radical strength and conditioning techniques including insane long toss, tube work, video analysis, and side sessions. This dedication has helped him get the most out of a relatively slight (6'1", 175) frame. Bauer uses ridiculous shoulder strength and a flawless delivery (based on Tim Lincecum's) to throw a low-mid-90s fastball that he can get up to triple-digits if need be, though he keeps his delivery easy, relying on control and movement instead of brute force. He complements this with what he claims to be 700 different pitches, but just to look at him you can count a nasty slider, a nasty changeup, and a nasty cutter, along with a whole mess of other junk.
Bauer got to work quickly in 2011, striking out 43 men in 25 High-A innings, then struck out another 26 in 17 Double-A innings. He probably isn't going to make the team, despite a strong March effort, but if he proves himself at Double-A, there will be no reason to keep him there. Like Straburg, many surmised that Bauer came out of college with major-league polish, so to see him at Chase Field by June is not a real stretch.
16. OF Brett Jackson, Cubs
BA Rank: 32
Draft: 2009 - 1st round, 31st overall
The BA rankings are usually flush with pitchers, so any batter among the list is very clearly talented. Jackson is one of not many prospects who manage to blend raw athleticism and skill with on-field production, which got baseball people excited about Jason Heyward a few years ago. He has all the tools offensively: he makes great contact, has excellent plate discipline, and even shows developing power, hitting .274/.379/.490 across the upper levels in 2011. He complements this with pretty good speed, going 64/84 in his minor league career in stolen base attempts, and he has the potential to be an above-average center fielder as well, though right field may be his final home. A total athlete with middle-of-the-order upside, he'll start the season in Triple-A, but Alfonso Soriano is the only thing keeping him there. Expect to see him getting regular MLB at bats by the end of June.
15. SP Tyler Skaggs, Diamondbacks
BA Rank: 13
Draft: 2009 - 1st round, 40th overall
The 6-5 lefty was the chief return in the Haren trade, and it's easy to see why. Scouts are still waiting for him to fill out, but for now he brings the heat around 90, 91, with sink and uses it to set up a nasty curveball and a decent-looking changeup, with control of all three. He has no problem getting professional hitting out, mixing a great K-rate (11.3 in 2011) with a very low walk rate (2.8). The sink on his fastball keeps the ball in the park (career 0.6 HR/9). He looked great in ten Double-A starts in 2011, and has impressed Diamondbacks brass this spring, though he will probably get some more time in at AA or AAA. He's being kept out of the majors by guys like Joe Saunders, so while the D'backs aren't going to rush him, it's not unlikely that he makes an appearance before the All-Star Break.
14. 1B Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
BA Rank: 47
Draft: 2007 - 6th round
Rizzo is looking like the prize of the Adrian Gonzalez trade, but San Diego will never find out, as they dumped him on the Cubs this winter to make room for Yonder Alonso (smart!). Rizzo has excellent hitter's tools: great bat speed and excellent knowledge of the strikezone. He's not a bad fielder, either, and scouts will tell you he is quite athletic at first base. He absolutely destroyed Triple-A pitching in 2011 (.331/.404/.652) before getting a shot at The Show. He struggled, hampered by a couple of nagging injuries and probably just being 21 years old. The Cubs optioned him to Triple-A on Friday, but that doesn't mean he is far away: his seat is being kept warm by such stalwarts as Bryan LaHair and Jeff Baker. The Cubs will use the first excuse to get him back to the majors, and that may just mean another hot April.
13. SP Mike Montgomery, Royals
BA Rank: 23
Draft: 2008 - 1st round, 36th overall
I hesitated putting Montgomery this high on the list, but compared to others around him, he is very close to the majors. The big lefty brings a heavy, low-90s fastball with decent command, but his secondary stuff needs work. He has a good feel for a changeup, but his curveball is underwhelming, and he can get sloppy with all three. He had shot through the minors until hitting something of a speedbump last season in Triple-A. He walked too many guys (4.1 BB/9), and he had trouble missing bats like he did in the lower levels. He already has 150 IP at Triple-A, and there is nobody at Kansas City that is worth keeping a roster spot from him, so the moment he starts getting outs he should get the call - but it remains to be seen when exactly that will be.
12. C Ryan Lavarnway, Red Sox
BA Rank: N/A
Draft: 2008 - 6th round
Lavarnway could probably be one of the better offensive catchers in baseball right now, and is likely the most polished bat in this article, but there is a real caveat in his defense. The Yale grad is praised for his game-calling, but is well below average in all other aspects including movement and throwing. As mentioned, his bat will play - he hit .295/.390/.612 at Triple-A before hitting two home runs in 43 PAs at the major league level in 2011. The Red Sox clearly feel that he needs a little more work, as they signed defensive standout Kelly Shoppach to back up incumbent Jarrod Saltalamacchia for 2012, but an injury to either of them or DH David Ortiz should have his bat at Fenway anytime this year.
11. OF Yoenis Cespedes, Athletics
I examined Cespedes' potential back in November, but he didn't sign with the A's until February. Check out that link for a more detailed analysis, but the high points are that he is a ridiculous athlete with insane raw hitter's tools. His bat speed and leverage would make most MLB players envious. There are questions about his defense, with opinions ranging from corner outfielder to plus center fielder, and I also have an issue with his age (26) and his plate discipline (poor). He's too old to improve much. He is listed as the Athletics' starting center fielder, so it looks like despite a poor spring he will be trusted with an MLB job. It should be interesting to see if he can handle MLB pitchers (he's never faced anything close to this level of competition - except in the 2009 WBC when he hit .194) and how he will be affected by the Coliseum. He is a fly ball hitter, so it should impact him, but if he's hitting the ball 450 feet it's affect will be minimized. Color me dubious, but the talent is there and whether or not he sticks should be one of the more interesting stories in baseball this year.