2012′s edition of BaseballNewsHound.com’s Minor League Baseball Awards is here.
Throughout the next few weeks, BaseballNewsHound.com will be recognizing the best players in the Minor League’s for their performance. First up, Ryan Kelley awards the best hitting prospects in single-A baseball. Players are recognized for an array of different talents and performances– from most powerful hitter to the best curveball. In this edition, nearly 100 class-A hitters and fielders receive awards in eight different categories.
Another exciting season of minor league baseball has come to a close. In terms of prospect talent and overall quality of play, maybe it was the most exciting the MiLB has ever seen. With player development at the forefront of the new MLB, and the talent pool of available amateur players expanding in to different international markets, the modern farm system now showcases the most gifted talents pro baseball has ever seen. Every year, there seems to be more and more reasons to head to a minor league ballpark. Spectacular athletes like Justin Upton, Mike Trout, Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and–this year–Dylan Bundy draw crowds that single-A farm teams have never attracted before.
For those seeking a glimpse at the MLB’s future, the lower levels of the minors are often the best place to look for blue chip talent. The six single-A leagues, specifically, annually seem to boast the headline-grabbing names. Trout, Strasburg, Harper all made their names in A-ball throughout the past few years. 2012 once again had plenty of name value. After fans had the opportunity to watch the aforementioned stud prospects tear-up the competition during the previous two seasons, they were treated to another group of bright shining stars in 2012: Bundy, Castellanos, Hamilton. To open the Spring, Dylan Bundy made a splash in the South Atlantic League with his perfect pitching, and propelled himself in to the Strasburgian level of elite prospectdom by mid-summer. At the plate, there was plenty to watch too. Sweet-swinging Tigers phenom Nick Castellanos hit .405 in A-ball, doing his best impression of Ted Williams for much of the summer, and stole the show at the Futures Game with an extraordinary performance. Red burner Billy Hamilton, maybe the most exciting player, set the basepaths on fire with 155 stolen bases and 14 triples. He re-broke his 2011 stolen base record (103) by more than fifty, and managed to rack-up more bags than strikeouts (113).
Hamilton, Bundy and Castellanos stole the show, but other top prospects managed to impress spectators as well. Many clubs often send their top amateur draft picks and international signees directly to low-A ball for their debuts, and as a result, these leagues annually feature plenty of exciting break-out performances. Top picks from recent drafts like Gerrit Cole, Mike Zunino, Addison Russell, Matt Barnes, Jose Fernandez and Javier Baez, played MVP-grade baseball in their first extended regular season play. Gerrit Cole re-inforced his future as a big league ace with his pitching, but Fernandez and Russell managed to put together even better seasons, raising their own stocks drastically. Highly touted recent international signees, Gary Sanchez, Xander Bogaerts and Miguel Sano dazzled too, each living-up tot their top prospect billing with inspiring play of their own.
One pitcher and one hitter played exceedingly well last season, going above and beyond with their performance and separating themselves from the rest of their peers. It span’s beyond on-field performance though. BNH’s top prospects are the players that not only outshine other young stars on the diamond, but also have the tools to achieve at a high level in the Major Leagues.
Class-A Top Pitching Prospect
The Orioles fourth overall pick in from 2011, Dylan Bundy followed-up his remarkable amateur career with an even brighter pro debut. Bundy opened his career in the South Atlantic League last April, pitching for the Delmarva Shorebirds, and proceeded to dominate his competition. As soon as he stepped on Delmarva’s mound, he shut down opposing hitters for thirteen no-hit innings and then put together a streak of thirty shut-out frames. He was so untouchable that he allowed just one to the first fifty batters he faced, while striking out half of them. His unbelievable pitching earned him a promotion to the Carolina League by the end of May. At the time of the promotion, Bundy’s ERA was 0.00, he’d allowed just five hits, and had piled up forty strikeouts.
In the Carolina League to kick-off the summer, as a nineteen year-old facing older and more advanced competition, Bundy continued his dominant performance. If he was anything near human, his age would’ve shown — at least for a moment– after he arrived at Frederick. It never did. He looked like Roger Clemens out there. He tossed 57 innings of 2.84 ERA baseball, striking out 66 and posting a 3.67 K/BB ratio.
By August, Bundy had already mastered class-A, so the Orioles decided to push him even more and assign him to the Bowie BaySox of the Eastern League. The average Eastern League hitter is nearly twenty-five years old, essentially a half-decade older than Bundy. Of all of the affiliated minor leagues (above rookie ball), the EL had the third highest mean slugging percentage last season (.392), behind only the California (.427) and Pacific Leagues (.430). No problem. Bundy went a perfect 2-0 through three starts, posting a 3.24 ERA and holding opposing hitters to a .230 batting average. All together, Bundy went 9-3 with a 2.08 ERA through 103 2/3 IP in 2012, mowing out 119 batters and inducing 1.5 ground outs for every fly out.
Bundy’s phenomenal talent is obvious and undeniable. He’s a star, and he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues, at 19. After the season he just had, and the amount of medica coverage that followed him, any baseball fan that can’t spell his name and recite his bio has a lot of catching up to do. They either hibernated through the season or were somehow cut-off from civilization. He’s nearly the perfect prototype for a pro pitcher, blessed with all of the ingredients for a star-studded big league career. A tireless worker, he’s a work-out rat and he’s built like an NFL linebacker. His arm strength is second to none, and he generates scary power with near-perfect mechanics. His balance and body control are right out of Clemens’ book, as is his ferocious, competitiveness and drive.
Truly extraordinary, Bundy’s premium repertoire includes four plus or plus-plus pitches, beginning with a heavy, electric fastball that sits firmly in the mid 90′s and reaches 98 MPH. His fastball sits consistently in the mid 90′s, and he spots it to both sides of the plate with precision. Despite his age, his secondary offerings are already big league-caliber too. His 90 MPH cutter slices-through left-handed bats with disappearing movement, and his 80 MPH curveball dives away from right-handed swings with violent, late break. His fourth pitch, a nasty changeup developed from a usable mix-in to a disappearing shoulder-dislocator this season.
Bundy’s stuff is the best in the minors, and probably second only to Strasburg’s in all of pro baseball. He’s more than just electric stuff though. He’s mentally and physically built for the position. After a lifetime of grueling work and practice, he’s left as polished as a long-time big league veteran. He’s as obsessive over his physical conditioning as he is over his fundamentally and mechanically perfect delivery and approach to pitching. He throws all of his pitches with the consistency and command of a polished finesse pitcher, and he repeats his near-perfect mechanics with robotic efficiency. He’s built like Roger Clemens and he’s a strikingly similar to a young John Smoltz or Josh Beckett, and possibly more advanced as they were at the same age.
Class-A Top Hitting Prospect
Following in the foot steps of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, as the best young hitter in the minors, is a difficult job. Nobody can outshine those two, and they were probably the best prospects to have ever played in the modern minor leagues. But, Nick Castellanos managed to get pretty close to their level. He doesn’t come with the hype, but man, he is really good. And man, talk about a pretty swing. The Tiger’s 44th overall draft pick in 2010, Nick signed a whopping $3.45 bonus out of high school. At the time, many scouts considered him the best high school hitter, but few would’ve bet that he would have so much success so early on. After hitting .312/.367/.436 during his debut season, Castellanos followed-up with an absolutely awesome sophomore campaign. He finished the season in the Eastern League, but when he played in the Florida State League for the first few months of 2012, there was no better player.The twenty-year-old hit .405 and posted a 1.014 OPS through 257 at bats with the Flying Tigers and earned a spot in the prestigious All-Star Futures Game. He once again stole the show, taking-home the Futures Game MVP award after going 3-4 and racking-up six total bases.
The average Florida State League batter was twenty-three years old and hit .255/.326/.373 last season. One of the hardest on young hitters, the Florida State league had the third-lowest mean OPS (.699) among the thirteen circuits above rookie ball. Castellanos won the league batting title but hitting .405, 150 points above the league’s mean, and his 1.014 OPS was over four hundred points higher than the FSL’s average mark. He only turned twenty in March and he’s already out-hitting the competition by that large a margin? Wow.
Castellanos’s game starts with his exquisite hitting skills. His swing is picturesque. Hall of Famer Al Kaline recently told the media that it was one of the best he’d ever seen in person. He takes a graceful, efficient, smooth cut, whipping the bat-head through the zone with his core and legs. He draws power from his base and employs his entire body in his swing seamlessly. His fluid stroke launches line drives to all fields, and he catches-up to premium velocity in-on his hands as well as he waits on off-speed stuff on the out-half. He’s just one of the blessed hitters that looks like the game slows down for him. He’s aggressive, but his pitch recognition is already razor-sharp. He enjoys ridiculous plate coverage, able to lace tough pitches to the opposite field with authority.
Castellanos’ feel for the barrel is other-worldly, and he makes quality contact with same-side breaking pitches and punishes hangers. He has the makings of a legitimate .300 hitter with 30 homerun power in the big leagues. Finding a prospect with this kind of hitting prowess is exceedingly rare. To go with such a sweet swing, Castellanos also brings strong hands an incredible feel to the table. Though he’s still not very big, his hitting skills already produce solid power and he should develop a legitimate homerun stroke once he adds more muscle. His swing is so firm that the ball screams off the bat in all directions– even on the ground. He already shows premium bat speed as well, turning on mid 90′s velocity for extra-base hits and accelerating off-speed stuff out of the park. As he showed in the Futures Game, he handles even the most electric stuff with little visible effort.
Castellanos is the best all-around hitter in the minors, but he’s more than a bat-only prospect. He’s a strong athlete too. He’s not a base stealer, but he’s a solid runner with the enough wheels to take the extra base. In the field, he has the hands and arm to develop in to an above-average third baseman. The Tigers are focused on getting his bat to the MLB as soon as possible, and they have moved him to the outfield, at least temporarily, as a result. He’s looked solid in right field so far, showing nice fly ball tracking and a strong, accurate arm. Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but Nick still is a good enough fielder to push for a job at third base. If he does stick in the outfield, his fluidity, body control and powerful arm could eventually make him a Gold Glove contender.
Ceiling is a scouting jargon term for full potential. High ceiling prospects are more athletic than their peers, even if they don’t outperform them just yet. They’re blessed with the best combinations of raw skills– bat speed, strength, body control, foot speed and arm strength for instance– in single-A baseball. A high ceiling is more than pure athleticism though. The best big league players often have intangibles and more subtle talents than just pure footspeed and arm strength. They’re intelligent, they show great pitch recognition skills, the ability to control the strikezone and their feel for hitting helps amplify their power. Scouts look at all of the areas a player can contribute to a game, and try to figure-out how a prospect will turn their raw skills in to in-game performance. A prospect doesn’t have to be a top performer to have a high ceiling, but they obviously have to show the skills and aptitude to put their talent to future use.
Sleepers: Yordy Cabrera, Kaleb Cowart, Cheslor Cuthbert, Edward Salcedo, Gregory Polanco
Best Hitter for Average
The best hitting prospects are those gifted with the strongest mix of present and raw tools. They have the fluid swing, the bat speed, the strong hands and the plate vision to take charge of the strikezone. Present power isn’t necessarily part of the equation, instead, scouts seek bat control, balance, hand-eye coordination, pitch recognition and advanced swing mechanics in young hitters. Hitting the ball harder helps increase batting average on in balls in play, but hitting isn’t about swinging for the fences. Some of the game’s best hitters– Derek Jeter and Dustin Pedroia for instance– sacrifice homerun totals for constant line-drive contact. The top minor league hitters, like Anthony Rendon and Nick Castellanos, boast extraordinary body control, hand-eye coordination and fundamentally ideal swings. Strong hands, and a clean, an efficient weight transfer (think Matt Holliday) are also important traits of a quality swing. Keep in mind, to be eligible for these awards, players must’ve played at least twenty games in a single-A league.
Sleepers: Christian Villanueva, Tony Wolters, Stephen Piscotty, Stefen Romero, Cody Asche
Best Power Hitter
Power is pretty self explanatory. The players on this list are those with the strongest combination of present and potential power. They can mash, and when they make contact, it makes a sharper, louder sound. Bat-speed and strength are the most obvious determinants of power, but swing efficiency and the ability to barrel the ball are also determining factors. A big, strong player with an upper-body swing, poor bat control and sloppy pitch recognition won’t display the power that a much smaller, more polished player does. Curtis Granderson for instance, who’s physically much smaller than Adam Dunn or Josh Hamtilton, has managed to lead the MLB in homeruns throughout the past two years. Also, just as power is partly responsible for batting average, pop requires contact skills. Sluggers rely on hand-eye coordination, balance and pitch recognition to barrel pitches and drive the baseball.
Sleepers: Richie Shaffer, Addison Russell, Edward Salcedo, Gregory Polanco, Yordy Cabrera
Best Batting Eye
Prospects aren’t all power, arm strength and speed. The sixth tool, a player’s batting eye is their ability to work the count, control the strikezone and get on base. More than just a willingness to take a walk, a good batting eye helps hitters put the ball in play with authority and more often. For a prospect to reach his full potential and turn in to an impact-level big league hitter, they’ll need to be able to lay off pitcher’s pitches, and punish mistakes. Of course, a young hitter’s solid plate vision and pitch recognition may be disguised by nerves and a brash, aggressive approach. While limiting strikeouts is important, for a young player, a healthy number of whiffs isn’t necessarily implying a flawed batting eye.
Sleepers: Nicky Delmonico, Tyler Heineman, Cameron Seitzer, Ramon Flores, Travis Shaw
Athleticism is obvious when you see it. The best athlete isn’t necessarily the strongest or the fastest guy. Athleticism is about coordination. A premium athlete is gifted with balance and body-control, awareness and of course hand-eye coordination. The players on this list play a different game than their peers. They run gracefully, gliding to flyballs in the outfield and effortlessly accelerating to their top-gear on the basepaths. Athletic infielders show quick, light feet, and they make acrobatic defense plays–sliding stops and lazer throws against their body weight. At the plate, they often take the most efficient, fluid swings. Even if they’re unorthodox or raw fundamentally, they still flash the ingredients for super-stardom. Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols are too of the game’s best athletes. Neither is particularly fast, but both are gifted with phenomenal body control, balance and hand-eye coordination.
Sleepers: Angel Gumbs, Brandon Jacobs, Jace Peterson, Yordy Cabrera, Aaron Altherr
This another pretty self-explanatory skill. The following players are the fastest baserunners in the minors. Billy Hamtilton is tbe fastest baserunner in the minors, and one of the fastest the game has ever seen. Equipped with top-of-the-scale speed, Hamilton is capable of sub-6.4 second sixty-yard dash times. But more importantly, he takes his wheels on to the field. He’s a quick-twich athlete, and his stride is so fluid and powerful, that he reaches his top-gear faster than other burners. He knows how to read pitchers and his reaction time is seemingly inhuman.
Sleepers: Luis Sardinas, Keon Broxton, Glynn Davis, Aaron Shipman, John Andreoli
Fielding ability is generally the last skill prospects develop. It’s difficult to judge in the low-minors. Young prospects might have the ingredients for a Gold Glove, but their lack of experience and professional coaching will kill their range and the accuracy of their throws. But, the basic skills are either there or they aren’t. Infielders and outfielders need the same basic skills to be successful in the field– body control and body awareness, a strong and mechanically clean throwing arm, and light feet. Speed is important for range in the outfield, but as Jackie Bradley Jr. re-inforced last season, the most important traits are premium reaction speed, balance and hand-eye coordination.