Through the first eleven (or so) games of the minor league season, many of the games’ top prospects are off to a hot start, while others have started their 2011 campaigns on ice-cold streaks. Many “sleepers” and less-heralded ballplayers are busy making a name for themselves with break-out debuts.
The following report is the first issue of BaseballNewsHound.com’s Prospect Buzz report for the 2011 season. This article discusses the most notable streaks (both hot and cold) and any other noteworthy happenings around the minor league baseball (and prospect) world.
Drew Pomeranz, LHP, Kinston Indians: Drew Pomeranz, a twenty-two year-old southpaw who was selected 5th overall in last June’s MLB Draft, has began his professional year in style. Through his first two starts with the Kinston Indians– Cleveland’s Carolina League affiliate– Pomeranz has shut-down opposing batters. Through eleven innings-pitched, he hasn’t allowed an earned run and has struck out seventeen while allowing only five base-runners. Ranking atop the Carolina League in ERA (0.00), strikeouts (17) and second in WHIP (0.45) and innings-pitched (11), Pomeranz has dazzled spectators with nice command of his low-90′s fastball and with his nasty, swing-and-miss curveball. As a 6’5″ lefty armed with two plus offerings and improving command, Pomeranz’s success should continue all the way to the Indians’ rotation by 2012.
Jerry Sands, OF, Albaquerque Isotopes: Dodgers prospect Jerry Sands was drafted out of Catawba College with the 757th overall pick in the 25th round of the ’08 Draft. After two years of flying under the radar with solid-but-unspectacular play, Sands broke out last year– he posted a.301/.395/.586 slash line with 35 home runs– and displayed plus power to all fields. This year, Sands is succeeding in proving his 2011 performance wasn’t a fluke. Through 40 at-bats he’s batting .400 with 5 homeruns, a 1.297 OPS and he’s leading the Pacific Coast League in RBI with 17. Most scouts don’t doubt Sands’ legitimate bat, but because of his high strikeout numbers, many are hesitant to endorse his legitimacy. So far this season, however, K’s haven’t been an issue, and he’s even hit 2 more home runs than he’s had strikeouts (3).
Brett Jackson, CF, Tennessee Smokies: Drafted by the Cubs in the first round (31st overall) of the ’09 Draft by the Cubs, Jackson has continually surpassed expectations through his first couple of seasons. Last season, Jackson led the Southern League in triples with 14 (good for 6th in the minors), and runs scored (103) while collecting 58 extra base hits and stealing 30 bags– showing a nice combination of power and speed A five-tool player, Jackson has continued to flash his immense potential early this season while playing in the Southern League a second time. He lead’s the league in batting-average (.481) and runs-scored (17), and he ranks second in stolen bases (5), third in OPS (1.287) and he’s tied for 4th in RBI (7). His plus speed also plays well in center field where he’s quickly developing into a defensive asset. While Jackson isn’t a finished product, if he continues to perform well, he could be in line for a late-summer call-up.
Jesus Montero, C, Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees: Baseball’s top catching prospect and owner of one of the best bats in the minor leagues, 21 year-old Yankees’ phenom Jesus Montero has began his ’11 season on a tear. While three of the Yankees top prospects, Gary Sanchez, Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances were all placed on the 15-day Disabled List this past week, Montero’s star has shined even brighter. Beginning his second season in the Scranton–still one of the International League’s youngest regulars– Montero leads the league in batting average (.471), hits (17) and he ranks third in OPS (1.118) and fifth in total-bases (22). Montero nearly made the Yankees’ roster out of Spring Training, and his immense talent should get him in pinstripes by late-summer.
Keyvius Sampson, RHP, Fort Wayne TinCaps: Drafted out of high school by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round of the ’09 Draft, the electric-armed Keyvius Sampson is flashing his spectacular potential early this season. After the twenty-year-old was slowed by injuries during his first two seasons, he’s began this season healthy and on fire. Through his first eleven innings pitching with the Midwest League’s TinCaps, Sampson has allowed just three baserunners, zero earned runs and he’s struck out a ridiculous (and league-leading) nineteen batters. His first start of the season (April 7th) was a clinic, as he threw six no-hit, shut-out innings and struck out ten. While his stature borders on the small side– standing just under 6’0″ tall and weighing about 180 lbs– Sampson’s mid 90s fastball is pure power and his violent delivery adds serious deception. He’s a ways away from San Diego, but he’s a legitimate MLB-caliber arm.
Alex Torres, LHP, Durham Bulls: Traded to the Rays from the Los Angeles Angels a couple of years ago for Scott Kazmir, Torres has outperformed expectations and developed into a top left-handed pitching prospect. Because the Rays’ crop of prospects annually ranks among the MLB’s best, Torres has flown under the radar despite two All-Star selections, leading the Southern League in strikeouts in 2010 and pitching in the Futures Game. Pitching in the International League this year, the diminutive lefty– standing 5’10″ and weighing 170 lbs– continues to make noise with his deceptive delivery, riding 91 mph fastball and solid offspeed stuff. Through two starts, pitching 10 1/3 shut-out innings, Torres leads the International League in ERA (0.00), and strikeouts (17), and ranks second in WHIP (.68) among starting pitchers. Despite his height, he also continues to generate ground outs and has posted a 1.80 ground ball/fly ball rate.
Josh Vitters, 3B, Tennessee Smokies: Chicago Cubs prospect Josh Vitters, rated as a top-100 prospect by Baseball America for three straight seasons from 2008-2010, nearly fell off the prospect radar last year after a horrible, injury-plagued season (.247/.312/.405) in the Southern League. Throughout the last few months though, the twenty-year-old Vitters seems to have returned to his top-prospect form. Named to the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars roster after a nice winter-league performance, Vitters has carried his hot bat into his 2011 season. Through his first eight games with the Tennessee Smokies this season, Vitters is hitting .367 with a monster 1.141 OPS while playing third base. He’s tied for the Southern League lead in RBI with 10, and he ranks in the top five in both total-bases (21) and doubles (4). He opened the Cubs eyes in Spring Training with his “maturity” and he could be in line for a September call-up if he can continue to perform at a high level.
Bradley Holt, RHP, Binghamton Mets: Mets prospect Brad Holt had a fantastic debut in the New York Penn League in ’08, and he started off the following season on a hot streak, ranking him among baseball’s top 100 prospects on many list prior to 2010. However, throughout the past one-and-a-half seasons, Ankle and wrist injuries have caused his mechanics and production to fall apart. After a disastrous performance last year, going 3-14 (W-L record) with an 8.34 ERA and leading the minor leagues in baserunners allowed (111 hits allowed and 79 walks issued) after pitching just 95 innings, Holt rebounded in the Arizona Fall League and he seems to be returning to top-prospect status with a promising start to his ’11 campaign. He leads the Eastern League in ERA this far (0.00), ranks second in innings-pitched (12) and he’s seventh in WHIP (.83) among starting pitchers. After his groundball rate took a nose dive during the past two seasons, he’s done a good job of using his 91-95 mph fastball to generate grounders this year, and has posted a solid 1.33 groundball/fly ball (GO/AO) ratio.
Phillippe Aumont, RHP, Reading Phillies: Drafted by the Seattle Mariners 11th overall in the 2007 MLB Draft and subsequently traded to the Phillies in the (December 2009) Cliff Lee trade, the tall Canadian righthander has managed to pitch only 229 innings (coming in to this season) throughout his up-and-down career. After he dominated star MLB hitters as a teenager in the World Baseball Classic, and after Baseball America ranked him among baseball’s top 100 prospects for three straight seasons, Aumont’s poor showing last year was enough for many to label him a bust.
Now a full-time reliever in the Phillies organization, Aumont is healthy and has gotten off to a promising start to his ’11 season. Through his first four appearances, the 6’7″ righty has dazzled spectators with his electric 93-96 mph fastball and his wipeout slider. Through 5 2/3 IP scoreless innings, Aumont has allowed just one baserunner, has struck out eight batters and has a finished four games– tallying a save in his only opportunity. His command and mechanics have seen a vast improvement, and he’s grown comfortable throwing a solid cut-fastball to go along with his pair of plus offerings. While he’s still only twenty-two and while his command issues may not be fully behind him, Aumont is once again showing the potential be a top-tier reliever in the back-end of a MLB bullpen.
Bryce Brentz, RF, Greenville Drive: Drafted 36th overall in the 2010 MLB Draft by the Red Sox, former Middle Tennesse State outfielder Bryce Brentz failed to live up to expectations in his debut last season– batting just .198 and posting a .598 OPS in 262 New York Penn League at bats. The NCAA’s 2009 leader in batting average (.465), home runs (28) and OPS (.930) as the Sun Belt Player of the Year, Brentz has done of a good job of showing his top-tier potential early this season. Through 40 at bats in the South Atlantic League, Brentz is batting .378 with a 1.069 OPS and he leads the league in RBI (12) and triples (2). While he has made 3 errors in right field this season, he’s a solid athlete and should develop into a good all-around corner outfielder.
Slade Heathcott, CF, Charleston RiverDogs: The New York Yankees’ top pick (selected 29th overall) in the 2009 MLB Draft, Zachary “Slade” Heathcott was slowed by recent knee and thumb surgeries in his first full season playing professional baseball and he posted a sub-par slash line of .258/.352/.712 last season playing in the South Atlantic League. More disturbing was his lack of power– hitting just 2 homeruns in 298 at bats– and extremely raw plate discipline– he struck out 101 times in just 298 at bats.
Now that he’s a year removed from nagging injuries, his comfort level at the plate has seen a vast improvement and Heathcott has began the season on a tear. Forty at bats into his season, he leads the South Atlantic League in runs scored (13) and triples (2) and he ranks among the league’s top five in slugging percentage (.732) and doubles (5). He’s also obliterated southpaw pitchers, batting .429 against them and posting a 1.214 OPS. His cannon arm and plus athleticism also makes him an asset in centerfield and on the basepaths. If he can continue to improve his swing, and hone his tools, Heathcott could develop into the Yankees centerfielder of the future.
Shelby Miller, RHP, Palm Beach Cardinals: A high profile draft pick out of the Texas high schools system, hard throwing-righthander Shelby Miller has made plenty of noise since the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him 19th overall in 2009. Miller’s used his high-octane power arsenal and his intimidating mound presence to post eye-popping strikeout rates (12.4 K/9 in his career). After mowing down 140 through 104 innings in the Midwest league last season, Miller has continued his mass killings– striking out 20 batters in 10 2/3 innings pitched this season. Though he was out-dueled by Mets prospect Matt Harvey on April 7th (opening day), Miller looks as dominant as ever and could be in St. Louis come September.
Matt Harvey, RHP, St. Lucie Mets: Drafted by the New York Mets out of the University of North Carolina with the 7th overall pick last June, Harvey’s stock had fallen from (possibly) the top-pitcher in the country to highly-intriguing power-righty after an underwhelming college career. The Mets weren’t scared off by question marks surrounding Harvey’s durability and future though, and so far, the decision seems to have been a wise one.
Harvey began his season as the St. Lucie Mets’ opening day starter. He out-dueled top Cardinals prospect Shelby Miller in his first professional start (April 7th), pitching shutouts innings and striking out nine batters. He hasn’t slowed down during his two starts since opening day, and he’s now totalled a league-leading 3-0 record, 20 strikeouts and he still hasn’t allowed an earned run through 16 innings. He’s relied heavily on his 92-95 mph fastball, but has also flashed a strikeout spike curve and hard, boring cutter. His command still needs work, but the Connecticut native has shown a good feel for pitching and his premium repertoire will carry him to New York by late-2012.
Mike Olt, 3B, Myrtle Beach Pelicans: Drafted by the Rangers last June out of the University of Connecticut with the 49th overall pick, third baseman Mike Olt has outplayed expectations since his professional debut in the Northwest League. After flashing a nice glove at the hot corner and batting .293 with an .854 OPS last year, his production has exploded with his promotion to the Carolina League. After nine games, Olt is the Carolina League’s leader in OPS (1.385), slugging percentage (.848), runs scored (9) and walks (8) while he ranks within the top three in nearly every other offensive category. A shortstop in high school and early in college career, his athleticism meshes well with his above-average raw power on both sides of the ball and he could develop into a solid all-around everyday third baseman in the big leagues.
Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Mobile BayBears: 2010′s California League MVP, Paul Goldschmidt, the Arizona Diamondbacks unheralded 8th round draft selection (2009), continues to force the scouting community to consider him a legitimate power prospect. After sharing the minor league lead in homeruns last season with 35, Goldschmidt has carried his thunderous club into the Southern League this season. The Wilmington, Delaware native is tied for the minor league lead in homeruns (6), and leads the Southern League in RBI (15), slugging percentage (.939) and OPS (1.439). While Goldschmidt’s athleticism and other tools are sub-par, his bat offers plus power and he could develop in to a Marcus Thames-type slugger.
Travis D’Arnaud, C, New Hampshire FisherCats: Since his first full-season in professional baseball, Blue Jays catching prospect Travis D’Arnaud has been drawing rave reviews from scouts for his natural athleticism and feel for the game. Since 2008, D’Arnaud has been selected to an All-Star team in every league he’s played in and despite battling lower back injuries last season, he managed to rank #36 on Baseball America’s 2011 baseball prospect rankings. Early this season however, D’Arnaud has struggled mightily. Among Eastern League regulars, he ranks in the bottom five in slugging percentage (.167), batting average (.133), OPS (.379) and RBI (1). His fielding has been a bright spot however, as he’s thrown out %45 of baserunners and helped turn two double plays.
Alex Liddi, 3B, Tacoma Rainiers: Part of the Team Italy in the ’09 World Baseball Classic, third base prospect Alex Liddi was named the Mariners 2009 Minor League Player of the Year after a breakout season (.345/.411/.594). While he wasn’t nearly the hitter he was the season before, Liddi posted solid numbers in the Southern League last season– batting .281 with an .829 OPS. In the early going this year, it seems luck might have finally caught up with Liddi’s bat. The twenty-two year-old third baseman leads the Pacific Coast League in strikeouts (19) and ranks at the bottom in nearly every offensive category. He’s batting just .125 through 40 at bats, and he’s produced just one extra base hit in that span. His defense at the hot corner has been solid– though nothing to write home about– and his above-average coordination suggests the slump is only temporary. If he can get his game together, Liddi develop in to a solid right-handed bat off the bench for a MLB club.
Simon Castro, RHP, Tuscon Padres: The hard-throwing Padres pitching prospect, Simon Castro followed up his breakout 2009 campaign in the Midwest League with an even better performance last season. Pitching for the San Antonio Missions for the majority of 2010, Castro led the hitter-friendly Texas League in WHIP (1.10) and ranked second in ERA (2.92). His superb showing even garnered him a spot on the World Roster at the Futures Game.
Now pitching the Pacific Coast League however, Castro’s stuff hasn’t been up to his usual standard and he’s been tattooed for 12 runs (11 earned) in 10 innings. His ground ball rate has bottomed out at .38 (GO/AO) and he’s already given up 3 home runs and has allowed 19 baserunners in two starts. Castro’s hard 91-94 mph fastball, his ideal 6’5″ frame and his plus slider should be enough to give him a solid MLB career, and his past success suggests this early stretch isn’t much to worry about.