Baseball's best prospects are starting to find their way onto major-league rosters as teams try to shore up weaknesses and/or find out exactly what they have before trading season. Within the past few days alone, perhaps baseball's best hitting prospect (Eric Hosmer) and best defensive prospect (Jose Iglesias) received their call to the majors.
The Kansas City Royals promoted power-hitting first baseman Hosmer, who was batting .439 at Triple-A Omaha and who some claim is the best all-around positional prospect in the game (though Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have their supporters), months ahead of schedule. And the Red Sox just summoned slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, the defender extraordinaire.
More top young players will get their call in the coming weeks, with some promotions expected to come around the All-Star break, once the threat of speeding up the arbitration clock has expired. The Royals, a small-market team, should be commended for making the early call for Hosmer. It may cost them financially but they also have a lot to gain on the field. "He really has no weaknesses,'' one National League executive said. "He should be an All-Star year after year, a guy who hits 30 home runs and bats .300''
Iglesias is more of a one-dimensional young star. But his call-up gives the Red Sox first-hand knowledge about his readiness in the weeks before star Mets shortstop Jose Reyes could be placed on the trade market, a candidate for Boston and several others. With Marco Scutaro heading onto the disabled list, this became a prime opportunity for Boston to see what it has.
"He has a great glove,'' the NL executive said about Iglesias. "But I don't know if he can hit.'' That executive brought up the name Rey Ordoñez, the symbol of the great-field, little-hit shortstop over the past couple decades but concluded Iglesias (who was batting .253 at Triple-A Pawtucket with no extra base hits) would become more productive at-bat than Ordoñez.
The promotions of Hosmer and Iglesias are a good time to check in on baseball's best prospects. Here is a closer look at 14 of the best remaining in the minors.
1. Bryce Harper, Nationals rightfielder. One NL scout who went to Class-A Hagerstown recently said, flat out, "He is the best young player I have seen." That means ever. Harper has shown his once-in-a-generation power (seven home runs) but has also shown the ability to bunt (that scout saw two straight bunts hits to beat a shift against the lefthanded-hitting Harper) and steal (five stolen bases). The NL executive didn't disagree about Harper, who has a .701 slugging percentage and 1.161 OPS. "He's the best of them all. He has a chance to be a perennial MVP candidate. He plays the game the right way, has the best power in the minors and isn't far off the best power in the majors.'' Should he rise three more levels get a callup this year, he'll also be the first 18-year-old to play in the majors since Alex Rodriguez in 1994. Next year is more logical for his promotion, and if it's then, he'll be a rare 19-year-old to play in the majors (Adrian Beltre was one).
2. Mike Trout, Angels centerfielder. The Mickey Mantle comparisons have folks excited. But assuming he doesn't live up to that stratospheric billing, folks are convinced he will still far outstrip his draft spot as a late first-round pick in 2009. Then Angels scouting director Eddie Bane had him as the second player on their board (behind Stephen Strasburg) and that may turn out correct. At 19, Trout is thriving at Double-A Arkansas, with five homers, five steals and a .304 average. He's been clocked in 3.8 second down to first, one of the fastest times ever for a righthanded swinger. "He's one of the most exciting players,'' the NL exec said. Beyond that, "He has no real weaknesses.'' The only question seems to be whether he'll blossom into a big-time power hitter or be a speed guy who hits 15-to-20 homers.
3. Julio Teheran, Braves righthanded pitcher. He's known as a "tall Pedro,'' meaning Martinez, which is high praise indeed. He made a cameo start last week when the Braves needed an extra starter, allowing three runs in 4 2/3 innings in a loss to the first-place Phillies, but will go back to the minors, which he has dominated so far (he's 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA at Triple-A Gwinnett). He throws 92-97 mph with a superb changeup and is often cited as the best pitching prospect in baseball, after Strasburg.
4. Manuel Banuelos, Yankees lefthanded pitcher. He looked superb this spring, when he had three above average major-league pitches working (fastball, changeup and curveball) but lately scouts say only the fastball, which goes around 90-94, has been a plus pitch. He was hampered early by blisters so he hasn't pitched much, going 0-0 with a 2.57 ERA at Double-A Trenton. He's been likened to Johan Santana. With the Yankees pitching questions, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him up with them sometime this season.
5. Anthony Rizzo, Padres first baseman. The sure thing in the Adrian Gonzalez trade is not disappointing, with 10 home runs, 43 RBIs and a .390 batting average at Triple-A Tucson. Beyond being a top prospect, he's a heart-warming story, as he overcame non-Hodgkins lymphoma earlier in his career. He's the prototypical lefty power bat, and it seems likely that he'd get the call sometime this season, perhaps around the time of the All-Star break. Veteran Brad Hawpe, who's been manning first base in San Diego, has raised his batting average, giving the Padres reason to stick with him awhile longer. But Rizzo's time should be near. He is also adept at first base despite five early errors. As the AL exec said, "The only thing we're not sure of is how he will take to that (Petco) park.''
6. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays third baseman. "Intense.'' That's the word Blue Jays people use to describe Lawrie. In Milwaukee, a few harsher words were used. As the NL said, "He's cocky as hell. But if I had his ability I'd be cocky, too.'' Lawrie is also known as perhaps the best righthanded bat in the minors and is batting .336 with six homers and 21 RBIs. The question is where he'll play. The Jays have him at third base, where he has made seven errors (though their big-league third baseman Edwin Encarnacion isn't doing much better, with six errors so far). Lawrie is, however, hitting .336. One scout said, "He's a very exciting player.''
7. Jesus Montero, Yankees catcher. He blew his chance to start the year with the Yankees, when some club officials believe he tensed up after Francisco Cervelli's toe injury left a door open for him. He didn't hit a home run all spring, then hit two the day he got to minor league camp, bolstering that belief. While he hasn't shown the power expected so far at Triple-A Scranton, he is batting .354 (with one home run). "A great hitter,'' one scout said. The NL exec likened him to Edgar Martinez, high praise indeed. However scouts are split about whether he can become a major-league catcher. The Mariners took Justin Smoak for Cliff Lee instead of Montero because they didn't think he'd be a catcher. One AL scout said, "He's no catcher.'' And the NL exec agreed, saying, "We don't think he can catch.'' That exec said they didn't think Montero could play the outfield, either, and would have to choose between first base and DH. Fortunately for him, scouts believe he will hit for an extremely high average, making him a definite DH candidate. While he has enough of an arm to catch, his footwork hinders his ability to throw runners out.
8. Desmond Jennings, Rays centerfielder. He's seen by some as a lesser version of Trout, a speed demon without Trout's power potential. He also has shown the propensity to get hurt, a real concern. The NL exec likened him to the Tigers' Austin Jackson. Jennings, who like Jackson is an excellent defensive outfielder, has three homers, 12 RBIs and a .304 batting average at Triple-A Durham to go with eight stolen bases. But the questions are twofold: 1) Can he stay healthy? and 2) Does he have any power?
9. Mike Moustakas, Royals third baseman. Hosmer's longtime roommate was expected to be called up ahead of Hosmer. But he has slumped a bit with the bat this year, batting .250 with five homers and 23 RBIs. He was the high first rounder the Royals drafted the year before they got Hosmer, and while scouts love Moustakas' power, some question whether he will make enough contact. One likened him to Russell Branyan. He battled a weight problem earlier, but scouts say he is more nimble than he looks. One said, "He is very athletic.''
10. Dustin Ackley, Mariners second baseman. The No. 2 overall pick a couple years back, he's been seen as an excellent hitter with very good speed. He walks a lot, which is plus. However, some say he's been disappointing (one red flag: His on-base percentage was higher than his slugging percentage, the NL exec noted, though the slugging percentage is now .389 to .363 for his on-base percentage). That exec said Ackley, who is hitting .230 at Triple-A Tacoma, is "over-rated'' and also wondered where he'd play. He's been trying second base after playing the outfield and first base at the University of North Carolina. As for second base, that exec said, "He's been real bad ... bad range and bad hands.''
11. Matt Moore, Rays lefthanded pitcher. One scout claimed only two lefthanders have better stuff ... CC Sabathia and Jon Lester. Moore throws 92-96 with a plus changeup and curveball. "Electric stuff,'' the NL exec called it about the pitcher who is 2-2 with a 4.60 ERA with 41 strikeouts and only six walks in 29 1/3 innings at Double-A Montgomery. Moore could be ready late this year. But the Rays have five good young arms in the rotation and don't like to rush anyone's arbitration clock.
12. Zack Wheeler, Giants righthanded pitcher. He's another excellent arm -- a 93-to-96-mph thrower with a "great'' curveball, one scout said of the pitcher who is 2-1 with a 4.00 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 27 innings at Class-A San Jose. The Giants' No. 1 choice in 2009 could be a couple years away. He's also the natural request in any Reyes trade discussion. "The Mets would have to make that trade if they could. But I'm not sure San Francisco would offer it,'' the NL exec said.
13. Shelby Miller, Cardinals righthanded pitcher. The Cardinals' 2009 No. 1 pick is on the same track as Wheeler. Has a nice repertoire and could be up within two years. He is 1-2 with a 3.21 ERA, with 42 strikeouts in 28 innings at Class-A Palm Beach
14. Matt Harvey, Mets righthanded pitcher. He wowed Mets people throwing as hard as 98 mph in spring, and he's looked outstanding in the high Class-A Florida State League, going 4-1 with a 1.10 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings at Class-A Port St. Lucie, after signing late as their No. 1 pick last year.
• In addition to the teams (the Cardinals, Giants, Brewers, Twins, Red Sox, Mariners)listed in this space last week as possible contenders for Reyes, who remains red-hot, with a league-leading six triples and a .331 batting average, three other teams that could make some sense are the Angels, Reds and Tigers.
• If Atlanta's Derek Lowe could become trade bait by midseason, he helped his value with a big win over the Phillies. The Braves, who have excellent pitching at the major-league and Triple-A levels, are looking like a threat in what appears to be baseball's toughest division.
• Word is, the Mets are getting more interest in their minority stake or sale than one might expect. Also, the team is being said to be valued at about $1 billion, above the $750-million initial estimate -- though with the Wilpons intending to retain control, the eventual sale price may not reflect the $1 billion value. Stevie Cohen, a friend of the Wilpons, has long been regarded as a natural buyer. But he's been getting some unwanted publicity lately, with a couple of his traders at his SAE Capital pleading guilty to insider trading (though there is no evidence of any tie to Cohen himself).
• The Mets haven't released the full result of Chris Young's shoulder MRI, which is worrisome, though they are expressing some optimism because they say it's not the exact problem that sidelined Young for most of the 2010 season. The Mets did put him on the disabled list, though.
• Andre Ethier's 30-game hitting streak was stopped by Mets spot starter Dillon Gee and a couple relievers after Young, who does not have a good history vs. Ethier (six home runs in 29 at-bats, a .414 batting average), was scratched.
• Justin Verlander joined Roy Halladay and Mark Buehrle as active pitchers with two no-hitters with his second such gem on Saturday against the Blue Jays. One of the most impressing things about Verlander's game was him throwing consecutive pitches of 99 and 100 mph to the last batter he faced.
• The Rangers hope Leonys Martin will help them sometime this year. The Reds were among several other teams to bid on the speedy centerfielder.
• Congrats to Mike Scioscia on his 1,000th victory. He is arguably the majors' best manager.
• Kyle McClellan is off to a 5-0 start as Adam Wainwright's rotation replacement in St. Louis after positing a perfect 4-0 record in spring. Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan is performing his usual magic.
• Best wishes to the White Sox' Jake Peavy, who worked hard to return after shoulder surgery and has his first start Wednesday.