"I don't get to see a lot of minor leaguers...Triple-A just doesn't get to see the 'best prospects.'"
- Will Carroll, in a 4/4 Baseball Prospectus Chat
Last season, just eight prominent prospects (Sizemore, Hardy, Krynzel, Claussen, Youkilis, Adams, Quiroz, Rios) started the season in the International League. It did not take long for Brandon Claussen, Kevin Youkilis and Alexis Rios to make the Majors, and J.J. Hardy suffered a season-ending injury in May. Will, an Indianapolis native and frequent at Victory Field, just did not see the blue-chip prospects that Texas or California League natives did.
A year later, the International League has become a hotbed for prospects. With many of the best prospects on the horizon, the fourteen organizations with affiliates have sent some of their top players to AAA. This time around, a whopping 15 players that would make my top 150 prospect list (if it existed) are in Carroll territory. Furthermore, some very good "sophomores" are back on the farm after uninspiring springs as well.
After being ranked baseball's best prospect by a few different places, Andy Marte will move to Richmond this year as his trek through the Atlanta system continues. On Wednesday it looked as if Chipper Jones may have hurt himself a few times, which at this point is all Marte needs for the door to open. The outfield expirament has been abandoned, meaning a Jones injury or position change (not likely) is what Marte needs to reach the Majors. We'll see what happens this coming winter on the Chipper front, because he will either be moving back to left or find himself on the trading block.
On Richmond's opening day, Marte will find himself playing defense for Kyle Davies. I've written numerous times how high the Atlanta organization is on Davies, and that he may have an impact on the NL East race. There is much debate about just how good his stuff is, or how injury-prone his delivery makes him, but this is a case of just having to trust the Braves' front office. Considering the men Davies replaced from the "Top Brave Pitching Prospect" slot -- Jose Capellan and Dan Meyer -- had a combined 2.67 ERA in 104 innings last year, expect Davies to have success.
Beating out Davies for the IL's best pitching prospect is Brandon McCarthy, one of the 2005 Cactus League stars. Ken Rosenthal has talked about how McCarthy had one of Arizona's best breaking pitches, making some wonder how it will break out of the desert. Great control and a serious out pitch will likely mean that McCarthy won't get to 15 starts before getting called up; Jon Garland and Jose Contreras have very little room for error.
Playing behind McCarthy will be Brian Anderson, the White Sox former first-round pick. If it is fair to say Kyle Davies allowed the Braves to trade Capellan and Meyer, than Anderson's presence was enough to deal Jeremy Reed. There is not a lot that Anderson does wrong, and playing a full season at the minors' highest level should do a lot for his stock. My belief is that Aaron Rowand will regress considerably this year, opening the door for Anderson in 2006. An increase in power will make him one of baseball's top twenty prospects quickly.
Curtis Granderson will be standing in Anderson's way for the IL CF All-Star spot. The latter should win, but Granderson will also set himself up for a 2006 job. I believe that moving out of Erie will significantly decrease Curtis' OPS, but if he proves to be the player he was in August, I'll be proven wrong. He could platoon with Craig Monroe by season's end, setting himself up for a full-time job once he proves he can hit southpaws.
One prospect that has already proven everything that he can is Ryan Howard from the Phillies. Jim Thome is putting the bat-block on Howard's development, prompting the first baseman to ask the Phillies for a trade. He and Marlon Byrd make a very good combination, giving Ed Wade a serious bargaining chip in negotiations. There aren't a lot of bad teams that couldn't use Howard, though I must say that I'm far less confident in his abilities than a lot of people.
On the other hand, Francisco Rosario of the Blue Jays is a player that I am higher on than most. The big right-hander is pretty assured of landing some role with the Blue Jays in the next two years, and this will be the season to decide whether that will be in the rotation or the bullpen. This being his second season back from arm surgery, I expect Rosario to have his best year yet in Syracuse.
His battery mate will be, when fully recovered from a minor injury, Guillermo Quiroz. A great prospect before 2004 that lost a lot of value this year, the Blue Jays still believe that Quiroz will be their everyday catcher in 2006. Quiroz has both defense and power, but will be overshadowed (again) by the Skychiefs' shortstop. Aaron Hill takes over those duties from Russ Adams this year, the man he expects to compete with in a year. I like Hill at short and Adams at second, making Orlando Hudson the man dealt for pitching.
Edwin Encarnacion is a one-time shortstop that has already made the switch, one over to the hot corner. Encarnacion was probably not pleased to see Joe Randa -- who he is set to replace in 2006 -- start the season so well, but it should not stop the Reds from bringing up Edwin fairly soon. If anything, Randa should give Cincy a good person to trade (with Griffey?) in July, when Edwin should be ready. But I have noticed the Cincinnati front office is not too high on Encarnacion, indicating he might be the odd man out. Man, could you imagine what a Encarnacion/Wily Mo Pena package would yield?
Maybe that could allow Minnesota to make a trade, as they are finding far more depth in the rotation that they would have imagined. Scott Baker pitched extraordinarily well in Spring Training, prompting some to wonder if he had moved ahead of J.D. Durbin on the organizational depth chart. The two will slug it out in the next two months, waiting for a chance to break the rotation. Durbin could also become a reliever, adding to what Peter Gammons has already coined the deepest power bullpen in baseball.
It's poise, not power, that makes Zach Duke one of the Pirates best prospects. The soft-throwing southpaw drew the repsonsibility of facing Curt Schilling in his opener, and was not overshadowed, besting the superstar in a game yesterday. Duke will be called up the second he shows that the International League is not a problem for him, which should not be long. Seldom should you listen to Tom Glavine comparisons, but Duke might be the exception to the rule.
One final player to watch in the International League is Ryan Garko, the Matt LeCroy/Josh Phelps-type hitter from the Indian system. Where Garko fits into the Indians future is a bit in question, but they will not give up on that bat. Garko will be joined in Buffalo by Brandon Phillips, who lost the SS battle with Jhonny Peralta. After looking good in the league last year, Phillips only has so many more things to prove until he moves to another organization. It also looked as if neither of these players would be the best Bison, as only a Juan Gonzalez injury saved Grady Sizemore from being sent down. Why the Indians would make this decision is beyond me -- Sizemore could be the best of the Cleveland outfielders -- but I have also learned to always trust Mark Shapiro.
Who I cannot trust, however, is Chuck Lamar. The Devil Rays decided during Spring Training that B.J. Upton, who should be a household name by now, will go back to Durham. What the Devil Rays should have done was keep Upton at shortstop, move Lugo to second, and the red-hot Cantu to third. Alex Gonzalez might have a home run already this season, but call me crazy, I don't think he'll be around when Delmon Young is ready to turn this team into a contender.
I have no doubt that this season, dozens of good players will stroll through the International League. Will Carroll, just another IL fan constantly disgusted with the quad-A talent he sees, will find this year a welcome contrast. And in 2006, we will all find the Majors a stark contrast with dozens of young players...all of whom came from triple-A.