My journey into the depth of what the coming years will bring in baseball began with the AL East on Monday. That division has a few high-ceiling prospects and under-25 guys that could be stars of baseball and it doesn't hurt that playing in Boston or New York can certainly raise your profile from good player to star in a matter of 1,000,000 All-Star votes you didn't deserve.
The NL East has plenty of interesting storylines of its own. Beyond the starting rotation of the Phillies, the nearly-always-a-mess Mets, and the pitching prospect factory in Atlanta, almost certainly the most interesting development is going on in the nations capital.
Consider that betwen 2006 and 2008, the Nationals had 6 first round picks including 2 in the top 10. The returns so far from those 6 picks have yielded 1.1 fWAR, 1.2 of which came from Ross Detwilers 2009 season. Beyond the disappointment of Detwiler, the former 6th overall pick (Madison Bumgarner was the next left-handed pitcher taken, at number 10), there's plenty of other mistakes that the Nationals won't soon forget.
Maybe none bigger than the failure to sign Aaron Crow in 2008, who may or may not be nothing more than a future closer, something they acquired with their compensation pick the following year in Drew Storen, but is still a black mark on a team that had whiffed on their previous five first round picks going back to just after they drafted Ryan Zimmerman.
The good news is that Zimmerman may finally be able to see a future dynasty being built around him. You won't hear me mention anybody from those 2006-08 drafts for the future of the Nationals, but the top two players under 23 may be property of Washington. And beyond that they reloaded in the 2011 draft with a few more high-upside draft picks, depending on if they sign or not. Perhaps the failure to sign Crow has taught them a lesson. Perhaps it has not.
Let's jump right in and look at the Nats first....
Top Player to Debut in 2010: Stephen Strasburg, SP
I've never heard of this guy, but looking at the numbers it seems like he might be okay. In all seriousness, I can't recall a player in my lifetime that not only came into the league with as much hype, but who was able to somehow outdo the hype. Just a reminder on the numbers: 68 innings, 92:17 K:BB ratio, 56 hits allowed, 2.91 ERA, 2.08 FIP, 2.04 xFIP, devastating fastball/changeup combination, devastating curveball. Strasburg easily showed the potential to follow the line of Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Maddux, as the best pitchers of the modern era.
I am not too concerned about the Tommy John surgery which ended his season early, and has caused him to miss all of 2011. It's been said enough times that medical advances have allowed TJ surgery and the recovery from surgery, to go seamless and smoothly. It's not as good as not having TJ, but it's not horrible either. It's impossible to know for sure when he'll return, or if he'll pitch for the Nationals at all this season, but he has been working out in bullpen sessions and should at least return for 2012. He's still the main piece in the future of the franchise.
Top Player to Also Debut in 2010: Danny Espinosa, 2B
Perhaps slightly overlooked in the organization, because of the presence of two other guys, Espinosa has developed into a power-hitting second baseman who could push his way towards the top of an already-crowded fantasy position. Espinosa didn't exhaust rookie-eligibility last year when he posted a .214/.277/.447 line in 28 games for the Nationals last season, and Baseball America ranked him as the 66th best prospect going into 2011. He has responded by hitting .237/.321/.470 with 13 HR, 43 RBI, and 8 SB. He may always post low batting averages, but his power is for real (40 HR in 275 career minor league games) and the future of the Nats lineup looks very bright which could create many run and RBI opportunities.
Will He Debut in 2012: Bryce Harper, OF
How do you know when a player is good? I think the best example is this: I was slightly disappointed at first when I saw Bryce Harpers most up-to-date numbers. As of June 21st, those numbers are: .330/.429/.586, 14 HR, 45 RBI, 44 R, 13 SB, .256 ISO, .443 wOBA in 64 games.
He's also been playing with a sore thumb that has caused him to miss a couple of games and only get limited duty in the Sally League All-Star game. He's one of the few 18-year-olds in the league, but his OPS ranks 4th overall. It's not likely that he'll stick in Hagerstown for that much longer, and whether he goes to high-A Potomac or double-A Harrisburg will speak volumes as to how quickly the organization would like him to get to the big leagues.
It just so happens that the Nationals have been red-hot lately and could push for a .500 record this year. That most likely won't be the difference in Harper getting a September cup of coffee, but if the Nats see themselves as playoff contenders in 2012, fans will be pleading with the organization to call him up and ignore Super Two. His best-case scenario is probably a midseason callup next year and by 2013 he could be one of the top 20 outfielders in fantasy. (If you think that's too soon, consider the value of Jason Heyward or Mike Stanton.)
Best Prospect Close to the Majors: Derek Norris, C
Norris came into the season rated by BA as the Nats 2nd best prospect after Harper. He dropped out of favor a bit after hitting just .235 last season, but Norris biggest strength isn't his abiity to make contact but rather his ability to get on base without making contact. In 373 career games he has walked 302 times and struck out 351 times. He's also displayed good power with 58 career home runs and a .460 slugging percentage. The big question is whether or not he has a position with the Nats. With Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores already in Washington and only slightly older than Derek, he might be best valued in a trade. If the team decides they want to move him for pitching or depth, he could wind up on a major league roster elsewhere sometime this season or next. He's currently hitting .218/.379/.451 with 9 HR for AA Harrisburg. He could be a good bet for fantasy players, not totally unlike J.P. Arencibia.
Three More Pitchers of the Future: AJ Cole RHP, Brad Peacock RHP and Sammy Solis LHP
Let me make this as brief as possible and wrap up the Nationals.
Solis is a 22 year old lefty drafted in the 2nd round last year. In 5 starts he has a 3.62 ERA, 1.17 WHIP and a 29:11 K:BB ratio in 27.1 single-A innings. He should be promoted to a league better suited for his age.
AJ Cole is a 19 year old righty drafted in the 4th round last year. In 7 starts he has a 3.38 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and a 40:8 K:BB ratio in 32 single-A innings. Cole is a better prospect than Solis, and might force the Nats hand to promote him against more capable competition.
Peacock 41st round pick out of high school in 2006 and one of the big minor league stories of 2011. He got interesting last year when he dominated Potomac (118:25 K:BB in 103.1 innings) but was less interesting after a promotion that saw him walk 22 batters in 38.1 innings. This season he returned to AA Harrisburg and is 8-2, 2.46 ERA, 80.1 innings, 108 K's, 17 bb's, 51 hits allowed. He's not young for the league like Manny Banuelos or Jacob Turner are, but he is not old for the league either at 23. He should see AAA this year and if he adjusts well to that, he could be in the majors early in 2012.
Top Player to Debut in 2010: Ike Davis, 1B
I was a longtime follower of Justin Smoak, so therefore I had to familiarize myself with other first base prospects as well so that I could tell fans of other teams that "Player X" clearly wasn't as good as Justin Smoak. That was no different with Davis, who I considered to be a good prospect but whose bat wasn't nearly as good all-around as Smoaks. I felt there were flaws in his game that would make him a good, but not great, player. While I won't concede that he is better than Justin, he is proving that he's much better than I anticipated.
The 24 year old is hitting ..302/.383/.543, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 20 R, 8 2B for the Mets this season, far outpacing his still-very-good rookie season. I don't know if Davis gets even better from here on out, or if he'll be a steady .900+ OPS player, or if this is his peak, but even more mysterious is the future of the Mets lineup. Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes could be playing their final days in New York and David Wright is always questionable. Davis will almost certainly be the new Mr. Met that the franchise hangs its hat on while they struggle to find an identity and make it back to the playoffs.
Top Player Close to the Majors: Matt Harvey, SP
Harvey was the 7th overall pick in last June's draft and is quickly moving up prospect boards. His professional debut came with high-A St Lucie this season and he's gone 8-2, 2.37 ERA, 92:24 K:BB in 76 innings, 67 hits allowed. A promotion to AA Binghamton has already come, and if the Mets continue to push prospects through the system fast, who knows how soon Harvey may actually be in New York. I won't be surprised to see him make the team in 2012, and he could be a solid top 10 starting pitching prospect by then.
Once upon a time this might have made up the core of the Mets bright future. While I'm not saying that any of these players are done as prospects (far from it) lets round them up and take another look.
The easiest player to evaluate right now is Mejia. Simply put, he'll miss the season with Tommy John surgery. A lot of people disagreed rather vehemently with the Mets decision to put the young pitcher in the bullpen early last season. Nobody can pretend to know for sure if Mejia would be in a better place now if he wasn't jerked around, but the fact remains that he is going to miss a year. He has pitched very well everywhere except New York and is still only 21.
F-Mart was a top 30 prospect for 3 years running and then he fell to 77 on BA's list in 2010 and then fell off of it completely. Truthfully, in my opinion he was overrated for years because he oozed with "tools" but never actually had great numbers. Again, the Mets inexplicably tried to get Martinez to shine in New York far before he was ready. Now, after all that overrating of Martinez and him dropping off the top 100, is he underrated? He's still only 22 which would make him a graduating senior, but he's got 6 years of professional experience. This season Martinez is hitting .281/.338/.414, 4 HR, 15 RBI, 0 SB in 38 AAA games. He may never be the star people thought he would be, but he's still too young to discount as a future regular.
Flores hit .310/.352/.490 in rookie ball when he was just 16 years old and that jumped him to a top 50 ranking by BA headed into 2009. Call me crazy, but isn't it just safer to rank players after they've developed a little bit? I'm not sure the advantage of giving lofty expectations to a minor. He did okay as a 17 year old in the Sally League (.264/.305/.332) and dropped to 88 and then hit .300/.324/.415 at high-A St Lucie last year after a midseason callup. He's hitting .265/.310/.370 with 5 HR and 44 RBI this year, back in St Lucie, and I'm sure if he doesn't pick it up, BA will drop him again.
The moral of the story? Patience. The Mets aren't patient with their young players, and prospect mavens tend to salivate a bit much over tools. If Flores sticks at SS, he could be the best prospect in the bunch because of position eligibility and an expectation that he will become a power-hitting threat as he matures, but that could still be years away. Martinez is running out of chances in New York but he could be playing in the majors somewhere by next year. Mejia probably won't be back in the big leagues until 2013 at the earliest. Flores might be there in 2013 if the Mets continue to look like the Mets, but they should probably wait until 2014.
Top Player to Debut in 2011: Brad Hand, SP
Hand was a 2nd round pick of the Marlins in 2008, and while he may never be a top of the rotation starter, he might be a decent back-end option. He was 7-1, 3.53 ERA, with 44 K's and 27 walks in 63.2 AA innings this year and has made 3 major league starts, going 0-3 with a 3.45 ERA and 10 Ks in 15 innings. Not dazzling numbers, but the lefty is only 21 years old and has room to grow. He's simply the answer to the question: Who is the best player to debut for the Marlins in 2011. He was John Sickels Prospect of the Day recently.
Top Player to Debut in 2010: Mike Stanton, OF
Well, the Marlins went from 9 games over .500 to 9 games under just about as quickly as you can. Perception in baseball is very short-sighted (as well as in most sports) but don't let it fool you into thinking that the Marlins aren't a team on the rise again, and that Mike Stanton isn't the leader of that charge. Stanton has 38 home runs in 168 career games and still doesn't turn 22 until November. Only 14 players in the history of the game have hit 30 or more home runs in their age 21 season and Stanton currently sits at 16 with a little more than half the season left. Those names include some Hall of Famers (Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Matthews) and some not Hall of Famers (Tony Conigliaro, Ruben Sierra, Hal Trosky, Jose Canseco) but you have to like where Stanton is headed.
That Other Guy to Debut in 2010 That's Really Good: Logan Morrison, OF
I don't know if Morrison was underrated because of Mike Stanton (Morrison was a top 20 prospect two years running) but maybe overlooked. He only hit 2 HR in 62 games with the fish last year, but he did smack 20 doubles which all added up to a nice .837 OPS. He's got 9 HR and 28 RBI this year in 53 games and forms a great core with Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, and Hanley Ramirez.
Third Base of the Future?: Matt Dominguez, 3B
The only starters in their 30's on the Marlins are catcher John Buck and third basemen Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms. Those are the only offensive spots where the team is old, really. The good news is that the Marlins drafted a third baseman 11th overall in the 2007 draft out of high school. The bad news is that he isn't hitting yet. Dominguez had a great 2008 season in the Sally (.296/.354/.499, 18 HR, 70 RBI in 88 games) but his OPS has crept to the low .700's for the following 3 seasons. Dominguez is well regarded for his glovework and that could get him to the big leagues before his bat is ready. He's not a rookie you immediately want to go get in fantasy, but he's an interesting option for a few years down the line. He's still only 21.
Top Player to Debut in 2010: Domonic Brown, OF
The Phillies and Marlins represent total opposites in the same division. If Dominguez takes over at third base, then John Buck is potentially the oldest regular hitter at age 30. The youngest regular so far this season on the Phillies is 29 year old Ben Francisco. Everyone else is over 30. But Brown has recovered from an early season injury to get regular playing time for the last month.
The #4 prospect in the game coming into this season, the 23 year old Brown is still looking to find his rhythm in the majors and is hitting just .213/.286/.404 in 94 at-bats with 4 HR, 11 RBI, and 2 SB. He displayed 20/20 ability in the minor leagues and the 20th round steal in the 2006 draft could eventually replace Jayson Werths production. Just be patient.
Top Player Who is Also Important to 2011: Vance Worley, SP
Vance "Refrigeration" Worley wasn't on BA's top 10 Prospect list for the Phillies going into the year. The former 3rd round pick isn't "wowing" scouts. And on Phillies rotation, he'll hardly go noticed. That's probably a good thing, allowing him to just pitch without as much pressure to be an important piece of the team, while getting advice from 4 of the best pitchers in the game. The righty has pitched 29 pretty good innings this season thanks to injuries to the Phillies rotation, striking out 22 and walking 12 and a 3.41 ERA. He was excellent in AAA this season, posting a 2.82 ERA in 8 starts with a 47:12 K:BB ratio. He might not be a star, but in this rotation he won't have to be.
Potential Top Player Left in the Minors: Jonathan Singleton, 1B/OF
Trades, including the one for Roy Halladay, and the whiff on what they acquired from the Mariners for Cliff Lee, have left the system a little bit shallow. The Phillies perhaps aren't too worried about the future, building a more Yankees philosophy by using their resources (#1 in the NL in attendance) to acquire proven major league talent instead. Still, they have at least one high ceiling prospect left in Singleton. At 6'2, 215 and only 19 years old, the hope is that Singleton will get bigger and stronger and turn into a power-hitting machine. Blocked by Ryan Howard, the organization is trying Singleton in the outfield this year, but the bigger concern is the lack of power. He's hitting .254/.373/.355, 4 HR, 27 RBI in 58 high-A games this year. He'll need to pick it up if he wants to still be considered a top prospect (#39 going into the year.)
Other Top 100 Player: Brody Colvin, RHP
Quick rundown: Colvin was a 7th round pick in 2009 out of high school. He jumped to #56 on BA's list this year after posting a 3.39 ERA in 138 single-A innings in the Sally League with 120 K's and 42 walks. Like Singleton, he hasn't been especially good this year after posting a 4.98 ERA, though his FIP is a more reasonable 3.91. Walks are up, strikeouts are down, and he hasn't had one especially dominating start this year.
The Phillies farm system doesn't look great right now and they have graduated their top prospect in Brown. I guess they'll just have to settle for their 4 aces instead.
Top Player to Debut in 2011: Julio Teheran, SP
This isn't a tough one to figure out. The 20 year old Teheran is still considered by many to be the best pitching prospect in the minors and there are a lot of great pitching prospects in the minors right now. He posted a 2.59 ERA over 3 levels last year, perhaps the most impressive part being 10 starts in high-A when he pitched 63.1 innings, struck out 76, walked 13, and 56 hits allowed at age 19. He features 3 above-average to great pitches and has drawn some comparisons to Pedro Martinez. He's gotten 2 spot starts this year, but should be a rotation mainstay by next year as he is domating triple-A right now.
With Teheran, the Braves have no less than 6 pitchers that are 25 or younger that could become very, very good.
Top Player to Debut in 2010: Jason Heyward, OF
Does anybody else hate the Braves? It's not bad enough that they're on TBS, that they have money, power, good professional talent that they also have to have a streamline of amazing prospects? Teheran was the #5 prospect coming into this season, and Heyward was #1 on many prospect lists last year over Stephen Strasburg. He didn't disappoint any at just 20 years old posted a .277/.393/.456 line with 18 HR, 72 RBI, 11 SB, 29 doubles. I personally made him my first pick in my keeper league last year (after our 6 keepers were announed, so basically 7th round) and maybe that's just because I'm too optimistic or anxious or stupid but I figure he's worth the gamble that he'd turn into a top 5 fantasy player.
If it weren't for the nagging injuries, he might be well on his way. But it's because of those injuries that some people are already questioning if he's going to become the star he has the talent to become. Heyward is hitting .223/.321/.398 in 52 games this year with 7 HR and 18 RBI. It's certainly disappointing, but it's far too soon for me to start worrying. If people were hoping he would one day be the next Ken Griffey Jr, he'll need to start acting like the Mariners version and not the Reds version.
Even Another Top Player to Debut in 2010: Freddie Freeman, 1B
Freeman marks the 3rd Brave in this article to be 21 or younger and be a potential stud who is already at the major league level. As I said before, I judged every first baseman in this particular age group against Justin Smoak and I also had my doubts that Freeman would ever hit for as much power as a first baseman should. He hit .319/.378/.521 in triple-A as a 20 year old with 18 HR. That is pretty good. He won the major league job in spring training and has thus far done an admirable job: .269/.337/.419, 7 HR, 27 RBI in 71 games. The 69 strikeouts are concerning but he's still very young and has managed to make it work. In fantasy, I might hesitate to pull the trigger on him next year unless he improves this season, but by 2013 he could be a very attractive option.
4th Player that is 21 or Younger Mention: Randall Delgado, SP
I've seen some mixed opinions on Randall Delgado, but some people believe he's got ace potential and he was ranked 35th by BA going into the year. He's 4-4 with a 3.54 ERA in AA this year 64:26 K:BB ratio in 73.2 innings and he's made 1 spot start for Atlanta. I'm a little concerned with the declining strikeout rate in AA, where he finished last season and has begun this season (8.1 K/9 compared to 9.2 in high-A) but he's still very young.
That Other Young Pitcher: Brandon Beachy, SP
You may be more familiar with Beachy, even though he's considered to be no better than the fourth best pitcher of the bunch and that might be generous. But in 11 major league starts he has 3.34 ERA and 61:19 K:BB in 59.1 innings and 52 hit allowed. Incredibly, Beachy was undrafted and the superior Atlanta scouting reigns again. He was mostly a hitter at Indiana Wesleyan University, so he was virtually unnoticed. Three years later, he's pitching for the Atlanta Braves. Incredible.
That doesn't even come close to wrapping up the Braves incredible flow of 25 and under talent in the last 2 to 3 years, but it does wrap it up for me.