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Minor League Barometer: Early Upgrades, Downgrades

Jesse Siegel

Jesse Siegel

Siegel covers college football, college basketball and minor league baseball for RotoWire. He was named College Sports Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Welcome to the Minor League Barometer, your no-frills source for gauging the landscape of the minor league baseball scene. OK, so there might be some frills along the way. Nevertheless, the focus of the article each week will be on players surging toward making an impact in the majors, and those who are floundering in their attempts to make the big club. Although the crux of the content will be aimed at players in the upper levels, certainly credence will be given to those elite phenoms and prospects at the lower levels with standout performances, as well as those who have caught the injury bug or suffered from an outrageous swoon. The article is not meant to be all-encompassing, or pose as a ranking of the prospects; instead, it is merely a snapshot of who's rising and who's falling at a specific time.

For the first week, we will take a look at prospects who could make an immediate fantasy impact to start the 2011 MLB season. However, we'll give a quick shout-out to 18-year-old neophyte Bryce Harper. While he will not make the Nats squad out of spring training, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder hit .389/.450/.556 through 12 games with Washington in spring training. The Bryce already appears to be right for the Nationals.

Without further ado, here's your first look at the prospect primer for the 2011 season.

UPGRADES

1. Freddie Freeman, 1B, ATL -
With Troy Glaus and Derrek Lee gone, Freeman will be given every opportunity to succeed as the Braves first baseman in 2011. The 6-5 left-handed hitter has been raking so far this spring, batting .364 with a .417 OBP through 11 games. In Triple-A last season, the 21-year-old hit .317/.378/.521 with 18 home runs and 87 RBI in 124 games. Although not a monstrous power hitter, Freeman is still maturing and should get his share of dingers due to his ability to make contact. With less pressure due to the big bats of Brian McCann, Dan Uggla, Jason Heyward and The Artist Formerly Known As Chipper Jones sandwiched around him in the lineup, Freeman could easily be an early frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.

2. Jeremy Hellickson, P, TB -
Hellickson dominated the International League in 2010 before getting a call-up to the bigs last summer. After winning his first three starts in the majors, the 23-year-old Hellickson pitched out of the bullpen in September as the Rays climbed toward the postseason. He finished off 2010 with a 3.47 ERA and 33:8 K:BB ratio in 36.1 innings for the Rays. There's no question that Hellickson will be a starter in 2011 though, as he steps into the rotation in place of the jettisoned Matt Garza. His best pitch is his change-up, though Hellickson has superior control of his fastball too, allowing him to stay ahead in the count on most hitters. He's been battling a slight hamstring injury in the spring, but it does not appear to be serious, and the 6-1, 185-pounder should be good to go for the Rays to begin the year.

3. Aroldis Chapman, P, CIN -
The biggest question mark for Chapman and fantasy owners alike continues to be his role. As of now, he is penciled in as the set-up man and heir apparent to closer Francisco Cordero. It appears more likely that he will end up in a similar situation to Neftali Feliz; bide his time in the bullpen until he can find a way into the rotation. In my opinion, the Reds' front office is also afraid that the combination of Chapman's blazing 103-105-mph fastball, and Dusty Baker as a manager, will lead to arm problems in the future. See Stephen Strasburg last season, or Baker's prior track record with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in Chicago. Regardless, Chapman will start the season as an excellent source of holds and strikeouts out of the 'pen, with saves possibly coming shortly thereafter should Cordero struggle.

4. Kyle Drabek, P, TOR -
Drabek had his breakout year last season, posting a 2.94 ERA with Double-A New Hampshire. Although his walks were a little high (68 in 162 innings), he also fanned 132 batters over that span, and held opposing batters to a .215 BAA. His out pitch is a nasty curveball, but Drabek also can hit 96 on the gun with his fastball. The development of the remainder of his secondary pitches, including a cutter and a change-up, will be critical in the next stage of his development. Lucky for him, the Blue Jays are going with the youth movement, meaning Drabek should get a rotation slot out of camp. He did have three starts for the big cub last September, so pitching under the bright lights shouldn't be a totally foreign experience for him either.

5. Logan Morrison, OF, FLA -
Morrison had less than half of a season with the Fish last season, batting .283 with two home runs and 18 RBI in 244 at-bats in 2010. Morrison's greatest asset remains his eye at the plate; the 6-3, 235, lefty posted a .390 on-base percentage with the Marlins. However, he's still learning to play the outfield after spending the majority of his minor league career at first base, and his power remains questionable. Morrison swatted just six home runs in Triple-A last season in 73 games before the call-up. However, it is possible Logan was still battling lingering wrist issues from a break suffered late in 2009. As a result, Morrison's outlook still remains promising, and a starting OF job is his to begin 2011.

6. Michael Pineda, P, SEA -
At 6-7, 260, Pineda is a man-child. The 22-year-old took Double-A by storm last season, posting a 78:17 K:BB ratio and 2.22 ERA in 77 innings. After being called up to Triple-A midseason, Pineda fanned 76 batters in 62.1 innings at Tacoma. Through seven innings in spring training, Pineda is holding opposing batters to a .192 BAA. Pineda throws an explosive fastball, and has above-average command, but is still a bit raw and will need to harness his slider and change-up to become an elite pitcher. Still, he has the inside track to the fifth starter's spot for a Mariners squad that is likely going nowhere in 2011.

Honorable Mention

1. Mark Trumbo, 1B, LAA
2. Dustin Ackley, 2B, SEA
3. Jesus Montero, C, NYY
4. Chris Sale, P, CWS
5. Desmond Jennings, OF, TB

DOWNGRADES

1. Domonic Brown, OF, PHI -
The right-fielder of the future for the Phils, Brown broke his wrist at the start of March and will miss 4-6 weeks. He was battling with Ben Francisco for the starting job, as former starter Jayson Werth is currently counting his money in Washington. Although Brown should be back by the summer at the latest, there are no guarantees that once healthy, he will automatically be inserted into the starting lineup. The 23-year-old wasn't exactly tearing it up during spring training, garnering just one hit in 16 at-bats before the injury. Brown's potential appears limitless, but it's tough to see him making any impact until mid-season at the earliest.

2. Tanner Scheppers, P, TEX -
Scheppers has a live arm and a fastball that can touch 100 mph at times. The 24-year-old was slated as a Top-10 pick before suffering a shoulder injury around the time of the College World Series in 2008. Last year he appeared to be streamlined toward the majors. He suffered a few setbacks, though, during his first minor league season, both injury-related and otherwise. He was shuffled back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, and missed some time with a hamstring injury as well. Texas likes him as a starter in the future, but he has battled lower back stiffness during spring training. There does not appear to be a timetable for his return at this time. The injury, combined with the need to stretch him out to eventually become a starter, severely limits any possible value that Scheppers had for the big club coming into the season.

3. Jason Kipnis, 2B, CLE -
Although Kipnis is arguably the best hitting prospect for the Indians not named Lonnie Chisenhall, the Tribe has been candid with both players that they are not competing for spots on the Major-League roster - for now. Kipnis is hitting just .143 so far this spring, and has only been playing second base for a year or so since moving from the outfield. Although Kipnis has made the transition rather smoothly, Cleveland signed veteran Orlando Cabrera in the offseason and plans to have him start at second as a tandem with shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. Kipnis has little experience above the Double-A level, and the Indians would like him to hone his skills in Triple-A before getting to the show. As such, Kipnis is looking more toward an end of 2011 debut.

4. Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, SF -
Belt came out of virtual anonymity last season to shoot up the Giants' minor league ranks, hitting a combined .352/.455/.620 between three levels in 2010. The 22-year-old accumulated 23 home runs, 112 RBI and 22 stolen bases, showing a variety of talents in the process. Belt is batting .281/.343/.469 this spring and is getting an extended look for the world champion Giants, a team that has had no qualms with promoting stud prospects quickly. A first baseman by trade, Belt has shown great promise in the outfield as well. However, there may not be an opening for him at this time. Likewise, heed this disclaimer; be wary of under-the-radar prospects following monstrous seasons. It's not that all prospects have to be highly touted, but more that we'd like to see some consistency first to prove that the standout campaign was not an aberration. Belt appears to possess all the raw tools to succeed, as well as the intangibles to back them up. However, one season does not a prospect make. Give Belt some time before making a final assessment.

5. Hank Conger, C, LAA -
Conger has been one of the Halos' most highly-touted prospect for years, a switch-hitting catcher with excellent plate discipline and some power. He hit .300/.385/.463 with 11 home runs and 49 RBI at Triple-A Salt Lake last season. However, there are major concerns about his defense, and he appears to have gap power more than home run power. Conger has been struggling at the plate this spring to boot, hitting just .172/.294/.276 through 26 at-bats. With Mike Napoli gone, there is no longer anybody blocking his path to the bigs, but Jeff Mathis is a superior defensive catcher, and Conger will have to show off his strengths to fend off Mathis and fellow catcher Bobby Wilson, who is 11-for-19 this spring at the dish. The more likely scenario for Conger is more time in Triple-A to sharpen his skills.

6. Chris Carter, 1B/OF, OAK -
In the short-term, Carter is blocked at the major-league level at DH, 1B and LF. On the plus side, none of the players in his path (Hideki Matsui, Daric Barton and David DeJesus, respectively) are superstars, and Carter has more projected power than any of them at this stage in their careers. Still, Carter did not make a good first impression last season, starting his MLB career in an 0-for-33 slump. Not surprisingly as an Oakland prospect, he is patient at the plate, but he hit only .258 at Triple-A last season and fanned 138 times in 125 games at that level. On cue, Carter has slugged three home runs this spring, but is also hitting just .186 with 21 Ks in 24 games. The A's are short on power, but also lacking starting roster slots at this time. Carter is still learning to play the outfield as well, so the best bet would be to send him to Triple-A to improve his defense and get back his confidence with the bat.