Opening Day is upon us, a brand new season filled with infinite possibilities. Well, unless you're the Royals. Still, the future could even be bright in Kansas City, as the Royals possess arguably the best farm system of all, with prized neophytes like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery all coming down the pipeline.
Unfortunately for K.C., 2011 likely will not be the year that everything comes together for the Royals at the major league level. However, the model for building a successful franchise almost exclusively through the minors is there, most recently as witnessed by the Rays. Tampa Bay created an uber-talented nucleus of Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, David Price, James Shields and the now departed Carl Crawford, all from their minor league crop. The Rays are attempting to continue that trend with Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, Wade Davis and Reid Brignac, among others.
In other words, there's hope for even the most demoralized of squads. Yes, I'm looking at you, New York Mets fans. Without further ado, let's look at this week's Minor League Barometer.
1. Brad Emaus, 2B, NYM - A standout spring by Emaus, a Rule 5 Pick from Toronto, allowed the Mets to release Luis Castillo and go with the unproven 25-year-old as their starting second baseman. Emaus hit .306/.414/.449 with one home run, three RBI and two steals in 49 at-bats in spring training. He's not going to blow anybody away with his physical tools, but he's a competitor with decent power and an excellent eye at the plate. He posted a career-best line last season between Double-A and Triple-A of .290/.397/.496 with 15 home runs, 75 RBI and 13 steals in 125 games. Emaus is by no means an elite prospect, but a starting job at the big-league level at a thin position makes him a prospect to watch.
2. Manny Banuelos, P, NYY - Banuelos won't start the season in the Bronx, but he has an excellent shot at finding his way to the big cub before the end of 2011. Banuelos turned heads this spring with his sneaky fastball and above-average change-up and curveball. The 20-year-old lefty showed poise beyond his years to go with an easy delivery. "Man Ban" fanned 14 batters in 12.2 innings in spring training, posting a 2.13 ERA and holding opposing batters to a .227 BAA. Durability remains the biggest concern for Banuelos, as he has a thin, wiry frame at 5-foot-10, 155, and has not pitched more than 108 innings in a season. Still, with Freddy Garcia the fifth starter for the Bombers, A.J. Burnett a question mark, and over-the-hill veterans like Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood as the only other options, Banuelos could get a chance to crack the rotation sooner rather than later.
3. Brandon Beachy, P, ATL - Beachy deserves come credit here, as most pundits assumed that Mike Minor would win the No. 5 spot in Atlanta's rotation. Instead, Beachy outdueled Minor and will open the season with the Braves, with Minor getting a ticket to Triple-A. Beachy has taken a rather curious path to the bigs, starting as a third baseman, then transitioning to the bullpen before cutting his teeth as a starter in 2010. Over 35 games last season, including 13 starts, Beachy had a 1.73 ERA and 148:28 K:BB ratio in 119.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. Beachy also dominated this spring, posting a 16:4 K:BB ratio in 16 innings while managing a stellar 1.13 ERA. Opponents batted a measly .130 against Beachy. With a big body and three pitches in his arsenal (low 90s fastball, biting curveball, improving changeup), Beachy could shine for the Bravos.
4. Mark Trumbo, 1B, LAA - With Kendrys Morales still hurting, Trumbo will get the starting nod at first base to start the 2011 campaign for the Halos. Trumbo's best weapon is his power, as he crushed 36 home runs and drove in 122 runs in Triple-A last season. Trumbo also managed a career-high line of .301/.368/.577 as well, leaving little left to prove in the minors. On the downside, his plate discipline is only average, and he did strike out 126 times in 139 games with the Salt Lake City Bees in 2010. However, he'll have the luxury to learn from numerous veterans in Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Vernon Wells hitting around him, and will get plenty of at-bats early on with which to knock the ball out of the park.
5. Jerry Sands, OF, LAD - Sands had a breakout campaign last season akin to that of Brandon Belt. The 23-year-old clubbed 35 home runs and collected 93 RBI between High-A and Double-A, while batting .301/.395/.586 overall. Despite getting sent down to Triple-A to begin the 2011 campaign, Sands impressed this spring with a .364 BA, along with two home runs and five RBI in 16 games. The upgrade here comes from LA's weakness in left field. Tony Gwynn Jr. will begin the year as the starter, with Marcus Thames, Xavier Paul and Jay Gibbons all having been in the mix this spring. Not exactly a superstar cast to choose from. If Sands rakes to begin the season, he could power his way into the L.A. starting lineup before long.
6. Jake McGee, P, TB - A graduate of the Tommy John school, McGee is part of the Rays' closer-by-committee approach to begin the 2011 season. After coming back from the 2008 surgery, the 6-3, 230, lefty became a reliever and torched the competition late in 2010, posting a sizzling 0.52 ERA and 27:3 K:BB ratio in 17.1 innings in Triple-A. McGee possesses a high-90s heater and a power curveball. McGee's upside clearly dwarfs that of fellow late-inning relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta, and he did get a cup of coffee in September with the big club as well. With Rafael Soriano and Grant Balfour no longer with the club, the door is wide open for McGee to seize the closer's role.
1. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, SD
2. Julio Teheran, P, ATL
3. Brett Lawrie, 2B, TOR
4. Charlie Furbush, P, DET
5. Jordan Walden, P, LAA
1. Desmond Jennings, OF, TB - Speaking of Tampa Bay, some expected Jennings would immediately step into the shoes vacated by Carl Crawford in the Rays outfield. Instead, the Rays signed Johnny Damon, Jennings batted .154 in spring training and was subsequently sent down to Triple-A. An elite prospect with a superior eye at the dish and blazing speed on both the basepaths as well as in the outfield, Jennings will also have to fight the Rays front office for playing time. Tampa Bay likely will not want to start Jennings' arbitration clock too soon. The 24-year-old also battled a wrist injury last season that sapped some of his power. This is only a temporary downgrade, but Jennings probably won't help your squad for at least the first month or two this season.
2. Chris Sale, P, CWS - Once thought to be the frontrunner to close for the White Sox, Sale lost the job to veteran Matt Thornton. Although Thornton's position as the closer is by no means set in stone, Thornton posted a 9:1 K:BB ratio this spring, but more importantly a 2.16 ERA. At the other end of the spectrum was Sale, who allowed 13 hits and seven runs in 10.2 innings in spring training for a bloated 5.06 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Although Sale has tremendous upside, massive strikeout potential and the ability to step in as closer if Thornton struggles, he proved hittable at times this spring and allowed too many baserunners. Likewise, he may end up as a starter for the White Sox as well, which could dampen his short-term impact. For now, Sale's production will be limited largely to holds and a strikeout or two out of the bullpen.
3. Austin Romine, C, NYY - Romine hasn't necessarily done anything to diminish his stock, but gets a downgrade because he wasn't able to snatch the backup catcher role with the Yanks out of spring training. It appeared to be the perfect opportunity for Romine with Francisco Cervelli injured, since he has superior defensive skills to uber-prospect Jesus Montero. Instead, manager Joe Girardi chose Gustavo Molina, a minor-league free agent. Due to Montero's presence, Romine will be forced to go all the way down to Double-A and continue to bide his time, which may never come with the Yankees. Add to that another stud catching prospect in teen-ager Gary Sanchez, and Romine may not sniff the majors unless it's with another ball club.
4. Matt Dominguez, 3B, FLA - What a difference two weeks makes. On March 14, manager Edwin Rodriguez stated that Dominguez would be the Marlins' starting third baseman if the season started on that date. Dominguez subsequently went into a tailspin, finishing spring training with a .190 batting average and a demotion to Triple-A to begin the season. His future remains bright, with his glove being his best tool. Unfortunately, for fantasy purposes, that remains largely irrelevant. Dominguez hasn't hit above .252 the last two seasons in the minors, with highs of 14 home runs and 81 RBI over that span. It remains to be seen whether he can hit for average at the major-league level, and if he otherwise has enough power to make a pedestrian batting average worthwhile to keep in the lineup. He's still young and could develop into a star, but the uncertainty surrounding his bat prevents him from being considered a truly elite prospect at this time.
5. Thomas Neal, OF, SF - Neal came back down to earth in 2010 after a torrid 2009 season. He batted .291/.359/.440 with 12 home runs, 69 RBI and 11 steals in Double-A. Certainly not terrible numbers, but nothing like his line of .337/.431/.579 with 22 home runs and 90 RBI from 2009. The Giants also have a glut of outfielders, particularly if Brandon Belt makes the squad. Having already been bypassed by Belt, Neal should start the season in Triple-A but may not have the ability to reach the majors for the world champion Giants anytime soon. It is also possible that his season in High-A was his peak, with 2008 and 2010's campaigns much more likely equating to his talents and production.
6. Dee Gordon, SS, LAD - Gordon gets a similar critique as Ben Revere: the lack of power translated to the big-league level is slightly alarming from a fantasy perspective. Gordon's power outage is less of a concern than Revere's because Gordon is an infielder; however, it is still worth noting that Gordon has never hit more than three home runs in any one season. Gordon's tools remind me of Elvis Andrus, but Andrus is two inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier. By comparison, Andrus did not hit a home run last season in the majors. Gordon's batting average has also decreased in each of his three seasons in the minors as the level of competition has improved. In 2008, he hit .331 in the Pioneer League. In 2009, Gordon batted .301. In 2010, the 22-year-old shortstop hit .271 for Double-A Chattanooga. Those banking on Gordon never thought he would be a home run hitter, but the steady decrease in batting average is a concern. It will clearly be tougher for Gordon to use his blazing speed on the basepaths if his ability to make contact suffers. Triple-A should be a decent barometer of his future prospects, but temper your expectations for now.