Can you smell it in the air? The freshly-mown grass, the newly sprinkled infield dirt, the aroma of peanuts, crackerjacks and hot dogs streaming through the stands. Baseball is back, and with a new season comes the greatest gift of all: hope. Hope springs eternal indeed, and with that a new era of prospects sprouts up in the minors. With due respect to the Bryce Harpers, Matt Moores and Mike Trouts of the world, this Minor League Barometer will focus on slightly lesser-known phenoms. Those who have perhaps slipped through the cracks, haven't gotten enough publicity or are on the verge of breakout campaigns.
Without further ado, let's open the 2012 season with a look at which minor leaguers are coming in hot, and which could use some love. As always, this list is not meant to be a ranking of minor-league players and is not intended to be all-encompassing. Questions and comments are certainly welcome, though, and in fact encouraged. You can also follow me on Twitter for further prospect analysis: @JesseLSiegel
Yonder Alonso, 1B, SD – Probably a bit obvious right out of the gate, but his move to San Diego frees Alonso up to finally play first base and focus on what he does best: hit. Alonso was blocked by Joey Votto in Cincinnati, and the Reds attempted to find a place for him in the outfield to get his potent bat into the lineup. That didn't really pan out. Even with that distraction, though, Alonso still slashed .330/.398/.545 with five home runs and 15 RBI in 88 at-bats with the big club last September. Although playing in Petco will hurt his power numbers, the prospect out of Miami is not afraid to take a walk and should get his chance to shine with the Padres.
Drew Pomeranz, P, COL – Another player who should lose his minor-league eligibility fairly quickly this season, Pomeranz is pegged as the No. 4 starter for the Rockies despite a recent minor hip flare-up. He's polished and knows the strike zone well. His 6-foot-5, 240, frame should help him as well, as the poised, patient hurler has a vast array of pitches (deadly fastball-curve combo, developing change) that could push him to the forefront of the Colorado rotation sooner than later.
Matt Szczur, OF, CHC – Let's face it; the Cubs figure to be pretty terrible this year. Their starting outfield of Marlon Byrd, Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus isn't exactly making anybody shake in their cleats. Enter Szczur, the former football star who is now a full-time baseball player. Although Brett Jackson, another favorite of the Minor League Barometer, is closer to being big-league ready, Szczur's trending to have a little more power and speed, and fewer strikeouts as well. He needs to learn how to work the count a bit more and draw walks, but he is a contact hitter with a vast array of skills. I would even go as far as to say that he is Mike Trout lite.
A.J. Cole, P, OAK – One of my favorite hurlers, Cole is still not getting enough publicity. His fastball-curve combo is excellent, and he has an extremely projectable frame. He's long and lanky, but with room to fill out. At age 20, the righty will only get better as well. He posted a 108:24 K:BB ratio in 89.0 innings at Low-A Hagerstown in 2011. Cole could be a future ace in my opinion. He came over to Oakland as part of the Gio Gonzalez trade in a deal that significantly boosted the A's farm system. Watch him closely as he moves up the ranks, as this time next year he could be among the top 20 or 25 prospects in the game.
Jean Segura, SS/2B, LAA – Expect a comeback season for Segura, who battled hamstring issues for nearly all of 2011. When healthy, he has an excellent combination of speed and emerging power. In 2010, he hit .313/.365/.464 with 10 home runs, 79 RBI and 50 stolen bases in 130 games. However, in 2011 he played just 52 games due to the aforementioned hamstring problems, which would clearly be of paramount concern for a player like Segura who relies so much on his speed. If he can prove healthy, Segura could vault into elite prospect status. For now, though, he is viewed as a high-risk, high-reward type of neophyte.
Zack Cozart, SS, CIN – I'm still not convinced that Cozart is legit, despite the fact that he will likely start as the Opening Day shortstop for the Reds. He'll be 27 in August, and last year was the first time he hit over .300 over a full minor-league season in his career. He's been tearing the cover off the ball in spring training, but spring stats are not necessarily a reliable bellweather. His glove is certainly MLB ready, and he has some decent speed, as well as pop in his bat. However, I am skeptical that he will become anything more than the stereotypical journeyman National League middle infielder; solid glove, but anything he gives you otherwise is gravy. Certainly not very helpful for fantasy purposes.
Jeurys Familia, P, NYM – On the flip side, I actually like Familia a lot, and he's not as well-known as fellow gunslingers Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler. However, with the Mets' failure to develop much front-line pitching talent in recent memory, as well as Familia's possible conversion to the bullpen in the future, it's tough to bet hard that Familia will be a rousing success as a front-line anchor of a rotation. Again, he has the stuff, but will be given the right opportunities to harness it and ultimately succeed? His mechanics remain suspect at best, and he could need a lot of TLC to command his mid-90s heater and stellar slide piece.
Addison Reed, P, CHW – Mark it down: Reed is the future closer for the White Sox. However, he's on the list here because of Chicago's previously poor handling of another power reliever, Chris Sale. The White Sox rushed Sale to the bigs in the same year he was drafted, and he had instant success. However, he was up-and-down thereafter and couldn't find the strike zone at times. Now he is being converted into a starter. While Reed is of course a different pitcher and person, the questionable handling of similar pitchers in the past makes me wonder if Reed, who should start the year as a set-up man for the White Sox, will suffer the same fate.
Aaron Hicks, OF, MIN – Hicks has been a frequent Downgrade in the past due to his inability to develop as a baseball player. A standout athlete, Hicks has not shown the type of baseball skills to emerge as an elite prospect. He'll take his share of walks, but has not shown much power and is only an average base runner despite above-average speed. He hit just .242 last year in 122 games at High-A to boot. He'll turn 23 this October, meaning that he's not a baby anymore. The No. 14 overall selection in the 2008 draft will have to show significant improvement soon, or risk falling into the failed prospect abyss.
Sebastian Valle, C, PHI – The 21-year-old backstop is simply overvalued because he's a catcher. Valle hit .284/.312/.394 last season, showing poor plate discipline and the sapping of his power. He mashed just five home runs in 91 games, after smacking 16 dingers in 2010. His work behind the dish is improving, but slowly. Valle is certainly still a work in progress and has plenty of time to show his worth. However, if his raw power doesn't translate into home runs, and he can't figure out how to draw walks, where does that leave him? His .284 BA was a career high last season. Perhaps I'm being harsh on this youngster, but he's got a long way to go before he can enter the conversation as an elite prospect.
John Lamb, P, KC – Much like the old saying for the month of March, John's 2011 season went in like a lion but out like a Lamb. After a scintillating 2010 campaign that put him firmly on the prospect map, the 21-year-old lefty was having continued success at Double-A until he hurt his elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery and missed the rest of the 2011 season. At best, he will make an appearance toward the end of this season, but any sort of effectiveness will likely have to wait until 2013. Though many pitchers come back stronger following the surgery, it will be interesting to see if Lamb's command can return to pre-injury status, and if so, how quickly.
Tim Beckham, SS, TB – The former No. 1 pick has not lived up to the billing. The Rays have been extraordinarily patient with him, but now another shortstop prospect is hot on his tail. The slick-fielding Hak-Ju Lee showed off impressive skills with his bat last season, as well as on the basepaths, all just one level below Beckham. Between Double-A and Triple-A in 2011, Beckham had the following hit .271/.328/.408 with 12 home runs, 70 RBI and 17 steals. By contrast, Lee stole 33 bases and hit .295/.365/.416 between High-A and Double-A last year. Beckham's grasp of the strike zone is still mediocre at best; virtually his only advantage on Lee is that he has a bit more power, though not by much. All in all, Beckham has a lot to prove to become a part of the Rays' future plans up the middle of the diamond.