Kolten Wong and Nolan Arenado have done nothing to dim their respective prospects stars thus far in 2012. Wong, a 21-year-old second baseman in the Cardinals organization, is slashing .368/.442/.605 with a home run, eight RBI and a steal through 10 games at Double-A. He merely hit .335/.401/.510 in 47 games last season at Low-A, skipping High-A in the process. Meanwhile, Arenado just turned 21 on Monday and is hitting .390/.479/.610 with a home run and nine RBI through 11 games, also at Double-A. Arenado led the minors with 122 RBI last season and was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League to boot. These two phenoms are among the best infield prospects in baseball and could debut in the bigs by the end of 2012.
Let's see who else is surging, and who has seen better days. Behold, this week's Minor League Barometer.
A.J. Griffin, P, OAK – A converted reliever, Griffin had a breakout, yet largely unnoticed, 2011 campaign, compiling a 3.47 ERA and 156:32 K:BB ratio in 160.2 innings between an astounding four levels. He's been lights out to begin 2012, posting a 1.08 ERA and 25:3 K:BB ratio through 16.2 innings for Double-A Midland. Opposing batters are hitting a paltry .158 against the 24-year-old righty. At 6-foot-5, 215, Griffin has a nice frame, though his fastball leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, a stellar change-up and the development of a cutter has Griffin dismantling the competition with an eye toward a promotion to Triple-A. Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock still have more upside, but Griffin is certainly a prospect to monitor for the A's.
Tyler Townsend, 1B, BAL – The power-hitting first baseman is off to a stellar start for Double-A Bowie, slashing .297/.422/.622 with four home runs and 11 RBI through 10 games. The 2009 third-rounder had an excellent, albeit shortened 2011 season, hitting .312/.356/.580 with 14 home runs and 58 RBI in 72 games, mostly at High-A. The 23-year-old has shown improved plate discipline thus far in 2012 as well, drawing eight walks over the first 10 contests for the BaySox. If he can stay healthy (hamstring and wrist issues in the past), Townsend could get a cup of coffee with the big club in September, though a 2013 debut is more likely.
Brad Hand, P, MIA – Hand was rushed to the big leagues last season, and it showed in his performance. Just 21 in 2011, Hand skipped Triple-A altogether and accumulated a dismal 1-8 record, 4.20 ERA and 38:35 K:BB ratio in 12 starts for the Fish. Back at Triple-A, Hand looks more comfortable to begin 2012 with a 2.76 ERA and 20:7 K:BB ratio through three starts for the New Orleans Zephyrs. Keep in mind that Hand is still just 22. With Josh Johnson injury prone and the volatile Carlos Zambrano in the mix, Hand could be back up in the Miami rotation sooner rather than later.
Cody Buckel, P, TEX – Buckel has the chance to be a star in an already loaded Texas farm system. He won't turn 20 until June, but that hasn't stopped the 6-1, 170, righty from dominating High-A. Buckel has yet to allow a run in two starts at Myrtle Beach, scattering four hits, walking three while fanning 16 over 10 innings. He induces ground balls at an absurd 3.00 GO:AO rate, while limiting opposing batters to a putrid .125 BAA. Kenny Powers, eat your heart out: Myrtle Beach just might have a new sheriff in town. At least for the next couple of months before Buckel's likely promotion.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B, BOS – Middlebrooks is caught in a numbers game for the Red Sox. He is raking to begin the year at Triple-A, batting .333/.347/.583 with three home runs, 11 RBI and two steals through 12 contest. However, where does he get time at the big-league level? Adrian Gonzalez will be at first for the foreseeable future, and Kevin Youkilis will man third as long as he stays healthy. David Ortiz is a full-time DH, one of the few remaining in the American League. That leaves Middlebrooks all dressed up with no place to go. Certainly Youkilis could find himself on the disabled list at any moment, but even then the Red Sox could decide to use a player like Mike Aviles at third and call up Jose Iglesias. In other words, Middlebrooks remains a standout prospect, but regular playing time at the top level does not appear to be in his near future.
Telvin Nash, 1B, HOU – Nash has been knocking the cover off the ball for High-A Lancaster, hitting .326/.408/.767 with six home runs and 11 RBI through 11 games for the JetHawks. However, he's fanned 14 times over that span, and has never hit above .274 in his three-plus years in the minors. Add in that Nash is blocked by Jonathan Singleton, the 'Stros best prospect, who plays at Double-A, and it might be best to take a wait-and-see approach with Nash. Make sure that the 21-year-old can sustain this type of production over the long haul before snatching him up.
Jake Marisnick, OF, TOR – Marisnick is a Barometer favorite, a rare five-tool talent with excellent plate discipline to boot. His line in 2011 was dreamy: .320/.392/.496 with 14 home runs, 77 RBI and 37 stolen bases at Low-A. He's had an average start at High-A Dunedin in 2012, slashing .238/.400/.429 with 11 strikeouts, three RBI and three steals. It will be interesting to see if Marisnick's power translates at the higher levels; that appears to be the only part of his skill set that may not end up as an outstanding tool. He definitely has pop and time to mature, but projections are a fickle game in this business. Keep him on your radar, though, as he could end up as one of the most coveted phenoms in the game.
Jiwan James, OF, PHI – James is hitting .324/.325/.622 with two home runs, six RBI and one steal through 12 games for Double-A Reading. The downside? He's fanned 14 times while drawing just one measly walk. Likewise, James has never hit above .270 at any level and has never had more than five dingers in a year. He's also been punched out at least 120 times each of the last two years. Has James finally turned the corner? Or is this merely a temporary hot streak, with a regression back to the mean coming shortly? Stay tuned to find out.
Dellin Betances, P, NYY – Instead of giving their young guns a chance to shine in the rotation, the Bronx Bombers continue to bring in outside help. With Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda joining the staff in the offseason, Betances and fellow Triple-A rotation mate Manny Banuelos will be forced to bide their time once again in the minors. Andy Pettitte is making a surprise comeback too, further diminishing the chances for the "Killer B's" to make an impact at the major league level in 2012. Betances is making the decision even easier for the Yanks, as he has a bloated 10.38 ERA and 13:11 K:BB ratio through 13.0 innings for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The 24-year-old could end up as trade bait if the Bombers consider him expendable; he is viewed as having less upside than the left-handed Banuelos.
Rymer Liriano, OF, SD – It's been a slow start for Liriano, one of 2011's breakout stars. After swiping 66 bags last year, the 20-year-old has failed to steal a single base through 10 games in 2012. He is also batting just .222/.293/.250 with no home runs. He's struck out an absurd 16 times to begin the season as well. Don't write him off just yet, but it is worth noting that Liriano has fanned at least 100 times in three of his four minor-league season. A dangerous red-flag for a lead-off hitter.
Joe Benson, OF, MIN – As if starting the season by getting swept by the Orioles wasn't bad enough, one of the Twins' best prospects has had a rough beginning to his year. The former organizational prospect of the year is hitting .205/.294/.273 with two RBI and two steals for Triple-A Rochester. In 2011, Benson flashed his potential with Double-A New Britain, batting .285/.388/.495 with 16 home runs, 67 RBI and 21 steals in 111 games. The 24-year-old even played 21 games for the big club in September. However, thus far in 2012 he has been punched out 11 times in 12 games, after hitting just .216 in winter ball. Minnesota is struggling, but so is Benson, meaning he'll spend more time in Triple-A honing his craft for now.
Casey Crosby, P, DET – Another player with a rough 2012 premiere, Crosby has been lit up for 11 runs on nine hits in just 7.0 innings for Triple-A Toledo. Crosby has fanned seven batters over that span, though he issued six free passes. Crosby missed nearly the entire 2010 season due to injury, and struggled with his command in 2011, posting a 121:77 K:BB ratio in 131.2 innings at Double-A. With a 4.10 ERA last season as well, the 23-year-old hasn't been able to right the ship since that 2009 season when he was named Detroit's Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
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