Prospect Hot Sheet (May 3): Jonathan Villar’s Bat Perks Up At Triple-A

Each Friday, the Prospect Hot Sheet examines which prospects had the best week, weighing raw performance, prospect status, age compared to level and the environment in which they play. Bear in mind that this is not a re-ranking of our preseason Top 100 Prospects list—it’s a snapshot of top performances by prospects during the period April 26-May 2.

Contributing: Ben Badler, J.J. Cooper, Matt Eddy and Jim Shonerd.

See also: Prospect Hot Sheet Chat with Jim Shonerd begins at 3 p.m. ET.

1. Jonathan Villar SS, ASTROS
Jonathan VillarTeam: Triple-A Oklahoma City (Pacific Coast)

Age: 22.

Why He’s Here: .556/.586/.963 (15-for-27), 7 R, 3 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 10 RBIs, 1 BB, 6 SO, 5-for-5 SB

The Scoop: Villar is a tricky prospect to figure out. Scouts give him 60 or better grades for both his speed and his arm strength, yet he remains error-prone in the field. His bat has never been his calling card, but he’s an athletic switch-hitter who has flashed moments at the plate that make you believe there could be a major league starting shortstop here in the very near future. If he keeps hitting this way—he’s up to .314/.357/.495 in 27 games—he could be in Houston before the end of the year.

Jonathan Villar’s Statistics
2. Danny Salazar RHP, INDIANS
Danny SalazarTeam: Double-A Akron

Age: 23.

Why He’s Here: 2-0, 0.00, 11 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 21 SO

The Scoop: For the first five years of his career, Salazar never did much to generate attention in the scouting community. Part of that was due to injuries, including a Tommy John surgery that cost him nearly all of the 2010 and ’11 seasons. Last year his fastball rose up and started to peak in the high 90s. Now he’s taken the next step, missing more bats than ever as he’s dominated Double-A hitters. Through 28 2/3 innings, Salazar has a 2.83 ERA, 13.5 strikeouts and 2.8 walks per nine innings. The Indians don’t have much pitching in their system, so Salazar’s emergence could be huge for the organization.

Danny Salazar’s Statistics
3. Garin Cecchini 3B, RED SOX
Garin CecchiniTeam: high Class A Salem (Carolina)

Age: 22.

Why He’s Here: .526/.591/1.158 (10-for-19), 1 HR, 3 2B, 3 3B, 7 RBIs, 5 R, 3 BB, 3 SO, 3-for-3 SB

The Scoop: If not for Miguel Sano’s hit parade in the Florida State League, then Cecchini would be the most recognized hot-starting prospect at the hot corner this season. His big week pushed his Carolina League-leading average to .391, and he also leads the circuit in on-base percentage (.480) and extra-base hits (16). Cecchini hit four home runs all last season at low Class A; this season, he has three in April alone.

Garin Cecchini’s Statistics
4. Nick Kingham RHP, PIRATES
Nick-Kingham-mug-2013Team: high Class A Bradenton (Florida State)

Age: 21.

Why He’s Here: 1-0, 0.00, 1 GS, 6 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 13 SO

The Scoop: Kingham tends to run hot and cold, but his stuff is good enough to dominate when he’s dialed in. Such was the case on Sunday against Brevard County, when Kingham fanned 13 of the 21 hitters he faced and allowed just three hits, all of them singles. He’s at a peak right now (2 earned runs in his last 17 innings), and the next step will be for him to not let the valleys get too low.

Nick Kingham’s Statistics
5. Drew Gagnon RHP, BREWERS
Drew GagnonTeam: high Class A Brevard County (Florida State)

Age: 22.

Why He’s Here: 2-0, 0.00, 12.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 SO

The Scoop: Milwaukee’s third-round pick in 2011, Gagnon made steady progress last year split between low Class A Wisconsin and Brevard County. In his return to the Florida State League, Gagnon had been getting battered around until his last two starts, including his seven perfect innings with 10 strikeouts on Wednesday. While his 5.59 ERA is unsightly, his 32-11 K-BB mark through 29 innings is more palatable.

Drew Gagnon’s Statistics
6. Tyler Collins LF, TIGERS
Tyler CollinsTeam: Double-A Erie (Eastern)

Age: 22.

Why He’s Here: .370/.414/.926 (10-for-27), 4 HR, 3 2B, 9 RBIs, 7 R, 2 BB, 6 SO

The Scoop: Collins started the season in a terrible funk, hitting just .167 (7-for-42) through his first 13 games for Erie. But he’s too polished as a hitter to stay that far down for long, and he’s reeled off a nine-game hitting streak since April 21. His approach is geared more for doubles than homers, but went yard in three straight games this week, capped off by a two-homer game on Thursday.

Tyler Collins’ Statistics
7. Anthony Ranaudo RHP, RED SOX
Anthony RanaudoTeam: Double-A Portland (Eastern)

Age: 23

Why He’s Here: 2-0, 0.79, 2 GS, 11 1/3 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 HR, 1 BB, 13 SO

The Scoop: All of a sudden, we’re getting to see the Ranaudo that dominated the Southeastern Conference back in 2009. It’s been a long and often injury-filled trek for the righthander since then. But now that he’s feeling good and he’s improved his delivery, his fastball is back to a 93-97 mph blowtorch instead of the low-90s Zippo he’s shown much of the past few years. With a 1.00 ERA after five starts, the biggest thing Ranaudo needs to show now is that he can stay healthy and keep this up.

Anthony Ranaudo’s Statistics
8. Jesse Biddle LHP, PHILLIES
Jesse BiddleTeam: Double-A Reading (Eastern)

Age: 21.

Why He’s Here: 0-0, 0.00, 1 GS, 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 10 SO

The Scoop: The jump to Double-A is supposed to be hard, but it’s been a breeze for Biddle. After topping last week’s Hot Sheet, his only start of this week wasn’t quite as amazing but was still pretty darn great. Biddle leads the minors in opponent average (.114), and if you take out his April 10 start in which he allowed five runs in six innings, he’s allowed two runs on eight hits in his other 25 frames.

Jesse Biddle’s Statistics
9. Francisco Lindor SS, INDIANS
Francisco-Lindor-mug-2013Team: high Class A Carolina (Carolina)

Age: 19

Why He’s Here: .423/.500/.654 (11-for-26), 1 HR, 3 2B, 6 RBIs, 3 R, 3 BB, 3 SO, 0-for-1 SB

The Scoop: We’re only a month into the season, but it might be time to get excited about Lindor’s future. We mean, really excited. Franchise player excited. Beyond the surface numbers—he’s hitting .347/.418/.510 through 98 at-bats—Lindor has the underlying skills to back up this level of production. The 2011 first-rounder has a walk-to-strikeout ratio of 11-to-13 in 26 games to go with seven steals in nine tries.

Francisco Lindor’s Statistics
10. Miguel Almonte RHP, ROYALS
Miguel-Almonte-2013-mugTeam: low Class A Lexington (South Atlantic)

Age: 20.

Why He’s Here: 1-0, 0.00, 1 GS, 6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 9 SO

The Scoop: For a pitcher with fewer than 30 innings in the U.S. coming into the season, Almonte hasn’t taken long to get acclimated to the South Atlantic League. His fastball sits 92-93 mph and touches 96, which means on nights where his plus changeup is working, like it was on Wednesday, he’s a very tough matchup for low Class A hitters. Next on the to-do list for Almonte is to refine his curveball, which flashes signs of being a plus pitch in the bullpen but has yet to successfully make the trip from the bullpen to the mound.

Miguel Almonte’s Statistics
11. Darin Ruf LF/1B, PHILLIES
Darin RufTeam: Triple-A Lehigh Valley (International)

Age: 26.

Why He’s Here: .429/.455/1.000 (9-for-21), 6 R, 3 2B, 3 HR, 1 BB, 4 SO

The Scoop: If you want to call this a slow start for Ruf, remember that he hit just two home runs in 23 April games last year. Of course, he went wild with 20 homers in August and finished with 41 between Reading and Philadelphia. This year Ruf has gone deep four times to produce a .264/.313/.495 line, and while he’s already 26 and limited defensively, his bat could help a big league lineup.

Darin Ruf’s Statistics
12. Maikel Franco 3B, PHILLIES
Maikel-Franco-2013-mugTeam: high Class A Clearwater (Florida State)

Age: 20.

Why He’s Here: .375/.444/.875 (9-for-24), 3 HR, 3 2B, 10 RBIs, 6 R, 2 BB, 3 SO

The Scoop: Scouts may worry about whether Franco’s at-times long swing will allow him to unleash his raw power against advanced pitching, but he’s been more than a match for FSL pitchers (and the league’s cavernous ballparks) thus far. His three homers this week moved him into a tie for second in the league with five, while he leads the league in doubles (12) and is tied with Miguel Sano (who else?) for the RBIs lead with 25.

Maikel Franco’s Statistics
13. Oscar Taveras CF, CARDINALS
Oscar-Taveras-2013-mug-bmTeam: Triple-A Memphis (Pacific Coast)

Age: 20.

Why He’s Here: .435/.500/.783 (10-for-23), 3 R, 2 2B, 2 HR, 6 RBIs, 2 BB, 3 SO

The Scoop: It was a quiet April for Taveras. After a spring training where he showed the Cardinals that he looks ready for a big league job, he dealt with the cold reality that there’s not room in the St. Louis outfield for him—yet. Taveras hit a light .267 over the first two weeks of the season, but since then he’s returned to his normal form, spraying line drives all over the park while every now and then driving a ball over the wall.

Oscar Taveras’ Statistics

IN THE TEAM PHOTO

Byron Buxton, cf, Twins. Last year’s No. 2 overall pick has been worth the price of admission all by himself at low Class A Cedar Rapids. The five-tool center fielder added two more homers this week, one of them victimizing Blue Jays prospect Roberto Osuna, as part of a .304/.469/.696 (7-for-23) showing that also included a whopping eight walks and three stolen bases.

Kyle Gibson, rhp, Twins. If the Twins need starting-pitcher help at some point this summer, Gibson should be ready and waiting. He’s only had one awful start in his first five appearances at Triple-A Rochester this spring and he’s had three really good outings, like the one he threw this week (zero runs in 6 2/3 innings with seven strikeouts and two walks). The 25-year-old has shown no lingering effects from his Tommy John surgery and by all accounts looks just about big league ready.

Cesar Hernandez, 2b, Phillies. He lacks power, but the 22-year-old Venezuelan possesses every other attribute you’d want out of a big league second baseman, including plus range, good wheels and strong bat-to-ball skills. Hernandez is a bit of a sleeper prospect, but he won’t be for long if he strings together more weeks like the one he just completed for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. The switch-hitter went 10-for-24 (.417) with a homer, two triples and four walks while stealing five bases in five tries.

Kyle Lobstein, lhp, Tigers. No one loves Rule 5 picks more than Baseball America—well, with the possible exception of the Tigers, who brought two of them to big league camp this year. Jeff Kobernus made it to the final round of cuts before being returned to Washington, but the Tigers worked out a deal with Tampa Bay to retain Lobstein, a 23-year-old lefty and second-round pick five years ago. Detroit had envisioned a future left-on-left reliever, but Lobstein has a 2.89 ERA through six starts at Double-A Erie this season after tossing 15 two-run innings this week with a 14-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Matt Olson, 1b, Athletics. Olson was hitting a meager .164 though April 22, but he had three hits on April 25 and has found his rhythm since. The 19-year-old began showing his raw power this week, connecting for his first two homers of the year while batting .375 (9-for-24) and adding four doubles and seven walks.

Jorge Polanco, ss, Twins. A smooth defender with a light bat when he signed in 2009, Polanco’s hitting continues to move in the right direction. The 19-year-old is hitting .337/.369/.474 in 24 games in the low Class A Midwest League.

Yordano Ventura, rhp, Royals. It’s been a good April for the Royals, with the big league club holding onto first place in the AL Central, the development of Almonte, Chris Dwyer’s return to form and the continued development of Ventura. The short righthander may still end up in the pen, but the Royals are looking to give the 21-year-old every opportunity to start, and on weeks like this one, where he tosses five scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts and only one walk at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, it’s not hard to see him using his 95-plus mph fastball as a starter long-term.

PROMOTE HIM

Tom Murphy, c, Rockies. He’s played just 16 games due to injury, so while it’s a small sample, low Class A doesn’t appear to be much of a challenge for Murphy, the 22-year-old who was the Rockies’ third-round pick last year out of Buffalo. He’s taken advantage of Asheville’s cozy home park for five homers in eight home games, and he’s batting a robust .407/.522/.944 after 54 at-bats. He went 6-for-12 with three homers and four walks this week, extending his hitting streak to 12 games.

NOT HOT

Cody Buckel, rhp, Rangers. Buckel hit rock bottom last Saturday for Double-A Frisco, when he couldn’t record an out and gave up six runs on one hit, three walks and two hit batters. The Rangers responded by sending him to the bullpen so he could work the mechanical issues that have turned a reliable strike-thrower into a guy handing out walks left and right. Unfortunately, Buckel’s first relief appearance Wednesday went little better. He allowed three walks in one-third of an inning. His 28 walks on the year are the second most in the minors.

Fred Ford, 1b, Royals. In the 2013 Prospect Handbook, we wrote that Ford would struggle to maintain his power production if he didn’t tame his long swing. As Ford rides a current 0-for-27 streak that includes 13 strikeouts, its clear the 21-year-old still has a lot of work to do on that swing.

Taylor Jungmann, rhp, Brewers. After years of struggling to develop starting pitching, four of the six Brewers starting pitchers this season are homegrown. That helps take a little off the sting of what up to now has been a rough start for the club’s pair of first-round picks in 2011. Jed Bradley (selected 15th overall) is struggling in his second try at high Class A Brevard County, while 12th overall pick Jungmann turned in his second awful start in five appearances at Double-A Huntsville, allowing eight runs in 2 2/3 innings. That shellacking was followed by a trip to the disabled list with an as-of-yet unspecified injury.

Shane Watson, rhp, Phillies. You can’t win ‘em all. The Phillies had a terrific month in terms of progress made by pitching prospects—Jonathan Pettibone reached the majors, while Jesse Biddle dazzled at Double-A—but Watson took his lumps on Monday. The 2012 supplemental-round righty allowed four homers over three innings in his start at Asheville, a notorious hitter’s haven in the low Class A South Atlantic League. Give Watson a mulligan for that start and his ERA for Lakewood is a manageable 3.68 in 22 frames.

HELIUM

Austin Barnes, c, Marlins. The 2011 ninth-rounder dabbled at catcher for Arizona State as an amateur and at low Class A Greensboro last season, but for the most part he gravitated toward second base, his natural position. The Marlins are committed to working the 23-year-old Barnes at catcher this season, and with nine appearances behind the plate for high Class A Jupiter, he’s nearly a third of the way to last season’s total of 31. Barnes has some pop and a good feel for the barrel, as he demonstrated this week by going 11-for-26 (.423) with a homer, three doubles and just three strikeouts.