Spring-training statistics are fairly meaningless, but it's still fun to see which prospects are performing well in big league camps.
Twins third baseman Luke Hughes, Phillies outfielder John Mayberry Jr. and Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo lead all prospects with four homers each. Mayberry, a rare two-time first-round pick, and Trumbo, who tied for the minor league home run lead with 36 last year, could earn some regular-season playing time while Domonic Brown and Kendrys Morales are sidelined.
Reds outfielder Dave Sappelt has followed up his Double-A Southern League batting title (.361) in 2010 by topping prospects with a .522 average this spring. Giants outfielder Darren Ford and Blue Jays outfielder Anthony Gose rank first among all players (prospects or big leaguers) with seven steals each, no surprise considering their blazing speed.
Three pitching prospects sport unblemished ERAs in nine or more innings of work: Orioles lefthander Zach Britton, who has the best sinker in the minors; Athletics righthander Tyson Ross, who surprisingly made Oakland's Opening Day roster last April; and Marlins righty Elih Villanueva, a finesse specialist who led the Southern League with a 2.26 ERA in 2010.
Dustin is right in stating that scouts don't hand out many 80 grades. Some scouts believe that only the very best player in any particular tool merits an 80, and everyone else has to settle for a 75 or less.
Harper actually has two 80 tools, as his arm also earns top grades. Other minor leaguers with 80 tools: Giants outfielder Gary Brown, Astros outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. and Reds shortstop Billy Hamilton (all speed); Royals righthander Jeremy Jeffress (fastball velocity); and Cubs infielder Junior Lake (arm). It's easier for a minor leaguer to rate an 80 for a purely physical tool than for one where skill is involved, such as hitting, defense or mastering a particular pitch. Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley may be the best pure hitter in the minors, and Red Sox shortstop Jose Iglesias could be the best defensive infielder, but I'd be reluctant to hang an 80 on either.
At the major league level, Ichiro, Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols are all 80 hitters. Josh Hamilton, Pujols and Mike Stanton have 80 power. Michael Bourn has 80 speed. Franklin Gutierrez, Yadier Molina and Ryan Zimmerman are 80 defenders. Adrian Beltre and Ichiro have 80 arms. On the mound, Justin Verlander owns an 80 fastball, Felix Hernandez throws an 80 slider and Tim Lincecum confounds hitters with an 80 changeup.
An outfielder from Gardner-Edgerton High (Gardner, Kan.), Starling isn't the best prospect in the 2011 draft. That would be Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon or UCLA righthander Gerrit Cole. But it's fair to say that Starling has the highest ceiling in the draft.
If Starling realizes his potential, he'll be a five-tool center fielder. He has lots of strength and leverage in his 6-foot-5, 180-pound frame, not to mention above-average speed. Arm strength? He throws 93 mph off the mound, though his future is definitely as a position player. He's also one of the nation's top college quarterback recruits and has accepted a football scholarship from Nebraska, though he's expected to give up the gridiron when he's an early first-round pick in June.
Other draftees with high ceilings include Rendon, who projects as a smaller version of Evan Longoria; Cole, who had the best stuff in the 2008 draft as a high schooler and has become a much better pitcher in three years with the Bruins; and Connecticut outfielder George Springer, who has tools similar to Starling's.
For a team with a $200 million-plus payroll, the Yankees certainly have a lot of questions in their rotation behind C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes. A.J. Burnett was a mess by the end of last season, but he has a firm hold on the No. 3 slot for now. That leaves some combination of has-beens Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, never-was Sergio Mitre and prospect Ivan Nova battling for the final two spots.
Banuelos has pitched just three games above Class A, so New York wants to avoid rushing him and would like him to open the season in Double-A. That plan makes a lot of sense, but the Yankees are going to need starting pitching, and I think they'll turn to Banuelos at some point in 2011.
New York has several intriguing starters in the high minors, including Dellin Betances, Andrew Brackman, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren and David Phelps. They all have more upper-level experience than Banuelos, and they all have shouldered heavier workloads than Banuelos, who never has pitched more than 109 innings in a season. Yet I still think Banuelos is best suited to help the Yankees rotation this year, and I believe he'll be the best starter among all their pitching prospects in the long run.
Banuelos has opened eyes in big league camp this spring, with Mariano Rivera telling ESPNNewYork.com that Banuelos is the best pitching prospect he ever has seen. He just turned 20 yesterday, but he already throws in the low 90s, flashes a plus changeup and curveball and shows command and poise well beyond his years.
I don't love the Banuelos/Kershaw comparison, however. When Kershaw was the same age, he threw consistently harder and had more power to his curveball. Banuelos had more polish, though Kershaw wasn't raw by any means. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Kershaw also was much more physical than the 5-foot-11, 155-pound. Banuelos.