Welcome to the September 30, 2010 edition of This Week in Prospects! This week, we’re continuing the countdown of my top 100 prospect list with prospects 80-71. We’ll look at a couple of Indians and Mariners, as well as an Astros prospect (who knew Houston had those?), two players who rebounded from awful 2009s, and a pitcher who spent much of the year in High-A at age 24.
And in we go…
#80.) Hector Noesi, RHP, Yankees (AAA)—Noesi entered 2010 as a fifth starter prospect in High-A at age 23, but he cruised through three levels this year, mainly thanks to his ability to throw consistent strikes.
Noesi features a fairly pedestrian repertoire—90-93 mph fastball, average curve, average change—but he keeps the ball in the zone and down consistently, leading to constantly miniscule walk and homer totals. It’s the same sort of approach that has turned guys like Matt Cain, Ryan Dempster, Tim Hudson, and Scott Baker into solid major league pitchers, and while Noesi may not be Hudson 2.0, he could be a solid second starter (maybe not for the Yankees though, who have several better pitching prospects, not to mention their lofty standards).
#79.) Engel Beltre, OF, Rangers (AA)—Beltre was considered a bust entering the 2010 season, but showed that label to be premature by pounding the ball at a .331/.376/.460 clip in High-A at age 20. Long an impatient hitter, Beltre failed to improve in that regard, but started making better contact, reducing his strikeout rate. He’s a very good defensive outfielder who stole 18 bases this year.
Beltre did return to his old slumping ways upon hitting Double-A (.254/.301/.357), but at age 20, he was way young for that level and has time to figure it out. He has superstar potential, but the power needs to come, and his plate discipline needs a lot of work.
#78.) J.D. Martinez, OF, Astros (AA)—A late-round 2009 draftee, Martinez ripped the ball apart in short-season ball that year and continued his torrid pace in Low-A this season, batting .362/.433/.598. He possesses a good amount of each hitting tool, with 20-30 homer potential along with good contact skills and solid plate discipline.
Skipping over High-A didn’t faze Martinez, who proceeded to hit .302/.357/.407 in Double-A down the stretch, losing a bit of power but still showing the plus contact and discipline. He isn’t a plus defender in the outfield thanks to knee problems that have bugged him for years, but he’s got enough range to be a solid defender in Houston’s small left field once Carlos Lee leaves.
#77.) Felix Sterling, RHP, Indians (Rookie)—At the tender age of 17, Sterling dominated in the Arizona League, whiffing ten batters per nine innings while keeping his walks reasonable and allowing just two homers in 11 starts. Big and projectable, Sterling features advanced velocity for his age and already touches 94-95 mph at age 17. Both his offspeed pitches are advanced as well, and he could end up a truly dominating force. At age 17, it’s too early to push Sterling much higher on this list, but he’s one of the most intriguing low-level prospects around.
#76.) Austin Hyatt, RHP, Phillies (AA)—We go from Sterling to his polar opposite in Hyatt, a pitcher who spent most of the year in High-A at age 24.
Drafted at age 23 in 2009, Hyatt initially was billed as a relief sleeper, but he was moved to starting when the Phillies discovered he could still crank his fastball into the 90’s as a starting pitcher. Hyatt was pushed to High-A for his first full season due to his advanced age, and he responded by whiffing a whopping 156 batters in 124 1/3 innings, good for 11.29 K/9. He walked just 35 batters and allowed only five homers. Pushed to Double-A late in the year, Hyatt whiffed 25 batters in 22 frames, showing he can still draw swings and misses in the upper minors.
The move to the rotation has worked wonders for Hyatt’s changeup, which now pairs with his slider to give the righty two whiff-generating offerings. Reports on his velocity vary, as he fluctuates from the upper 80’s to low 90’s. He’ll need to get the velocity up more consistently to reach his ceiling.
#75.) Rich Poythress, 1B, Mariners (High-A)—Poythress hit .315/.381/.560 in High-A and showed good strike zone control for a slugger, whiffing just 100 times in 123 games. Still, he’s a 23-year-old first baseman who played half his games in High Desert, so there are certainly some caveats to Poythress’ performance. He could develop into a solid middle-of-the-order bat, but isn’t likely to be a star, like a right-handed Adam LaRoche of sorts.
#74.) Bryan Morris, RHP, Pirates (AA)—Like Beltre, Morris bore the “bust” stigma entering 2010, but also shook it with strong performance. Unlike Beltre, however, Morris kept excelling once moved from High-A (where he put up a 0.60 ERA and 40/7 K/BB in 44 innings) to Double-A. At 23, it was certainly time for the oft-injured former top prospect to turn in a performance like this. He still throws a crisp 91-94 mph fastball and a hammer curveball, and his command has come a long way since his 43/46 K/BB debacle of 2009. If Jameson Taillon can wind up the Pirates ace, maybe Morris can be his sidekick.
#73.) Nick Weglarz, OF, Indians (AAA)—Another slugger type, Weglarz beats out Poythress because he spent much of the year two levels higher despite being four months younger, and he plays a more difficult position. Weglarz doesn’t have much defensive value either—he’s a passable left fielder, and that’s it—but he’s essentially Jack Cust with fewer strikeouts, and that’s valuable.
#72.) Deryk Hooker, RHP, Cardinals (High-A)—Hooker isn’t brought up much when discussing top pitching prospects, but he’s sneaking into the conversation thanks to a fantastic 2010 split between both A-ball levels. He posted a 2.40 FIP in Low-A and kept it at 2.55 in High-A, thanks to a 90-94 mph fastball, plus curve, and solid changeup. At just 21 years old and set to start 2011 in Double-A, Hooker’s ahead of his timetable despite dealing with a 50-game drug suspension in 2009. He’s got a similar repertoire to Adam Wainwright, which should make Cardinals fans giddy.
#71.) Dustin Ackley, 2B, Mariners (AAA)—Some prospects are easier to rank than others. Weglarz, for example, is a pretty standard-issue walks and power guy. Others are more difficult because of their unusual circumstances. Ackley is certainly one of the toughest to rank in this year’s list.
On the surface, he’s a 22-year-old defensively-challenged second baseman who hit .260/.386/.381 in Double-A and .274/.338/.439 in Triple-A. Hardly top 100 material, right?
But, of course, he’s a former #2 overall pick who was dropped straight into Double-A, with a position switch from first base to second base on top of that. Ackley was miserable early in the year before picking himself up and turning in respectable numbers. Thanks to his pedigree and turnaround, many people rank Ackley much higher than this.
I’m splitting the difference. The big question here is whether Ackley holding his own early in his pro career means he’ll explode now that he has experience, or simply continue in this path. If he explodes, we’re talking about a stud leadoff hitter who’s always on base: a .310/.410/.450 type hitter. If not, then Ackley’s probably just a workmanlike starter a la Mike Fontenot, which is hardly interesting. I do worry about his K/BB going from 41/55 in Double-A to 38/20 in Triple-A. Sure, his power went up, but that’s largely due to the difference in environments. After one year of pro ball, there’s still a slew of directions Ackley’s career could go. It may not be until 2013 before the Mariners can truly know what they have in him.