While some full-season minor league teams are celebrating All-Star festivities, the short-season leagues are just getting underway. The Hudson Valley Renegades opened their season on Friday, the Gulf Coast League Rays started play yesterday, and the Princeton Rays begin their year tonight. So to get you ready, here's a look at some prospects from those teams to keep an eye on. This list is meant to be a deeper look, so it touches only briefly on the 2011 draftees and the top 2010 selections as most readers here are familiar with those.
Hudson Valley Renegades
This is the highest-level short-season league, so expect college draftees Mikie Mahtook, Grayson Garvin, and Lenny Linsky to report here once signed. Kes Carter, the college outfielder from Western Kentucky, is already on the roster. Here's who else to watch out for:
Juniel Querecuto, SS: He was signed for $500,000 out of Venezuela in July of 2009, but his signing was overshadowed by Cesar Perez, who received $1 million from the same country that same July. Neither player crushed it in the Gulf Coast League last summer, but Querecuto was skipped over Princeton to Hudson Valley this year while Perez is back in the GCL. At 5-9/155, Querecuto has classic shortstop skills which is to say he runs and throws well. The switch-hitting Querecuto put up just a .251/.315/.287 line last season, he only struck out 26 times in 46 games. There's not much power projection due to his size and he'll be a doubles/triples player much more than a home run threat. As of this writing, he's shown a glimpse of why the Rays aggressively promoted him to the NY-PL as an 18-year-old. He has a hit in each of his first four games (including a triple) along with two walks.
Justin Woodall, LHP: He has the most intriguing background of anyone in the short-season leagues. When he earned the save for the 'Gades on Sunday, it was the first time the 23-year-old had pitched in an official game since high school. In between, Woodall attended the University of Alabama where he was a two-year starter at safety on the football team and helped the Tide win the 2009 national title. His NFL prospects didn't pan out, so he returned to baseball and was selected by the Rays in the 26th round last June after reportedly hitting 92 mph in a workout.As a senior in high school in 2006, BaseballAmerica rated Woodall as the best athlete among high schoolers in the baseball draft (second was Jake Locker, who played QB at the University of Washington as was the 8th overall pick in the NFL draft by Tennessee, and third was Jared Mitchell, who went on to play WR at LSU and is a current White Sox farmhand). But Woodall was committed to football and even turned down a $1.6 million offer from the Mets to attend Alabama, where he focused on the gridiron.
BA described Woodall as raw even in high school days, so you can imagine what five years without playing an official game has done. It was obvious in his first appearance with Hudson Valley, when the first pitch he threw hit the batter. He allowed an RBI double, hit another batter, and issued a walk. But lefties with his raw arm strength don't grow on trees, and his fastball seemed to be popping the mitt pretty good (though watching Aberdeen's milb.tv feed is like scouting the Zapruder film). Woodall currently throws in the low-90s and hit 96 in his state championship game, but considers his slider his out pitch. He's also working on a change-up though I wouldn't expect him to need it much. Even though (or because) his arm has very little mileage on it, it's tough to see the Rays giving him a starter's workload. Woodall got the Renegades first save opportunity, it'll be interesting to see if they think enough of him to use him as the team's closer.
Jacob Partridge, LHP: He came doubly-raw as a cold-weather (you guessed it, Washington) player who also played basketball. He impressed in his debut with the GCL Rays in 2009 after signing as an 18th-round pick, and pitched decently for Princeton last year. He's gotten the next bump and pitched well in his Hudson Valley debut, striking out seven without issuing a walk in five innings (though he did allow two runs on seven hits). He's not really overpowering with a 90-92 mph fastball and some feel for a slider and change-up, but the hope is his height and athleticism lead to an uptick in stuff. His control and command are above-average.
They're a rookie-level team but the Appalachian League is a level higher than the complex (Gulf Coast and Arizona) leagues. This is where the bulk of the short-season talent is at, but to focus on some lesser-known players I don't be talking about Josh Sale, Justin O'Conner, Drew Vettleson, and Ryan Brett, even though those are obviously the guys to watch. Many of the later-round 2011 college picks were assigned to Princeton but I wouldn't expect many more draftees to head there once signed, as the more highly-drafted college guys will go to HV and the high schoolers will go to the GCL.
Ian Kendall, RHP: Okay, this is an #arbitraryendpoints pick since Kendall was the fifth-round pick last June. But he hasn't gotten the pub of Sale et al, so here he is. He was a pop-up player last spring, hitting 95 mph with his fastball and earning fourth-round money. There's not a ton of projection in his 6-0/205 frame, but that's not as big a concern when he's shown he can touch the mid-90s. He flashes an above-average curveball but needs to become more consistent with it as well as further refine his command, control, and change-up, all the typical stuff for a high school arm. The Rays haven't had a HS pitching prospect develop into a top-15 prospect since the 2007 draft crop (though to be fair they haven't taken many in the 1-10 range since then: K. Lobstein, S. Smith, K. James).
Brandon Henderson & Matt Spann, LHPs: I group these two together because of their similar profiles. Each were later-round picks last June (Henderson in the 15th, Spann in the 25th) who dominated the GCL in their debuts despite lacking big fastballs. Henderson went 14-0 and led his high school to the South Carolina state high school title and carried that success into pro ball, where he struck out 28 and walked three in 22.2 innings. At last report his fastball sat in the mid-80s, but it seems he's added an inch and five pounds since high school (now 6-3/175), so it's possible he's added to that. Spann is the definition of a projectable pitcher at 6-7/185. His fastball was a tick or two harder than Henderson's, sitting un the upper-80s and scraping 90, but his off-speed stuff lags behind. He struck out 22 and walked four in 24.1 GCL innings, nice control for a tall pitcher at his age. These two along with Kendall give the Rays three high school draftees to keep an eye on at Princeton this season.
Deshun Dixon, OF: He's sure to play third fiddle in the P-Rays outfield to Sale and Vettleson, but Dixon comes from a very athletic family. His older brother Rashun plays for Oakland's high-A team, while two other older brothers played college football. Deshun may be the least athletic of the family. Even though he's got solid raw tools across the board, he doesn't really have any explosive ones. He's an above-average runner and thrower (and is the best defensive CF on the team) but still raw at the plate. I really only mention him because of the chance that the athleticism makes the leap from good to great.
Gulf Coast League Rays
This is the lowest level and where all the 2011 high school picks will be assigned (on talent alone Tayly Guerrieri would fit in Princeton, but he likely won't sign until the deadline and may not even pitch in a game after the long layoff).
Darryl George, 3B: Okay, admittedly I don't know a whole lot about George from a scouting standpoint. But he's an interesting case, having been signed out of Australia last spring. He has a strong arm, having also pitched down under, but beyond that who knows. He's got good size for an 18-year-old (6-1/213) and according to an Aussie baseball site was hitting .349 (15-43) in extended spring training through late May.
Jesse Hahn, RHP: He's currently listed on the GCL Rays roster, but apparently hasn't been assigned a number as he's still rehabbing his elbow and won't be appearing in games right away. Hahn was considered a potential late-first round talent last spring, but fell due to his elboe injury which eventually required Tommy John surgery in July. He touched 99 mph coming out of the bullpen in the Cape Cod League in 2009, but was a less-insane 91-93 mph as a starter for Virginia Tech last year, though his elbow may have been hampering him even then. It hasn't even been a year since the surgery, so the best-case timetable would probably have him making his first in-game appearance in late July or August.