So stay tuned for what should be an exciting month. Beyond all of the Top 20s, we're also ramping up our coverage of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft and continuing our weekly Pipeline Perspectives and Pipeline Inboxes. Before you know it, it will be time for Opening Day.
Going into the season, which Minor League teams are most likely to contain the largest assortment of high-ceiling prospects, similar to last year's Hickory Crawdads? I'm thinking it might be the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
-- J.P. S., Springfield, Ill.
The 2013 edition of the Crawdads, the Class A affiliate of the Rangers, featured legitimate prospects at every position: catcher Jorge Alfaro, first baseman Ronald Guzman, second baseman Ryan Rua, third baseman Joey Gallo, shortstop Luis Marte and outfielders Lewis Brinson, Nomar Mazara and Nick Williams. There were a lot of boom-or-bust guys on that club -- Hickory ranked second in the Minors in homers (178) but also first in strikeouts (1,403) and sixth worst in batting average (.237) -- but a lot of intriguing ceilings as well. Electric right-hander C.J. Edwards also started the season with the Crawdads before going to the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade.
J.P.'s nomination of the Blue Rocks is an inspired choice. The Royals' Class A Advanced affiliate could include right-hander Miguel Almonte, third baseman Hunter Dozier, right fielder Elier Hernandez, lefty Sean Manaea, shortstop Raul Adalberto Mondesi and center fielder Bubba Starling.
I came up with six other impressive groups of high-ceiling players who could open the season together, though I have to throw in the disclaimer that this is all highly speculative and assignments are far from finalized this early in Spring Training. Here's the order in which I'd rank all of them:
1. Class A Advanced Lancaster (Astros): SS Carlos Correa, RHP Mark Appel, RHP Lance McCullers Jr., RHP Vince Velasquez, 3B Rio Ruiz, LHP Josh Hader. The No. 1 overall picks from the last two Drafts headline this contingent.
2. Double-A Tennessee (Cubs): 3B Kris Bryant, OF Albert Almora, RHP Edwards, OF Jorge Soler, RHP Pierce Johnson, RHP Corey Black. Almora and Soler both could begin the year with Class A Advanced Daytona, however.
3. Triple-A Pawtucket (Red Sox): RHP Allen Webster, 3B Garin Cecchini, RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Anthony Ranaudo, RHP Rubby De La Rosa, C Christian Vazquez. Could be bolstered further with LHP Henry Owens and 2B Mookie Betts during the season.
4. Class A Advanced Wilmington (Royals): See above.
5. Triple-A Oklahoma City (Astros): OF George Springer, RHP Mike Foltynewicz, 1B Jonathan Singleton, OF Domingo Santana, C Max Stassi. Baseball's best farm system has enough talent to stock two loaded teams.
6. Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach (Rangers): C Alfaro, 3B Gallo, OF Williams, RHP Alex Gonzalez, OF Brinson. Last year's Hickory nucleus, plus 2013 first-rounder Gonzalez.
7. Class A West Virginia (Pirates): OF Austin Meadows, C Reese McGuire, OF Harold Ramirez, RHP Luis Heredia, C Wyatt Mathisen, OF JaCoby Jones. Pittsburgh's Triple-A Indianapolis club won't be as deep but will have a dynamic 1-2 punch in OF Gregory Polanco and RHP Jameson Taillon.
How many of the 10 best prospects will graduate this year? What are your predictions for a preliminary top five next year?
-- Alex M., Willow Creek, Calif.
Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (No. 2), Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras (No. 3), D-backs right-hander Archie Bradley (No. 5) and Mariners righty Taijuan Walker (No. 6) are the only locks in the MLBPipeline.com Top 10 to lose their rookie eligibility in 2014, and that assumes Walker bounces back from his spring shoulder problems. Twins outfielder Byron Buxton (No. 1) and Cubs shortstop Javier Baez (No. 7) could make their Major League debuts, but they don't figure to do so until late in the season.
My crystal ball reveals this projected top five for next winter: Buxton, Baez, Correa (No. 8), Cubs third baseman Bryant (No. 9) and Twins third baseman Miguel Sano (No. 4). Sano likely will drop a little after missing all or most of the season because of Tommy John surgery, but his long-term upside doesn't change. Athletics shortstop Addison Russell (No. 12) and North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon (the favorite to go No. 1 overall in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft) are two more top-five candidates.
I have a lot of skepticism regarding your ranking of outfielder James Ramsey as the Cardinals' No. 7 prospect. What can you say to give me hope?
-- Jerry H., Columbia, Mo.
Ramsey was a polarizing prospect when St. Louis drafted him 23rd overall and signed him for $1.6 million in 2013. The Cardinals and other teams who like him projected him as an everyday center fielder who would fit nicely in the first couple of slots in a lineup. But there also were several clubs who thought Ramsey lacked a carrying tool and saw him as more of a fourth outfielder.
Power was the biggest question surrounding Ramsey, and he answered it by hitting 16 homers in his first full pro season, albeit accompanied by a lower-than-expected .265 batting average. I can see him becoming a .275/15-homer hitter in the Majors, drawing a healthy amount of walks and using his plus speed well on the bases and the outfield.
Ramsey may have to do that with a different team, however, as the Cards already have an outfield logjam in the big leagues and prospects Taveras and Stephen Piscotty knocking on the door.