Here's a ranking of the 10 prospects we're most excited to see light up the Southern League in 2013:
No. 1. Christian Yelich (OF, Jacksonville): Yelich has been all the Marlins could have hoped for when they selected him with the 23rd overall pick in the 2010 Draft. The 21-year-old hit .330/.404/.519 for Class A Advanced Jupiter in 2012 and seriously challenged for a job with the Marlins this spring, batting .364/.451/.818 in 22 Grapefruit League games before being reassigned to Jacksonville.
Unfortunately the news broke Wednesday that the "dream" starting outfield of Yelich, Jake Marisnick and Marcell Ozuna will not be good to go on Opening Day. Yelich, nursing a "stone bruise" on his left heel, is expected to be the first of the trio back.
Though Yelich has yet to play above Class A ball, he may not be in the Southern League for very long once he gets underway. As Marlins hitting coach Tino Martinez told MLB.com, "He's ready ... it's obvious he's a great hitter. I haven't messed with him. He can just hit."
No. 2. Yasiel Puig (OF, Chattanooga): The Cuban-born Puig has just 23 games of experience in the Minors, but was a Cactus League phenom for the Dodgers this spring -- batting .517/.500/.828 in 27 games. On the other hand, Puig did not draw a single walk in 58 at-bats and was the beneficiary of an incredible .617 average on balls in play. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Puig's power will be fearsome when fully developed. Meanwhile, the Dodgers have sent him to Chattanooga to refine his approach and learn patience at the plate. For as long as he's there, Puig is likely to be the most electrifying player in the Southern League.
No. 3. Joc Pederson (OF, Chattanooga): Joining Puig in the Lookouts' outfield will be Joc Pederson, who owns a .313/.396/.516 line in 197 pro games and won't turn 21 until April 21. Though it's dangerous to extrapolate from numbers posted in the offense-friendly Cal League, Pederson has excelled at getting on base, getting around the bases (he had 26 steals last year) and scoring -- he tied for the Dodgers' organizational lead with 96 runs in 2012.
Alex Wood (LHP, Mississippi): A second-round pick out of the University of Georgia in 2012, Wood held South Atlantic League hitters to a .206 average while fanning 52 batters -- and walking just 14 -- over 52 2/3 innings for Class A Rome last summer. Wood has already undergone Tommy John surgery (in 2010) and emerged with a mid-90s fastball and plus changeup -- intriguing offerings from a 22-year-old left-hander.
No. 5. J.R. Graham (RHP, Mississippi): Graham went 12-2 with a 2.80 ERA at Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi last year to earn the Braves' Minor League Pitcher of the Year award. Though neither physically imposing (he's 6-feet, 185 pounds) nor a big strikeout pitcher, the 23-year-old Santa Clara product can reach the mid-90s with his fastball and relies on a heavy sinker for a lot of ground-ball outs. He led the Braves system in ERA and WHIP last year and seems poised to advance rapidly.
No. 6. Jimmy Nelson (RHP, Huntsville): The 6-foot-6 Nelson held hitters to a .213 average while fanning nearly a batter per inning at Class A Advanced Brevard County and Huntsville last year. With a sinking low-90s fastball and a power slider, Nelson has plenty of stuff but has struggled with command, walking 62 last year and 65 in 2011. If he can cut down on walks and improve on the road, he'll be a big contributor to a strong Stars rotation.
No. 7. Taylor Jungmann (RHP, Huntsville): That rotation also will include Jungmann, the Brewers' top pick in the 2011 Draft. Another 6-foot-6 right-hander, the University of Texas product went 11-6 with a 3.53 ERA in his pro debut with Class A Advanced Brevard County in 2012. Though lacking the put-away stuff of Nelson, Jungmann is more consistent around the strike zone and generates plenty of groundouts. He's already proven himself a workhorse, tossing 153 innings for the Manatees last year, one out shy of the Florida State League lead.
No. 8. Zach Lee (RHP, Chattanooga): Though Lee posted a so-so 4.39 ERA last summer, he's just 21, and with four strong pitches he can throw for strikes, remains the Dodgers' top pitching prospect. A top-notch athlete -- Los Angeles signed him away from enrolling at LSU as a quarterback in 2010 -- Lee is still learning to pitch, but already has the tools and command to keep advancing toward Chavez Ravine.
No. 9. Marcell Ozuna (OF, Jacksonville): Ozuna led the Marlins organization with 95 RBIs and finished second with 24 homers (first in the Florida State League) last year despite playing in Jupiter, one of the worst hitters' parks in the Minors. The Southern League should prove more amenable to the 22-year-old's impressive power, though he needs to become more selective at the plate after batting .266 with a .329 on-base percentage over the past two seasons.
No. 10. Trayce Thompson (OF, Birmingham): A preternaturally athletic outfielder, Thompson hit 25 homers, drove in 96 runs and collected 21 steals across three levels in the White Sox system last year and is stellar both defensively and on the basepaths. The 22-year-old remains a work in progress due to his high strikeout rate -- he fanned 166 times in 136 games in 2012. If Thompson can make better contact, he has the physical talent to go a long way.
Late addition, Taijuan Walker (RHP, Jackson Generals): Selected in the first round of the 2010 Draft, Walker is looking to build on a successful 2012 campaign in which he earned Southern League midseason All-Star honors and a selection to the Futures Game in Kansas City. The youngest player on the circuit had a stellar first half (4-3, 3.79 ERA) before stumbling a bit after the break. Walker, who won't turn 21 until August, has an above-average fastball complemented by two good breaking pitches. (Ed. note: Excerpted from PCL Prospects to Watch.)
Honorable mention, Jose Fernandez (RHP, Jacksonville): The No. 7 prospect in the Minor Leagues, Fernandez was originally slated for Jacksonville and would easily belong on this list, but injuries at the big league level have prompted the Marlins to name him their fifth starter. The Cuban-born 20-year-old has yet to pitch above Class A Advanced, but posted an overwhelming 14-1 mark with a 1.75 ERA at Greensboro and Jupiter last season and was similarly strong this spring. Depending on his performance and how quickly Miami's veterans recover, Fernandez may yet spend time in the Southern League this summer.