Carolina preview: Five prospects to watch

Jimenez, Tucker, Robles, Ray among names to keep an eye on

Cubs prospect Eloy Jimenez had 40 doubles in 112 games en route to earning Midwest League MVP honors in 2016. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

By Staff | April 5, 2017 1:00 PM ET

The Carolina League gets underway Thursday with a full slate of five games, including two teams taking the field for the first time. The Buies Creek Astros open at home against the Winston-Salem Dash (White Sox) at 7 p.m. ET, while the Down East Wood Ducks (Rangers) travel to Salem to face the Red Sox at 7:05 p.m. ET on MiLB.TV.

Here are some key prospects who are expected to see time in the the Carolina League in 2017:

Eloy Jimenez, OF, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Chicago Cubs)

A year ago, not a lot of people were talking about Jimenez. Today, he's's No. 13 overall prospect and the Cubs' No. 1. That's the kind of recognition you earn when, as a 19-year-old playing your first full season, you bat .329/.369/.532 with 14 homers and 40 doubles in 129 Midwest League games, pausing only to steal the show against older and more advanced talent at the Futures Game and finishing the year with the Breakout Prospect MiLBY Award. What's more, Jimenez didn't blink against big league talent in the Cactus League this spring. Through his first 16 games, he was 9-for-28 (.321) with two homers, two doubles and a pair of walks.

"Now it's just about seeing better pitching and consistently putting together good at-bats," said Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison. "He controls the zone. He's not a guy who chases out of the zone. He doesn't give away at-bats, but he's going to start facing better pitchers, guys who can throw breaking balls in different counts, so for him, it's just having a good plan, sticking with it and making the adjustment as he moves up level to level. And continue to improve defensively -- that's going to be big for him."

The organization sees no reason to rush Jimenez, and he'll miss at least three weeks with a bone bruise on his right shoulder, general manager Jed Hoyer said on March 20. When he's healthy, it wouldn't be a shock to see him get a modest assignment at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach.

"You have to remember he's 20 years old. He played one year in the States, one full season, so there's not really pressure to move him up real quick," Madison said. "I would prefer to take him a little slower and make him force us to move him up than challenge him and put him on a level that might be a little bit too rough right now. Our goal is always to put guys in positions to do well and force us to make the moves, so that's kind of the plan with him. He could handle Triple-A right now, just from a personality/makeup standpoint. He just has to get at-bats under his belt."

Kyle Tucker, OF, Buies Creek Astros (Houston Astros)

Coming out of high school, Tucker was considered by many scouts to be the top hitter of the 2015 prep class. Based on how quickly he's adjusted to pro ball, that assessment appears to be right on.

Last year, at the age of 19, Tucker was undaunted during his first full season, hitting .276/.348/.402 in 101 games with Class A Quad Cities and earning a promotion to Class A Advanced Lancaster for the final two weeks of the season. There, Tucker took his game to another level, batting .339/.435/.661 with three homers and 13 RBIs in 16 games.

Victor Robles, OF, Potomac Nationals (Washington Nationals)

The story of the Nationals' farm system can't be told fully without acknowledging the fact that the organization dealt's No. 11 overall prospect, Lucas Giolito, No. 46 Reynaldo Lopez and 2016 first-rounder Dane Dunning to the White Sox in a trade that netted outfielder Adam Eaton. That's fine, if viewed through the lens that the point of farm systems is to improve the Major League club. But it left the system significantly thinner, putting a big spotlight on the one young uber-talent Washington refused to let go in that deal: Robles.

Coming in at seventh on the overall Top 100, the 19-year-old center fielder would have entered 2017 as the Nationals' top prospect, regardless of whether Giolito and Lopez were still around, because he could be the Minors' toolsiest player behind No. 2 prospect Yoan Moncada. Robles received grades of 60 or above on the 20-80 scale for his hit, run, arm and fielding tools. The power isn't the only thing considered "average" with a 50 grade, but at 6 feet and 185 pounds, there's room to grow.

Robles put all that on display last season at Class A Hagerstown, where he batted .305/.405/.459 with 20 extra-base hits and 19 steals in 64 games before earning a promotion on June 27. He was unable to find similar success at Class A Advanced Potomac with a .262/.354/.387 line in 41 contests, but that still works out to an above-average 110 wRC+ despite the fact that Robles was the Carolina League's youngest regular position player and missed time in July and August after being plunked on the hand. What's more, the native of the Dominican Republic ranked highest among Top-100 prospects in our offseason evaluation of Speed Score.

The Nationals look forward to when Robles puts the whole package together at the upper levels but won't push him too quickly, even as he takes up a bigger part of the organizational outlook in his second full season.

"With Victor, you see the five tools that you want to see in a player," Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba said. "There are certain parts of his game that are still very raw, but he should certainly impact the game on an everyday basis in all different ways. We want to continue to let him grow, let him learn the game, continue to work on his approach offensively, be more consistent at the plate, continue to improve his jumps and angles defensively.

"He has the speed and the arm strength to impact the game defensively right now, but we also want to make sure he's a smart baseball player and learns how to play the game in different situations. He's starting to show some leadership skills here in early camp, and the tools are there. But we want to make him the most complete player he can be, so that he's ready for when the bell rings."

Video: Potomac's Robles times great grab at wall

Brett Martin, LHP, Down East Wood Ducks (Texas Rangers)

Martin missed June and July last year with a UCL sprain and went as long as five innings only twice the rest of the regular season. Pitching in the Cal League playoffs on Sept. 16, he found his form, striking out a career-high 15 over seven no-hit innings. No doubt, the Rangers would like to see the 21-year-old pick up where he left off.

"For us, he's always been on the map as a guy we see as a potential front-line guy for our organization," Rangers assistant director of player development Paul Kruger said. "He went through that injury last year, but he got a chance to come down here and really gained some strength and worked on some mechanical things to improve.

"The biggest thing for him is understanding the importance of his fastball command, his ability to get ahead, go up with the fastball, change eye levels, go down, so on and so forth -- help your breaking ball and keep developing that changeup. But if you look at him, he's an impressive man. He's a roughly 6-foot-4 lefty. Good size, gets down the hill well, good-looking fastball. Like any pitcher, you've got to get ahead. His ability to command that fastball's going to be what takes him farther as a starter. We hope it's somebody in our rotation for years to come."

Corey Ray, OF, Carolina Mudcats (Milwaukee Brewers)

Drafted fifth overall out of Louisville last year, Ray compiled a .247/.307/.385 slash line with five homers and nine steals in 57 games after an aggressive assignment to Class A Advanced Brevard County. He suffered a torn left meniscus in the instructional league that required surgery in early October and limited him throughout Spring Training.

"Corey was challenged over his first offseason, having to rehab from a knee injury that occurred during instructional league. But he has worked extremely hard to rehab and will begin 2017 with the Carolina Mudcats," Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said. "Beyond the big tools that he possesses, he goes about his business in a manner far beyond his years."

A repeat of Class A Advanced -- albeit for a different affiliate -- should allow a healthy Ray's talent to take over. He possesses a plus hit tool along with plus power and speed, and he should have no issue sticking in center field in the long run. Keep an eye on the 22-year-old because a hot start could lead to a quick promotion, with an eye on eventually taking over for Lewis Brinson in center field with Colorado Springs if all goes well.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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