The 2006 version of the Midwest League offers a strong perspective on several future star bats and arms, as well as seven new skippers. A Fox, a Wood, two guys named Davis and the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft comprise half of the 10 most interesting people to watch.
Justin Upton was that No. 1 pick, and he'll probably spend some time with the 2005 MWL champion South Bend Silver Hawks. But fans may want to get out to their ballparks early in the season, before the phenom can play himself up to another level.
Justin Upton, SS, South Bend Silver Hawks
The top pick in last year's draft received an invitation to Major League Spring Training. But even if he wows the Diamondbacks during his few weeks with the big leaguers, it won't matter because he's headed to South Bend, at least to begin the season. Upton hit a homer once every 4.9 at-bats as a high school senior in Virginia, so it wouldn't be a shock if the Midwest League pitchers struggle to keep him in the yard. Check him out early because he may not be there long.
Jody Davis, manager, Peoria Chiefs
The former Cubs catcher was a two-time All-Star during his playing days, and this represents his first turn as a manager. Davis, 49, has been a special catching instructor with the Cubs during Spring Training the past few seasons, and will now have the chance to impart a wealth of knowledge to some of the Chicago youngsters.
Andy Fox, manager, Clinton LumberKings
The former Yankee will be handling his first managerial stint after making his coaching debut last fall in the Rangers' Instructional League program. He takes over for Carlos Subero, who, after three seasons in Clinton, was promoted to Class A Advanced Bakersfield of the California League. Fox's nine-year playing career ended with the Rangers in 2004.
Travis Wood, LHP, Dayton Dragons
The hard-throwing southpaw had little trouble making the jump from high school to pro ball last season, going 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 14 games (11 starts) for the Gulf Coast Reds and Billings of the Pioneer League. A second-round pick by the Reds in '05, Wood's off-speed stuff is advanced for his age and experience, and makes for an entertaining performance when he's on the mound. He's deceptive -- hitters seem to have trouble picking up his fastball.
Cameron Maybin, OF, West Michigan Whitecaps
Maybin didn't play last season, only seeing time in the Instructional League, after prolonged contract negotiations. But he had an impressive run there, making a smooth transition from high school ball. Though he was slowed near the end by a hamstring problem, there are no long-term concerns. Maybin has an impressive youth baseball resume, including leading his team to a Connie Mack national title. The folks in Detroit are excited about his makeup and figure he'll be a big part of the Whitecaps, at least for some part of the season.
Mark Pawelek, LHP, Peoria Chiefs
The highest drafted high school player ever from Utah was the 20th overall pick last season and had an admirable showing in his pro debut. Though he finished 0-3 in 15 games (14 starts) for the Arizona League Cubs and Boise of the Northwest League, his 2.54 ERA and his .194 batting average against over 46 innings was more indicative of his capabilities.
Colby Rasmus, OF, Swing of the Quad Cities
Rasmus won't turn 20 until August, but last year's first-round pick played with some flair in the Appalachian League, hitting .296 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 62 games for Johnson City. In high school, he played for his dad, also a former Major League draft pick. Like most youngsters, he needs to exhibit more patience at the plate. His 73 strikeouts were far too many, especially when matched against just 21 walks.
Wade Davis, RHP, Southwest Michigan Devil Rays
Davis, a third-round pick in 2004, turned out to be everything that Wade Townsend, last year's No. 1 pick, wasn't. He went 7-4 with a 2.72 ERA in the New York-Penn League, leading the circuit in strikeouts (97) while earning a berth on the All-Star team. He is a strike pitcher and has a solid, sinking fastball that is consistently in the mid-90s.
Johnny Whittleman, 3B, Clinton LumberKings
Whittleman, a star quarterback in high school, had a strong showing in the Arizona League last summer after the Rangers grabbed him in the second round. He's got excellent vision at the plate, using his ability to hit to all fields consistently. Though he didn't have any homers in 190 at-bats last summer, he did hit 10 during the high school season last spring and figures to develop into a 15- to 20-homer player.
Chase Headley, 3B, Fort Wayne Wizards
The Padres grabbed Headley out of the University of Tennessee in the second round last season and he didn't have much drop-off once he arrived at Eugene in the Northwest League. Headley collected 34 walks in 57 games and had a solid .375 on-base percentage. He's patient and mature at the plate, two traits that helped the Vols reach the College World Series. He's not glamorous, but he's steady -- and likely to be San Diego's third baseman of the future.