The Carolina League is one of the most storied circuits in all of Minor League baseball. Scores of the game's greatest players have played here, carving a legacy that carried them through successful Major League careers. Will the 2008 season feature players that will someday be able to tell similar stories? It certainly seems that way based on what it would appear the High-A circuit has to offer at first glance.
While most players don't jump from the Carolina League directly to the Major Leagues, more outlandish things have happened. So with that in mind, here's a look at some names that would be well worth watching this season because you never know where they might end up before the final pitch is thrown.
1. Jordan Parraz, OF
Salem Avalanche (Houston)
Parraz has had big seasons in each of his last two stops, winning Player of the Year laurels in the New York-Penn League in 2006 before earning team MVP accolades last year in Lexington. The 23-year-old outfielder has done nothing but hit the last two seasons, collecting 14 homers and driving in 76 last season in the South Atlantic League. But the Carolina League is a different animal and the pitching he'll face here is more than a bit better than any he's probably seen since coming out of the Community College of Southern Nevada in 2004. Parraz also has some speed -- he stole 33 bases last year and had 23 in the New York-Penn League in 2006. He's a solid outfielder as well, with a big-time arm.
2. Gorkys Hernandez, OF
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Atlanta)
We picked him as our pre-season Organizational Player of the Year so it stands to reason he'd be someone to watch in the Carolina League this season. Hernandez hit .293 with 50 RBIs and 54 steals last season for West Michigan en route to winning the Midwest League MVP. That came after he won the batting title in the Gulf Coast League in 2006 with a .327 average. The Braves let Andruw Jones walk after last season, and while Hernandez could ultimately fill that center-field void, it won't be any time soon. The youngster is still about two years from prolonged Major League duty, but if he can accomplish in the Carolina and possibly the Southern League this year what he's accomplished over the last two seasons, his ETA might move up.
3. Nick Weglarz, OF
Kinston Indians (Cleveland)
The Canadian native connected for 23 homers while driving in 82 runs at Lake County, good enough to put him in the top 10 in each category in the South Atlantic League. He also drew 82 walks, but struck out once every 3.4 at-bats, proving how raw he is at times. Weglarz missed just about all of 2006 after breaking a bone in his wrist, but came back strong last year, giving the Indians hope that he could do well this season while splitting time between Kinston and Akron. Whether he will reach the Eastern League remains to be seen, but if Weglarz can cut down a bit on his swing, he could move quickly. His 10 errors were second-most among Sally League outfielders, while his three assists suggest his arm is not top-notch. Not to worry, because it's his bat that will be pushing him forward. His near .900 OPS is a rarity for teenagers in the Sally League.
4. Beau Mills, 3B
Kinston Indians (Cleveland)
The 13th pick in last year's draft hit 38 homers and drove in 123 runs for NAIA power Lewis and Clark State and is the son of former big leaguer and Boston coach Brad Mills. He's been able to combine the knowledge he's culled from his dad with his explosive raw power, and turn himself into a pretty impressive player. Mills made three stops on the organizational ladder last year, hitting a combined .261 with six homers and 42 RBIs in 245 at-bats at Mahoning Valley, Lake County and Kinston. He appeared in 27 games at third base, 23 at first base and in 12 as a designated hitter last year, but for now his future appears to be at the hot corner.
5. Blake Wood, RHP
Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City)
Wood returned from back surgery last year and posted a 2-2 record with a 2.78 ERA, which included nine Carolina League innings. Had he not needed the surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, he would be starting this season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. But, he'll need some time in the Carolina League, especially since the Naturals' rotation is stacked. Wood has a mid-90s fastball and a big curveball highlights his arsenal, which got some needed fine-tuning last year. There are some in the organization that believe he has the best stuff among all of KC's huge flock of pitching prospects. Wood has cleaned up his delivery and you can bet that power breaking ball of his will be fun to watch in Delaware.
6. Jake Arrieta, RHP
Frederick Keys (Baltimore)
The Texas Christian University product signed late and didn't get to pitch in a meaningful environment for Baltimore until the Arizona Fall League. Once he got there, Arrieta didn't allow a run and struck out 16 over 16 innings while holding the opposition to a .154 batting average. Pretty impressive stuff. Whether he continues to pitch at that level is another question but we'll certainly find out. He's got an explosive fastball and isn't afraid to challenge hitters with it. His secondary pitches may not be as refined, though, and that's something that will need to be addressed.
7. John Shelby, 2B
Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)
The son of former Major Leaguer John Shelby, Shelby the younger enjoyed a fine first full season in pro ball last year, hitting .301 with 16 homers, 79 RBIs and 19 steals at Kannapolis. He's headed back to second base this year after playing the outfield last season (though he did play a decent enough center field). "He has a lot of athleticism," Chicago's farm director Alan Regier said, "And it will be a smoother road to the big leagues for him at second base as well as having more value for us." Shelby had 60 extra-base hits last year and sported an adequate .352 on-base percentage. The club would like him to pick up more than the 35 walks he drew last year but that will come with time and a little patience.
8. Matt Wieters, C
Frederick Keys (Baltimore)
Wieters was one of the most highly rated college players available last year and signed a contract that would indicate he knew it. His near $10-million deal -- he was chosen fifth overall and was given a $6 million bonus -- will place a great deal of weight on his shoulders, but Wieters is the kind of kid that can handle the heat. He has the goods at the plate and behind it and has the approach that could make him a leader in Baltimore someday soon. While the Orioles often appear to be a rudderless ship, selecting Wieters was right on course. He's got a cannon for an arm and was the big bat in the Georgia Tech lineup from the moment he set foot on campus. What's not to love?
9. Daniel Moskos, LHP
Lynchburg Hillcats (Pittsburgh)
Moskos pitched 15 innings, all in relief, after the Pirates made him their top pick out of Clemson last June. While the former regime decided to have him close last summer, the new front office seems more inclined to have him go about his job as a starter. He's got a nice four-pitch repertoire, one that should play well in the front end of any rotation. Moskos had a 3.45 ERA in those 15 innings last season, far too small a body of work to make any real judgments. But if he can harness that mid-to-high-90s fastball of his, then the Carolina League will have a dominant pitcher on its hands.
10. Chris Marrero, 1B and Ross Detwiler LHP
Potomac Nationals (Washington)
We know, we know, picking two players from Potomac actually gives us 11 Carolina League names. But both players are important enough to warrant a mention.
Marrero, the 15th pick in the 2006 Draft began to blossom last season while splitting time between Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League and Potomac of the Carolina League. He combined to hit .275 with 23 homers and 88 RBIs in 477 at-bats, more than half of which came at Potomac. He did appear to run out of steam toward the end of the season, but considering this was his first full season of professional baseball, the teenager did all right for himself. There's no need to rush him and considering he's just getting his feet wet at first base, an early-season indoctrination back at Potomac may be in order.
Detwiler, the No. 6 overall pick last season, is long and lanky and pitched an inning in the Major Leagues last year. He made five appearances (four starts) with Potomac, going 2-2 with a 4.22 ERA. He's got a wonderful four-seamer that touches the mid-90s and has been using it effectively this spring. Like Marrero, enjoy him in Potomac early because he may not be there long.