The Southern League has 10 teams in it. Could we ask for a neater way to package this feature?
The league has become terrific for top-flight prospects, and this year is no different as there are a number of exciting young players with big-league futures coming sooner than you think. Not to leave anyone out, we've listed one player per club (OK, we cheated on No. 7) for your perusal.
1. Hector Ambriz, RHP
Mobile BayBears (Arizona)
The Diamondbacks' fifth-round pick out of UCLA in 2006, Ambriz had a terrific first full season in the hitter-friendly California League, throwing a total of 165 innings (including the playoffs) and finishing among the league leaders in ERA and strikeouts. The Southern League is more friendly for pitchers, but Ambriz will also face a better brand of hitter, which will test his three- or four-pitch mix (the changeup is a work in progress).
2. Daniel Dorn, OF
Chattanooga Lookouts (Cincinnati)
Not everyone on this list has to be a "top prospect." It's good to root for the underdog. Dorn was a 32nd-round pick in 2006 and the Reds look like they got a bargain. The senior sign has hit .309 in his brief pro career with a .401 OBP and .524 SLG. He hit 20 homers last year, including eight in 26 games at this level (to go along with a .311 average). He'll be in Chattanooga from the get-go, but at the rate he's been going, don't expect this overachiever to be there too long.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP
Jacksonville Suns (Los Angeles)
The only way Kershaw doesn't start the year here is if he's needed in the big leagues -- something that hadn't been completely ruled out as of this writing. If he is in Jacksonville, get a ticket early; the southpaw won't be there long. He's as legit as they come, a future ace with plus stuff and makeup. You'll want to say you saw him before he hit the big time ... unless he's there already.
4. Matt LaPorta, OF
Huntsville Stars (Milwaukee)
Truth be told, there isn't a whole lot more LaPorta needs to do to get his bat ready. Making his full-season debut all the way up in Double-A should allow him to see better breaking stuff. He's a smart hitter and the more he sees, the faster he'll make the necessary adjustments. He needs reps in the outfield, still a new position to him, but you won't head to Huntsville to watch him shag flies. You want to see the long ball? He's the guy to buy a ticket to watch swing the stick.
5. Cameron Maybin, OF
Carolina Mudcats (Florida)
This is not a guy many thought would be here to start the 2008 season, but Southern League fans should consider themselves lucky. He's one of the more electrifying talents in the Minors, and he's just scratching the surface. He can hit, he's got power, he can flat-out fly and he is a tremendous pure center fielder. He'll get to play a few hours from home, a bonus for him. So is the fact that the Marlins don't hesitate to call up guys from Double-A, so don't expect him to call Zebulon home for long.
6. Kyle McCulloch, RHP
Birmingham Barons (Chicago White Sox)
If you're looking for a guy who'll rear back and light up a radar gun, McCulloch isn't it. But the guy can pitch, and when he's on he's capable of putting on a little clinic. He's got a fastball, a killer changeup and a splitter that has a chance to be outstanding. He finished in Birmingham last year and didn't pitch well there, so he'll be looking to redeem himself.
7. Jake McGee/Wade Davis, LHP/RHP
Montgomery Biscuits (Tampa Bay)
These guys have to be used to being paired together by now, no? They were both drafted in 2004, two rounds apart. They were All-Stars together in the Midwest League (2006) and Florida State League (2007), and both made it to Montgomery last year. Davis beat McGee here, but it was McGee who pitched better in the postseason as the Biscuits won their second straight championship. McGee and Davis feed off each other in friendly competition, and with the depth in the organization they could be there long enough to help Montgomery clinch another playoff spot.
8. Jeff Samardzija, RHP
Tennessee Smokies (Chicago Cubs)
This could be excused as a "novelty pick." Go see the guy who could've been an NFL wide receiver.... Maybe that's what gets you to the ballpark the first time, but -- and those who saw him in one of his six Smokies starts late last year, back us up here -- you'll stay and come back for more because the guy knows how to pitch. And he's still figuring things out, in a hurry. It's all going to really start clicking for the right-hander this year, so don't miss out.
9. Jordan Schafer, OF
Mississippi Braves (Atlanta)
The Braves think so highly of this young center fielder that there was talk for a while about giving him a shot to win the spot in Atlanta vacated by the departure of Andruw Jones, even though Schafer hasn't played above A ball. Mark Kotsay was brought in to fill that void and allow Schafer the proper time to develop. That's big for M-Braves fans, who should go out and see Schafer play. Just watching him roam in center is worth the price of admission, but he'll hit with some power and he can run, too. After a year in Mississippi -- and perhaps Richmond -- he'll be ready for Atlanta by 2009.
10. Michael Saunders, OF
West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx (Seattle)
You can't have a list without a Canadian, right? In all seriousness, head to Pringles Park not just to support our neighbors to the north, but to see a five-tool talent about ready to bust out. Sanders hit 15 homers to go with 29 stolen bases last year and was named to the Futures Game. He made it up to Double-A and got a taste of what it will take to succeed at the higher levels. He's just 21 and you get the feeling that if he can cut down on the strikeouts just a bit, he could be ready for a huge season.