The Southern League opens the 2010 campaign Thursday. Here are 10 of the premier prospects the league will feature this season:
Dustin Ackley, 2B -- West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
Not too many players make their professional debuts at the Double-A level, but not too many players are Dustin Ackley. The second overall pick in the 2009 Draft, the left-handed-hitting machine will look to pick up in West Tenn where he left off in college. As a junior at North Carolina, he hit .417 with 22 homers and 73 RBIs. MLB.com's No. 15 prospect will play second base for the Diamond Jaxx, a change from his collegiate days manning first base and the outfield.
Tim Beckham, SS -- Montgomery Biscuits
The highly touted Beckham put up solid, if not spectacular, numbers in his first full season, hitting .275 with 33 doubles and 63 RBIs at Class A Bowling Green. While those were fine results for a player still in his teens, Beckham is capable of so much more, which is what prompted the Rays to select him with the first overall pick of the 2008 Draft. The raw tools are there and if he learns to harness them, MLB.com's No. 24 prospect could end up in Montgomery before the season is out.
Dee Gordon, SS -- Chattanooga Lookouts
In a surprise move by the Dodgers, Gordon will start 2010 in Chattanooga. The 2009 season saw the 22-year-old live up to his potential and then some, as he was named co-MVP of the Class A Midwest League after hitting .301 with a whopping 73 stolen bases. It shouldn't be a surprise that MLB.com's No. 36 prospect is so adept on the basepaths -- his father is former big league reliever Tom "Flash" Gordon.
Brett Jackson, OF -- Tennessee Smokies
Although he has only 53 professional games under his belt, Jackson is viewed as a prospect who could move swiftly through the Cubs system. The 31st overall pick in the 2009 Draft ended the year by hitting .295 with seven homers in 26 games with Class A Peoria. Despite the small sample size, the Cal product turned a lot of heads with his five-tool ability and should soon get the chance to prove his Double-A readiness as a member of the Smokies.
Brett Lawrie, 2B -- Huntsville Stars
A native of British Columbia who was selected with the 16th overall pick in the 2008 Draft, Lawrie already is a formidable hitter still adjusting to second base after spending his college years as a catcher. The 20-year-old has decent speed (19 stolen bases at Class A Wisconsin) and enough power to comfortably ensconce himself in the middle of a Double-A lineup. He ended the 2009 campaign in Huntsville -- hitting .269 in 13 games -- and is MLB.com's No. 26 prospect heading into the season.
Alex Liddi, 3B -- West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
After playing in relative obscurity for the first three years of his career, the Minor Leagues' only Italian-born position player broke out in a big way in 2009. Playing for High Desert in the Class A Advanced California League, the 21-year-old hit .345 with 23 homers and 104 RBIs. The proverbial asterisk next to those numbers is that the Cal League is notoriously offense-friendly. Liddi will have the chance in West Tenn to prove that his breakout season was no fluke.
Jonathan Lucroy, C -- Huntsville Stars
Lucroy spent all of last season in Huntsville, where he was no slouch. The 23-year-old backstop threw out an impressive 40 percent of would-be base-stealers while hitting .267 with nine homers and 66 RBIs over 419 at-bats. He has little left to prove at this level, especially when one considers his impressive plate discipline (78 walks against 66 strikeouts). But with fellow catching prospect Angel Salome slated to play at Triple-A Nashville, Huntsville represents Lucroy's best opportunity to see regular playing time.
Brent Morel, 3B -- Birmingham Barons
The 2009 campaign was Morel's first full season, and he showed himself more than ready to handle the grind of 140 games. The Cal Poly product produced to the tune of 16 homers, 33 doubles, 79 RBIs, 25 stolen bases and a spot on the Carolina League All-Star team. He'll continue his rapid ascent in Birmingham, manning the hot corner and playing in an all-out manner likely to endear him to fans and teammates alike.
Mike Stanton, OF -- Jacksonville Suns
Still only 20 years old, Stanton already has 68 home runs to his credit. The former second-round pick spent a good portion of last season in Jacksonville, where his impressive power (16 homers over 299 at-bats) was somewhat overshadowed by his prodigious strikeout rate (one in every three at-bats). A return to familiar environs could result in a significant statistical upswing, giving MLB.com's No. 3 prospect a chance to work on his plate discipline while still blasting balls out of The Baseball Grounds at a rapid rate.
Chris Withrow, RHP -- Chattanooga Lookouts
After an injury-plagued 2008, Withrow regained his health last season and dominated hitters at Class A Advanced Inland Empire as well as Chattanooga. He struck out 131 batters over 113 2/3 innings, appropriate numbers for a hard-throwing Texan selected with the 20th overall pick of the 2007 Draft. Withrow ended '09 in the Southern League and that's where he'll begin 2010. If he stays healthy and improves on last year's numbers, a spot in the Dodgers' rotation may not be far behind.