From Tris Speaker to Dennis Eckersley, Joe Medwick to Don Sutton, many of our national pastime's all-time greats have spent time in the Texas League en route to Hall of Fame careers. While it would be ludicrous to speculate on the Cooperstown credentials of this year's crop of prospects, many of them currently rank among Minor League Baseball's most intriguing and promising rising stars. The possibility of big league success looms large for many of them.
Who will live up to the hype? Only time will tell. For now, here are 10 to watch in 2006:
Brandon Wood, SS, Arkansas Travelers
One of the most highly touted prospects in all of baseball, Wood packs a surprising amount of power for a 185-pound shortstop. The 21-year-old hit a Minor League-best 43 home runs as a member of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in 2005, and followed that up with 14 more in the Arizona Fall League (an all-time record). Success in Arkansas could lead to a quick promotion to Triple-A and a shot at the Angels' starting lineup in 2007.
Hunter Pence, OF, Corpus Christi Hooks
After pounding 31 home runs with Lexington and Salem in 2005, Pence will certainly be hunting for the fences with Corpus Christi. The Houston Astros' top pick in the 2004 draft, Pence has hit .317 over 652 at-bats since making his debut in the New York-Penn League that same season.
Armando Galarraga, P, Frisco RoughRiders
Sent to the Texas Rangers as part of the deal that brought Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals, Galarraga is a hard-throwing righty with a plus slider who could soon become an integral component of the Rangers starting rotation. He ended 2005 with Double-A Harrisburg, where he went 3-4 with a 5.19 ERA over 13 starts.
Kurt Suzuki, C, Midland RockHounds
As the top backstop in the Oakland A's farm system, Suzuki could one day become the successor to Jason Kendall. The 22-year-old was a standout for Cal State Fullerton, hitting .413 in 2004. In 2005, he played his first full professional season, hitting .277 for Class A Advanced Stockton while earning praise for his above-average defensive ability.
Rob Johnson, C, San Antonio Missions
The Seattle Mariners organization is home to Jeff Clement, the top catching prospect in all of baseball. Still, Johnson should not be overlooked. Midwest League managers voted him the league's best defensive backstop in 2005, and he was Team USA's starting catcher in the World Cup. If the Mariners decide they don't have room for him, it's a sure bet that other organizations will.
Chris Lambert, P, Springfield Cardinals
A hard-throwing right-hander with a nasty curveball, Lambert dominated the Florida State League in the first half of 2005. He didn't fare so well after a promotion to Springfield, where he went 3-8 with a 6.25 ERA. The 2004 first-round draft pick will return to the Texas League in 2006, eager to prove that those lackluster numbers were an aberration.
Ian Stewart, 3B, Tulsa Drillers
Considered by many to be the top prospect in the Colorado Rockies organization, Stewart could one day join Todd Helton as one of the franchise's true superstars. While his 2005 campaign was derailed somewhat by wrist and hamstring injuries, Stewart still managed to hit 17 home runs and drive in 86 runs as a member of the California League's Modesto Nuts. A strong start with the Drillers could mean a quick promotion to Triple-A and a shot at a late-season callup to the Major Leagues.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Tulsa Drillers
Like Stewart, Tulowitzki is a first-round draft pick who projects as a possible big-league starter in 2007. Injury limited the slugging shortstop to just 22 games in 2004, so there are still some questions about how Tulowitzki will fare in his first full professional season. If he stays healthy, he's capable of hitting 30 home runs while playing gold glove-caliber defense.
Alex Gordon, 3B, Wichita Wranglers
A two-time Big 12 Conference player of the year, Gordon was taken by the Kansas City Royals with the second overall selection in the 2005 draft. He made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League after holding out most of the season (he eventually received a $4 million bonus). Despite his lack of professional experience, the Royals plan on having the sweet-swinging Gordon in their lineup in the very near future, possibly by the end of 2006.
Billy Butler, OF, Wichita Wranglers
One of the best pure hitters in Minor League baseball, Butler possesses an astounding .352 average over 751 professional at-bats. He ended 2005 with Wichita, where he hit .313 in a 29-game stint. His defense, however, has been a weak spot. Drafted as a third baseman, Butler has since been moved to the outfield. If that doesn't work, he could eventually end up as a first baseman or designated hitter.