The Carolina League is three steps from the Major Leagues, but that doesn't mean that the top prospects in the circuit for 2012 are very far from the Majors. For instance, Andrelton Simmons
shined as Lynchburg's shortstop last season and found himself a last-day cut from the Major League Braves this week. There's also Addison Reed
, who pitched 15 games for Winston-Salem in April and May and ended his season with the Chicago White Sox.
So, take note of the players described below, as some may be playing at a Major League park near you sooner rather than later.
Catcher: David Freitas, Potomac Nationals
In both of his first two seasons since being taken by the Nationals in the 15th round of the 2010 Draft, Freitas has displayed a remarkably consistent ability to get on base and flash some pop. The University of Hawaii product batted .307 and got on base at a .408 clip in his first professional season in 2010 in the New York-Penn League. He followed that up last season at Class A Hagerstown by hitting .288 with a .409 OBP and 13 home runs over 427 at-bats. He also nearly walked (82) more than he struck out (87). At 23, Washington will look for him to continue his offensive consistency at Potomac.
First Baseman: Tyler Townsend, Frederick Keys
Townsend will begin the season at extended spring training, but after that will likely head back to Frederick, where he was one of the league's top performers last season. The 2009 third-rounder batted .317 and slugged .583 while mashing 13 home runs and 24 doubles. If he approaches anything like that production again, he's almost certain to earn one of the Carolina League's first promotions of the year.
Second Baseman: Jonathan Schoop, Frederick Keys
Schoop, a 2008 international signing out of Curacao, turned heads last season when he hit .316 and slugged .514 for Delmarva in 212 at-bats as a 19-year-old, earning a call-up to Frederick. Once there he acquitted himself nicely, hitting .271 with five homers and 37 RBIs in 77 games, which he followed up by hitting .314 (11-for-35) in the Carolina League playoffs. The athletic infielder has played at third base, shortstop and second, where he figures to get most of his playing time with Frederick this year. Along with Manny Machado, Schoop could soon give the Orioles a formidable double-play duo.
"He can play second base and has good lateral movement -- he can go to his right, he can go to his left," Frederick manager Orlando Gomez told MiLB.com this offseason. "He can turn the double play. He can play shortstop, third base. What I like most about him is he's a very smart kid. He made adjustments, and he learned about himself a lot."
Third Baseman: Anthony Rendon, Potomac Nationals
Rendon, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 Draft, will be making his pro debut with Potomac this season. Expectations are high for the former Rice star, whom MLB.com named its No. 27 overall prospect this offseason, after hitting .371 with 52 home runs in three seasons for the Owls. There's also the matter of where he'll play on the diamond, with Ryan Zimmerman posing an obvious roadblock at third base at the Major League level. Wherever that winds up being, however, his polished bat is expected to carry him to that level quickly.
"I've felt awesome, felt like I have a great swing," Rendon said of his spring. "For not seeing a lot of pitching the last nine to 10 months, I feel pretty confident coming into the season."
Shortstop: Xander Bogaerts, Salem Red Sox
Just 18 years old during the 2011 season, Bogaerts caught everyone's attention in the South Atlantic League with 16 home runs and a .509 slugging percentage in just his first season of American pro ball. The 2009 international signing out of Aruba also batted .260 and drove in 45 runs, good enough to be named MLB.com's No. 76 prospect. At 6-foot-3, Bogaerts has the kind of size that suggests he may outgrow shortstop, and it will be interesting to see if the Red Sox give him time in the outfield or at third base. Either way, the 19-year-old's power potential will be captivating throughout 2012.
Outfielder: Trayce Thompson, Winston-Salem Dash
The White Sox's 2009 second-round pick had by far the best season of his professional career last year with Kannapolis. The 20-year-old set highs in largely every statistical category en route to hitting .241 with 24 home runs and 87 RBIs in 519 at-bats. The son of former NBA star Mychel and brother of current NBA rookie Klay, Thompson's bloodline lends to holding a high standard. Both he and the White Sox will look for him to thrive in a more challenging environment this year.
"As far as scratching the surface, I don't think I have put up the numbers I am capable of yet," he told MiLB.com this offseason. "I'm going to have to go out there this year and prove to people that I can be the player I know I can be."
Brandon Jacobs, Salem Red Sox
Jacobs, a 10th-round pick by the Red Sox in 2009, burst onto the prospect scene last year when he hit .303 with an .881 OPS at Class A Greenville. Jacobs played all year in the South Atlantic League, tearing through the circuit with 17 home runs, 32 doubles and 80 RBIs in 115 games. Now 21, the left fielder will be looking to build on his big 2011 and climb Boston's prospect ranks, where he currently sits at No. 7.
Michael Taylor, Potomac Nationals
Taylor, Washington's No. 5 prospect, is a wiry outfielder originally picked in the sixth round of the 2009 Draft. His power-speed combination is enticing to the Nationals, and last season at Hagerstown he was able to truly flash it for the first time. Taylor clubbed 13 homers and 26 doubles and then used his legs to add seven triples and 23 stolen bases over the course of 126 games. Now 21 years old, he's still something of a raw prospect, and the Nationals will be eager to see if he can take another step forward in his development at Potomac.
Right-handed Pitcher: Roman Mendez, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
Acquired at the 2010 trade deadline in the Jarrod Saltalamacchia deal, it says a lot about the Texas system that a pitcher with as electric an arm as Mendez is their No. 7 prospect. Last year proved to be Mendez's breakout season as he struck out 130 batters in just 117 innings while going 9-1 with a 3.31 ERA for Class A Hickory in the South Atlantic League. The Dominican Republic native has a power arm that can run it into the high 90s and may profile well as a closer someday. For now, though, the Rangers are content to keep him as a starter.
Left-handed Pitcher: Carlos Perez, Lynchburg Hillcats
Atlanta is high on the left arm of its 2008 international signing out of the Dominican Republic. Perez generally works in the low 90s and offers a change-up as his strongest secondary pitch. His most important development, though, will come in the form of cutting down on his walks after issuing 66 free passes in just 125 innings for Rome in the South Atlantic League last season. Still, he was just 19, and if he can translate his raw stuff to the Carolina League while improving his control, he can establish himself as a real elite prospect.