The Triple-A ranks are bursting at the seams with new and noteworthy players and personnel, from can't-miss phenoms to grizzled vets hoping for one more shot, to coaches and managers with impressive Major League resumes.
Therefore, writing an article that lists just 10 "Names to Watch" in the International and Pacific Coast League Leagues is a somewhat maddening task. There are just so many to choose from. After much soul searching and many agonizing decisions (some justified, some completely arbitrary), the list is complete.
Enjoy, and please feel free to respond with criticisms regarding some of the more egregious omissions.
Homer Bailey, RHP (Louisville Bats)
Bailey has made just 13 of his 60 Minor League appearances above Class A, and he doesn't even turn 21 until May. Yet, there are many people who feel that he should bypass Louisville and open 2007 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds' starting rotation. That's because Bailey is perhaps the best pitching prospect in all of baseball, a fireballing Texan with a plus curve and improving changeup. If he dominates the IL like he did the Double-A Southern League in 2006 (7-1 with 77 strikeouts and a 1.59 ERA over 68 innings pitched), then he'll receive a callup to the show in no time at all.
Phil Hughes, RHP (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees)
Time for a little déjà vu -- Hughes has made just 21 of his 46 Minor League appearances above Class A, and he doesn't even turn 21 until June. Yet, there are many people who feel that he should bypass Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and open 2007 as a member of the New York Yankees' starting rotation...you get the point. Hughes and Bailey have become inextricably linked in the minds of many a baseball fan, a fearsome twosome that represents the future of pitching. Hughes throws in the mid-90s, has excellent control and possesses one of the most wicked curveballs in the game. A Carl Pavano hangnail is all it may take to get him to the bigs.
Tim Lincecum, RHP (Fresno Grizzlies)
Lest anyone think that the IL has a monopoly on blue-chip right-handed starters, Lincecum will be opening 2007 as the Grizzlies' ace. The 22-year-old was the Giants' first-round draft pick in 2006, and he ended up signing for a club-record $2.025 million bonus. Lincecum absolutely dazzled over several starts with the Giants in Spring Training, prompting some speculation that he'd open the season in the big leagues. Instead, he'll be in Fresno, where it's a good bet that his unorthodox over-the-top delivery and arsenal of first-rate pitches will have PCL batsmen begging for mercy.
Adam Lind, OF (Syracuse Chiefs)
Lind won the Eastern League MVP Award last season, despite the fact that he was promoted to Triple-A Syracuse in late July. He fared even better there, hitting .394 and compiling a .992 OPS over 24 ballgames. That led to a September callup with the Blue Jays, where he hit .367 over 18 games. Phew. In 2007, Lind will get the chance to continue his sweet-swinging ways with Syracuse, while also working on his outfield defense (DH isn't an option in the bigs, as the immobile Frank Thomas is firmly ensconced in that position). Regardless, Lind should have a starting job with the Jays by the beginning of next season, and possibly sooner.
Jeff Niemann, RHP (Durham Bulls)
At 6-foot-9, Niemann is an intimidating presence on the mound. And that's even before one considers his 96 mph fastball. Niemann was Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick in 2004, but since then injuries have limited him to just 25 professional appearances. He was impressive in the D-Ray's big-league camp this spring, and is now set to head a formidable Durham rotation that should also include Andy Sonnanstine (Tampa Bay's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2006) and Mitch Talbot (a key part of last season's deal that sent Aubrey Huff to Houston).
Larry Parrish, Manager (Toledo Mud Hens)
Sustained success is difficult to achieve in any sport. This holds especially true in the ever-shifting world of the Minor Leagues, where near-constant roster turmoil is a fact of life. Therefore, what Larry Parrish is attempting to achieve in the IL this year is particularly impressive. The 52-year-old skipper (and former Major League standout) has led Toledo to back-to-back Governors' Cup titles. Another title in 2007 would mark the first three-peat in the IL since the 1979-81 Columbus Clippers (the first three seasons that the squad was a Yankees affiliate). Parrish will miss the season's first week due to ankle surgery on April 4.
Hunter Pence, OF (Round Rock Express)
Even before Spring Training, Hunter Pence was widely considered to be the best prospect in the Houston Astros' organization. His performance in the club's big-league camp this March only served to solidify this assertion, as he hit over .500 before being re-assigned to the Minor League complex. This occurred because the Astros' current outfield situation is crowded, but Pence's eventual callup to the bigs is just a matter of time. Until that day arrives, Express fans will have the pleasure of seeing Pence attempt to improve on the .283-28-95 numbers he put up in the Double-A Texas League in 2006. And, don't forget, he stole 17 bases as well.
Matt White, LHP (Las Vegas 51s)
It sounds like a movie script -- a journeyman left-handed reliever discovers an extraordinarily valuable rock quarry ($2 billion worth of rare mica schist rock) in the backyard of a house he had bought from his elderly aunt. Yet, he stays in professional baseball to pursue his big-league dreams, only to be assigned to...LAS VEGAS! Can White avoid the temptation to gamble his fortune away? Will he learn that true happiness can only be found by playing the game he loves? Will A-Rod stop by and ask him for financial advice? Only time will tell. But one thing's for sure: this is one story well worth following.
Brandon Wood, 3B (Salt Lake Bees)
Brandon Wood hit 43 home runs as a member of the Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in 2005, and since then has often been mentioned as one of the top position prospects in the Minor Leagues. The 22-year-old hit 25 home runs and drove in 83 in the Double-A Texas League this past season and should be able to duplicate those numbers in Salt Lake. A shortstop by trade, Wood has recently relocated to third in order to speed up his path to Anaheim (with Orlando Cabrera and the emerging Erick Aybar, the Angels are already set in the six hole). Wood will learn the ins and outs of the hot corner as a member of the Bees.
Ernie Young, OF/DH (Charlotte Knights)
Enough about prospects. Triple-A also has its fair share of esteemed veterans, and none of them have led a more admirable and tenacious career than Ernie Young. A veteran of at least part of 10 Major League seasons, the venerable Young continues to put up impressive numbers in Triple-A. The 37-year-old hit his 300th Minor League home run last season, en route to hitting .300 and posting an on-base percentage of .405. Young's last Major League appearance came in 2004 with the Indians. Will the White Sox give him one more chance at some point in 2007? Let's hope so.