Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2015 season approaching, MiLB.com takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Loudest tool: Lucas Giolito (fastball)
Giolito's 12-6 power curveball is one of the best hooks in the Minors, but it's only his second-best pitch. That says a lot about just how good his fastball is. Consistently in the upper 90s and occasionally reaching triple digits, Giolito's heater grades at a perfect 80 on the 20-80 scale, according to MLB.com. Undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013 didn't seem to hamper him last season, although it did limit his innings at Class A Hagerstown, where he went 10-2 with a 2.20 ERA. The 6-foot-6 right-hander held opponents to a .197 average and struck out 110 batters over 98 innings.
"Lucas will be challenged this year coming off his first full season," said Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba, who would not divulge Giolito's 2015 innings limit. "He's healthy and starting every fifth day and building his arm strength. He's an impressive player, but we'll continue to move cautiously. He will take the next step this year and make strides in all areas. He has a very high ceiling.
"His fastball is very good because of the velocity and angles it creates. He leverages the ball very well and commands it well. You want to have separation between the fastball and changeup, and his changeup continues to impress with a late fade action."
Major League-ready: A.J. Cole
Cole's career came full circle in 2013 when he was traded from Oakland back to Washington, the organization that selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 Draft. Now the lanky right-hander is looking to force his way into a crowded rotation in the nation's capital. Cole went 7-0 with a 3.43 ERA in 11 starts with Triple-A Syracuse last season, striking out three times as many batters (50) as he walked (17) over 63 innings. With plus control and an above-average heater, the 23-year-old is primed to join the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann at Nationals Park this summer.
"A.J. has certainly put himself in position to be ready for the Major Leagues if there's a call or an opportunity for him" Scialabba said. "He's continued to work on his breaking ball and he has the ability to pitch with the fastball and changeup. He's right on the cusp. We're counting on A.J. for Major League depth, but he'll most likely break with Syracuse unless something chance."
Full-season debutant: Raudy Read
Read may be entering his fifth season in pro ball, but 2015 represents the first time he'll get a crack at a full-season league. Only 21 years old, time is still on his side, but a jump to Hagerstown will still be a big challenge after spending last summer with Auburn and the three years prior to that in Rookie-level leagues. The backstop has improved his average and plate discipline in each of the past three seasons, so it will be interesting to see how the 170-pounder approaches building on the 26 extra-base hits and 35 RBIs from his stint in the New York-Penn League.
"He has the tools to impact the game on both sides of the ball," Scialabba said. "He drives the ball gap to gap and has a knack for driving in runs, but he also takes pride in calling a good game."
Back and healthy: Brian Goodwin
Once considered the Nationals' center fielder of the future, Gooodwin's stock has slipped over the past few years. He the organization's top prospect as recently as 2013 when MLB.com ranked him 66th overall, but he slipped to seventh among Washington farmhands in 2014 and enters this year ranked 14th.
Back from a torn labrum in his left shoulder, Goodwin is hoping to outrun his deficiencies. His speed and arm strength are his calling cards and could earn him a job with the big league club, but he'll have to improve on his offensive numbers if he wants to stick at that level and unseat Michael Taylor, who has become the new heir apparent. Goodwin batted .219 with 18 extra-base hits and 32 RBIs in 81 games with Syracuse a year ago.
"He's worked hard through his rehab," said Scialabba, who would not confirm whether Goodwin would be ready for the International League opener on April 9. "He's just building up volume and getting at-bats as much as he can, but we're very optimistic. "He's hitting right now and playing in games … and he's ready to be challenged this year in Syracuse. There's no set number [of at-bats], because each injury has different protocols with the rehab process. Some guys need 40 at-bats, others need 60 to 80. We want to make sure he's ready and that there are no recurring injuries.
"It's a matter of him getting healthy and getting some reps this year and getting back to the prospect we know he can be."
Breakout prospect: Wilmer Difo
Difo came from relative obscurity to earn South Atlantic League MVP honors last year, and even though his 176 hits ranked second in the Minors, there's a good chance only die-hard Nats fans have heard of the 22-year-old. A switch-hitting middle infielder with speed to burn, Difo collected 49 steals, 14 homers and 52 extra-base hits with Hagerstown last season. Expected to jump to Double-A to start 2015, his tools could take him all the way to the Majors. Think of a younger, slimmer Yunel Escobar with wheels. He could be a household name in the not-to-distant future.
"For us, we knew he was a prospect with tremendous tools," Scialabba said. "He has tremendous athleticism and he's a dynamic player, but there were some adjustments he had to make from a mental approach. He was learning how to deal with failure and knowing the game is difficult. But when you're having difficult times or when you're challenged, it's OK to fail.
"He had a great big league camp and he made a good impression on the Major League staff, his peers and his teammates. He's definitely someone to watch. Last year, he split time between short and second; this year, he'll have the opportunity to play short and you'll see his athleticism."
More to keep an eye on: The Nationals love Reynaldo Lopez's fastball and the deception he creates with his delivery. Now they want to see him add an off-speed pitch to make his "electric arm" play even higher. After dominating in Hagerstown, Potomac appears an obvious spot to begin 2015. He may join fellow pitching prospect Austin Voth in the Carolina League, although the organization is still considering the best level for the right-hander who struggled in five Eastern League starts last summer and needs to find his breaking ball.
Outfielder Victor Robles and third baseman Anderson Franco both spent 2014 in the Dominican Summer League. Scialabba said the traditional route for these players would be to remain in extended spring training, then progress to the Gulf Coast League. Erick Fedde, the 18th overall pick in last year's Draft, underwent Tommy John surgery in May and won't be ready for Opening Day. Scialabba said he's on schedule with his throwing program but won't pitch in a competitive game until the middle of the summer. The same is true of Matt Purke, who's also recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and is still a couple months away.
Ashley Marshall is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB .