From the mid-Atlantic to the Great Lakes, Class A baseball is in great shape for 2007. There are players with big-league pedigrees, including Koby Clemens and Francisco Pena, who are taking their first steps toward playing in the Majors like their fathers. There are also players like Jon Lester, who have tasted big-league success, but are back on rehab assignments in the Minors.
Among these 10 players to know, the common thread is that many of them will be playing their first full season of Minor League baseball. That means a full season of hits, runs and errors, which should make games in both the Midwest League and South Atlantic League exciting from Opening Day onward.
1. Jon Lester, LHP (Greenville Drive)
Imagine pitching against the New York Yankees at Fenway Park in the middle of a pennant race and then, a week later, you are in a hospital bed learning that you have cancer. That is exactly what happened last August to Jon Lester, who was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. After undergoing several chemotherapy treatments, Lester's journey back to the Red Sox and Fenway begins this season with Greenville Drive. There is no specific time table set for Lester's return to Yawkey Way, but the Red Sox are looking to ease him back into regular season shape. Lester, who was Boston's first pick in the 2002 draft (57th overall), went 7-2 with a 4.76 ERA in 15 starts with the Sox last season. Boston still considers Lester a top prospect and expects him to make an impact in the future.
2. Koby Clemens, 3B (Lexington Legends)
While Clemens may not be the best prospect in Class A, he certainly carries the most famous name. Clemens has already made a contribution to the Astros, as his signing with the club helped his future Hall-of-Famer father, Roger, make the decision to return and pitch for Houston last season. Clemens missed five weeks last year because of a dislocated left pinky and, as a result of that injury, will begin the season with Lexington. In 91 games last year, he batted .229 with five home runs, 40 runs scored and 39 RBIs. He also struck out 67 times and struggled against righties, batting .215 (48-for-223). Houston sent him to Hawaii to play winter ball where he focused on his defense and plate discipline. The Astros are looking for Clemens to improve in those two areas and make the jump to Salem.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP (Great Lakes Loons)
Kershaw was considered one of the best high school prospects in the 2006 draft and the Dodgers agreed, taking him with the seventh pick. He didn't disappoint, going 2-0 with one save and a 1.95 ERA in 37 innings in the Gulf Coast League. The 6-foot-3 lefty allowed 28 hits and five walks, while fanning 54 and holding opponents to a .201 average. He possesses a mid-90s fastball that tops out at 96, along with an excellent curveball and a circle change which give him three reliable pitches. Kershaw has great command of his fastball, but needs to work on consistency with his curve, which at times still has a tendency to hang in the strike zone. The 19-year-old lefty will begin the season with Great Lakes, but the Dodgers believe he could be promoted to High A before season's end.
4. Bill Rowell, 3B (Delmarva Shorebirds)
Rowell was a four-year starter in high school and has the kind of power and run production potential that teams look for in a third baseman. The Orioles couldn't pass up that potential, selecting him with the ninth overall pick in last year's draft, making him the first high school hitter picked. Baltimore was so high on Rowell that it signed him to a $2.1 million bonus, the highest bonus the team has ever paid to a newly drafted batter. He rewarded the O's by batting .329 with two home runs, 38 runs scored and 26 RBIs in 42 games with Bluefield before being promoted to short-season Aberdeen in late August. The Orioles would like to see the third baseman work on his pitch recognition and plate discipline, as he struck out 59 times in 195 at-bats.
The team also wants Rowell to work on hitting the ball to the opposite field on a more consistent basis. He
will begin the season with Delmarva.
5. Travis Snider, OF (Lansing Lugnuts)
The Blue Jays selected Snider out of high school with the 14th overall pick in last year's draft because they fell in love with his hitting skills. Snider hits for both average and power and displayed both in his first season with Pulaski. He hit .325 with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs in
54 games. He was not only named MVP, but he was also rated the No. 1 prospect in the Appalachian League. Snider finished the season with 24 extra-base hits and drew 30 walks for a league-best .979 OPS. While he can use some work on his defense, he has the hitting ability, power and arm strength to be the prototypical corner outfielder in the Majors. He will begin the season with Lansing.
6. Drew Stubbs, OF (Dayton Dragons)
Stubbs was selected in the third round in 2003 by the Astros, but he passed on signing with Houston to become a standout at the University of Texas. In Austin, he led the Longhorns to the 2005 College World Series and was named the Big 12 Conference Co-Player of the Year in 2006. After a great 2006 college season, Stubbs was selected by the Reds with the eighth pick in last June's draft. Stubbs has excellent power, great speed and exceptional glove-handling. He showed off his potential last season with Billings, batting .252 with six homers, 24 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 56 games. However, he also struck out 64 times in 210 at-bats, so the Reds want him to work on plate discipline, as well as shortening the long swing that causes him to swing and miss far too often. Stubbs will begin the season as Dayton's center fielder.
7. Chris Parmelee, OF/1B (Beloit Snappers)
Parmelee, the Twins' 2006 first-round pick, is what scouts would call a professional hitter. At only 19, he has impressed the Twins with a great eye at the plate, and a short compact stroke. He also has a lot of power and an above average arm, which should keep him in right field this season at Beloit. There has been talk of moving Parmelee to first base because of his lack of speed, although he is capable of playing a solid first base if the team decides to move him. Parmelee hit .279 with eight home runs, 32 RBIs and 29 runs scored in 45 games with the Gulf Coast Twins. However, the high school product appeared to wear down late in the season, batting .238 with just one home run in 17 August games before his call up to Beloit. Parmelee hit just .227 with two RBIs in his 11 games with the Snappers.
8. Pedro Beato, RHP (Delmarva Shorebirds)
Beato was drafted by the New York Mets in 2005, but contract negotiations with the team were unsuccessful, thus sending Beato back into the draft in 2006, where the Orioles scooped him up with the 32nd overall pick. Beato has a mid-90s fastball which he can locate on either side of the plate, an above-average power curve and a change-up. He displayed these skills in the New York-Penn League last year, going 3-2 with a 3.63 ERA over 57 innings in 14 games with Aberdeen. Beato claims he has up to six pitches, but the Orioles want him to concentrate on his big three, as he still struggles with control and location. Beato will start the season at Delmarva, but don't be surprised if he is pitching for Frederick by midseason.
9. Dellin Betances, RHP (Charleston RiverDogs)
Betances was considered a possible first-round pick in early 2006, but his high asking price and his early commitment to Vanderbilt frightened teams. As a result, he fell to the New York Yankees in the eighth round. Betances, a local product from Brooklyn, showed why many thought he was a first round pick, going 0-1 with 1.16 ERA in seven games with the Gulf Coast Yankees. He struck out 27 and walked seven in 23 1/3 innings. He has a low-to-mid-90s fastball and uses his power curve, which he throws in the low 80s, as his out pitch. His repertoire also contains a change-up, which the Yankees are encouraging him to throw more so he can make it a second out pitch. The Yankees believe he has the potential to be a No. 1 starter and to progress through their system quickly. He will start this season with Charleston.
10. Francisco Pena, C (Savannah Sand Gnats)
Pena, the son of former Major Leaguer and current Yankees coach Tony Pena, signed a $750,000 deal last summer with the New York Mets that surprised many since Francisco is just 17. The Mets are so high on Pena's ability both offensively and defensively that they are sending him to Class A Savannah instead of Kingsport of the Appalachian League or Brooklyn of the New York-Penn League. He has impressed the Mets with his defense as well as his knowledge at the plate, specifically his knack for going the other way. Pena still has to work on pitch recognition and bat speed, but the Mets feel he will improve at the dish with experience.
Chip Haunss is a contributor to MLB.com.