Each season, the Southern League is sure to feature some of the best talent in Minor League Baseball, star prospects poised to make an impact at the Major League level.
Just consider 2011's standout players -- Mobile's Paul Goldschmidt was named the circuit's MVP, and he ended the season entrenched at first base for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Even more dramatic was the rise of Most Outstanding Pitcher Matt Moore. The flame-throwing left-hander began the season with the Montgomery Biscuits and ended starting -- and winning -- Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Texas.
The following prospects are beginning the season on Southern League rosters, but who knows where the long and winding road of the 2011 season will take them?
Catcher: Christian Bethancourt, Mississippi Braves
If Bethancourt's ascent through the Braves system continues unabated, he may soon challenge the Phillies' Carlos Ruiz as baseball's premier Panamanian backstop. Despite the fact that he won't reach drinking age until the final week of the season, Bethancourt is entering his fifth professional campaign. He split 2011 between Class A Rome and Class A Advanced Lynchburg, hitting a solid .289 and, perhaps more importantly, showing considerably improved game-calling skills. The accolades only increased in the Arizona Fall League, where he was recognized as one of the circuit's Rising Stars and named to the All-Prospect Team. Now, after a strong Spring, the stage is set for Bethancourt to have a breakout year with the M-Braves.
First Base: Ian Gac, Mississippi Braves
Gac may not be considered a top prospect in the way others on this list might be, but he enters 2012 with an interesting back story and, potentially, a ton of upside. The 26-year-old has never played at the Double-A level, but he certainly doesn't have anything to prove anywhere else. Gac played for the Class A Advanced Winston-Salem Dash last season and proceeded to lead the circuit in both home runs (33) and RBIs (96) en route to being named MVP. Gac signed with the Braves as a six-year free agent this past November, and the organization is giving him the chance to establish himself at what is generally regarded as the Minor League's "make or break" level.
Second Base: Scooter Gennett, Huntsville Stars
A scrappy 5-foot-9 second-sacker who goes by the name of "Scooter" is bound to be a fan favorite, and that has certainly been the case in Gennett's first two professional seasons. He hit .309 with Class A Wisconsin in 2010 and followed that up last season with a .300 average and 167 hits for the Brevard County Manatees (tying a franchise hit mark in the process). The fast-rising 21-year-old went on to excel in the Arizona Fall League and raised his profile even further after hitting for the cycle in a Spring Training contest. Gennett is now expected to be an instigator at the top of Huntsville's lineup, utilizing his speed and savvy while further honing his still raw but undeniably considerable talent.
Third Base: Matt Davidson, Mobile BayBears
2012 marks Davidson's fourth professional campaign, and thus far he has proven himself to be a standout run producer. Last season he bashed 20 homers and drove in 106 runs as a member of the Visalia Rawhide, a fine follow-up to his .289-16-79 line of 2010. But as is often the case with young players, Davidson occasionally has trouble making contact. He struck out 147 times last season, and one of the 21-year-old's primary 2012 objectives will be to cut down on this number while remaining steady within the areas in which he already excels. Davidson has spent ample time at both corner positions during his Minor League career, but with Mobile it appears that the so-called "hot" one will be his primary place of infield residence.
Shortstop: Hak-Ju Lee, Montgomery Biscuits
Often touted as the premier position player prospect in the Tampa Bay organization, Lee is returning to Montgomery to open the 2012 season. His first go-round met with underwhelming results (.190 average and .582 OPS in 24 games), but that was a mere blip in a career that has thus far been characterized by ample success. The 21-year-old South Korean excelled over 400 Florida State League at-bats last season (.318, 82 runs scored, 28 stolen bases) while displaying a strong throwing arm and great range from the oft-demanding shortstop position.
Honorable Mentions: The Southern League is certainly stocked with shortstops this season, most notably Jackson's Nick Franklin (Seattle's first-round pick in 2009) and Mississippi's Andrelton Simmons. The former was ranked No. 51 on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects list, with the latter coming in at No. 65.
Outfield: Brock Kjeldgaard, Huntsville Stars
Thirty-fourth-round draftees rarely elevate themselves to the upper echelons of their organization's depth chart, but Kjeldgaard has proven to be the exception to the rule. Last season the 25-year-old set career highs in home runs (24) and RBIs (76), although his output in both categories was consistent with what he's been able to accomplish throughout his four-year career. Strikeouts remain his Achilles' heel, though his 141 last season were actually an improvement over 2011's staggering 175. The native of Canada will begin this season back in Huntsville (where he played 61 games last year), but given his age, experience and recent success, his time there may be brief.
Blake Smith, Chattanooga Lookouts
Smith was selected by the Dodgers with their second-round pick in 2009, and he has proven a selection packed with power, hitting 39 home runs over the past two seasons, the last of which was spent in the colorfully named California League environs of Rancho Cucamonga. (While there, he slugged 16 home runs over just 293 at-bats). Smith followed the 2011 season with a stint in the Panamanian Winter League, where he was named MVP, and enters 2012 as MLB.com's No. 20 Dodgers prospect .
Matt Szczur, Tennessee Smokies
Szczur's oft-repeated back story is oft-repeated for a reason -- he was a running and receiving juggernaut on Villanova University's football team, and his first two Minor League seasons were truncated so that he could return to the gridiron. Baseball is now his full-time focus, and thus far he's performed admirably. Szczur split 2011 between Class A Peoria and Class A Advanced Daytona, and between the two stops he combined to hit 10 home runs and steal 24 bases over 447 at-bats. His accelerated path continues in 2012, as he'll man center field for the Tennessee Smokies. Oh, and it's pronounced "Caesar," like the Roman emperor.
Right-handed pitcher: Trevor Bauer, Mobile BayBears
As a cerebral hurler with a baffling array of pitches in his arsenal and an unorthodox delivery and training program, Bauer is bound to be one of the most attention-getting pitchers in the SL. That's especially true after one considers the fact that he was the third overall pick in the 2011 Draft after a dominant career at UCLA. The 21-year-old scuffled a bit during a brief trial run at Mobile at the end of last season, but now he'll get the chance to prove himself over the course of a full five-month campaign.
Honorable mention: Taijuan Walker, Jackson Generals
The No. 3 prospect in the Seattle system and 18th overall, according to MLB.com, Walker is still a raw talent, but what else would one expect from a teenage hurler? The 19-year-old dominated Midwest League batsmen in 2011 and will now get a chance to hone in his skills as part of an exceedingly talent-laden Jackson rotation.
Left-handed pitcher: Danny Hultzen, Jackson Generals
The Mariners' first-round pick in 2011 (second overall), Hultzen will be making his professional debut as a member of the Generals. He did appear in the Arizona Fall League, however, and his performance there provided a glimpse of what may be to come -- Hultzen averaged nearly one strikeout per inning and held opponents to a .225 average. He's ranked 16th overall on MLB.com's Top Prospect List. the Mariners have already affirmed their faith in his potential by signing him to a contract worth a minimum of $8.5 million over five years.
Honorable mention: James Paxton, Jackson Generals
While the Seattle Mariners have fallen on hard times as of late, the future looks bright. Paxton dominated over seven starts with the Generals in 2011 (1.85 ERA, 51 strikeouts in 39 innings), and MLB.com's No. 77 prospect joins Walker and Hultzen to form what could be the most promising rotation in Minor League Baseball.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog.