Fans around the Eastern League got a brief taste of the Bryce Harper hype machine last season when the Nationals prospect arrived at Double-A. This year, they'll have to settle for Manny Machado, a fellow 19-year-old who was drafted just moments after Harper made his splash at No. 1 overall two years ago.
And while everyone knows about Harper, many look past the fact that he struggled adjusting to the Eastern League last year. Double-A is a big jump for most hitters -- even the elite ones -- and Machado is no different. The Orioles' No. 1 prospect will head to Bowie this spring looking to prove he belongs in a league that will feature some stellar starting pitchers.
So, yes, Machado has the biggest name recognition heading into Opening Day this year, but we'll give you the scoop on a few other names you'll want to add to your autograph collection:
Catcher: Sebastian Valle, Reading Phillies
The 21-year-old Valle makes his Double-A debut this spring after playing for the World Team in last year's All-Star Futures Game. Valle enters the 2012 season as the No. 9 catching prospect in baseball and No. 6 in the Phillies' organization. He hit .284 at Class A Advanced Clearwater last season -- his best average since 2009 -- with five homers, 40 RBIs and 19 doubles. The Phils would love to see him draw a few more walks, but he's very agile behind the plate and throws well, giving him the skills to be an excellent all-around catcher.
Honorable mention: Tony Sanchez (Altoona Curve) struggled in his first full season at Double-A last year and will have something to prove if the Pirates send him back to Altoona. He was the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 Draft. Tommy Joseph (Richmond Flying Squirrels) had 22 homers and 95 RBIs at Class A Advanced San Jose last summer and will look to produce after a promotion.
First base: Darin Ruf, Reading Phillies
Ruf, 25, earned MiLB.com's Phillies organizational All-Star honors at first base last season after batting .308 with 17 homers, 82 RBIs and 43 doubles as a Florida State League All-Star at Clearwater. Always a high-average hitter, Ruf showed nice power in 2011 and a .388 on-base percentage. He'll need to keep driving in those runs if he wants to make any noise in a Phillies system loaded with young talent.
Second base: Oscar Tejeda, Portland Sea Dogs
Tejeda, who ranks No. 14 in the Boston system, appeared in 141 games for Portland last season but will probably return for 2012 after posting a disappointing .241/.297/.339 line for the Sea Dogs last year. This is the same player who led all Red Sox Minor Leaguers in hits in 2010, so the potential and talent is there (he hit .307 in 2010). He's still just 22, so the Sox will be patient.
Third base: Kolbrin Vitek, Portland Sea Dogs
The Red Sox's top pick in 2010, Vitek is Boston's No. 9 prospect entering the 2012 season after finishing second in the Carolina League with 78 runs last year. The Ball State product turned 23 on April 1 and will look to build on his strong second half at Class A Advanced Salem last summer, which helped him finish seventh in the league with 133 hits. Boston scouts hope the power numbers come along, too.
Shortstop: Manny Machado, Bowie Baysox
The hope of Orioles fans everywhere, Machado will be closely watched this season as he makes his Double-A debut following a 2011 campaign in which he appeared at two levels but missed time with injuries. The Miami native is Baltimore's No. 1 prospect and ranks sixth overall. "God's given me the ability to get back on my feet and keep driving and being better," Machado said. "I'm getting my knees stronger and, at the end of the day, I'm ready for the season without injuries. There are no expectations for me. I'm trying to stay healthy and play a full season -- 142 games before 162. If I get the callup this year or two or three years or next year, we never know."
Machado, with great range defensively, hit .257 with 11 homers, 50 RBIs and 11 steals between Class A Delmarva and Class A Advanced Frederick in 2011. A healthy Machado will hopefully be even better in 2012.
Outfield: Bryce Brentz, Portland Sea Dogs
Brentz is another first-rounder making his Double-A debut. Boston's second first-round pick in 2010 (Brentz went No. 36 overall after Vitek was selected at No. 20) will make the jump to Portland after impressing at two levels last season, hitting .306 with 30 homers and 94 RBIs in 115 games for Class A Greenville and Salem. He's the Red Sox's No. 2 prospect heading into the season and No. 64 overall.
"My parents have become big Red Sox fans, watching the big league club and everything. My mom likes to tell me about some of the negative things she reads," Brentz said. "She knows that sort of thing fires me up to play even harder. Everyone's going to have critics -- I just try to play my game as best I can."
Outfield: Gary Brown, Richmond Flying Squirrels
The Giants' No. 1 prospect will make his Double-A debut after a monster season in which he tormented California League pitchers, catchers and managers with his speed and power. San Francisco's first-round pick in 2010 hit .336 with 14 homers, 80 RBIs and 53 stolen bases (second-most in the league), had a circuit-leading 13 triples and finished with a .407 OBP at San Jose. Brown finished second in the league in walks, and despite all his successful steals, he'll want to improve on the caught-stealing ratio -- he was thrown out 19 times last season. Still, the ceiling is very high for this leadoff man.
Outfield: Aaron Hicks, New Britain Rock Cats
Hicks is the No. 2 prospect in Minnesota's system entering 2012, but is in danger of losing that title if he continues to slip this summer. The Twins' first-rounder from 2008 hit just .242 last season at Class A Advanced Fort Myers, seeing a drop in both homers (five) and RBIs (38) from his Midwest League All-Star campaign in 2010. Hicks has decent speed and a rifle for an arm, so the Twins will be patient with the 22-year-old at Double-A. He's ranked No. 72 overall by MLB.com this spring.
Honorable mention: Eury Perez (Harrisburg Senators) has stolen 109 bases over his last two seasons and should patrol center for the Senators, a field once roamed by the other Bryce. Yankees prospect Zoilo Almonte (Trenton Thunder) had 18 homers, 77 RBIs and 18 steals between Tampa and Trenton last season and will likely get further time at Double-A.
Left-handed pitcher: Darin Gorski, Binghamton Mets
Mets fans may be a frustrated group these days, but we're going to highlight a pair of Mets pitchers for 2012. Gorski, the Mets' seventh-rounder from 2009, went 11-3 with a 2.03 ERA and 140 strikeouts over 138 2/3 innings last year at Class A Advanced St. Lucie -- he led both the Mets' system and the Florida State League in ERA. The Pennsylvania native had three complete games and held batters to a .212 average thanks to a good changeup and slider. Binghamton will be a good test for the organization's 19th-ranked prospect.
Right-handed pitcher: Zack Wheeler, Binghamton Mets
While Gorski has been a pleasant surprise for Mets fans, Wheeler is a known stud. Acquired in the trade for Carlos Beltran last year, the 24-year-old went 9-7 with a 3.52 ERA in 22 starts between San Jose and St. Lucie in 2011. He instantly became New York's No. 1 prospect following the trade and should get his first taste of Double-A hitting this year.
"I need to work on [curveball] location, that's about it," Wheeler said. "The pitch is how I want it. It doesn't have a huge loop, but it has a lot of break. It comes in on the same plane as my fastball. I just need to learn how to locate it whenever I want. It's not like I'm not throwing it for strikes, I just want to be able to locate it better."
Honorable mention: Trevor May (Reading Phillies), the Phillies' No. 1 prospect, throws in the mid-90s with his fastball and struck out 208 batters last year at Clearwater. "As for pressure, they say Double-A is right there knocking on the door, but I just try to think of it as another step forward instead of how close and how much pressure you can put on yourself to do anything," said May.
Anthony Ranaudo (Portland Sea Dogs) is Boston's No. 5 prospect and another first-round selection ready to make his Double-A debut. "I hope I start off [at Portland], I hope I make the most of it," Ranaudo said. "I'm coming in as prepared as I've ever been. I'm in the best shape of my life, I'm really excited. I'm coming in strong and hopefully I'll make a good name for myself and earn a spot at Double-A -- that'd be real fun."