Years like 2006 don't happen very often at the Double-A level. Premier pitching prospects like Phil Hughes, Matt Garza, Homer Bailey and Yovani Gallardo laid waste to batters in the Eastern and Southern Leagues, while Alex Gordon showed the Texas League why he was the best player in the Minor Leagues.
Troy Tulowitzki and Hunter Pence weren't slouches at the plate, with Tulowitzki starting this season in the big leagues and Pence banging at the door in Houston following a .571 Spring Training batting average.
How will this year's crop of Double-A talent stack up? Pretty well, actually.
The pool of pitching talent isn't as deep, but among the 10 names you need to know in Double-A are two infielders, five outfielders and three hurlers. One of those outfielders is a 20-year-old who not only possesses all five tools but the attitude and willingness to improve those tools.
Andrew McCutchen, OF (Altoona Curve)
For the first time since a slender Barry Bonds topped the lineup in 1989, Pittsburgh may have a dangerous leadoff man in McCutchen. The 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft split last season between Class A Hickory and Double-A Altoona, batting .294 with 17 home runs, 74 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in 134 games. McCutchen has been tabbed the best athlete, hitter and defensive outfielder in the Pirates organization. Still, the 20-year-old intends to become a smarter, more aggressive baserunner. It shouldn't be long before he gets the call to patrol center field at PNC Park, where he could draw comparisons to Carl Crawford. Speaking of a young and talented Devil Ray ...
Evan Longoria, 3B (Montgomery Biscuits)
When you're the highest-drafted player in Long Beach State history, that means a lot, particularly when the alumni include Jason Giambi, Jered Weaver and Harold Reynolds. The third overall pick last year batted .315 with 18 home runs, 58 RBIs and four steals at three levels, finishing with Double-A Montgomery. His return to Montgomery seems like a mere formality, though. Much like hot corner contemporaries Gordon and Ryan Zimmerman, the 21-year-old may reach the big leagues in just his second professional season, thanks to a skill set that projects to a .300 average and 30 homers.
Reid Brignac, SS (Montgomery Biscuits)
Not surprisingly, the Devil Rays have more than one prospect on this list. Brignac, a 2004 second-rounder, needed only four months to earn California League MVP honors after hitting .326 with 21 homers, 26 doubles, 83 RBIs and 12 steals at Visalia. He spent the rest of the season in Montgomery, where he batted .300 with three homers and 16 RBIs in 28 games. The Louisiana native has all the makings of another star shortstop, drawing some comparisons to Cal Ripken Jr. Brignac probably will spend most of the year with the Biscuits to hone his plate discipline and throwing accuracy.
Donald Veal, LHP (Tennessee Smokies)
It wasn't too long ago that the Cubs had a big left-hander from the West Coast with a herky-jerk delivery who baffled hitters: Dontrelle Willis. The North Siders may have another D-Train in Donald Veal. A 2005 second-round pick, he used a mid-90s fastball and the best curveball in the system to fan 174 batters last year, sixth-most in the Minors. Unfortunately, his unorthodox delivery and creaky shoulder (he tore his labrum as a freshman at the University of Arizona) has led to an alarming walk rate (4.73 per nine innings). Veal probably will spend the season in the Southern League with the Tennessee Smokies.
Nick Adenhart, RHP (Arkansas Travelers)
The Angels took a chance on Adenhart when they drafted him in the 14th round in 2004, just after he underwent "Tommy John" surgery. He rewarded their faith last season by leading the organization with 15 wins. The 20-year-old also notched a 2.56 ERA while striking out 145 and walking only 42 in 158 1/3 innings with Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga. The Maryland native possesses a lively mid-90s fastball and complements it with a deceptive changeup in the low 80s and the best curveball in the system. Adenhart works quickly and pounds the strike zone but will probably find himself in Arkansas to refine his delivery.
Jay Bruce, OF (Chattanooga Lookouts)
Despite playing in the same circuit as heralded prospects like Justin Upton and Cameron Maybin, Bruce was named the best prospect in the Midwest League last year. The 19-year-old former first-rounder hit .291 with 16 homers, a league-leading 42 doubles, 81 RBIs and 19 stolen bases at Dayton.
Bruce uses quick hands and a smooth swing to turn on an inside heater and go the other way with an outside pitch, tools that helped him earn MVP honors at the Midwest League All-Star Game. His plate discipline could use some work (106 strikeouts in 444 at-bats), so Cincinnati will send him to Chattanooga.
Colby Rasmus, OF (Springfield Cardinals)
Rasmus has been drawing attention since high school, when he clubbed 24 home runs as a senior to break Bo Jackson's Alabama single-season state record. Understandably, the 20-year-old outfielder is considered St. Louis' best positional prospect since Albert Pujols. Rasmus hit .288 in stops at Quad Cities and Palm Beach with 16 home runs, eight triples, 85 RBIs and 28 steals. But those numbers could have been higher if it hadn't been for slow starts. The Cardinals expect more power as he fills out his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame, so a summer in the Texas League is on the horizon.
Chuck Lofgren, LHP (Akron Aeros)
While Jeremy Sowers and Adam Miller have garnered most of the attention in the Indians' system, Lofgren has flown under the radar. A 2004 fourth-round pick, he led the organization in wins, going 17-5 with a 2.32 ERA and 125 strikeouts with Class A Advanced Kinston. He also finished second in the Carolina League in ERA and strikeouts. The southpaw throws a fastball between 89-93 mph and uses a deceptive changeup as his out pitch. In each of his last two seasons, he's kept opponents under .220. Sometimes, however, he experiences control issues, something the Tribe hopes he works out in the Eastern League.
Fernando Martinez, OF (Binghamton Mets)
Martinez still hasn't reached his 20th birthday, but he's being hailed as the Mets' top position prospect. He fared well in his first professional season, batting .279 with 10 homers, 39 RBIs and eight steals at three levels, despite battling a bone bruise in his hand and a sprained knee. Like many young hitters from the Dominican Republic, Martinez lacks plate discipline, striking out 61 times in 315 at-bats while walking only 21 times. New York will send its prodigy to Binghamton to hone his skills.
Carlos Gonzalez, OF (Mobile BayBears)
Like the Devil Rays, the Diamonbacks are loaded with high-end prospects, and Gonzalez is one of their best. The 2005 Midwest League MVP attacked California League pitchers with the same ferocity last season, batting .300 with 21 homers, 35 doubles and 94 RBIs while stealing a career-high 15 bases. Gonzalez also boasts the organization's best outfield arm, but he encountered his first speed bump when he batted just .213 with eight extra-base hits at Double-A Tennessee. He'll be back in the Southern League in 2007 with Mobile, Arizona's new Double-A affiliate.