Triple-A is the final step for players before reaching the Majors, so it's no surprise that the International League is routinely populated with some of the game's best young talent. Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Dustin Pedroia spent significant time in the IL before earning MVP honors in the big leagues.
This year is no exception as the league again features some of the most highly regarded talent in the Minor Leagues. Below, MiLB.com examines 10 players who will be worth keeping an eye on this season.
Catcher: Ryan Lavarnway, Pawtucket Red Sox
A late cut from Major League camp, Lavarnway has asserted himself as an offensive force since he was selected in the sixth round of the 2008 Draft. He enjoyed a career year in 2011, blasting a Red Sox system-leading 34 homers between the Majors and Minors while totaling 101 RBIs. His best stretch came in July, when he batted .513 (20-for-39) with eight homers in 10 games at Triple-A.
"It felt like I was in college again. ... I was seeing the ball well, my mechanics were working and I had a high level of focus," Lavarnway said of the streak.
Lavarnway was named a Red Sox Organization All-Star after the season and is ranked as MLB.com's No. 93 prospect heading into 2012.
First base: Neftali Soto, Louisville Bats
Only 22 last year, Soto dominated the Southern League by hitting .272 with 30 homers in 102 games. He also excelled in a four-game trial at Triple-A, batting .412 with one homer. He accomplished all this despite missing the entire month of May with a broken wrist, an injury that normally saps a player's power, earning a place among the Reds' Organization All-Stars.
Second base: Reese Havens, Buffalo Bisons
Havens has had injury problems throughout his professional career, and last year was no different. Limited to 61 games because of a back injury, the 2008 first-rounder batted .289 with 22 extra-base hits and an .827 OPS at Double-A Binghamton. If he can stay healthy in 2012, he could find himself as a candidate to play second base for the Mets sooner rather than later.
"Big-league hitter," said Wally Backman, who managed Binghamton last year and will be Buffalo's skipper this season. "The issue with him has always been health. If he had stayed healthy [in 2010], I believe he would have been the second baseman for the Mets [in 2011]."
Third base: Will Middlebrooks, Pawtucket Red Sox
Always highly regarded defensively, Middlebrooks busted out last year by hitting .285 with 23 homers in 116 Minor League games. He played 96 contests in the Eastern League, earning mid- and postseason All-Star honors while being selected to participate in the All-Star Futures Game. He is ranked as MLB.com's No. 56 prospect heading into this season and is seen as the successor to Kevin Youkilis at the big league level.
"He has a physical presence and he's still filling out," Portland manager Kevin Boles said. "He has a plus arm and he's an average runner. He has plus power with the potential to hit for average, too. He does a lot of things well."
Shortstop: Tim Beckham, Durham Bulls
The first overall pick in 2008, Beckham fell out of the good graces of many scouts when he struggled both offensively and defensively in 2009 and 2010. He recovered his prospect status last year, when he batted .271 with 12 homers and 17 steals between Double-A and Triple-A while playing much-improved defense. His home run rate improved at Triple-A, despite playing against what he admitted to be better competition. Still only 22, Beckham has plenty of time to continue refining his game, though he needs to watch out for fellow shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee one level below.
"I think you see a young high school kid who has matured, both physically and mentally," said Mitch Lukevics, the Rays' director of Minor League operations. "I think with that, you saw a more consistent baseball player. He shored up his weaknesses on defense, showed the ability to drive the ball, and we expect bigger and better things in his future."
Bryce Harper, Syracuse Chiefs
Harper brings his talents to Syracuse, where he will be tested against players several years older than he is. Although he was being considered for a spot on the Nationals' Opening Day roster, the organization was aggressive in sending him to Triple-A -- Harper batted .256 with three homers during a 37-game stint at Double-A last season. Still, his overall talent is undeniable. He posted an .894 OPS in his first pro season at the age of 19, then hit .333 with six homers in 25 Arizona Fall League contests.
While Harper is known for his prodigious power, he has displayed above-average skills on the bases, swiping 26 bags in 33 tries last year. MLB.com's No. 2 prospect will use that speed to play most of his games in center field, a position he occupied only 20 times last season.
"He has the ability to hit the ball and hit it far," said Syracuse skipper Tony Beasley, who managed Harper at Harrisburg last year. "Better than everything else, his mentality. Very confident, he understands how to play and he's a big competitor. I was impressed with the way he handled the press he was getting -- it wasn't always pleasant -- but he dealt with it in a professional way."
Starling Marte, Indianapolis Indians
Marte is the definition of a five-tool player, with the potential to do it all at the Major League level. In 139 games at Double-A last year, he batted a league-leading .332 with 12 homers, 24 steals and an .870 OPS. Ranked as MLB.com's No. 40 prospect, he also topped the Eastern League with an impressive 18 outfield assists. For his efforts, he earned accolades as EL Rookie of the Year, a mid- and postseason All-Star and an All-Star Futures Game participant.
"An exciting player to watch, Starling has very good athleticism and speed to go along with the ability to hit," said Larry Broadway, the Pirates' director of Minor League operations. "The scary thing is that he is starting to mature physically and is starting to develop power as well. His speed-power-hit combo is going to make him a very fun player to see mature."
Joe Benson, Rochester Red Wings
Another Organization All-Star, Benson will finally get a shot at Triple-A after spending most of the past two seasons at New Britain. He certainly has earned the promotion, combining for 39 homers in 213 Double-A games during that time. He also totaled 27 steals and displayed good range in the outfield for the Rock Cats -- speed skills that should translate to Rochester.
Left-handed pitcher: Manny Bañuelos, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees
Bañuelos continued his propensity to strike out batters last year, fanning 125 over 129 2/3 innings, but he also displayed control problems that have bothered him since advancing to higher levels. The 21-year-old issued 71 walks last year, pushing his WHIP to an unsightly 1.55. Still, he overcame those problems to post a 3.75 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A and currently ranks as one of the Yankees' top talents and MLB.com's No. 13 prospect.
Right-handed pitcher: Julio Teheran, Gwinnett Braves
Teheran, MLB.com's No. 4 prospect, will be Gwinnett's Opening Day starter after losing out to fellow youngster Randall Delgado for the final spot in the Braves' rotation. That should be just a minor setback for the native of Colombia, who tied for the International League lead with a 2.55 ERAlast year. Still only 21, the Organization All-Star again will be one of the youngest players in the IL.
Honorable mention: The Tigers' Jacob Turner, another hurler who lost out on a rotation spot in Spring Training. He'll look to continue the brief success he enjoyed at Triple-A last year, when he compiled a 3.12 ERA over 17 1/3 frames at Toledo.