The Southern League was stocked in 2005. Future stars such as Chad Billingsley, Delmon Young and Jeremy Hermida put up spectacular numbers, while the likes of Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann ended the season as Major League regulars.
In 2006, potential Southern League standouts include three of the Minor Leagues' top catching prospects, a pair of former first-round draft picks, and the younger brother of a Major League veteran. Here are 10 names to know for the upcoming season:
Ray Liotta, LHP, Birmingham Barons
Yes, his name is Ray Liotta. No, he wasn't the star of Goodfellas. So who is this guy? Put simply, the 23-year-old southpaw is the best pitching prospect in the Chicago White Sox organization. A groundball pitcher who possesses an outstanding curveball and a fastball in the low-90s, Liotta has already won ERA titles in both the Pioneer and Carolina Leagues. Will the Southern League be next?
Miguel Perez, C, Chattanooga Lookouts
Perez is a superb defensive backstop, so opponents of the Lookouts better keep a look out anytime they get on base. The 22-year-old had an astounding 44 percent success rate against would-be basestealers in the Florida State League while earning praise for his game-calling abilities. Although Perez earned a late-season call-up to the Major Leagues this past September, the Reds' organization has no plans to rush him in 2006.
Matt Kemp, OF, Jacksonville Suns
After hitting a franchise-record 27 homers for Vero Beach in 2005, Kemp will bring his formidable power stroke to Jacksonville this season. It may be a tough transition, considering Kemp's tendency to strike out, but the Los Angeles Dodgers continue to view the former basketball standout as one of the organization's most promising sluggers.
Jeff Blauser, Manager, Mississippi Braves
Mississippi's new skipper is certainly no stranger to the Atlanta Braves organization. The slick-fielding shortstop was a mainstay on the Braves roster from 1989-98, appearing in three World Series and two All-Star Games. After spending several seasons as a roving field instructor in the Braves' Minor League system, the 40-year-old Blauser appears ready to handle the rigors of a managerial position.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C, Mississippi Braves
Jarrod's lengthy surname can be roughly translated as "the top catching prospect in all of Minor League baseball." From the Carolina League to the Arizona Fall League to a stint with Team USA, "Salty" excelled everywhere he appeared in 2005. With ample power, above-average speed, and wise-beyond-his-years game-calling ability, Saltalamacchia's ceiling is as high as the Sistine Chapel's.
Cesar Carrillo, RHP, Mobile BayBears
Signed by Joe Bochy (Bruce's brother), Carrillo was the San Diego Padres' No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. The 22-year-old made his professional debut last season after a stellar college career with the Miami Hurricanes, where he won his first 24 decisions. BayBears fans wishing to see Carrillo in action better mobilize quickly, because he could be in the Major Leagues by season's end.
Jeff Niemann, RHP, Montgomery Biscuits
The Devil Rays' top pick in 2004, Niemann is projected to soon join Scott Kazmir at the front end of Tampa Bay's rotation. But first he must recover from an injury-plagued 2005, in which was limited by shoulder and groin problems. If healthy, Niemann's devastating slider and 96 mph fastball should make quick work of Southern League batsmen.
Miguel Montero, C, Tennessee Smokies
The California League is admittedly a hitter's haven, but Montero's performance in 2005 was spectacular by any standard. Over 355 at-bats with the Lancaster JetHawks, the 22-year-old backstop hit .349 with 24 home runs and 89 RBIs. While his numbers will likely decrease somewhat in the more pitcher-friendly Southern League, Montero is now on the map as one of the top catching prospects in all of baseball.
Pat Listach, Manager, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
The 1992 American League Rookie of the Year will be making his full-season managerial debut in 2006 (he served as interim manager of the Iowa Cubs in 2001). The 38-year-old Listach replaces Bobby Dickerson, who led West Tenn to the postseason in two of his four years with the club.
Eric Patterson, 2B, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx
Patterson's older brother Corey never quite panned out as the Chicago Cubs' leadoff man. Now, the organization is hoping that Eric may soon fill that role. The speedy 23-year-old led the Midwest League with a .333 average in 2005, and is now considered the top second base prospect in Chicago's farm system.