This offseason, MiLB.com is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.
The reconstruction of the Houston Astros farm system under general manager Jeff Luhnow has been rapid and unquestionably successful, with MLB.com's Jim Callis last week naming Houston's the best system in all of baseball.
The farm has been stocked in a number of ways. Top Draft picks George Springer, Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Mark Appel have all impressed as first-round picks -- Springer, Correa and McCullers were shoe-ins for the All-Star list below. Others, like Domingo Santana and Max Stassi, have been acquired in trades and driven up their stocks with solid performances.
The cavalry is en route. One of the names below has already reached the Majors (Stassi). Others, like Springer and Luis Cruz, aren't far behind. The future in Houston isn't quite now, but it's near. Here's a look at some of the players fueling that optimism.
Astros Organizational All-Stars
Catcher -- Max Stassi, Corpus Christi (76 games), Houston (three games): Ranked 18th in Houston's farm system, Stassi was acquired from Oakland in the Jed Lowrie deal in February and rewarded Houston with a breakout 2013. Finally healthy, the backstop set a career high with 17 home runs, helped in part by a July stretch during which he homered in five consecutive games. The 2009 fourth-round pick was called up to Houston late in the season and re-established himself as a potential Major League regular.
"I think what helped him was actually the injury, as weird as that sounds," Astros coordinator of pro scouting Kevin Goldstein said. "He had some problems in the spring, and we got him to a specialist who found a sports hernia. Once that sports hernia was cleared up, he felt outstanding.
"He felt 100 percent for the first time in a long time. He'd been banged up some when he was with the A's. This, with us, was the first year he really felt like he was completely able to perform without aches and pains, and everything unlocked."
First base -- MP Cokinos, Lancaster (109 games): Cokinos, a 2012 31st-round pick out of St. Mary's University in Texas, displayed a tremendous approach in his first full pro season. Primarily a first baseman (he also saw time at catcher and left field), Cokinos managed more walks (47) than strikeouts (41) while posting a .313 average, a .395 on-base percentage and a .475 slugging percentage. He posted a 1.017 OPS in April and closed the year with an .870 OPS.
"He's a talented player, and he may become a real prospect," Goldstein said. "Being at Lancaster helped, but beyond that, he can really hit. I don't think anyone went into the season thinking, 'Cokinos is going to have a monster year.' Then he got off to that monster start, and it just never stopped. He kept hitting and hitting."
Second base -- Delino DeShields, Lancaster (111 games): DeShields made this an easy selection with his performance in Class A Advanced in 2013. The 21-year-old did all that was required of him as a leadoff man in the making, batting .317 with a .405 on-base percentage and 51 stolen bases. The season wasn't perfect, though, with his occasionally lackadaisical nature raising questions about his work ethic, attitude and level of energy in the field.
"There are a lot of people talking about how he had an off year and hurt his prospect status, stuff like that," Goldstein said. "I hope all our guys have off years and hit .317. You know, please give me that."
After the season, Houston announced it was moving its No. 7 prospect back to center field -- a position he hasn't played since high school. The 21-year-old has been getting reps there in the Arizona Fall League.
"It's good for players to have positional flexibility in their careers," Goldstein said. "A lot of players, you see them getting to the big leagues and having to learn a new position there, and that's a tough way to go about it. It's good to get him some reps in the outfield to have infield and outfield defensive possibilities."
Shortstop -- Carlos Correa, Quad Cities (117 games): The top pick from the 2012 Draft justified his No. 1 selection with an outstanding debut in the Class A Midwest League. The Puerto Rico Baseball Academy product posted a league-best .827 OPS among qualified players and finished third in the Midwest League with a .320 average. His .973 fielding percentage was also tops in the league among shortstops (minimum 300 chances), a feat rare for a defender so young.
"He exceeded our expectations not just with the bat but in the field," Goldstein said. "I know errors aren't the best stat, but he led the league in fielding percentage, and that's not supposed to happen for an 18-year-old shortstop. In his first year, he's supposed to make 50 errors.
"His fundamentals are so sound defensively. He has good hands, makes good transfers, positions himself well. You look at his error total [15 errors in 551 chances], and that's one of the more glaring numbers on the stat sheet."
Third base -- Rio Ruiz, Quad Cities (114 games): Matt Duffy made a strong push for third base honors with a .950 OPS in Lancaster, but Ruiz's accomplishments in the Midwest League while turning 19 were just a hair more impressive. The 2012 fourth-round pick struggled in the first half, posting a .624 OPS, but was a monster in the second half, managing an .875 OPS, including a .900 mark in 28 August games.
"There were times in the second half where Ruiz was the most dangerous hitter on that team," Goldstein said. "He made some adjustments both with his approach and with his mechanics. It took a while for him to adjust and get into it and get his front foot down the right way.
"He's a natural hitter. He has really instinctual ability to put the bat on the ball. I'm excited for a full year next year with him in sync with his swing."
George Springer, Corpus Christi (73 games), Oklahoma City (62 games): The New Britain, Conn., native nearly became the first 40-homer, 40-steal Minor Leaguer since 1956 in a performance that earned him the Offensive Player of the Year MiLBY, as voted on by the MiLB.com staff. The center fielder finished with 37 homers and 45 steals across Double-A and Triple-A, and after being promoted midseason, Springer actually cut his strikeout rate from 29.7 percent to 24.4 percent of plate appearances while maintaining similar power numbers.
Beyond the physical gifts, Goldstein and the Astros are excited for Springer to debut in Houston because they also view him as a cornerstone clubhouse guy.
"The things he does on a baseball field are remarkable," Goldstein said. "We're excited about his makeup. He's a leader in the clubhouse, conducts himself like a big leaguer. I think he's going to play a big role for us at some point in 2014."
Domingo Santana, Corpus Christi (112 games): Santana turned 21 in August, making him the second-youngest qualified player in the Texas League this summer. Age didn't hold the Dominican right fielder back, as Santana finished third in the league with 25 home runs and also legged out 23 doubles despite missing a month with an injury. His .842 OPS was fourth among qualified players, and the strong-armed right fielder also recorded 11 outfield assists.
"Domingo is a guy who I think gets lost in our system," Goldstein said. "The second he gets off the bus, you see him in uniform and he looks like a big league right fielder. He's a big dude, huge raw [power], plus arm, an idea at the plate. I'm a big fan of him."
Andrew Aplin, Lancaster (128 games): The 22-year-old center fielder was a dynamic contributor for Lancaster in 2013, pairing a solid offensive performance with strong base running and exceptional defense in center field. The Arizona State product hit .278 with an .800 OPS boosted mostly by outstanding plate discipline -- he drew 83 walks and struck out just 63 times, posting a .376 on-base percentage. He also stole 24 bases while showcasing Major League ability in center.
"He's a good hitter with gap-to-average power, maybe more than that sometimes," Goldstein said. "He stings the ball to all fields. He's an absolutely outstanding center fielder. He's a guy who gets big league-level reads and jumps, has really good hands and covers a ton of ground. He goes and gets it out there, and it's really exciting to watch.
"I'm excited to see what he can do at Double-A. He did things this year offensively that surprised us. If he can keep it up, he looks like an excellent outfield prospect."
Utility Player -- Preston Tucker, Lancaster (75 games), Corpus Christi (60 games): Tucker, a seventh-round pick in 2012, has mashed at every stop since being drafted. He began 2013 in Lancaster, where he posted a .326 average and a .926 OPS with 15 homers in 298 at-bats. The 23-year-old was promoted to Corpus Christi midway through the season, where he bashed 10 homers with an .803 OPS in 237 at-bats. Merely average as a corner outfielder, Tucker's career will go as far as his bat can take it. In that regard, 2013 was a positive step.
"Tucker is kind of the opposite [of Aplin]," Goldstein said. "People in the organization call him 'Bam Bam.' He's a big, bulky kid. He's not going to light you up physically, but he just hits and hits and hits. The ball flies off his bat, and he has an excellent idea at the plate -- good approach. He waits for a pitch to hit and when he gets it, he rakes it."
Right-handed starter -- Lance McCullers, Quad Cities (25 games): McCullers, a 2012 first-round pick (41st overall), eased concerns that he may be forced into relief with his first full pro season. Boasting a monster fastball and a nasty breaking ball, McCullers struck out 117 hitters in 104 2/3 innings while posting a 3.18 ERA. That McCullers posted dominant numbers isn't entirely surprising, but what most pleased Goldstein were the steps McCullers took toward becoming a more complete pitcher.
"Where in high school, he can kind of just throw his stuff by everybody, in the pros, we talk about sequencing and mixing and locating. He did that very well," Goldstein said. "He was one of those guys who didn't really need a change in high school. ... He's going to need it going forward and in the big leagues. He worked that into his repertoire and made an impact and gained confidence with it and still put up the kind of numbers you saw."
Left-handed starter -- Luis Cruz, Lancaster (27 games), Corpus Christi (four games): Goldstein's estimation of what makes Cruz so effective is based mostly on makeup -- he described the left-hander's mound demeanor as "nasty." Cruz's gamer mentality didn't show in his California League ERA (5.16), but other numbers tell the real story. The left-hander struck out 129 batters in 113 1/3 innings, walking 40 and allowing 10 homers. The 23-year-old managed a 3.37 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), per Fangraphs, and earned a promotion to Double-A at year's end. In four appearances (two starts) with Corpus Christi, Cruz went 2-0 with a 0.53 ERA and a 21-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 17 frames.
"I adore him," Goldstein said. "He's like [5-foot-11], 6-feet tall, and he has a full arsenal of pitches and he can throw any of them at any point he wants to in the count. He can mix them up and put them exactly where he wants. He has a deep arsenal, good location and no fear whatsoever. That makes all his stuff play up."
Relief pitcher -- Gonzalo Sanudo, Greeneville (18 games), Tri-City (nine games), Corpus Christi (three games): Acquired from Minnesota in exchange for catching prospect Mike Kvasnicka last spring, Sanudo was dominant at three levels in 2013, posting a 1.16 ERA with a devastating 51-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 2/3 innings. The right-hander walked just two batters between stints with Greeneville and Tri-City, and one of those was intentional. Over three pro seasons, Sanudo's strikeout-to-walk ratio is 106-to-13 over 95 1/3 innings.
"With the Twins in 2012, he walked two guys in 36 innings," Goldstein said. "We thought, 'Let's grab him, make a deal, and see what he can do.' The thing is, he kept throwing strikes but also gained velocity.
"All of a sudden, he's going from average to plus velocity without losing any control. He was doing what he was doing but at 92-94 [mph]. You could see it in the results."