Top prospects get a taste of full-season

Twins infielder Sano ready for challenges of Midwest League

Miguel Sano smacked 20 homers in 66 Appalachian League games in '11. (Tony Farlow/

By Ashley Marshall / Special to | April 2, 2012 9:30 PM ET

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its original publication to reflect current information.

Two of the Minor Leagues' most intriguing young players expect to call the Midwest League home for at least part of 2012. In Beloit, third baseman -- and top Twins prospect -- Miguel Sano fans will catch a glimpse of an 18-year-old (he doesn't turn 19 until May 11) who has already shown remarkable power and all-around hitting ability at a young age.

Heading south to Kane County, outfielder Bubba Starling will offer plenty for Royals fans to dream on when he joins later in the season. He's yet to play an inning of Minor League ball -- though he's actually nine months older than Sano -- but he may have the best all-around tools of any prospect in the game. Those are just two of the top talents that Midwest League fans will get to see up close and personal this season.

Catcher: Carlos Perez, Lansing Lugnuts
Venezuelan backstop Perez made the jump from the short-season New York-Penn League to the Midwest League in 2011, and he'll look to refine his skills in Lansing in hopes of earning a promotion to Class A Advanced Dunedin.

The 21-year-old projects as a fine defensive catcher, and even though he won't hit too many homers, he should develop gap-to-gap power to go alongside a solid average. The rigors of a full-time job caught up with Toronto's No. 9 prospect last year, so expect improved offensive numbers across the board as he repeats the level in 2012.

First Base: Jonathan Griffin, South Bend Silver Hawks
Griffin led the Pioneer League with 18 homers last year in his first pro season, and he will move up to South Bend to get a look at better pitching this year. At 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds, the Florida native has a strong upper body that generates a lot of power, particularly to left field. While he doesn't have too much speed out on the base paths, the 21-year-old is more than just a slugger. He batted .295 in 71 games with the Missoula Osprey in 2011, plating 59 runs and scoring 47 times.

The plate discipline needs to be refined (77 strikeouts to 29 walks). But if he can be a little more selective at the plate, he could become one of the best run producers flying under the radar to start the new campaign.

Second Base: Eddie Rosario, Beloit Snappers
It was hard to mention Sano last season without mentioning teammate Rosario in the same breath. The Appalachian League Player of the Year and winner of the MiLBY for best Short-Season Hitter after slugging 21 home runs and batting .337 in 2011, Rosario is not yet 20 and possesses tools across the board. He's been moved from the outfield to second base, and Beloit will be the testing grounds to see if that change can stick.

Third Base: Miguel Sano, Beloit Snappers
Sano took the Appalachian League by storm last year, so it's no surprise to see him move up a class in 2012. The 6-foot-3 Twins infielder doesn't turn 19 until May, and if he can come close to replicating the type of numbers he put up with short-season Elizabethton last year, the Snappers have a legitimate chance of challenging for Midwest League title honors.

Selected as a non-drafted free agent at the end of the 2009 season, Minnesota's top prospect surprised everyone with his sudden power surge in '11. He ranked second in homers (20) and third in slugging percentage (.637), and Minnesota will be keen to see whether his aggressive approach at the plate yields similar results at the new level.

"He'll be a real good Major League player one day and he'll be there for a lot of years," E-Twins hitting coach and former big leaguer Jeff Reed told last year. "Teams will find a way to get him in the lineup. He can be as good as he wants to be."

Shortstop: Javier Baez, Peoria Chiefs
After giving Francisco Lindor plenty of attention in the preview, let's focus on another 2011 draftee for this spot. Despite being taken just one spot after Lindor in last summer's Draft, 19-year-old Baez could make a lot of noise with the Chicago Cubs' Class A affiliate this year. Considered by some to be a better overall hitter than Lindor, Baez should hit for a good average with decent power to all fields. Chicago's No. 3 prospect -- also ranked No. 62 on's Top 100 list -- will start the year in Arizona for extended spring training.


Bubba Starling, Kane County Cougars
Prep athlete Starling may be the most highly touted prospect calling the Midwest League home in 2012. An All-State quarterback and basketball forward as a high school senior, Starling has raw power, a strong arm and good speed. He will start the season in extended spring training, but expect him to be among the brightest stars as soon as he joins the Cougars outfield.

While he's not as polished as some of the other youngsters in the system, his ceiling ranks up there with the best of them. With great range in center field and leadership qualities that belie his age, Kansas City's top prospect may rocket through the ranks over the next two years.

Drew Vettleson, Bowling Green Hot Rods
Tampa Bay's No. 2 outfield prospect behind Mikie Mahtook, Vettleson will make the jump to a full-season league for the first time in 2012. The former switch-pitcher will man right field for the Hot Rods this season, but he will be in the lineup more for his bat than his defense. He hit .282 with seven homers and 40 RBIs in 61 games for Princeton last year, and even though he has average speed, his advanced feel on the base paths allowed him to swipe 20 bases.

The biggest question mark surrounding the 20-year-old entering the season will be his ability to cope with the rigors of 130 or more games. Vettleson batted just .191 in the final month of the 2011 season after a red-hot July that saw him produce a .384/.458/.677 line.

James Baldwin, Great Lakes Loons
Topping the crop of prospects in Great Lakes this year is fourth-round Draft choice James Baldwin III, an outfielder with natural speed and raw offensive talent. Baldwin was a three-sport standout in high school, signed away from Elon University by the Dodgers in 2010.

At 19 years old, Baldwin hit .250 in Ogden last season, collecting 10 homers and 22 stolen bases in 50 games. Surrounded by familiar faces, he is one of 16 Loons from last year's Ogden team that finished as runner-up in the Pioneer League's Championship Series. Baldwin is the organization's No. 10 prospect, and second-best outfielder in the system behind Joc Pederson, according to

Right-handed Pitcher: Archie Bradley, South Bend Silver Hawks
The D-backs got the briefest glimpse of Bradley at the end of 2011, and they have seen nothing so far this year to make them question spending $5 million on landing the teenager at the signing deadline last August.

Bradley projects as having top-of-the-rotation stuff, and if he can develop a breaking ball to complement a high-90s fastball and power curve, his time mowing down hitters in the Midwest League could be limited. A natural athlete with smooth mechanics, Bradley will anchor the Silver Hawks' rotation for as long as he is there. He enters 2012 as Arizona's second-best prospect behind Trevor Bauer.

Left-handed Pitcher: Justin Nicolino, Lansing Lugnuts
Former second-rounder Nicolino earned a promotion to the Midwest League at the end of 2011, and that is where he will start the new campaign. He used a low-90s fastball and above-average changeup to dominate the Northwest League to for a 5-1 record and 1.03 ERA, and the Blue Jays are optimistic he can incorporate his curveball into the mix more this season against tougher opposition.

With a slender frame (6-foot-3, 160 pounds), the Florida native relies on pinpoint control and deceptive changes of speed to keep hitters off balance. Toronto's No. 6 prospect struck out 73 while walking 13 batters over 61 innings last year, and even though he may not fan a batter at the same rate in '12, there's every reason to expect a winning record and sub-3.50 ERA.

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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