With Opening Day for the three Class A Advanced leagues almost upon us, it's time to preview 10 names you'll need to know for 2007. There's a new crop of players aspiring to be this year's Reid Brignac, Philip Hughes or Homer Bailey -- prospects who put themselves on the brink of the Major Leagues with big seasons in high-A ball.
Among others, this year's group features the top wide receiver in Notre Dame football history, a lanky outfielder who turned down the chance to attend Harvard and a player many scouts believe may be the next Ken Griffey Jr.
Elvis Andrus, SS (Myrtle Beach Pelicans)
On the surface, Elvis Andrus' performance in 2006 was unimpressive. He hit .265 with a middling on-base (.324) and slugging percentage (.362). He struck out about 2.5 times more often than he walked (91 to 36), and though he was widely regarded as one of the South Atlantic League's fastest players, he was successful in just 23 of 38 steal attempts.
But a deeper look reveals Andrus was just 17 years old for most of the 2006 season, approximately four years younger than many of his counterparts in the league. With an athleticism that makes scouts drool, the precocious Andrus will show off his tools in the Carolina League this year.
Jay Bruce, OF (Sarasota Reds)
Who is Jay Bruce? Is he the all-or-nothing slugger who batted .263 with 10 home runs and 33 RBIs in his first 50 games? Or is he the high-average, jack-of-all-trades player who hit .358 with 23 doubles and 15 steals -- but just four roundtrippers -- over his next 54 contests?
Either way, the Reds had to be thrilled with Bruce's development as a 19-year-old last season. He'll look to develop more consistency and improve his hitting against southpaws (.236 with 36 strikeouts in 123 at-bats) for Sarasota in 2007. But if he succeeds, don't be surprised if MiLB.com's No. 8 Minor League prospect is promoted to Double-A Chattanooga before the summer begins.
Carlos Carrasco, RHP (Clearwater Threshers)
Judging by his history, Carlos Carrasco doesn't like to be rushed. When the Phillies promoted their then-18-year-old right-hander to Class A Lakewood in 2005, Carrasco struggled to a 1-7 record with an unsightly 7.03 ERA. As a result, the Venezuelan slipped from being regarded as one of the Phillies' top prospects to just another pitcher hoping to get noticed.
But given another shot at Lakewood last season, the resilient Carrasco dominated the South Atlantic League, posting a 12-6 record with a 2.26 ERA in 159 1/3 frames. Now widely considered the Phillies' top pitching prospect, Carrasco will take on the competition in Clearwater. After making the mistake once, don't expect the Phillies to rush Carrasco again. Unless he shows unmistakable dominance, the 20-year-old Venezuelan likely won't reach the Majors until 2009 at the earliest.
Dexter Fowler, OF (Modesto Nuts)
Not too many people turn down the opportunity to attend Harvard University, but then again very few people have Dexter Fowler's skills and athleticism. Fowler, who was recruited by Harvard to play basketball, instead focused on baseball, a choice he has yet to regret. The 6-foot-5 center fielder quickly proved his worth on the baseball diamond, first at short-season Casper in 2005 and then last year at Class A Asheville, where he hit .296 with 43 steals while scoring the third-most runs in the South Atlantic League.
The big question with Fowler is how much power he'll develop as his skinny frame fills out. If he turns a significant portion of the 31 doubles he hit last year into home runs, the scouts comparing him to Andre Dawson and Andruw Jones will look awfully good. He'll sharpen his skills in the California League and, if all goes well, could see Double-A Tulsa by the end of the year.
Will Inman, RHP (Brevard County Manatees)
Few pitchers in Minor League history have matched Will Inman's performance over his first two years (combining to go 16-2 with a 1.77 ERA in 158 innings). Yet the majority of experts, scouts and writers treat him like a modern-day Rodney Dangerfield, dwelling instead on his "average" fastball, unimposing physique and balky shoulder. If all goes well, they say, Inman's ceiling is as a No. 3 starter in the Majors.
For his part, Inman isn't prepared to embrace mediocrity. As he told MiLB.com last November, "I want to be the guy who goes out there and dominates for years and years and years and ends up in the Hall of Fame. I want to make a statement when I get there."
Inman's fastball may not impress on a radar gun, but he has the confidence of a future All-Star. Look for him to prove the critics wrong in the Florida State League this year.
Cameron Maybin, OF (Lakeland Flying Tigers)
Fans in Lakeland better buy their tickets quickly because the best show in town likely won't stay for long. Cameron Maybin -- MiLB.com's No. 6 prospect in the Minors -- did it all last season for Class A West Michigan. The 19-year-old hit .304 with nine home runs and 69 RBIs while playing in one of the toughest pitchers' parks in the Northwest League. He followed it up by going 9-for-21 with two triples, two homers and seven RBIs in 21 Grapefruit League at-bats.
An outfielder with 30-30 potential, Maybin's only weakness thus far has been his plate discipline. He'll try and improve on it this year in Lakeland and, before too long, Double-A Erie. But even if he doesn't rein in his free-swinging ways, a Major League career resembling that of Mike Cameron or Eric Davis isn't out of reach.
Andrew Miller, LHP (Lakeland Flying Tigers)
The Tigers surprised observers by sending Andrew Miller to Lakeland instead of Double-A Erie to open the season. Widely considered the top arm from the 2006 draft, the 22-year-old already got a taste of the Majors last year, tossing 10 1/3 innings in eight September games. Success, however, was elusive -- he surrendered seven runs and walked 10 -- and the American League champs aren't rushing the left-hander.
Still, with a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a slider that would make Randy Johnson proud, all the 6-foot-6 University of North Carolina product needs now is experience and perhaps another secondary pitch. If he's a quick study, Miller might find himself with a one-way trip back to Detroit before the end of the season.
Jeff Samardzija, RHP (Daytona Cubs)
As the leading receiver in Notre Dame University's storied history, Jeff Samardzija looked poised to become a first-round selection in April's NFL Draft. But that was before the Cubs chose the two-sport star in the fifth round last June and gave him a $7.25 million signing bonus -- only $250,000 of which will be his if he jumps to football.
But Cubs fans expecting to see the shaggy-haired pitcher perform at Wrigley Field this year are likely to be disappointed. While Samardzija's fastball has been clocked in the high 90s, he'll probably need a full season to improve his raw secondary pitches. Samardzija will gain that experience in the Florida State League.
Jose Tabata, OF (Tampa Yankees)
When the Yankees gave Jose Tabata a taste of the Grapefruit League this year, they probably didn't expect much. After all, Tabata was born in 1988, the same year Mike Mussina won the Most Valuable Freshman award for the Stanford Cardinals baseball team. But Tabata showed he was up for the task by going 6-for-14 this spring, including a memorable home run off Boston Red Sox ace Curt Schilling.
With expectations already sky-high, Tabata will try not to disappoint the impatient New York fan base this year at Tampa. After hitting .314 in his debut for the Gulf Coast Yankees in 2005, Tabata took a leap forward while playing at Class A Charleston before a July slump (10-for-50) and a jammed thumb limited him in the second half. While the 18-year-old nonetheless finished with a respectable .797 OPS, he managed just five home runs in 363 at-bats. The Yankees expect Tabata to develop more power as his body fills out. If his home run off Schilling is any clue, he may be well on his way.
Justin Upton, OF (Visalia Oaks)
When the Arizona Diamondbacks selected Justin Upton as the No. 1 pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft and subsequently signed him with a then-record $6.1 million bonus, expectations soared. Scouts looked at Upton's physique, pedigree, bat speed and five-tool skills and saw a right-handed Ken Griffey Jr. The only question, it seemed, was how quickly Upton would be playing every day at Chase Field Ballpark.
But Upton failed to meet those impossibly high expectations and hit a pedestrian .263 with 12 home runs and 66 RBIs for Class A South Bend in his first full season. Despite the disappointing pro debut, most scouts still regard Baseball America's 2005 High School Player of the Year as one of the top prospects in the game. He'll have a chance to prove them right while playing for Visalia in the hitter-friendly California League.