PORTLAND, Ore. -- MLB's Futures Game has made an impact over the years. For every fringe major leaguer that it has produced, such as Justin Huber -- the '05 Futures MVP who was participating in Monday's Triple-A home run derby here in Portland -- it has given us two or three big-league regulars and even some All-Stars. In fact, this year's major league All-Star Game rosters featured 28 alumni of the Futures Game, including eight first-time All-Stars.
However, Tuesday night's All-Star Game also featured unlikely All-Stars such as Ben Zobrist, a sixth-round pick as a college senior in 2004; Jason Bay, a 22nd-round pick as a senior in 2000; and Heath Bell, a 69th-round pick by Tampa Bay in 1997. In other words, while it helps to be a Futures Gamer, it's not a prerequisite for winding up in the major leagues' Midsummer Classic.
With this year's Futures Game behind us, and the Triple-A All-Star Game set for Wednesday night here, we set out to gauge which of the minors' top current prospects (i.e., players currently in the minor leagues who also are rookie-eligible) have the best shot to become major league All-Stars -- in other words, the 10 players in the minors with the highest ceilings.
1) Jason Heyward, OF, Braves
Heyward has star power at the plate, with a strong, athletic 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame and elite-level bat speed. He runs well and has right-field tools with a strong throwing arm and raw power. Already at Double-A Mississippi, Heyward doesn't just have star potential; the McDonough, Ga., High product (just 30 or so miles from Atlanta) has the potential to be the face of the franchise in Atlanta, a college town that has lost its passion for the bland Braves. Pitchers and Chipper Jones have been the Braves' ideals since the mid-'90s, and Heyward could replace Jones as the player whom Southern boys pattern their games after for the next decade. He also could tap into the African-American fan base in Atlanta in much the same way that Michael Vick did prior to his dog fighting scandal.
2) Mike Stanton, OF, Marlins
One scout who recently saw Stanton's Double-A Jacksonville club take on Heyward and the Double-A Braves noted Stanton's presence in the lineup, even when the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder is struggling. The bat looks puny as Stanton stands at the plate, and he has shown flashes of well-above-average raw tools: top-of-the-line power, a strong right-field arm and excellent speed, especially for a man his size. Stanton's issue is strikeouts, but the Marlins have pushed him aggressively. The former Southern California football recruit (he was a recruited walk-on who had a baseball scholarship) is just 19 and has yet to get 1,000 plate appearances as a pro. With time, he could be another Dave Winfield, who was a 12-time All-Star.
3) Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers
Want evidence that Southern kids grew up idolizing Chipper Jones? Watch Smoak hit. Matt Weiters' former high school teammate from just outside Charleston, S.C., Smoak does a great Chipper impersonation, switch-hitting, bat held high from both sides, producing power with seeming ease. Smoak isn't quite the hitter that Jones has been over his career, but he's not far off and may have as much raw power. In terms of production, Smoak may wind up more along the lines of Mark Teixeira, though he lacks some of Teixeira's brute strength. It's hard to make the All-Star Game at first base, but if he stays in the American League, at least Smoak won't have to constantly contend with Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard early in his career.
4) Jesus Montero, C, Yankees
If the massive Montero (listed at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds) can remain behind the plate early in his career, he should become a fixture as an All-Star. He has exceptional feel for getting the barrel of the bat to the ball and squaring it up, and his size and strength translate into excellent raw power. Offensively he's the equal of Heyward, Stanton and Smoak. He is far less athletic than the two outfielders, though, and likely will have to move to first base or DH in the major leagues. He has arm strength to catch but is too big and bulky to be an effective receiver or blocker. As hard as he works defensively, most scouts project him to be no more than below-average. Can he hit like Mike Piazza and be so good offensively that it will mitigate his defense? While his minor league track record is strong, production like Piazza's -- the greatest-hitting catcher ever -- seems too much to ask.
5) Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
Bumgarner will be the test case for pitching coaches around the game who preach about fastball command. Prior to the Futures Game -- where a rain delay right after he warmed up kept Bumgarner from being used -- the left-hander said he relies on his fastball more than 80 percent of the time, even at Double-A. "If it ain't broke," the Hudson, N.C., native said, "I ain't going to mess with it." Bumgarner's fastball is no ordinary heater; he commands it, throws it with above-average velocity (often sitting in the 90-94 mph range) and manages to have late life on it. With a fringe-average slider and improving but still below-average changeup, Bumgarner will test whether or not a starter can be a star with only one plus pitch, as long as that pitch is the fastball. The bet here is he can.