How five top prospects are faring in their quest to make the majors
Bryce Harper has been sent down but these players could make the big club
Brandon Belt looks like a good bet to land in the Giants' starting lineup
Mike Trout is just now returning from the flu but has competition with the Angels
One of the thrills of spring training is getting to see some of the game's top prospects play alongside established major leaguers, but with camp now more than half over, roster cuts have swept a large number of those prospects out to minor league camp, most notably the game's top prospect, Bryce Harper, who was optioned to Triple-A by the Nationals on Sunday.
Of those that remain in camp, some -- like Rays lefty Matt Moore, Mariners slugger Jesus Montero, Rockies lefty Drew Pomeranz, and Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso -- were expected to open the season in the majors even before camp began. Here, however, are five other top prospects who remain both in major league camp and on the bubble.
Spring Stats: 1-0, 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 9.00 K/BB
The top four picks in last year's amateur draft were all pitchers who signed major league contracts with their teams and were thus in major league camp this spring. The other three -- the Pirates' Gerrit Cole, the Mariners' Danny Hultzen, and the Orioles' Dylan Bundy -- were all optioned to minor league camp more than a week ago, but Bauer, the third-overall pick out of UCLA, remains in camp with the Diamondbacks. In 10 innings pitched this spring, Bauer has walked just one man and not allowed a home run while striking out nine.
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson has said that his fifth starter to open the season will be sophomore Josh Collmenter, which means the 22-year-old Bauer would go to Triple-A, but that's provided Collmenter is healthy. Collmenter had some forearm tightness early in the month and has been awful in each of his three spring starts, allowing more runs than innings pitched in each for a spring ERA of 14.14 and has fewer strikeouts (two) than walks or home runs allowed (three of each). Don't be surprised if Collmenter opens the season on the disabled list and Bauer takes his place in the rotation. If that's the case, Collmenter could be headed to the bullpen when he returns. If not, expect Bauer to be the go-to replacement if an injury occurs elsewhere in the rotation and difficult to remove from the major league rotation once he gets there.
Spring Stats: .333/.370/.643, 3 HRs
Belt didn't hit much in his sporadic major league playing time last year (209 plate appearances spread across three stints with the Giants, the longest of which saw him stuck in a part-time role), but that was the only portion of his first two professional season in which he didn't just flat-out rake. He's a .343/.457/.596 career hitter in the minors, including a .291/.436/.535 line in Triple-A. Knowing he'd have to fight for a job this spring, he has just kept on hitting, outpacing his primary rivals for the first base job, incumbent Aubrey Huff and non-prospect Brett Pill.
Still, the Giants continue to balk at giving the soon-to-be-24-year-old the job that so clearly should be his. Huff, 35, failed to out-hit Belt last year (just .246/.306/.370) and is in the final year of his contract (he's owed $10 million this year, plus a $2 million buyout for his 2013 option). Pill, 27, was pushed off first base at Triple-A Fresno when Belt was bounced down there last year, and is coming off a possibly fluky age-26 season at Triple-A that saw his average and power spike but still fall short of what Belt did at the same level at age 23.
Huff and Pill aren't having awful springs. Due to the effects of the small sample (roughly 45 plate appearances for each), Pill's averages look weaker despite the difference being just a couple of hits, a couple of walks and one extra-base hit being a triple rather than a homer. Huff, meanwhile, is holding his own and avoiding the high strikeout totals that might give the team some pause about his two challengers (Belt and Pill have both struck out 10 times, Huff just twice). Still, based on his minor league record and big league potential, the job should be Belt's to lose.
Perhaps trying to have both Belt and either Huff or Pill in the lineup at the same time, the Giants continue to look at Belt in the outfield corners. Making Belt the starter in left or right could solve what shouldn't be a problem to begin with, though it could create a new one as position switches tend to have a deleterious effect on players' hitting. Belt does have experience in the outfield corners, 54 games in the minors, 31 starts in the majors, all but one of that last in leftfield. He recently told Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News that he's more concerned about being in the lineup on a regular basis than where he plays in the field, or even having a regular defensive position. Still, he's not yet an outfielder, and adjusting to both the outfield in particular and the majors in general at the same time could put just enough of a damper on his production to create doubt in the minds of his veteran-friendly management.
Putting Belt in the outfield would solve the complication of catcher Buster Posey likely needing some time at first base to rest his healed ankle. The only real obstacles to doing so are 28-year-olds Nate Schierholtz, who has never been a full-time player in the majors, and Gregor Blanco, who didn't play a game in the majors last year but is hitting .419 with nine steals in 10 attempts in camp and looks like a lock to be the team's fourth outfielder.
Assuming the Giants and Belt are comfortable with the position switch, casting Belt aside for that pair would border on insanity. That would seem to make Belt a lock for the starting lineup with only his position to be determined, but the Giants seem unconvinced, leaving it up to Belt to keep up his hot hitting up over the next two weeks to avoid another trip to Fresno.
Spring Stats: .300/.333/.650, 1 HR, 2 triples
As with Belt, Brown is no longer a prospect, having lost his rookie status last year, but he was Baseball America's number-four prospect prior to last season. Also like Belt, his rookie season was marred by injury and demotions, and he is no more established now than he was a year ago. In fact, Brown has taken a huge step back in his standing with the organization. A year ago, he was being handed the rightfield job as Jayson Werth's replacement, but a hamate fracture suffered during spring training and thumb sprain suffered during his rehab delayed his 2011 major league debut until late May, after which he didn't hit much and was replaced by Hunter Pence at the trading deadline, receiving just one major league plate appearance in the season's final two months.
A lot happened there. Hand injuries can impact a hitter's production even after he's technically healthy enough to return, so Brown's .246/.335/.393 line after he came back and his similarly weak performance at Triple-A could be chalked up to the lingering effects of those injuries. Meanwhile, the Phillies are desperately trying to milk an aging team for another championship, so they had little patience with Brown and traded their top two prospects to the Astros for Pence, a good but not great player. That also tells you what Brown is up against this spring, having to fight for a job on a team that has replaced him and intends to make him prove himself again at Triple-A at age 24 before letting him get a piece of the action in leftfield, where righty John Mayberry Jr. (28) and lefty Laynce Nix (31) could easily combine for more than 30 homers, albeit at the cost of a great many outs.
The good news for Brown is that he is indeed hitting this spring, achieving the above rates while striking out just once. The bad news is that he hasn't played in over a week due to a stiff neck. The Phillies hope he can return to action against the Blue Jays on Thursday. If he does, and if he keeps hitting, there remains some small chance of his winning the leftfield job given the fact that neither Mayberry nor Nix has hit at all this spring, and that Nix has also been hurt, playing just once since March 12. That remains a long shot, but even if Brown heads to Triple-A and Mayberry and Nix find their strokes in the regular season, I find it hard to believe that Brown won't be starting in the outfield of some major league team by August.
Spring Stats: 0-1, 9.00 ERA, 1.92 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 1.67 K/BB
The fifth-best prospect in baseball according to both Goldstein and Baseball America, Teheran got off to a disastrous start this spring when he gave up six home runs (but no other hits) in two innings to the Tigers in his debut on March 4. Even eliminating that outing doesn't shine up his spring stats all that much. In three starts since he has posted a 4.90 ERA, 1.63 WHIP and allowed three more home runs in 11 innings (2.5 HR/9 compared to a major league average around 1.0). With Tim Hudson out until May following back surgery and fellow prospect Arodys Vizcaino headed for Tommy John surgery, the 21-year-old Teheran would have been in great shape to open the season in the major league rotation, but his showing thus far puts him behind even the similarly shaky work of his 22-year-old rival Randall Delgado in the race to keep Hudson's spot warm in April.
Delgado, who ranked in the forties on the pre-season prospect lists, was also roughed up against the Tigers on March 4, and in his three appearances since he has posted a 4.50 ERA, a 1.42 WHIP and has walked six men in his last nine innings of work. At least been able to keep the ball in the ballpark, allowing just two homers all spring. There's still time for things to change, but Delgado is the clear leader for Hudson's spot at the moment.
Spring Stats: 0-for-3, BB, K, CS
Trout didn't make his spring debut until Tuesday due to a flu which caused him to lose more than 10 pounds. That illness erased his chance of breaking camp with the Angels, who have an overflowing outfield/designated hitter picture with Mark Trumbo displaced at first base by Albert Pujols, fellow first-sacker Kendrys Morales close to returning to action, Vernon Wells having a solid spring, Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter locked in to center and rightfields, and Bobby Abreu, despite a miserable spring, guaranteed a roster spot as well. Trout, the third-best prospect in the game according to both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, could prove to be a better player than all of those men, but he's only 20 and has yet to play a single game at Triple-A, so there's no need to rush him, particularly given his weakened state.
Still, it's telling that the Angels are keeping him in major league camp rather than shipping him over to minor league camp to get his strength back up. I expect Trout to assume a regular spot in the Angels outfield at some point this season, be it because of injury or poor performance at the major league level. Or, Trout, who hit .326/.414/.544 with 33 stolen bases in 91 games at Double-A last year, could simply force his way to the majors. Keeping him in camp implies that the Angels have similar expectations.