Bryan Smith identified eight prospects to watch several months ago, and I found his list to be an informative and fun read. I agree with many of his choices, but I found myself interested in the challenge of finding undervalued players and put together a list of my own. Not all of the players listed below could be labeled candidates for a “breakout” season in 2007; some of them have already put together impressive seasons. Others are relatively unknown. The theme underlying all these players is that I believe they are widely undervalued right now. In other words, I believe these players will be more highly regarded by this time next year.
Now, I won’t be “right” about all of these players. I would be pleasantly surprised if only three of these players establish themselves as top 100 prospects over the next year. I do believe, however, that these are talented prospects who are all worth watching in the meantime.
LHP | Colorado Rockies | 20 years old
It’s not a surprise that Cedeno has gone overlooked by all but the most astute Rockies fans; he was acquired in the same draft that brought Chris Iannetta, Dexter Fowler, and Joe Koshansky to the organization a few years ago. A member of the 2001 Pony League championship team, Cedeno experienced mediocre results in his first full year of professional baseball last season. Cedeno doesn’t strike out many batters, but his stuff results in a lot of groundballs. His .318 batting average of balls in play was partly due to low Class-A fielders, but also due to pitching his home games in one of baseball’s toughest parks on pitchers. Both of those negative effects should be tempered by a move to Class-A Advanced Modesto this year. Cedeno’s only glaring weakness in 2006 was his mediocre control, but at 20 years of age there’s plenty of time to refine that facet of his game. He walked two or fewer batters in eight out his last 10 starts of the 2006 season, and continued improvement could yield impressive results in the California League this year.
OF | Chicago White Sox | 20 years old
A sixth-round pick from the 2005 draft, Cunningham has already had at least one very good professional season; he hit .305/.386/.496 with Class-A Kannapolis last year. He’s making this list because I think he’s even better than that. He’s moving on from last year’s dreadful team in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, and his burgeoning power will be even more evident at Winston-Salem of the Carolina League.
RHP | Cleveland Indians | 24 years old
J.D. Martin is not underrated or unknown; the former first-round pick belonged to the much-hyped and ultimately disappointing Indians’ 2001 draft class. I’m including him on this list because he’s been largely forgotten since succumbing to Tommy John surgery a couple years ago. Martin’s recovery has gone well, and he has reportedly gained a little velocity on his fastball since his pre-surgery days. Martin’s curveball remains his best pitch, and if he command it as well as he did before the surgery then he could move quickly through the Indians system during the second half of this season.
2B/SS | St. Louis Cardinals | 21 years old
Martinez was largely overlooked last year despite striking out in fewer than 8% of his plate appearances at Class-A Quad Cities. Most players with that kind of contact rate are one-dimensional singles hitters, but Martinez drove 30 extra-base hits including eight home runs last year. The strong defensive infielder doesn’t possess the raw power to become more than an average power threat in the upper minor leagues, and he will certainly have a hard time hitting many home runs at Palm Beach of the Florida State League this year. But his exceptional ability to make good contact could lead to some well-deserved attention in the near future.
RHP | Boston Red Sox | 22 years old
There are pitchers with groundball tendencies, and then there are groundball pitchers. Masteron is one of the latter; he possesses a two-seamer with exceptional movement that I believe could lead to Derek Lowe-type of success in the major leagues. A 2006 draft pick, Masterson dominated short-season ballplayers while working mostly in relief last year and will have the opportunity to start every five days against tougher competition this year. Masterson will play his home games in a challenging environment for pitchers this year, but I suspect he will outperform the more highly-touted pitchers in the Lancaster rotation this year due to his impeccable control and ability to keep the ball in the park.
3B | Atlanta Braves | 23 years old
Bryan Smith chose another Braves infielder, Eric Campbell, as his choice for an underrated Braves prospect. I’ll start my list with another, very different, ballplayer in the Braves system. Pope, a slick-fielding third baseman, has never put up the power numbers most people like to see from a corner infielder. On the other hand, his 2006 power numbers away from pitcher-friendly Myrtle Beach were very good and he improved throughout the year. I think he will post eye-catching numbers while playing in front of friends and family in Double-A Mississippi this year.
RHP | Texas Rangers | 19 years old
Poveda’s losing record and 4.88 ERA in 2006 was inflated by a very low 61% left-on-base percentage. In other words, an unusually high proportion of baserunners allowed ended up scoring on Poveda. I don’t know of any evidence that suggests this will be a long-term problem for Poveda; nearly all young pitchers who experience comparable problems bounce back with a rate closer to league average in the following year. In addition to the peripheral statistics, Poveda posesses at least one strong secondary pitch, a changeup, and a fastball that could improve as the teenager continues to develop. His control was outstanding in 2006, and I suspect Poveda will emerge as Texas’ top pitching prospect by the end of the year.
OF | San Diego Padres | 24 years old
Venable’s strong performance at Class-A last year, where he hit .314/.384/.477, is frequently dismissed due to his advanced age. A player’s age is one of the more important variables to look at when evaluating minor league performances, but this is a case where a harsh penalty due to age misses the point. Venable signed as a senior out of college and has just recently shifted his focus to baseball after starring on the Princeton basketball team, so he’s still quite young in terms of baseball experience. The 6-foot-2, 205 pound left fielder improved his power production in the second half of 2006, and he will make the jump to Double-A San Antonio this Spring. Venable will be hard to dismiss if he continues to produce against Double-A competition.