With minor league rosters officially released and the season underway, it’s fun to take a look at which teams are particularly loaded with top prospects. Following prospects can be overwhelming given the number of teams, levels and leagues (luckily, that’s where I come in), but every year there are organizations whose prospects are all at the same relative stages of their careers, and therefore are playing in the same place. If you can follow only a few teams, these are the ones to watch.
Tennessee Smokies—Double-A (Chicago Cubs)
The Smokies have a nice balance of pitching and hitting prospects, including four of the Cubs’ best. Their starting rotation will include Rafael Dolis and Trey McNutt, the latter fresh off a breakout year that saw him shoot up the prospect lists and establish himself as a legitimate part of the Cubs’ future.
The Smokies lineup will include Brett Jackson, who spent half of 2010 in Tennessee and may not be there for long, and Josh Vitters, the former third overall pick (2007) who also got more than 200 at-bats in Double-A last season but enters a make-or-break year, having failed to live up to expectations so far.
Louisville Bats—Triple-A (Cincinnati Reds)
Not only did the Reds break through and win the NL Central last season, but should the injury bug bite them this season, they may have more major league-ready talent available to call up than any other organization. Most of that talent is stashed nearby in Louisville, where their stacked lineup will consist of Devin Mesoraco, Yonder Alonso, Zack Cozart and Todd Frazier. That lineup could closely resemble the one in Cincinnati in the next year or two.
Tulsa Drillers—Double-A (Colorado Rockies)
The Rockies have had a surplus of first-round picks over the past few years, and that has led to a number of big-name prospects worthy of our attention. Their first-round picks from the past three years, Casey Weathers (2007), Christian Friedrich (2008) and Tim Wheeler (2009) all converge on Tulsa this season, and will be met there by international signee Hector Gomez and 2007 12th-rounder Darin Holcomb, who broke out in 2009 in the South Atlantic League but slipped slightly last season after skipping a level and playing the full season in Tulsa. He’ll begin the season back with the Drillers but may not be there for long.
Chattanooga Lookouts—Double-A (Los Angeles Dodgers)
The Lookouts have enough talent in their starting rotation to keep Southern League hitters busy all season long. Headlined by last year’s breakout pitching prospect Rubby de la Rosa, the Lookouts will also send Chris Withrow, Aaron Miller, Josh Lindbloom and offseason pick-up Mike Antonini to the mound. Antonini was acquired last December from the Mets for Chin-lung Hu.
Clearwater Threshers—High-A (Philadelphia Phillies)
Most of the Phillies’ top talent spent last season in the South Atlantic League, resulting in a championship for their affiliate in Lakewood. Most of that team has now moved on to the Florida State League, where a stacked team including Brody Colvin, Jarred Cosart, Sebastian Valle, Jonathan Singleton and Jiwan James will try to repeat 2010’s success.
Columbus Clippers—Triple-A (Cleveland Indians)
The Clippers lineup will be headlined by Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, both of whom may be good enough to be in Cleveland right now and may be there soon. They will team up with 2009 first-rounder Alex White to give the Clippers three talented and fast-moving prospects, none of whom may finish the season in the minors.
Erie Seawolves—Double-A (Detroit Tigers)
Teams heading to Erie will hope to avoid running into the part of the Seawolves rotation that includes Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby, but will have a tough time avoiding Chance Ruffin, who will likely be the team’s closer. Ruffin is making his professional debut in Double-A after leading the Arizona Fall League in saves.
Omaha Storm Chasers—Triple-A (Kansas City Royals)
Also known as your 2012 Kansas City Royals, the organization’s Triple-A affiliate is one of the most talented teams in the minors. It will be a team-wide competition to see if it’s the pitching staff, led by Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, or the lineup, including Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella, that carries this squad. See them early though, because Montgomery and Moustakas could be in the majors by June, with the rest not too far behind.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals—Double-A (Kansas City Royals)
As if the Royals’ embarrassment of riches in Triple-A wasn’t enough, their Double-A team may be even more talented. The pitching staff led by Chris Dwyer and John Lamb should have no problem with Double-A hitters, mainly because they don’t have to face any of their teammates. The Naturals lineup that includes Wil Myers, Derrick Robinson, Christian Colon and Salvador Perez may be one of the deepest in the minors.
Trenton Thunder—Double-A (New York Yankees)
Manny Banuelos will start the season as the ace of the Thunder, but don’t expect him to be there for too long. Even if he gets promoted, however, the Thunder will still have plenty of players to watch. Dellin Betances and Graham Stoneburner join Banuelos in the rotation, while Austin Romine bides his time in Double-A until Jesus Montero gets called to the majors and opens a spot behind the plate for Romine in Triple-A. Melky Mesa will patrol the outfield for the Thunder, and as if that wasn’t enough, there’s switch-pitcher Pat Venditte in the bullpen.
Montgomery Biscuits—Double-A (Tampa Bay Rays)
The Rays already had a stacked group of young pitching prospects, and the acquisition of Chris Archer this offseason (from the Cubs for Matt Garza) only made them stronger. Archer will join Matt Moore and Nick Barnese in the Biscuits rotation in Double-A.
That team also will feature a pair of former first overall picks trying to live up to expectations—Tim Beckham, who continues to move up a level each year despite underwhelming performances, and Matt Bush, who is trying to make it to the majors as a reliever after failing as a shortstop.