Speedster Billy Hamilton is learning it's hard to steal bases if you can't get on base. (Getty Images)
At the end of every month this season, Yahoo! Sports will solicit the opinions of 20 general managers, executives and scouts to compile the Prospect Heat Check, a look across the minor leagues at who's hot, who's not, who you're likely to soon see in the big leagues and who may be trade bait.
Whether it's for deep fantasy leagues or to sound smarter than the average fan, here are the need-to-know names of the moment.
Miguel Sano, 3B, high Class A, Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton, CF, low Class A, Minnesota Twins
Nobody had a better month on the farm than the Twins, who saw Sano and Buxton translate two of the best raw toolsets in the minor leagues into matching production.
"Miguel Sano is absolutely exploding," said one AL evaluator, a sentiment echoed by Twins brass. Not only does he look better at third base – the thinking goes if Miguel Cabrera and Pablo Sandoval can play there, so can the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Sano, a former shortstop – his raw power is unmatched among prospects. Sano has a minor league-leading nine home runs, and the only flaw among his .366/.423/.753 line is 27 strikeouts in 93 at-bats. If A-ball pitchers are doing that to him, Sano could struggle upon arriving in Double-A, an inevitability sometime this season even if he will turn just 20 on May 11.
While Buxton doesn't have a dramatic backstory like Sano, he has numbers nearly to match. The 19-year-old is hitting .382/.505/.645, leading the Midwest League in all three categories, and has a 19-to-17 walk-to-strikeout ratio. The second overall pick in last year's draft struggled upon signing last year following a month off between the end of his season and the draft. His tools might be unparalleled in the minor leagues: 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, tremendous center-field instincts, plus-plus speed, plus arm, hits for average and should develop power. This is a five-tool player – think B.J. Upton who can hit or, better yet, prime Marquis Grissom.
Jurickson Profar, SS/2B, Triple-A, Texas Rangers
Oscar Taveras, OF, Triple-A, St. Louis Cardinals
Wil Myers, OF, Triple-A, Tampa Bay Rays
Whether it's because they're bored in Triple-A or the crafty pitchers there simply know what to do with pups, the three best hitting prospects coming into the season experienced varying levels of toil in April. One NL scout said Profar "was kinda pouting" early in the season, though an AL scout says "he's still the best player in the minor leagues." Still just 20, Profar is hitting .230/.360/.419 and waiting for the inevitable Ian Kinsler move to first base or outfield that frees up second base.
He is not – not, not, not – getting traded for Taveras, a popular fantasy because it does fill a need for both teams. Just know this: Top prospects do not get traded for top prospects. They get cashed in for established major leaguers. Teams are too risk averse to trade a lottery ticket for another lottery ticket when they can cash the thing in. Taveras, like Profar, is in the minor leagues only because he is blocked by established big leaguers. That said, with Jon Jay's struggles, promoting Taveras (.296/.333/.423) and unleashing his impure-but-deadly left-handed swing isn't unrealistic.
Myers should arrive sometime in June, once the Super 2 arbitration deadline has passed. After acquiring him from Kansas City this offseason, the Rays felt as though they needed to deprogram and teach him to play anew. Though the power from last year hasn't shown up – two homers among a .291/.382/.430 line – both have come in the last week and a half, and one scout says "he's going to have a monster May."
HITTING 97 ON THE GUN
Yasiel Puig, OF, Double-A, Los Angeles Dodgers: Welcome to America! Police in Tennessee pulled over the Cuban defector for going 97 in a 50. Were Puig thinking quickly, he could've just chalked it up to a case of Chapmanitis and hoped the cop took mercy. Alas, he was arrested.
If anything good can come out of it, at least the Dodgers know L.A. traffic will keep him from speeding. Oh, and his bat is still more than ready for the big leagues, hitting his fourth home run of the season Monday in his first game back from the disabled list.
SEE YOU SOON
Mike Zunino, C, Triple-A, Seattle Mariners: Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado would've taken this spot a week ago. Now he's in the middle of the most potent lineup in the National League this season. The Mariners, on the other hand, need desperate help. And even though Zunino's struggles have dipped his batting average to .235, Seattle cannot subsist much longer with its pop-gun offense doing next to nothing to support a pitching staff strong at the front end (Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma) as well as the back (Tom Wilhelmsen, Oliver Perez, Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps).
Allen Webster, RHP, Triple-A, Boston Red Sox: From an AL scout: "Reminds me of Adam Wainwright. The stuff." Though Wainwright's got five inches on Webster, his four pitches and burgeoning command could make him a stalwart in the Red Sox's rotation. The Adrian Gonzalez-Carl Crawford-Josh Beckett salary dump looks better every day.
THROW THE BALL OVER THE DAMN PLATE
Gerrit Cole, RHP, Triple-A, Pittsburgh Pirates
Zack Wheeler, RHP, Triple-A, New York Mets
Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, told MiLB.com this week he's "sick of walking people", and he's got a point: He's got 15 walks against 19 strikeouts in 23 1/3 innings. The good news: He has pitched out of trouble, with a 2.31 ERA to show for it.
Wheeler has the same walk total in the same number of innings, nine more strikeouts ... and a 5.79 ERA, which scouts say is nothing to worry about. His raw stuff is right up there with Cole's – high 90s fastball tickling 100 mph – and he's a perfect complement to Matt Harvey, just as Cole will be to the Pirates' Double-A pitcher of note, former second overall pick Jameson Taillon.
Billy Hamilton, CF, Triple-A, Cincinnati Reds
Nick Ahmed, SS, Double-A, Arizona Diamondbacks
Hamilton might be the fastest player in baseball history. His speed won't be worth much of a damn if he's hitting .205 and drawing just nine walks in nearly 100 plate appearances. He's not even the minor league leader in stolen bases this season after swiping a record 155 last year.
Ahmed went to the Diamondbacks in the Justin Upton deal, and with Martin Prado and Randall Delgado struggling as well, it's not comforting to see Ahmed's line: .163/.233/.163 – an entire month without an extra-base hit or a steal, after 46 and 40, respectively, last season.
RICH GET RICHER
John Gast, LHP, Triple-A, St. Louis Cardinals
Michael Wacha, RHP, Triple-A, St. Louis Cardinals
Mike O'Neill, OF, Double-A, St. Louis Cardinals
Gast should arrive sometime soon for the Cardinals if their bullpen remains the unmitigated disaster it's been. He's primed to pitch in relief for now only because the Cardinals have the oh-so-unfortunate problem of too many qualified starters. Gast hasn't been a big-time prospect in his ascent to Triple-A, getting noticed this year mostly because of a pretty impressive stat: 0.00 ERA.
For 29 2/3 innings, the 24-year-old Gast has held Pacific Coast League hitters scoreless. His 29-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio is a marked improvement, too, for a pitcher who one scout says sits 87-92 with an average fastball. His changeup is his best pitch, and newfound command of it makes his numbers even more impressive than Wacha.
He's not a better prospect. Wacha, a first-round pick last year, zoomed to Triple-A last year after blowing through three levels and striking out 40 in 21 innings. His strikeout total is down this season. One AL scout says Wacha – for pronunciation, think Fozzie Bear – looks no less dominant and that the Cardinals could summon him, too, for the sort of bullpen-to-rotation transition they've used successfully with Wainwright and Lance Lynn.
That role could be Gast's as well, speculates one NL executive, who said: "They will have room when they trade Wacha to Cleveland for Asdrubal Cabrera."
O'Neill is more the Gast pedigree. A 31st-round pick out of USC, he might be 5-foot-9, might weigh 175 and might have the most staggering statistic in the minor leagues: 21 walks against four strikeouts. This is no anomaly: Last year, he hit .359 between high Class A and Double-A with 78 walks and 26 strikeouts. O'Neil doesn't run much. He can't play center field, either. He will be a major leaguer, though, because his bat and plate discipline will carry him there.
Alex Wood, LHP, Double-A, Atlanta Braves: Most of the minor leagues' best pitching prospects are in Double-A, where Wood has been the Gast of his level. Only his raw stuff is significantly better: fastball 92-96 mph with above-average curveball and changeup. His 0.67 ERA includes 31 strikeouts and five walks in 27 innings, a groundball rate of nearly 2-to-1 and a delivery with more funk than George Clinton. The hitch: Wood continues to struggle with command, and accordingly, his pitch counts have limited him to shorter outings.
Still, if Atlanta were to suffer an injury in its rotation, Wood – not Sean Gilmartin or J.R. Graham – would be the likely replacement.
Rock Shoulders, 1B, low Class A, Chicago Cubs: Even if he weren't hitting .368/.455/.632, his name – born Roderick Shoulders, goes by Rock because it is freaking awesome – ensures him a place in every forthcoming Heat Check.
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