So MLB.com announced its Top 50 prospects for 2011 two days ago. The Angels (of Anaheim, or LA, or wherever) have the privilege of owning #1-rated speedster Mike Trout. Following him at #2 and #3, respectively, are the Rays’ next ace-in-the-making Jeremy Hellickson and the Nats’ eyeblack-abusing child phenom Bryce Harper. Scouting has come a long way and generally, there are fewer Brien Taylor or Steve Chilcott-type top prospect busts today. Remember, Matt Bush is still two weeks shy of his 25th birthday and finally sober – he has time to right his career a la Josh Hamilton. Last year’s MLB.com Top 10 included both Rookie of the Years, 2 All Stars, and 2 players instrumental in leading their team to a World Series victory. However, every major league season also sees rookies with little to no national exposure emerge from the woodwork as solid or stellar contributors. In 2010, low-profile NL rookies Tyler Colvin, Ike Davis, and Gaby Sanchez put up full-season batting lines not far inferior to that of rising star Jason Heyward. Little known John Axford established himself as a dominant closer, and Jaimie Garcia proved himself a highly effective starter. So here are six eligible rookies (one for each division) not in MLB.com’s 2011 Top 50 that could contribute this season:
– Brandon Laird, OF/3B/DH (NY Yankees) – The Yanks missed out on the OF aid available on the free agent market, leaving them with Granderson, Gardner, Swisher (who’ll rotate OF/DH) and a handful of unprovens. Laird, though rostered as a 3B, has OF experience on the farm. Gerald’s younger brother also has impressive raw power (25HR, 102RBI in 2010) and could nicely fill the role vacated by Marcus Thames – that of a bomb-dropping DH/OF/PH. Of course, it is the Yankees, so they could buy a veteran to shore up the OF at any point.
– Andrew Oliver, SP (Detroit Tigers) – The tigers are starved for starting LHP – the only one currently slated by Leyland for rotation duty is psychopathic converted reliever Phil Coke. Andy Oliver got a taste of the bigs last year, starting a handful of games and generally getting lit up (0-4, 7.36 ERA). He should find more of a groove if given consistent starts in 2011. I think the Tigers will use Oliver, but the dark horse here, and my personal favorite, is 6’5” lefty Charlie Furbush, who throws mid-90’s and managed 10.4 K/9 versus only 2.3 BB/9 across three levels last year.
– Hank Conger, C (LA Angels) – With Napoli gone, this is Jeff Mathis’ make-or-break year. If he continues to tightrope-walk the Mendoza line, my money’s on the latter. Conger, a former first rounder, is a solid .300 hitter waiting in the wings. Though he’ll probably start the year in AAA, he could end up sharing catching duties with Mathis or Bobby Wilson on the big league squad. And if his switch-hitting bat comes alive he could take over full-time duties or rotate in at DH. He projects at best as a Victor Martinez type of hitter, hopefully with only a hint of the defensive issues.
– Craig Kimbrel, RP/CL (Atlanta Braves) – This is a no-brainer and a bit of a cop out, but by my calculation BillyWagnerPartII is still rookie-eligible (less than 50 IP, less than 45 days, pre-Sept 1, on ML roster). He is slated to duke it out with fellow fireballer Jonny Venters for the Atlanta closer role in 2011. In 20.2 innings of relief last year, Kimbrel put up inhuman numbers – 0.44 ERA, 40K. He tops out in the high-90’s and he will strike A LOT of people out, no question. But in order to become an elite closer, he’ll have to improve his control.
– Brian Bogusevic, OF (Houston Astros) – The Astros will almost certainly struggle this year, and if young Brett Wallace can’t find his stick, Carlos Lee might be moved to 1B which would open an OF spot for Bogu, a 1st round pick in the 2005 draft. A solid base stealer with developing power (13HR in AAA in ’10), Bogusevic will probably get most of his early-season at-bats as a sub but, given a chance could work his way into the everyday lineup and put up respectable numbers. If the Astros plan to give this soon-to-be 27-year-old a shot, they should do it soon.
– Cory Luebke, SP (SD Padres) – Yet another selection with 2010 MLB experience. The Ohio State product will receive serious consideration for a rotation spot in San Diego after two straight dominant minor league seasons as a starter. He’s not a hard thrower, but a precise corner-painter with an easy delivery that should allow him to go deep into games, especially in the pitcher-friendly confines of PetCo. Working against Luebke is that he’s one of three left-handers vying for the Padres rotation, the others being Clayton Richard and Wade LeBlanc.
So those are your non-top-50 potential 2011 contributors. Somewhat arbitrary? Yes. If only one of the six pans out, will I consider it a success? Yes. Please proceed to offer counterpoints, rebuttals and additional suggestions (I recommend the Dutch HR/K monster in Seattle – they love that type there).