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Forget about the various Top 100 lists and pull your attention away from the five-tool freaks like Bryce Harper and Mike Trout because there is another kind of player, one that doesn’t receive the accolades, the money, or the easy path to stardom, that is equally deserving of your time. These are the players who were not preternaturally gifted with a body made for 400-foot blasts or 100 mph fastballs, but succeed anyway. They are the organizational fillers who earn $450 paychecks twice a month while forcing their way onto big league clubs as relief specialists or utility men. They may not be the biggest or most exciting names, but they are also the most interesting prospects, listed alphabetically, to follow in 2011.
Jose Altuve, Astros 2B: The Mugsy Bogues of the Minor Leagues, Jose Altuve is generously listed at 5’5” and 150 lbs, but is probably much closer to 5’3”. There is not much history of success for men that size in the Major Leagues, so each rung that Altuve climbs will be one small step for man, and one giant step for very small men. Thus far Altuve has held his own in the Astros system, but the real test will come as he faces more advanced pitching in AA. If he can continue to barrel up the baseball like he did in 2010 when he hit .301/.357/.448 between two levels, he could force prospect fiends to start taking him seriously. Check out the video that Scouting the Sally has of Altuve and try to remind yourself that you are watching a professional and not a very advanced high schooler.
Chris “Disco” Hayes, Royals RP – Called “Disco” because his submarine fastball rarely leaves the 70s, the sun is setting on his Major League hopes after the Royals removed Hayes from the 40 man roster last July. It’s impressive that Hayes has made it as far as he has; he started his career as a walk-on at Northwestern where he was benched for two seasons, following that with a season of independent ball before being signed by the Royals after his appearance at a tryout camp. Hayes is a lot like another former Royals pitcher in his understanding of advanced statistics, and he even keeps an MLBlog to connect with his fans.
At age 28, Hayes failed to receive a non-roster invite to spring training because he’s struggled to a 4.36 ERA in 76.1 AAA innings. Hayes has a career 1.41 ERA in AA and a HR/9 rate of 0.4, so there is still hope that he could solve AAA hitters and find his ticket to Kansas City. 2011 will be the last season before the promising bumper crop of Royals prospects fills the Major League roster, so it will be now or never for Hayes.
Max Kepler-Rozycki, Twins CF – Kepler-Rozycki has the highest ceiling among anyone on the list, picking up an $800,000 bonus from the Twins, the highest ever awarded to a European prospect. Unfortunately, his country of origin is why he is on this list–while Kepler-Rozycki is an amazing athlete with great tools, his baseball acumen is lacking because of the quality of competition in Germany and the difficulty in assessing his performance against the much weaker European competition he faced growing up. Kepler-Rozycki boasts impressive athleticism, boosted by the skills his parents, both dancers in the Berlin ballet, imparted upon him at an early age. Kepler held his own in short season ball last year where he will return for 2011, a good handful of years away from the Major Leagues.
Pat Venditte, Yankees RP – Everyone’s favorite (and so far, only) ambidextrous pitcher. Venditte was a 20th round selection in 2008 and has a 1.70 ERA with an 11.2 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 ratio in minor league 174.2 innings. Despite those video game numbers, New York has been extremely cautious in promoting Venditte, giving him only 2 innings of AA ball at the age of 25 last season. So far no one has been able to solve Venditte’s combo of an 87-93 mph fastball and over-the-top delivery from the right-hand side and a side-arming slider and much slower fastball when coming from the left side. Venditte has even forced the umpires to create new rules ambidextrous pitchers, forcing them to choose one arm for the entirety of an at-bat.
While there is almost no chance of the Yankees pushing Venditte to the Majors, ZiPs projects Venditte to have a 4.34 ERA in 2011, a very useful number. Hopefully Venditte can continue to defy expectations and continue climbing the ladder and he can make that happen with a good season in AA.
Leonel Vinas, Yankees RP – Perhaps due to the Yankees deep pockets, they have been able to take plenty of risks with their farm system, hence the inclusion of two of their players on the list. Leonel Vinas’ path was unique as he was originally a member of a Long Island-based gang before joining a youth travel team sponsored by Hank Steinbrenner known as “Hank’s Yanks.” From there he was pitched for Yankees scouts before being offered a contract and a massive $1,500 bonus. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the amount of gang members who went on to become Major League Baseball players is probably somewhere around zero.
Vinas’ average fastball sits between 87-91 mph, and he will make his professional debut this spring, though he will begin as a reliever. Should Vinas find any success, Disney will probably come knocking on the door for movie rights, and at the very least, Vinas should have a lucrative career giving inspirational speeches should this whole baseball thing not work out.