The Washington Times - September 25, 2009, 11:22AM

By JAY LeBLANC

Some of baseball’s most promising young players have punched their tickets to the big leagues this season and given fans a glimpse of the future. 20-year-old Rick Porcello has racked up 14 wins for the Tigers, Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson has quickly established himself as one of the National League’s better hurlers and flamethrower Neftali Feliz has dominated in relief down in Arlington. Gordon Beckham has added punch to the White Sox lineup and Andrew McCutchen has given long-suffering Pirates fans reason for optimism. Baltimore’s Matt Wieters has come on lately after a slow start and starters Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman have had encouraging debuts. Colby Rasmus looks like the next sweet-swinging star in St. Louis, Matt LaPorta has done his initial mashing for Cleveland and Dexter Fowler has swiped nearly 30 bags for Colorado. Elvis Andrus and Alcides Escobar have staked their claims as the shortstops of the future in Texas and Milwaukee. 21-year-old Travis Snider has flashed his power potential for the Jays, Wade Davis has had some dominant outings for the Rays and Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill have both reached double-digits in victories for the A’s. Madison Bumgarner joined an already superb young staff in San Francisco this month, and his future battery mate, Buster Posey, collected his first big league hit on Saturday night.

It was truly an impressive collection of young talent that reached the show in 2009, and it was a pleasure to watch baseball’s next generation of stars get their feet wet, and in some cases, excel. The long, cold, baseball-free winter is on the horizon, but baseball fans - and prospect watchers in particular - can take comfort in the knowledge that the next reinforcements in the national pastime’s youth movement have designs on infiltrating big league rosters in 2010. What follows is my top-five list of the most exciting prospect debuts to look forward to next season.

1. Stephen Strasburg, RHP, Nationals

Stephen StrasburgThe No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft may very well be the most hyped pitching prospect of all-time. He’s certainly the richest, having “settled” for a four-year, $15.1 million major league contract after rumors had circulated that he and agent Scott Boras were seeking a deal in the $50 million range. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, Strasburg has the ideal pitcher’s frame, and he uses it to unleash heat that often registers in the triple-digits. His critics question his secondary stuff - he didn’t usually need it to dominate collegiate hitters as the ace of Tony Gwynn’s San Diego State squad - but Strasburg has flashed a promising slider and changeup. He has outstanding control as well, walking just 19 batters in 109 innings while fanning 195 this past season for the Aztecs. Strasburg signed too late to appear in the minor leagues in 2009 and will get his feet wet in the Arizona Fall League. The Nats certainly need some buzz, so don’t be shocked if Strasburg opens 2010 in the rotation. It’s more likely he’ll tune up in the minors for a few weeks.

2. Jason Heyward, OF, Braves

Heyward’s mix of present production and long-term upside make him far and away the best positional prospect in baseball. The Braves would have been content to bring the 6-foot-4, 220-pound outfielder along slowly after selecting him out of a Georgia high school with the 14th overall pick in the 2007 draft, but Heyward accelerated his timetable by dominating the older and more experienced competition at every minor league level in his first two-plus pro seasons. He reached Triple-A shortly after his 20th birthday this season and batted .323 with 17 homers in 99 games at three levels, and, most impressively for such a young player, he walked as many times (51) as he struck out. Heyward, who bats from the left side, projects as a No. 3 hitter with the ability to hit for both average and power. He has good speed and the strong throwing arm needed to play right field. He has a good shot at opening the 2010 season with the Braves, and if he doesn’t, he’ll be just a phone call and a short commute away at Triple-A Gwinnett.

3. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates

Having regrettably passed on Wieters in 2007 to take the more signable left-hander Daniel Moskos of Clemson, the Pirates jumped at the opportunity to select the best college hitter available with the second pick in the 2008 draft after Tampa Bay opted for high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Contentious, drawn-out negotiations between the Pirates and Alvarez and his agent, Scott Boras, prevented the Vanderbilt product from making his pro debut in 2008, and Alvarez reportedly showed up out of shape this spring. He unexpectedly struggled at the plate for advanced Class A Lynchburg early in the year, but his performance following a midseason promotion to Double-A Altoona suggests that all he needed was a greater challenge. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound slugger hit .333 in 60 Eastern League contests and finished the season with 27 homers and 95 RBI, though he did fan 129 times in 465 at bats. There is some question as to whether he’ll stick at third base, but Alvarez figures to be a fixture in the middle of the Pirates’ lineup for years to come. It’s possible that the Alvarez Era in Pittsburgh will begin on Opening Day 2010.

4. Carlos Santana, C, Indians

Casey Blake was productive and versatile during his five-plus seasons in Cleveland, but the Indians surely have no regrets about dealing him to the Dodgers in late July 2008 for a then relatively obscure catching prospect named Carlos Santana. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004, Santana spent his first two years in the Dodgers system as a light-hitting third baseman and outfielder. His struggles at the plate continued in 2007, but he did show promise behind it after the Dodgers had him try his hand at catching. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound switch-hitter was in the midst of a breakout season for advanced Class A Inland Empire when he was shipped to Cleveland in 2008 and he carried the momentum with him, finishing the year in Double-A with a .326 average, 21 homers, 117 RBI and an impressive 85-to-89 K-to-walk ratio for three teams at two levels. For his encore, Santana hit .290 with 23 homers, 97 RBI and an 83-to-90 K-to-walk ratio to claim MVP honors in the Double-A Eastern League. Santana is still somewhat of a work in progress behind the dish, but he has a good arm and all the necessary tools to succeed as a big-league backstop. He should get his first opportunity to prove it sometime next summer.

5. Jesus Montero, C, Yankees

Montero slugged his way to Double-A at age 19 this season, and his bat may have carried him all the way to Yankee Stadium if not for a broken finger that ended his campaign in early August. He was hitting .317 with nine home runs in 44 Double-A games when the injury occurred and had spent the season’s early months terrorizing advanced Class A hurlers to the tune of a .356 average and eight longballs in 48 games. With an advanced feel for hitting and power potential to spare, it’s easy to see why Yankees fans are eagerly anticipating the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Venezuelan’s arrival in the Bronx. The main impediment, other than Montero’s tender age and the presence of veteran Jorge Posada, is his defense. Montero has a strong arm and has made progress defensively as a pro, but his size prevents him from moving well behind the plate. With Mark Teixeira entrenched at first base, Montero may be the rare top prospect who breaks into the bigs as a DH. His finger injury should be completely healed by spring, and if he dominates Triple-A as he has the lower levels, he could be in pinstripes as soon as next summer.

Other debuts to look forward to in 2010:Tim Alderson, RHP, Pirates; Jake Arrieta, RHP, Orioles; Josh Bell, 3B, Orioles; Domonic Brown, OF, Phillies; Jason Castro, C, Astros; Kyle Drabek, RHP, Phillies; Christian Friedrich, LHP, Rockies; Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays; Austin Jackson, OF, Yankees; Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays; Martin Perez, LHP, Rangers; Justin Smoak, 1B, Rangers; Drew Storen, RHP, Nationals; Michael Taylor, OF, Phillies; Brett Wallace, 3B, A’s. 

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Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Photo by The Associated Press

 

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