While most of the baseball prospect blogs churn out their Top Prospect rankings in the spring, I am bucking the trend and doing it in the fall. Why? Pretty simple: I spend most of my spring and summer preparing for and covering the ABL season and this stuff simply falls to the wayside. But that’s alright; prospect nerds can have a ranking list to read in the fall and I have something to help get me through the long, long off-season. So rejoice as I unveil the ranking of the top professional prospects who have happened to pass through the Alaska Baseball League during their amateur careers.
As often as I hear that the talent in the Alaska League is declining, I think it’s quite the opposite. Having compiled these types of lists for three years running, I think it’s on an uptick. This year I definitely haven’t had to reach as deep to flesh out a list of 10 pro prospects, thanks in part to some very noteworthy prospects to be drafted in 2012. And I already have in mind some very alluring 2013 draft eligible players who have swung through AK, so next year’s list should be even more fun.
* Asterisk denotes players who were on the 2011 Top Pro Prospects list.
1. James Paxton*
LHP – Seattle – Round 4, 2010 – 2009 Anchorage Glacier Pilots
Paxton is a left-hander whose prospect stock took a hit after his rocky departure from the NCAA and rough start in independent ball, all before finally coming to terms with the Mariners. Once he shook off the rust, though, he really found his stride. He’s done well at the AA level up to this point, played in the 2011 Futures Game, broke camp with the big-league Mariners this spring and was even a contender to make a spot in their rotation. He’s one of the top prospects in an organization looking to their youth, he’s polished, and he’s apparently a phone call away from the bigs. Accordingly, he shot to the top of the 49thStateHardball prospect rankings this year.
2. Kirk Nieuwenhuis*
OF – New York (NL) – Round 3, 2008 – 2007 AIA Fire
Nieuwenhuis was ranked the #1 prospect in last year’s rankings. The rising stock of Paxton bumped him down a notch, but if anything I regard Nieuwenhuis as an even better prospect than I did last year, and one who should be a significant member of the Mets (or another MLB club) in the near future. He’s already had his first stint in the Majors this season, proving to be a capable replacement for injured players ahead of him in the depth chart. Now that the Mets’ outfield is a little more healthy, Nieuwenhuis has been bumped back to AAA. But with a little more seasoning, he should come back and be even better. Look for him to be back as a September call-up and contest for an opening day roster spot next spring.
3. James Ramsey
OF – St. Louis – Round 1, 2012 – 2009 Mat-Su Miners
Ramsey leads the pack of talented 2012′s who have come through the ABL in the past few years and his first-round status in this year’s draft puts him at #3 on my ranking. A lot of people felt that Ramsey only went first round because he’s a “safe” choice for the money. I disagree. He didn’t sign significantly under slot, he started in Class-A Advanced, and he has done fairly well there. He is a polished player who could be a part of the big league Cardinals sooner rather than later. If he advances rapidly I’d expect to see him shoot up the prospect rankings by next season.
4. Stephen Piscotty
3B – St. Louis – Round 1C, 2012 – 2010 Peninsula Oilers
Piscotty was the Alaska Baseball League selection for Top Prospect my first season on the beat in the Alaska League, and it’s apparent that the voters were not mistaken. His ceiling is probably as high as any of the players mentioned above; he’s just got some more work to do if he’s going to reach that level. His bat plays, and if his power swing develops he could be a star. He’s just got a few years before he breaks in to the majors as he’s another well-polished guy.
5. Chen Chang Lee
RHP – Cleveland – International F.A., 2009 – 2007 Anchorage Bucs
Chen — a new name on this list — is one of several Taiwanese players who got their first experience playing U.S. ball with the Anchorage Bucs. Since then he went on to international competition before coming to terms on a free agent contract with Cleveland. He has done his time in the minors and acclimated himself to the American style of play, and is really coming into shape as a Major-league capable set-up man. He broke spring camp with the big league club but was sent back to the minors to get more experience. Unfortunately he’s been sidelined by injury, delaying his arrival with the big Indians. But I have no doubt that day will come soon.
6. Keenyn Walker
OF – Chicago (AL) – Round 1C, 2011 – 2011 Anchorage Glacier Pilots
Keenyn Walker came to to Alaska late in 2011 after being drafted by the White Sox, and left early after coming to terms on a pro contract. He’s got a long way to go but the ChiSox have a prospect with a McCutchen-level ceiling. His speed plays very well on the paths and in the outfield, he can stick at center field, and he is a capable batting-average hitter. It’ll be a few years before he makes it, if he fulfills his promise, but if he does he will be an exciting player to see.
7. Beau Mills*
1B/3B – Cincinnati – Round 1, 2007 – 2006 Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks
Since being drafted by the Indians, Mills has really established himself as a franchise player…at AA Akron. Mills was in danger of slipping off the list all together, but with a decent finish to 2011 and a ticket out of the Cleveland farm system, I don’t have the heart to give up on him yet. He’s looking pretty fringe at this point so it’s probably not worth mentioning that Votto will block any chance he has to be the starting first baseman in Cincinnati. However, as negative as all this sounds, they don’t have a lot of depth at first base, so he is a bit closer to making the bigs than he was with the Indians. He could be a late-season call-up or an injury fill-in at some point. Maybe the move to a new system will help him.
8. Joey Terdoslavich
1B – Atlanta – Round 6, 2010 – 2008 Anchorage Bucs
Terdoslavich is a new name on this list, coming out of (seemingly) nowhere to become the Braves’ heir apparent to none other than Mr. Chipper Jones when he steps down this fall. The highly-touted third base prospect jumped from A-ball all the way to AAA and, accordingly, onto this top prospect ranking. At the moment, it looks like that move might have been hasty as he struggled at Gwinnett and has since been sent back down to AA. Atlanta may find a stop-gap or someone to otherwise help ease his transition into the Majors. But the message is clear: the Braves think highly of this guy and, once a big obstacle to his ascent steps aside, his arrival in the big leagues is nearly guaranteed. He’s a lot like Chipper in many ways; his bat plays and he switch-hits, so the only question is to what degree he can fill those big shoes.
9. Casey Weathers*
RHP – Chicago (NL) – Round 1, 2007 – 2007 Anchorage Glacier Pilots
Weathers is a very interesting player to watch. His ceiling is as high as a major-league closer but, as far as his floor is concerned, he may be running out of time to prove himself. He’s got a mid-90′s fastball with solid change-up and slider to back it up and was seemingly the Rockies’ fireman of the future until he ran into arm trouble and had Tommy John surgery. Since then he’s struggled with his command and has been traded to the Cubs, where he’s buried in the depth chart. While being held in limbo at AA, he’s not exactly been banging on the door stat-wise. He’s kind of hanging on to the #9 spot on this list because of what he could be. By this time next year he’ll have either climbed up a few rungs or fallen off entirely, one or the other.
10. Patrick Wisdom
3B – St. Louis – Round 1C, 2012 – 2010/11 Peninsula Oilers
Rounding out the list is Patrick Wisdom, another first-round (compensation) pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. What’s not to like about him? He could evolve into a solid four-tool guy: strong arm, good defense, fundamentally solid swing that could be a great power/high-average bat. The only reason he’s so low on the list is that he’s a long, long way from the Majors and the potential may never develop. But in a few years he could be making a big impact in St. Louis or wherever he ends up.
There are a couple of players I wanted to throw in the “honorable mention” list. Jake Stewart and J.T. Chargois come to mind as some more 2012 draft picks who could be regarded as top prospects, though I’m playing wait-and-see on them. Allan Dykstra fell off the bottom because he’s looking a little fringe, but he’ll definitely be on my short list next year. All three of these guys will be in consideration in the future. With Nieuwenhuis making the bigs this season there will be at least one hole in this list that needs to be plugged next year, likely more as it seems some of these players are coming to a crossroads. Maybe Matt Wessinger? The guy is a baller that no one seems to know about. The tenth-rounder might be an impact sleeper to keep in the back of your mind.