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Prospects to watch in 2006

By now, I'm a little tired of all the prospect rankings...and I'm sure we haven't seen the end of the pre-season lists.  Everyone gets in a tizzy over whether proven performance is worth more than raw potential whether a pitcher who hasn't pitched above hi-A can be projected with any reliability, you know how these things go.

That said, in any organization, particularly one riding a youth movement like Milwaukee's, we're going to keep one eye cocked on the minors all year long.  So rather than submit another futile entry to the prospect-ranking gods, I'm going to give you a list of the ten position players most worth watching this season.  Not necessarily the best; as you'll see, I'm interested in the guys whose stock has fallen, who have something to prove.  Now, on to the list!

  • Ryan Braun, 3B.  He mashed in college.  He mashed at Helena.  He mashed at West Virginia.  He'll probably start the year at Brevard County, but odds are he'll be in AA by the end of the year, and that's the level that tends to tell you who can really hit.  I'll also be interested to see what people have to say about his defense as he climbs the ladder.  Third basemen in college tend to become first basemen and right fielders by the time they hit the Majors, and Braun's ability to man the hot corner will determine in great part just how valuable a Major League player he can be.

  • Enrique Cruz, SS.  Cruz hasn't exactly played his way back into prospect status after his disastrous 2003 in the big leagues, but his solid 2005 at Huntsville proved that his streaky-but-promsising 2004 wasn't just a product of the home-run-happy California League.  Amazingly, the guy who went 6-for-71 in the big leagues hit .300 with 14 dingers last year in AA.  He'll be 25 next year, so it's tough to judge just how much more he'll develop, but an optimistic projection might make him another Alex Gonzalez in a couple of years.

  • Alcides Escobar, SS.  What do we know about this guy's defense?  That would seem to be the most important thing; he's hit decently both at Helena in '04 and with the Power last season, and he just turned 20 about six weeks ago.  It's nice to have some guys in the organization on the young side; while Escobar is hardly giving JJ Hardy anything to worry about for a couple of years, he has plenty of time to develop.  If he keeps hitting in the .270-.280 range with the patience that gave him a .339 OBP in rookie ball (as opposed to .298 last year), he could become a very nice player to have in the organization.

  • Charlie Fermaint, CF.  This guy earned a lot of fans after slugging .744 in Helena last year...but he was repeating the level, and his momentum didn't hold up after a promotion to West Virginia.  According to what I've heard, this guy is king of the tools--great arm, should develop plenty of power as he bulks up--but I'm more interested to see if he stays healthy and actually hits on a consistent basis.  I would imagine he'll start the year with WV, but the real test will come with an eventual promotion to Brevard County.

  • Adam Heether, 3B.  Heether had a breakout year last year: after hitting .252 in a full season at Beloit in '04, he hit above .300 in stops at Brevard County and Huntsville last year--all while battling nagging injuries.  If he continues to impress, he'll give the Brewers brass some difficult decisions to make, what with Ryan Braun right behind him in the system.  He'll probably start the year in Huntsville, and if he hits as well for a full year as he did in 50 ABs at the end of last season, we'll have another 3B prospect on our hands, if we don't already.

  • Dave Krynzel, CF.  Ack.  Last year, pundits debated whether Krynzel had an upside better than that of a 4th OF.  Now, the debate is more properly over whether he'll see the inside of a big-league clubhouse again.  His numbers have gone down steadily as he's climbed the ladder--all the more distressing as he repeated AAA last year, seeing just about every number go down in the process.  Rather than entering the year as the favorite for the 4th OF spot in Milwaukee, he'll be rehabbing an injured clavicle and might not have a guaranteed spot in the Nashville starting lineup.  He's always been toolsy and showed enough promise to be the Brewers first-round pick in 2000, but as he enters his age 25 season, his chances to turn things around is growing slimmer.  

  • Brad Nelson, 1B/OF.  Once upon a time this guy was a big-time prospect, but now he's the definition of "blocked," and he hasn't played well enough lately to merit much better.  With Prince Fielder presumably the incumbent at first base for a very, very long time, and Corey Hart and Nelson Cruz ready to take over at the corners (not to mention a couple of pretty decent players already manning the corners in Milwaukee), Nelson's best hope is to put things together in Nashville this year and get traded elsewhere.  He'll still be only 23 this year, so he's got time to regain some of his former stature, but powerful guys who strike out a lot often stagnate in the high minors, which is starting to look like Nelson's future.

  • Lou Palmisano, C.  Like Nelson and Krynzel, Palmisano's star has fallen quite a bit in the last couple years.  He had a killer partial season after being drafted in '03; remained solid with Beloit in '04; and, well...didn't strike out as much in Brevard County last year.  The Brewers would love for Palmisano to break out, as his development is well-timed to make him the catcher of the future after Damian Miller's contract is up, but the Brewers didn't protect him in the Rule V draft this year--that not only tells you something about how the Crew feels about his potential at this point, but the fact that he wasn't selected tells you that no one else in baseball thought he was worth a shot, either.

  • Vinny Rottino, C/3B/etc.  In 2004, Rottino had a breakout year at Beloit, but every mention of his success came with a caveat: he was 24 in low-A ball.  He dispelled some of those doubts by putting up a solid line in AA last year, even throwing in a stellar audition in Nashville as well.  I wrote a couple of days ago about Rottino's possible future with the club; if he can prove himself to be a credible catcher, I'd love to see him battle it out for a spot platooning with or backing up Damian Miller.  At age 26, he's still too old to be a prospect, even at AAA, but he's certainly not too old to give us hope he'll contribute to the Major League squad soon, and for several years to come.

  • Ned Yost IV, 1B.  Gotta root for this guy, right?  With his family line, you figure he'll work hard, he'll hustle, he'll be a good guy...but will he continue to hit?  He had a solid year for Helena, but it's tough to get excited about a 23-year-old first baseman in rookie ball no matter what kind of numbers he puts up.  If he earns his way up to Brevard County by the end of the year and still looks competitive at the plate, it'll be a good year for him.

I just realized I didn't mention Nelson Cruz, but I take it for granted he'll hit well in Nashville; the only question is how he looks in the field.  If he can man center field adequately--wow, I'm thrilled to have him around.  If not, he's still a solid prospect.  

Tomorrow or the next day, we'll look at the pitchers.