Saturday, April 19, 2014

International League’s elite prospects coming to Charlotte

By Seth Lakso, Charlotte Observer Correspondent 

Each season the International League produces some of the best young players in baseball. Last year’s crop of prospects to break into the majors includes Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, Tampa Bay outfielder Will Myers, Pirates flamethrower Gerrit Cole, White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia and Cincinnati speedster Billy Hamilton to name just a few.

Here’s a look at this year’s top International League prospects scheduled to play the Knights in Uptown Charlotte this season 

*Prospects are listed based on the order they’re scheduled to appear in Charlotte.

Norfolk Tides (April 11-13, May 20-21, July 4-5): Kevin Gausman, RHP – ESPN’s Keith Law ranks the 6-foot-3-inch Gausman as the No. 23 prospect in all of baseball (Baseball America has him at No. 20). The 23-year-old righthander, who was the first pitcher off the board in the 2012 draft, struggled in his promotion to the majors in 2013, going 3-5 with a 5.66 ERA in 47.2 innings with the Orioles, but still managed to punch out 9.25 batters per nine innings pitched. Gausman’s fastball can touch 100 in shorter stints, but it’s his changeup that makes him special.

Durham Bulls (April 14-15, 22-25): Hak-Ju Lee, SS – It’s weird to look at the Tampa Bay system and not find a guy ranked in Baseball America’s current top 100 prospects (No. 67 Jake Odorizzi broke camp with the Rays). However, had Lee not suffered a knee injury that prematurely ended his 2013 season, he could easily have cracked the list. The 6-foot-2-inch 23-year-old South Korea native hit .422 in 15 games in Durham last season, while showing a glove more than ready for the majors. He was  the key piece the Rays got back from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade. *He might not be ready to play in the first series at BB&T Ballpark, but should be good to go by the end of the month.

Gwinnett Braves (April 16-18, June 30-July 1): Christian Bethancourt, C: Keith Law calls Bethancourt’s defense “possibly the best in the minors right now…and good enough to challenge Yadier Molina’s for best in the MLB when the time comes.” That alone should be worth the price of admission when the Braves come to town. The 21-year-old’s Achilles heel is his free-swinging ways at the plate (he has just 78 walks in 1,824 career plate appearances). Second baseman Tommy La Stella is also a guy to watch. He's Dan Uggla's heir apparent in Atlanta.  

Lehigh Iron Pigs (May 5-8): Maikel Franco, 3B/1B – As a 20-year-old, Franco hit .320 with 31 home runs in 134 games split between Single-A and Double-A last season. He entered this year No. 63 on Keith Law’s Top 100 prospects list. With just 70 Ks in 600 professional plate appearances, Franco’s plus hand-eye coordination makes up for his pour pitch recognition skills.

*LHP Jesse Biddle, who has begun the season at the Double-A level is a pretty good comp for what a young Andy Pettitte looked like when he was first starting out.'s No. 53 prospect is a solid candidate to make the jump to Lehigh at some point this season.

Buffalo Bisons (May 9-12): Marcus Stroman, RHP – Stroman was drafted as a position player out of high school by the Nationals, but instead chose to attend Duke. After three successful collegiate seasons Stroman was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft as a pitcher by the Blue Jays. According to Law, who ranks the 22-year-old as the No. 58 prospect in baseball, Stroman’s “either a top-tier reliever, up in the Craig Kimbrel / Aroldis Chapman stratosphere, or a midrotation starter” if he can keep his home run numbers down.

*Aaron Sanchez,'s No. 9 pitching prospect entering 2014, will begin the season in Double-A, but could be a guy who sees significant time in Buffalo. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid- to upper 90's and in complimented by a plus curveball.

Indianapolis Indians (May 22-25): Gregory Polanco, CF – Somehow the Pirates have a third outfielder in the mold of Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen on the way in the 22-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch Polanco. Baseball America ranks Polanco, who is a true five-tool guy, as the No. 10 prospect in the game. Polanco is a guy you’ll want to catch early this season because there’s every chance he could claim a starting job in Pittsburg’s outfield by the All-Star break.

Rochester Red Wings (June 3-6): Alex Meyer, RHP – The Twins have three players in Law’s Top 50, including Baseball’s current No. 1prospect Byron Buxton. However, as of right now they’re all at least a call-up away from Rochester. That said, Meyer – who stands an intimidating 6-foot-9-inches tall, is a solid prospect in his own right. He touches 97 seemingly with ease and posted a 2.99 ERA with 100Ks in 78.1 innings in Double-A last season.

Columbus Clippers (June 7-10): Trevor Bauer, RHP – Bauer was the Opening Day starter for Columbus this season, an honor for your average prospect, but a disappointment for one with his stuff. Bauer, 23, was the Indian’s top pitching prospect heading into 2013, but mechanical issues led to lost velocity and control issues for much of the season. According to the prospect, all that’s behind him this season. “My stuff is back to where I’m used to having it,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “My fastball velocity is back to where I’m used to having it (94-96 mph, topping out near 100 mph). So it should be a good year.”

* Francisco Lindor is a 20-year-old shortstop to keep an eye on. He's starting the season in Double-A, but has been on the fast track to the majors since being drafted No. 8 overall in 2011. 

Toledo Mud Hens (June 20-23): Robbie Ray, LHP – When Miguel Cabrera moved back to first base (because of the Prince Fielder trade) it opened the door for 21-year-old third baseman Nick Castellanos to make the big league club and cut into Detroit’s depth in the minors. Ray – who was “the key to the deal” that saw the Tigers ship Doug Fister to the Nationals, according to Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski -- is a 6-foot-2-inch southpaw who went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA and had 160 strikeouts in 142 innings for high-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg last season.

Louisville Bats (June 24-27): Chien-Ming Wang, RHP – When Louisville’s Billy Hamilton made the Reds opening day roster this spring, the International League lost a potential 100-base stealer. Right now, the higher ceiling talent in the Reds organization is all too young to have advanced to Triple-A. The guys worth coming out to see are Wang (a two-time 19-game winner in the Majors with the New York Yankees) and Jeff Francis, who won at least 13 games a season from 2005-07 with the Rockies). Both are trying to get their once-promising careers back on track.

*Robert Stephenson, who the Reds took in the first round of the 2011 draft is a guy who may be in Louisville by the time the Bats come to town. Ranked as the No. 19 prospect in baseball by, Stephenson, 21, has lit up the radar guns in his brief pro career, touching 100 mph on several occasions.

Syracuse Chiefs (July 10-13): Brian Goodwin, OF – Goodwin is an outfielder with all five tools. Last season he hit .252 with a .355 OBP, 10 home runs and 19 stolen bases in Double-A, which actually led to Law dropping him from the No. 44 prospect in baseball entering 2013 to No. 83 entering this season. At 23-year-old, Goodwin could be in for a breakout season.