Will Middlebrooks (3B, BOS) – Baseball America’s top prospect in the Red Sox system is on fire to begin the 2012 season. He’s hitting .359 with 3 HR, 7 RBI, and 2 SB for the Pawtucket Red Sox. Most importantly, Middlebrooks’ plate approach looks better than it did last season. Between A-, AA, and AAA in 2011, he posted a 5.6% walk rate and a 25% strikeout rate. His .328 OBP last year, all things considered, isn’t good enough for a young hitter to survive in the Majors.
On April 12th, I witnessed Middlebrooks display the kind of patience that he didn’t have last season. Although he finished the night 1/5 with 2 strikeouts, his first two at bats displayed almost everything that you want in a young hitter. He led off the second inning and struck out on a called check swing after nine pitches. Middlebrooks held off of a 1-2 breaking ball in the dirt and had the fortitude to foul away four pitches with two strikes. In the fourth inning, he led off and lined out to left field on seven pitches. He laid off of two breaking balls with two strikes, though, which says something about his command of the strike zone and the confidence that he’s built.
Lonnie Chisenhall (3B, CLE) – After a mediocre showing with the Cleveland Indians over 223 plate appearances in 2011, the Tribe opted to stick Chisenhall with the Columbus Clippers to begin 2012. The organization’s major concerns are his plate discipline and his defense at the hot corner. Although he’s hitting .333 with 3 HR and 6 RBI through 11 games, he’s struck out 8 times and only walked twice in 47 plate appearances. He’s already committed 4 errors. Jack Hannahan isn’t a long-term solution at third base but he isn’t playing poorly enough to force the organization’s hand in promoting Chisenhall.
Harper Watch 2012 – Bryce Harper, though his first 10 games, is hitting a paltry .220. He hasn’t homered and has struck out 7 times. He’s still adjusting to advanced breaking balls and the center field position in AAA. Despite Michael Morse’s injury, the Nationals don’t appear interested in fast tracking him to the Majors because he’s simply not ready.
Pacific Coast League
Anthony Rizzo (1B, CHC) – Statistically, Rizzo’s debut with the Iowa Cubs has been a resounding success. Through his first 11 games, he’s hitting .391 with 5 HR and 13 RBI. Unfortunately for Rizzo, this is nothing new. He hit .331 with Tucson last year before moving to the Majors and striking out on 30.1% of his plate appearances. This season, his strikeout rate (19.5%) is right around his Minor League career average. You don’t score a lot of points by repeating a level and dominating the pitching, especially in the hitter-friendly PCL.
Rizzo will need Bryan LaHair to falter with the Chicago Cubs to get his chance and prove that he can be a productive hitter at the Major League level. LaHair is currently hitting .348 for Chicago but is having his own strikeout problems with an astonishing 38.5% strikeout rate through 26 plate appearances. Rizzo’s chance will come. Whether he proves that he’s Major League capable or a career AAAA player is anyone’s guess at this point.
Heath Hembree (RP, SF) – With Brian Wilson’s season all but over, San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy is allegedly moving to a closer-by-committee system in the Bay Area. Even if Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla are capable of sharing the duties, it’s worth keeping an eye on Hembree. He’s the top reliever in the Giants system and posted a 1.86 ERA on 78 SO and 25 BB between A+ and AA last year. His command has been a problem at times but his mid-90’s fastball has overwhelmed batters in the Minors.
Rumblings in AA
James Paxton (SP, SEA) impressing with 17 SO and only 1 BB in 10.1 innings.