Ten first-half climbers: Carolina League

By Jonathan Raymond

We’re about halfway through the Minor League season, so we’re going to start identifying 10 prospects from each full-season league who significantly improved their stock through the first half of the Minor League season. By the very nature of already being highly ranked within their organizations, it’s hard for top-10 prospects to do much more climbing, so we’ll stick to prospects that were either ranked outside their team’s top 10 — as rated before the season by MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo – or who went unranked entirely.

1. Kyle Smith, SP (Wilmington Blue Rocks) — 2011 Draft, 4th round, Royals No. 15

What he did: 4-4, 2.87 ERA, 72 K/23 BB in 75 1/3 innings. Smith’s dominance of the Carolina League is doubly impressive, as he’s been one of the youngest starters on the circuit (and features as the youngest player on this list). The 20-year-old has nearly three times as many strikeouts as walks and ranks fifth on the circuit in both ERA and WHIP.

Where he might rank now: I think he’d be a lock to move into Kansas City’s top 10 and might even have an argument for sneaking into the top 5.

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2. Luke Jackson, SP (Myrtle Beach Pelicans) — 2010 Draft, 1st round, 45th overall, Rangers No. 11

What he did: 8-4, 2.30 ERA, 74 K/34 BB in 70 1/3 innings. The 21-year-old right-hander far and away leads the league in ERA and can boast being one of the category’s few leaders who has also registered a strikeout an inning. He’s built nicely on his 2012 showing, which saw him strike out 146 in 129 2/3 frames across two levels (including Myrtle Beach).

Where he might rank now: Most of the Rangers’ top 10 wouldn’t deserve to drop, but he can probably leapfrog one or two spots.

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3. Michael Ohlman, DH (Frederick Keys) — 2009 Draft, 11th round, Orioles No. 18

What he did: .318/.426/.567, 6 HR, 13 2B, 26 RBIs in 44 games. The 22-year-old missed a few games in April, and as a DH his upside will always be a little limited, but even acknowledging that, he’s taken a big step forward this year. He would’ve ranked second in the league in OPS if he qualified and, after slugging just .307 in 2011 and bumping that to .460 last season, he’s started to make good on his power potential.

Where he might rank now: He deserves a modest rise in the Baltimore rankings, slotting somewhere like 13th or 14th.

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4. Joe Wendle, 2B (Carolina Mudcats) — 2012 Draft, 6th round, Indians unranked

What he did: .321/.399/.588, 9 HR, 17 2B, 35 RBIs in 49 games. Wendle might actually have one of the more impressive offensive seasons overall in the Carolina League through the first half. Like Ohman, he missed his share of games in May, but he does just qualify for league leaders. The 23-year-old ranks second in both OPS and batting average after hitting .327/.375/.469 in 61 games in the New York-Penn League last year, having come out of West Chester (Pa.) University.

Where he might rank now: He’s kind of come out of nowhere, and Cleveland’s system has had a pretty good year, but he could figure somewhere in the 17-20 range.

Joe Wendle (13) Carolina MudCats

5. Robby Hefflinger, LF (Lynchburg Hillcats) — 2009 Draft, 7th round, Braves unranked

What he did: .286/.339/.579, 21 HR, 17 2B, 52 RBIs in 74 games. Hefflinger definitely showed the most power of anyone in the league in the first half, leading the circuit in homers and ranking second only to Wendle in slugging percentage. Like Ohlman, the 23-year-old is putting his power to use this year after slugging .456 last year, which was the first time in his first four seasons he topped .400.

Where he might rank now: I generally think he’d squeak in somewhere near end of the top 20. He’s in Double-A Mississippi now, and if he continues at this pace, obviously he’ll rank a bit higher.

MILB: Lynchburg Hillcats at Potomac Nationals

6. Cody Anderson, SP (Carolina) — 2011 Draft, 14th round, Indians unranked

What he did: 6-3, 2.48 ERA, 81 K/23 BB in 83 1/3 innings. The 22-year-old out of Feather River College in Northern California just might have an argument as the league’s best pitcher through the first half.  Second in ERA, he also ranks sixth in strikeouts behind some blue-chip prospects such as Henry Owens, Kyle Zimmer and A.J. Cole. Anderson has taken his strikeout rate from about 6.6 per nine innings last year to 8.7 this year.

Where he might rank now: As with Wendle, he’s a more unheralded recent draft pick who has had something of a breakout and could figure anywhere approaching the back half of the top 20 with the second baseman.

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7. Jason Martinson, SS (Potomac Nationals) — 2010 Draft, 5th round, Nationals No. 20

What he did: .268/.374/.484, 12 HR, 11 2B, 53 RBIs, 15 steals in 17 tries in 73 games. The 24-year-old has consistently shown good power as he’s worked his way through the Washington system, hitting 19 home runs in 2011 and 22 last year, slugging .448 and .430, respectively. This year he’s done it better than ever before, already boasting 12 long balls while slightly improving his batting average and eye.

Where he might rank now: As with Hefflinger, Martinson has been promoted to Double-A, so how he finishes out the year in Harrisburg will determine if he belongs up around 10 or just a couple spots higher than his current 20.

Jason Martinson

8. Nick Martinez, SP (Myrtle Beach) — 2011 Draft, 18th Round, Rangers unranked

What he did: 7-4, 2.77 ERA, 70 K/29 BB in 84 1/3 innings. Martinez and Jackson have teamed up for what’s been easily the best 1-2 punch in the league so far this year. Sitting at third in ERA, the 22-year-old’s biggest strength his been his control, with a 3.1 BB/9 to his credit.

Where he might rank now: In a recurring theme on this list, he’s due to sit around 16th or 17th at his current pace.

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9. Keury De La Cruz, LF (Salem Red Sox) — 2009 international signing, Red Sox No. 14

What he did: .300/.332/.446, 4 HR, 27 2B, 58 RBIs, 8 steals in 13 tries in 78 games. De La Cruz doesn’t have the most disciplined approach just yet (15 walks to 65 strikeouts), but the 21-year-old is one of the younger regulars in the league and, if he can maintain a high-ish average and turn some of those doubles in to homers (he hit 19 of the latter last year and slugged .536 for Greenville) he’ll continue justify aggressive promotions.

Where he might rank now: The Boston system, especially around the top 10, has performed well this season, so he’s still probably just on the cusp of 9 or 10, at 11 or 12.

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10. Justin Trapp, 2B (Wilmington) — 2009 Draft, 34th round, Royals unranked

What he did: .277/.351/.418, 5 HR, 4 3B, 17 2B, 26 RBIs, 14 steals in 18 tries in 72 games. Trapp mostly gets credit for his ability to get on base and flash just a bit of pop (he also hit .272/.352/.430 last season in the Midwest League) from a second baseman and doing it in a league that hasn’t been easy to master for batters. The 22-year-old’s also a decent base stealer, which adds to his value. He’s also been remarkably consistent as he’s advanced from the Appy League in 2011, putting up an OPS between .770 and .787 at each successive stop.

Where he might rank now: It’s possible he’s only proven he belongs in the 20-25 range, but I could still see him maybe sneaking in there at 19 or 20.

Wilmington Blue Rocks second baseman Justin Trapp (Ken Inness/MiLB.com)

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