When Baseball America's first Prospect Handbook came out after the 2000 season, we ranked the Red Sox's farm system 21st out of the 30 major-league organizations.
Little did we (or anyone else) know the Sox had a pair of future All-Stars in the system.
Yes, Shea Hillenbrand and Justin Duchscherer, who ranked at Nos. 25 and 26 on the Sox's Top 30 that season, weren't exactly sure-fire future All-Stars coming up through the minor leagues. Scouts tell us the lineup of players below, however, have a good shot to join Hillenbrand and Duchscherer one day as All-Stars in their own right.
Catcher: Russell Martin, Dodgers
Catching talent in the minor leagues ebbs and flows, and it's at a low ebb right now. With Brad McCann playing for the Braves in Atlanta, rather than in Double-A, the talent is even thinner. Martin, 22, a Canadian who went to junior college in Florida, is a converted third baseman and has shown the best mix of power, plate discipline and catch-and-throw skills in the minors. He's part of the Dodgers' Double-A Jacksonville roster, which is brimming with talent.
First base: Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks
The 23-year-old is blocked by the surprisingly effective tandem of Tony Clark and Chad Tracy, but it's only a matter of time before Jackson hits his way to Arizona. In his bid to be the best Cal Bear alum to hit the majors since Jeff Kent (his main competition is Xavier Nady), Jackson has become one of the minors' most patient hitters, and he projects to hit at least 15-20 homers a season while contending for batting championships. His short, compact stroke gives him offensive potential that more than makes up for a decidedly pedestrian glove.
Second base: Howie Kendrick, Angels
Not usually the domain of elite prospects, the position recently graduated one of its finest in Brewers slugger Rickie Weeks. Kendrick, 21, heads up a squadron of second basemen who can rake and has enough strength to make him a legitimate future batting champion. His quick hands play well with a bat or in the field. Kendrick is part of the Angels' amazing middle-infield depth: His teammate at Class A Rancho Cucamonga, shortstop Brandon Wood, leads the minors with 28 home runs as a 20-year-old, and the Double-A Arkansas tandem of shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Alberto Callaspo are both considered future big leaguers.
Third base: Andy LaRoche, Dodgers
Now here's a position brimming with talent. Hard to make a wrong choice from among Braves longtime prospect Andy Marte (who's still only 21), Rockies Class A prospect Ian Stewart or the three third basemen -- Alex Gordon (Royals), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Ryan Braun (Brewers) -- selected among the first five picks of last month's first-year player draft. LaRoche, however, ranks among the minors' home run leaders (second behind Wood), has big-league bloodlines (brother Adam, dad Dave) and a full toolbox. He homered five times in his first 15 Double-A games, another sign the 21-year-old is more than able to make adjustments against advanced pitching.
Shortstop: Joel Guzman, Dodgers
We have an all-SoCal infield. It's hard to imagine a 6-foot-7 shortstop. Even Michael Jordan just went to right field in his baseball "career." But Guzman, 20, is still there at Double-A Jacksonville and has sure hands and a strong arm for the position. At his size, most scouts eventually see him moving either to third base, right field or perhaps first. His bat will be his ticket anyway; his power evokes comparisons to Juan Gonzalez. And the aptitude he's displayed over his minor-league career -- he used to be helpless on breaking balls -- impresses some scouts as much as his tools do.
Right field: Delmon Young, Devil Rays
So far, the only blemish on his minor-league resume was a run-in with an umpire that earned him a suspension this season. Maybe he was just trying on the Albert Belle comparisons for size. After struggling with fastballs inside in the first months of 2004, Young quickly learned to drive those balls to right field and hasn't stopped mashing since. The 19-year-old may lack the panache of big-league brother Dmitri, but his savvy, all-fields power, excellent throwing arm and surprising speed will make him the better big leaguer. He's the minors' best prospect, threatening for a Double-A Southern League triple crown as a teenager.
Center field: Lastings Milledge, Mets
Naturally, because their best prospect is a multi-tooled center fielder, the Mets' biggest offseason move was to sign a free-agent multi-tooled center fielder. Lastings Milledge can understand a little of what Mike Cameron was feeling when Carlos Beltran signed, but he's also just in Class A. Milledge, 20, has to polish up his pitch recognition a bit, and he's not as efficient on the basepaths as someone with his speed should be. But like Beltran, Milledge is poised to hit in the middle of a lineup, not at the top, because of his bat speed and raw power potential. From here, he looks like Omar Minaya's best trade chip for a 2006 stretch drive deal.
Left Field: Jeremy Hermida, Marlins
Eventually, Miguel Cabrera could move back to third base, but as long as he's in right field in Florida, Hermida will have to learn to play left to break into the Marlins' lineup. It's a small problem to have. Hermida has the classic, fluid, left-handed swing that makes fans and scouts alike swoon. Just 21, he's added power to his high batting average and excellent plate discipline while moving up the ladder -- and his defense (including an above-average arm) is ready-made for right field.
Designated hitter: B.J. Upton, Devil Rays
Where will B.J. play? He was at shortstop, third base and even left field last year in Tampa Bay, where it appears he arrived too soon and played for the wrong manager. At Triple-A Durham this year to work on his defense, his confidence has eroded as his throwing accuracy has decreased -- he had 29 errors in 82 games. Some scouts still think the 20-year-old can play short, but evidence is mounting that Upton's best position will be in the batter's box. Tampa Bay's best bet is to stick him at third base sooner than later.
Right-handed starter: Felix Hernandez, Mariners
There is such a thing as a pitching prospect. Hernandez is the best evidence, and other organizations would do just about anything to pry him from the Mariners. He's earned Dwight Gooden comparisons for throwing upper-90s gas with enough command to pitch effectively in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League at age 19. His curveball and changeup are above-average pitches as well. The only question is how he handles his carefully monitored workload: Will he be too good too soon for his arm's own good?
Left-handed starter: Troy Patton, Astros
The Texas Longhorns won the 2005 College World Series without Patton, who was supposed to be a member of their rotation this year. Instead, he signed for a $550,000 bonus as a ninth-round pick and took his nasty curveball, low-90s fastball and developing changeup to the low Class A South Atlantic League, where the 19-year-old has averaged 10.75 strikeouts per nine innings.
Closer: Joel Zumaya, Tigers
Although he's starting now in Double-A for the Tigers, most big-league closers begin their careers as starters in the minor leagues. Zumaya, 20, has the power stuff and maximum-effort delivery to go to the back of a bullpen -- high-90s fastballs coupled with a hard slurve. He's averaging 12 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A Erie, but he'll have to fail first to be considered a closer.