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Pebble Report: Minor League Preview

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Today marks the opening day for three of our four full season affiliates, with Modesto and the Cal League set to tip off tomorrow. This will be a quick primer what to watch for with each of the teams this year:

Colorado Springs Sky Sox:

Top Prospects: Ian Stewart, Greg Reynolds - Reynolds faces future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson tonight in the Sky Sox opener against Tucson. We've all heard the story by now on Stewart.

Who's Rising: Jonathan Herrera - Herrera had a down season in Tulsa last year, but the reports I've had say that he's looked much sharper this Spring at the plate and on the basepaths. The big issue is that there's no room for him with a full stock of shortstops already in the system, so I'm not sure how I feel about a renaissance if it proves true. I think Herrera could be a better long term utility solution over Clint Barmes or Omar Quintanilla, and he seems ahead of Corey Wimberly as well, but he's got to prove himself at a high level before I fully endorse this plan.

Who's Falling: Joe Koshansky - Joe's mediocre -at best- season in AAA last year, followed by a struggle in a cup of coffee with the Rockies has sent his stock plummeting. His future seemingly isn't with the Rockies anymore, but he needs a strong showing with the Sky Sox to ensure he has one in the majors with another club.

Key Stories to watch: Watching prospects at AAA is all about figuring out how players can help the MLB team right now, as potential starts to take a back burner. The Rockies figure to need pitchers mostly, so look at Reynolds, Josh Towers, and the relief corps for potential upgrades should they be needed. Other than that, there are a handful of MLB ready players -Stewart, Seth Smith, Edwin Bellorin, Cory Sullivan- that just lack maturity and/or available roster space in Denver. We've got a lot of depth in case of injury at the MLB level, this will become crucial for the Rockies later in the season.

Tulsa Drillers:

Top Prospects: Chris Nelson, Dexter Fowler, Casey Weathers, Eric Young Jr, Pedro Strop, Brandon Hynick, Chaz Roe - Last season was all about the Drillers rotation, with Franklin Morales and Greg Reynolds headlining the pitching staff, this year it's the bullpen and up the middle that deserves attention. Those seven are all legit MLB caliber players, and that's a nice core to start with. This should be our best full season squad this year.

Who's Rising: Any number of guys on the team qualify -Dexter Fowler and Chris Nelson in particular seem poised for huge seasons, Xavier Cedeno becomes our best starting LHP prospect with Morales in the bigs- but Eric Young has never gotten the attention he deserves and I think this is the year that changes.

Who's Falling: Ching Lung Lo - Repeating at AA, he seems closer to a return voyage to Taiwan than he does to Denver right now.

Stories to Watch: Besides Lo, this is a make or break year for all the outfielders excepting Fowler, as well as for Corey Wimberly and Jeff Kindel. I like Kindel's chances of usurping Koshansky in the role of Helton's emergency backup, I remain enamored with the sweet swing that Daniel Carte still displays and am hopeful that something clicks for him this year. I'm less sanguine that Wimberly, Justin Nelson, or Matt Miller show enough to remain in the organization's plans moving forward.

Modesto Nuts:

Top Prospects: Hector Gomez, Daniel Mayora, Michael McKenry, Esmil Rogers, Aneury Rodriguez

Who's Rising: McKenry - He's deservedly received more and more attention as the
winter has turned to spring.

Who's Falling: Andrew Johnston, Cole Garner - two players who are repeating the level need to bounce back from rough 2007's to remain in the system.

Stories to watch: The phoenix from the ashes hopeful in the pitching staff, Shane Lindsay needs to stay healthy and effective to show that he's finally back from extensive surgery two years ago. I'm interested in how the group that graduated from Asheville continues to mature. Besides Gomez, there's not really a clear cut potential star in the bunch, but as a unit, it's a cohesive team that feeds off each other's energy. They play fundamentally sound, they play hard, and they win more than you might be inclined to anticipate just looking over the roster. They get written off for being too old. In so many ways this reminds me of the group that matured into the original Gen "R" squad that included Atkins, Holliday, Barmes and Cook among others. I'm willing to bet that similar under the radar prospects emerge in the coming couple of seasons from this wave.

Asheville Tourists:

Top Prospects: Jhoulys Chacin, Brian Rike, Helder Velazquez

Who's Rising: Just about the whole team, this is a talented group that hasn't gotten a lot of hype yet. If I had to pick one who's started to get some attention over the winter, it would be Connor Graham.

Who's Falling: David Christensen? No. A 20 year old talent like Christensen who skips a level to full season play shouldn't be considered falling, but after two lackluster years in Casper, many may have assumed him to be. A more realistic choice, at least from my perspective would be closer Craig Baker, a pitcher I had a lot more expectations for when we drafted him, but who's been slowed by injuries and lack of development.

Stories to watch: Just to see who it will be that will pop onto the national radar this year. There are a lot of candidates, like Everth Cabrera, another middle infield sparkplug. Graham or Riordan or even Bruce Billings could prove better than expected pitching prospects. Lars Davis has a natural smooth swing and good reflexes that could take advantage of McCormick Field for some impressive numbers. Darin Holcomb had a solid, albeit largely ignored campaign for Tri-City and Gonzaga last season, how will he do outside of Washington state?