As is often the case, Double-A has the most interesting group of players. They've proven themselves in the low minors but haven't yet been tested by the more perilous upper minors. The glow of prospectdom shines its brightest.
This time I won't be burying the lede. Carson Fulmer headlines not only the rotation but the Barons as a whole. The 2015 first rounder got talked up quite a bit in spring training, though it's not clear how much of that was reality or was just confidence-building and a shot across the fifth-starter candidates' bows. The talk of Fulmer being at the same level of development as Rodon last year seems like quite the stretch, particularly with his assignment to Double-A and not Triple-A. He also added a cutter to his repertoire in spring training and changed the grip on his changeup, things you probably wouldn't be doing if you're going to be in the majors this month. Of the two pitches, acquiring a decent changeup, to go with his fastballs and curve, is probably the more important task, though either would help him against lefties. Developing his command is another major focus and he also needs to simply get into the routine of pitching as part of a rotation that pitches continuously and not just on weekends.
Two right-handers join Fulmer in the likely rotation. Tyler Danish will try to put his poor 2015 season behind him in his second try at the Southern League. A repeat of it will likely see a move to the bullpen, which would also serve to shorten his path to the big leagues. He's still the youngest pitcher on the team. Brandon Brennan will look to finally put together a full season of pitching. The 2012 draftee is unlikely to be a starter long-term -- and it's not certain that he'll be in the rotation -- but he certainly could use the reps to help make up for lost time.
A pair of lefties round out the notables. Jordan Guerrero has an above-average changeup, so he's got a weapon against righties, which he used to great effect against lower level hitters. Double-A is the place a lot of lefties of his type get found out, so refining the command of his average fastball will be essential. Due to injuries, last season was his first full season. Repeating that trick will be important if he wants to remain a starter. Brian Clark unfortunately does not have much of a changeup so his long-term starting prospects are much dourer -- and it's not clear that he'll even be in the rotation at the start of the season. Regardless, he's got more velocity on his fastballs - mid-90s with his four-seamer - so he's got potential as a reliever. He hasn't worked a full season as a starter, though, so (assuming he's starting) that's a big goal for him, and accomplishing that would at least serve to get him the reps he needs to refine his shaky control.
Robin Leyer has a seriously fast fastball and not much else. The righty's already a failed starter so the focus on shorter stints will hopefully help him refine his command and miss a lot more bats. The 23-year-old also needs to develop a credible second pitch, either his slider or changeup, to keep hitters off his fastball. Michael Ynoa still exists. You never know, maybe this is the year he stays healthy.
Trey Michalczewski is the youngest player on the Barons and probably will be one of the youngest in the league. He's got more than a full season under his belt at High-A, though, so the third baseman should be ready. I'm betting that this is the year his power potential turns into production but, given his power-suppressing home park, it may be difficult to discern. If he continues his steady climb, the switch-hitter's arrival would coincide with Todd Frazier's free agency. No pressure, Trey.
Joining him on the infield are Eddy Alvarez at shortstop and Jake Peter at second base / utility. The former speedskater has so far had little trouble with pro baseball, which is good because, at 26, he can't really afford any hiccups. Double-A will be a very interesting test of his contact and speed-reliant hitting. The switch-hitter's offensive game, assuming he can continue it, is a good fit for the park given his lack of power. I'd expect that this will be the level that his walks begin to disappear, as he won't be able to work counts as well against advanced pitchers who can hit their spots. The defense is shaky and he has essentially no chance at staying at shortstop. If he doesn't turn into a pumpkin here, he might actually be a prospect.
Peter has a similar game. He can actually field his position but his speed is nowhere near Alvarez's. The lefty hitter began to see time in left field last season and defensive versatility will be imperative for him. Being passable at third base, a position he really hasn't played, should be a focus, too. And he apparently played first in an exhibition on Tuesday and, in the absence of alternatives, will be the club's starter there in the short-term -- likely keeping it warm for the injured-yet-again Keon Barnum, who is rehabbing in extended spring training.
In the outfield, Adam Engel will patrol center. His double-plus speed means he can play any outfield position competently and he's a good basestealer. He's got "fourth outfielder" written all over him. As you probably recall, he had an excellent showing in the Arizona Fall League, where the righty-hitter cut his strikeouts significantly in a very small sample size and showed some pop. If he can manage to hold onto some of those gains, he becomes an intriguing starting center fielder candidate.
Courtney Hawkins returns to Birmingham, which is a very poor fit for his one above-average skill (power), but might yet force him to make some adjustments and improve his hit skill to something passable. You all already know the drill. He can't hit breaking balls. He strikes out too much. He's probably a left fielder. He needs to stay healthy after last season's injury-marred campaign. I wouldn't expect his stay here to be long and there isn't any impediment to playing time at Charlotte, where his power will produce Nintendo numbers.