Let's be honest here. No one could have told you this kid would display the patience at the plate that he has and rake at every turn. He was a high school kid taken in this year's draft but has shown a maturity well beyond his years.
Blessed with true leadoff hitter skills, Hunter reaches base more often than nearly everyone in the system and it isn't just walks either. If his rookie season is any indication, Hunter will be at the top of prospect lists soon enough.
Could he jump Eugene next season – you bet.
2. Will Venable
The development of Will Venable was supposed to take time. He had never dedicated a full year of his life to baseball prior to this season. It turns out his natural athleticism was enough and it makes him among the top risers in the system.
He has proven to be a competent number three hitter in the lineup, showing an advanced approach at the dish with the ability to draw a walk. He also performs well in the clutch, leading the team in most major offensive categories, including RBI's.
The scary part is Venable is just touching the surface of his abilities and his power numbers should continue to rise as he moves up the chain.
3. Manny Ayala
Every year there is a pitcher who gets tossed around and ends up in a league above where he should be based on developmental time. Last year, Jose Oyervidez was that guy and this year Ayala has proven to be the master of his domain.
He pitched scoreless ball in one stint with the Beavers and had three appearances with Fort Wayne before settling in with Lake Elsinore.
The idea had always been to make him a starter and allow him to perform in Eugene at just 21 years old. Used mostly as a reliever, Ayala had no fear dominating a hitter's league over his first 13 appearances, allowing just 14 hits in his first 21.1 innings in the California League.
Since the conversion to starter full-time, he has had his ups and downs but continues to pound the strike zone to make his defense work. He will continue to get better.
4. Mike Ekstrom
What separates Ekstrom today from Ekstrom of the past is a few extra ticks on his fastball to go with impressive control. He has always had a flair for pitching down in the zone but the extra oomph has resulted in more dominance.
He breezed through the California League and has struggled to get run support in Mobile, causing his stats to look worse than they are. Last year, Ekstrom melted down the stretch and has had some rough patches he has to fight through to elevate his game to the next level.
5. Javis Diaz
Signed as a free agent in 2002, Diaz has the prototypical leadoff mentality not often associated with a native of the Dominican Republic. He has a good feel for the strike zone and has enough speed to make a difference on the basepaths.
Given that he played all but five games last year in the Arizona Rookie League, Diaz earned the right to sit in this list by showing well in Lake Elsinore before heading to Fort Wayne where he continued to be an asset at the top of the order. Injuries have slowed down his season.
6. Nic Crosta
Signed for pennies, Crosta was a player Grady Fuson trusted in. The sound off his bat in spring training told more than that. He carried that into the season and clobbered Midwest League pitching. While he has not found quite the success as he had in Fort Wayne, his season to date is inspiring.
His swing left him exposed for a period of time in Lake Elsinore but he has diligently worked to improve. The great thing is this is just the starting point of his career and he is poised to continue the rise.
7. Josh Howard
Being undrafted has its curse but Howard has become the reward. Given regular playing time he has proven to be a valuable commodity at the top of the lineup.
While many in his position are fighting for a reserve spot, Howard has excelled in the California League. He showed he could play at this level at the end of last season and continues to do the little things right.
Howard is a hard-nosed player that has an assortment of tools to work with, including a notch above average speed and good defensive skills. He prototypes more as a centerfielder but has manned the corners. Coming from the ranks of the undrafted, Howard continues to dazzle.
8. David Freese
The toughest guy to evaluate as far as rising up the prospect charts because he was just drafted. Inexplicably, he lasted until the ninth round and has done nothing but hit since coming into the system.
He may have had expectations to meet but has clearly surpassed them in every facet. He hits, hits for power, and is money in the clutch. If anyone knew he would accomplish all this in his first year of professional ball he would have never lasted until round nine.
Note: Several players not present on this list will be seen in our next installment where we look at ‘Comeback Players of the Year'.