Can this year's crop live up to those expectations with the added incentive of possibly going to Beijing to play in the Olympic Games later this summer? Only time will tell, but with two already at the Triple-A level and the other two in Double-A, the odds are good that some will see big league time in the not-too-distant future. Here's a closer look at the quartet headed to Yankee Stadium in New York for the July 13 game:
Jason Donald, SS, Reading Phillies (Double-A, Phillies)
When Donald was drafted out of the University of Arizona in the third round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft by the Phillies, there was some question about how he'd adjust to the pro game. People always loved his attitude and makeup, but weren't sure about his tools.
After making All-Star teams in his summer debut and in his first full season, those questions are dying down. Donald hit a combined .304 with some decent power (.473 slugging percentage) across two levels in 2007, starting as Cardenas' teammate in low Class A Lakewood and finishing with Class A Advanced Clearwater. He finished third in the organization with that average, while also posting a .395 on-base percentage.
He hasn't really missed a step with the jump up to the Double-A Eastern League. The 23-year-old shortstop was hitting .299 through 68 games, entering Friday, again drawing some walks for a .390 OBP and showing a little extra-base pop (.494 SLG). He's coming off a June in which he hit .308 with a .919 OPS, all numbers that could see him make yet another All-Star team -- for the Eastern League -- in the near future.
Chris Getz, 2B, Charlotte Knights (Triple-A, White Sox)
A fourth-rounder in 2005 out of the University of Michigan, Getz has impressed with his understanding of how to play the game the right way throughout his pro career. He leaped up to Double-A in his first full season in the White Sox organization, hitting .256 with a .326 OBP.
It looked like he was figuring this out last year as he repeated the level, though he managed to play in just 72 games due to a shin injury. But what he did -- hitting for average (.299) and getting on base (.382 OBP) -- in 2007 has carried over as the second baseman has continued to perform well in his Triple-A debut. His .311 average had him fourth in the International League through the end of June and while his walk rate is down a bit, he's still got a .360 OBP. While clearly not a part of his game, his six homers are a career high.
Defensively, he's largely been only a second baseman as a pro. While that's still his primary position, the 24-year-old has been showing some increased versatility in 2008, seeing time at shortstop and even in left field, giving the organization more to think about in terms of his Major League value.
Chris Valaika, SS, Chattanooga Lookouts (Double-A, Reds)
Valaika made a name for himself almost immediately after being taken in the third round of the 2006 Draft out of UC-Santa Barbara by the Reds. He set a Pioneer League record with a 32-game hitting streak, which also was the longest streak in all of the Minor Leagues in 2006. For his efforts, he was named the MiLB.com Short-Season Offensive Player of the Year.
He's kept on performing since. He was a Midwest League All-Star in 2007, then got promoted to the Class A Advanced Florida State League after hitting .307 with 10 homers in 79 games for Dayton. He began this season back with Sarasota, but again earned a midseason bump up after hitting a scorching .363 over 32 games. His overall Double-A numbers don't compare, but after a rougher May adjusting, he hit .303 in June, giving him a .312/.363/.489 line for the season.
Valaika, 22, is no stranger to wearing the USA jersey. He won gold medals with the U.S. National team at the Pan-Am Games in Santo Domingo and at the 2004 World University Championship in Taiwan. He took home a gold medal with the Under-16 squad in the World Games in Verarcruz, Mexico, and a silver with the U-18 team in the 2003 Pan-Am Games in Curacao.
Cliff Pennington, SS, Sacramento Rivercats (Triple-A, A's)
Being a first-round pick (21st overall in 2005) carries a lot of expectations. For the first part of his pro career, it's safe to say Pennington struggled to meet them.
The Texas A&M product had a decent summer debut in the Midwest League after being drafted, but 2006 did not go so well. He missed time with a torn hamstring and he hit a combined .239 that season. Last year did go a bit better, as the shortstop hit .253 between the California and Texas Leagues. He did show excellent on-base skills, drawing 81 walks for a .346 OBP, that helped him get on base to use his speed for 17 stolen bases.
Now 23, Pennington has taken another step up in 2008. He began the year back in Midland, but got promoted to Triple-A after 50 games. Between the two levels, he's hit .262, but he's drawn 60 walks (against 51 K's) for a .376 OBP and he's gone 23-for-28 in stolen-base attempts. He's mixed in some second base to increase his versatility and at the very worst, looks like he could be a very valuable speedy utility man in short order.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.