When I brainstorm ideas for these columns, I try to think of subjects I wanted to know more about as a fan. Well, minor league players have always ranked high on my list.
I heard about these phenoms thrilling scouts and fans at spring training. I snapped up their early baseball cards and made lists for future fantasy drafts and then ... nothing. Ken Griffey Jr. would jet off to San Bernardino, Calif., or Steve Avery to Greenville, S.C., and I wouldn't hear a peep about them for months.
Fifteen years later, the Internet has drastically eased prospect tracking. But from the questions I get and the ones I see in other forums, it seems fans still hunger for more. Fantasy players know the prospects' names and want to be poised when the next big thing rolls around. But they don't know where these guys are playing or how they're performing.
So I'm going to offer some one-stop shopping by checking periodically on top prospects from around the minors.
Delmon Young, Devil Rays: Young is the consensus top prospect in all of baseball and is widely expected to reach Tampa Bay sometime this season. He's off to a good start, batting .348 in 18 games for Triple-A Durham. Young has yet to show his vaunted power (no homers) and is still working on his plate discipline (four walks). But he has shown his versatility by stealing 12 bases in 13 attempts. At age 20, Young hasn't been daunted by any level. So expect him to be a power-speed contributor to fantasy teams by September.
B.J. Upton, Devil Rays: Durham must be a fun place to watch minor league ball these days because Upton is also off to an excellent start for the Bulls. He's batting .299 with two homers, is 10-for-12 on steal attempts and consistently shows the batting eye that Young sometimes lacks. But his defense at shortstop remains atrocious (eight errors). The Devil Rays may have to bite the bullet and move him to third base or outfield, because his bat could help them (and your fantasy team) right now.
Andy Marte, Indians: Marte was in the news this offseason as he was shipped to Boston in the Josh Beckett deal and then to Cleveland for Coco Crisp. The third baseman is batting .295 for Triple-A Buffalo. He hasn't homered but with seven doubles and nine walks, he has shown some of the hitting skills that made him a top prospect. If Marte heats up just a little, Aaron Boone will have trouble holding him off in Cleveland.
Alex Gordon, Royals: Gordon is another third baseman rushing toward the majors. Kansas City picked him second overall last year and he already seems too good for Double-A Wichita, where he's batting .324 with eight doubles, three homers and eight walks. He's even perfect on five steal attempts. Gordon seems like a well-rounded player in the Scott Rolen or David Wright mode. Expect him to be in the majors and be a useful fantasy pickup by September.
Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks: J.D.'s brother is off to a torrid start for Triple-A Tucson, hitting .306 with six homers. Drew was thought to be quite advanced when drafted in 2004 so don't be surprised if he's starting at shortstop for Arizona sometime this summer. He would offer decent pop right away.
Howie Kendrick, Angels: The future batting champion is coming around. Kendrick is a .359 career hitter and is batting .386 so far for Triple-A Salt Lake City. The second baseman also has line-drive power and decent speed, though he could stand to take a few more walks. Adam Kennedy is off to a good start for the Angels, but Kendrick might be ready to outhit him and be an instantly useful fantasy contributor.
Brandon Wood, Angels: Wood is the shortstop in the Angels' incredible batch of infield prospects. He had a ridiculous 101 extra-base hits last season, dominated the Arizona Fall League and has homered four times in his first 17 games for Double-A Arkansas. On the downside, Wood has struck out a whopping 26 times. He also may move to third base because Orlando Cabrera is signed through 2008. But infielders with this kind of power are scarce so be ready to get him next season.
Lastings Milledge, Mets: Milledge has translated great athletic ability into great performance for Triple-A Norfolk, where he has an on-base percentage above .500. He has only one home run, and his speed might prove more useful than his power for fantasy purposes.
Chad Billingsley, Dodgers: Many regard Billingsley as the top pitching prospect in the minors and he's showing why with a 2-0 record, 2.21 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings for Triple-A Las Vegas. He will reach the Dodgers this year, and with a cavernous home park to protect him, could be good immediately.
Jon Lester, Red Sox: This power left-hander has been among the early disappointments of 2006, posting an 8.64 ERA with six walks and 10 hits allowed in 8 1/3 innings. He's still striking batters out but certainly doesn't look ready to help Boston.
Mike Pelfrey, Mets: Pelfrey was rated the most advanced starter in last year's draft. After signing late, he's dominating at Single-A St. Lucie with a 1.13 ERA, 18 strikeouts and one walk in three starts. He could roll through three levels and help the Mets in September or be a hot pick-up next spring.