Prospect checkup could help teams' health

The Baltimore Sun

Clay Buchholz must be getting lonely.

As we entered the 2007 season, the minor leagues seemed sure to be dominated by a passel of young pitchers who popped scouts' eyes with their stuff and warmed analysts' hearts with their strikeout-to-walk ratios.

Phil Hughes, Homer Bailey, Tim Lincecum, Yovani Gallardo. We were supposed to look forward to them all summer, growing a little more excited with each gem tossed at Triple-A.

Well, this year, they gave us dessert the minute we walked in the door. These pitchers were so good and the rotations of their parent clubs so thin that all hit the majors before the All-Star break. Buchholz, a Boston Red Sox right-hander who didn't receive as much preseason hype as the other four, is one of the few minor league super hurlers left to tantalize our fantasy pallets.

But there are always minor leaguers worth monitoring. Many of them will be up by Sept. 1. Some will be ready to help your fantasy team through the stretch drive. So here's your periodic prospect checkup:

Buchholz: He became the prospect of the moment with a 1.77 ERA and 116 strikeouts against only 22 walks in 86 2/3 innings at Double-A Portland. That's the perfect combination of power and command we look for in elite pitchers. Buchholz reaches the mid-90s with his fastball and mixes in a superb changeup for a young pitcher. He struggled a bit in his first Triple-A start, and there's no guarantee he'll dominate if the Red Sox call him up in September, but you definitely want him when he arrives.

Adam Miller: The Cleveland Indians right-hander pitched as well as expected before he went on the disabled list with a finger injury in May. He has been awful since he returned in June, allowing 19 base runners and 13 runs in his past seven innings. Proceed with caution if he's called up this year.

Adam Jones: The Seattle Mariners might soon recall this outfielder, who has pounded 23 homers for Triple-A Tacoma. Jones struggled in the majors last season and still doesn't show great plate discipline, but he's only 21 and has improved his stock each of the past three seasons. I know I want him on my American League-only team when he's called up.

Luke Hochevar: The No. 1 overall pick from last year has been hard to read. You have to like the 101 strikeouts against 27 walks in 99 innings at Double-A and Triple-A. On the other hand, the Kansas City Royals prospect has been surprisingly easy to hit, and the 3-7 record and 4.91 ERA look disturbing on the surface. Wichita is a tough place to pitch, so I cut him some slack, but I don't think he'll be ready to help your fantasy team this year.

Joba Chamberlain: Many draftniks thought this stocky right-hander was a bargain for the New York Yankees in last year's supplemental first round. They were right. Chamberlain throws a big fastball that has produced a whopping 108 strikeouts in 74 2/3 innings at two levels. Better still (or worse if you're an Orioles fan), he has dominated more at Double-A than he did at Single-A. Pair him with Hughes (though probably not until next year) and the Yankees might soon have the best young pitching duo in the game.

Daric Barton: This Oakland Athletics first baseman was thought to be among the most polished hitters in the minors entering last year, but fell off the map with a poor showing. He's back with a .315 average and .404 on-base percentage this season. Barton might reach the majors soon, but be warned: He'll probably never hit for the kind of power you want from a frontline fantasy first baseman.

Rick Ankiel: Remember him? The pitching phenom of 1999 is the slugging outfielder of 2007. Ankiel's return to the St. Louis Cardinals probably will draw a lot of hype because it's a great story. And you have to like his 26 homers in 312 Triple-A at-bats. But he strikes out a lot, doesn't walk much and probably won't hit for a high enough average to be a big league or fantasy regular. I'm rooting for him, though.

Andrew McCutchen: After his brilliant spring training, the Pirates were thinking about bringing him to Pittsburgh. His .242 average and paltry power at Double-A make it clear he's not ready. Frankly, if he can't show more pop or make better contact, he might never make it as more than a fringe outfielder.

Ian Stewart: I always hear talk about how the Colorado Rockies will deal Garrett Atkins to make room for Stewart. I don't get it. Colorado Springs is a great place to hit, yet he's slugging only .465. He has never regained his 2004 form and doesn't look like a future star. But if he becomes a regular in Colorado, he is worth a roster spot in National League-only fantasy leagues.

Joey Votto: This Cincinnati Reds first baseman is one of the most advanced hitters in the minors, and he'll probably get on base at a decent clip when he reaches the majors. Like Barton, however, he might not hit with the power we expect from the best first basemen. So get him on your team, but don't expect superstardom.

Justin Upton: Let's end on a high note. Upton disappointed many by loafing through 2006, but he has compensated by destroying the minors this year. The 19-year-old runs, hits for average and shocked scouts with his bat speed and power at the Futures Game. He's the rare player, like Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, who might be able to shoot from Single-A to holding his own for the Arizona Diamondbacks in one year.

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