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March 16, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Beyond Top Ten Prospects

by Peter Schoenke

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If you are in a very deep league, or a league with minor league reserve spots, there's a certain type of player you look for late in your draft that doesn't appear on most readily available cheatsheets. I'm not talking about the top prospects, who are already pretty well-known (such as Kevin Goldstein's Top 100 or Rotowire's Top 100). No, when those guys are off the board, it's often best to get guys with a high likelihood of playing, even if they have low upside.

I'm in two leagues that are not so deep (a 10-team AL non-keeper league, for example) but have reserve spots for players with 10 or fewer major league games. It's a way for leagues of that type to allow members to draft some longshots without expending a useful roster spot on them. It also gives you the ability to brag about taking a player early in his career. In this format, it's especially useful to find a player who will see time in the majors and can plug a hole to save you free agent money. The less desirable alternatve is to take a younger prospect who has a high upside, but has little hope of reaching the majors in 2007. Sometimes these type of players turn up a few winners. Last year, my list of these guys had Dan Uggla, Andre Ethier, and Rich Hill.

After the top prospects are gone, who are the guys most likely to get called up to the majors? Here's a list of players who likely qualify as minor leaguers in most formats who have a high chance of getting playing time early in the season, even if some have low upside. Any player on Rotowire's Top 100 prospects list isn't included below. These players have played in 10 or fewer games in the majors, unless otherwise noted. I've ranked them in order by highest upside for 2007.

First, let's get all the Japanese players out of the way. They may qualify as minor leaguers in many leagues, since they haven't played any major league games yet. Daisuke Matsuzaka is obviously going to be taken in every league; Kei Igawa and Akinori Iwamura should be as well. But there are a few other foreign imports who may qualify. I've listed those below.

  • Michael Bourn, Phillies OF (17 career MLB games): He'll be Philadelphia's fourth outfielder this season, and given Aaron Rowand's injury history, it's not hard seeing him end up with 200 or more at bats. He offers speed, as his 45 minor league steals last season suggest. He's also hitting .345 so far this spring.

  • Larry Broadway, Nationals 1B: He could open the season as the starter at first base with Nick Johnson hurt. While a .288/.353/.455 line at Triple-A last season with 15 home runs doesn't scream "superstar," he could be productive if given regular at-bats.

  • Josh Hamilton, Reds OF: He's been the breakout star of Spring Training so far. The 1999 No. 1 overall pick by Tampa Bay is getting a fresh start with the Reds after being taken in the Rule 5 draft. After he served a two-year suspension for violating the league's drug policy, Hamilton's 2006 season was derailed by a knee injury. So far this spring, Hamilton is hitting .538/.600/.808 in 26 ABs, and it's pretty clear that he's either going to make the Opening Day roster, or that the Reds will find a way to make a trade with the Devil Rays so that they can retain his rights.

  • Kory Casto, Nationals OF: He had his second straight 20+ homers, 80+ walks campaign at Double-A last season, and could figure into the Washington outfield mix at some point this season. He's also taken grounders at first base this spring. He might be best off in a platoon setup in the long run after hitting just .189 against lefties but .303 against right-handers last year.

  • Hideki Okajima, Red Sox LHP: The Japanese import will likely be a lefty specialist in the Boston bullpen, but he could pay off with some saves in light of the club's wide-open closer job. If not the closer, he could have solid value as a set-up man.

  • Shawn Hill, Nationals RHP: If he's healhty, he'll likely open the season with a spot in the Nats' rotation. He's not a bad sleeper considering his 32/5 K/BB ratio at Double-A last season. However, his health remains an issue after some fallout from 2005 elbow surgery, and he's already had some soreness this spring, and he'll be playing for what will probably be the worst team in baseball.

  • Matt Lindstrom, Marlins RHP: His fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the offseason during Puerto Rican Winter League action, and he could be the leading candidate for the closer role if Taylor Tankersley opens the season on the DL with a sore shoulder.

  • Henry Owens, Marlins RHP: Another Marlins reliever who throws hard. He's also a potential closer with Taylor Tankersley hurt.

  • Alejandro De Aza, Marlins OF: A pick from the Dodgers in the Triple-A portion of the 2004 Rule 5 Draft, he's impressed both his teammates and the Florida coaching staff with his speed and athleticism this spring. With Alex Sanchez, Eric Reed, and Reggie Abercrombie all struggling, De Aza is a viable longshot to win the starting job in center field this spring.

  • Alexi Casilla, Twins 2B: He appears on some top-100 prospect rankings out there, so he may not fit on this list. Still, he could provide fantasy value in 2007, as he could make Minnesota's roster as a utility player. He offers speed, having stolen 50 bases in the minors last season, and he also has strong on-base skills (.389 OBP in the minors last year). If anything happens to Luis Castillo, Casilla may be the player who gets called up from Triple-A to start at second base. Longer-term, he could be the starter at second base for the Twins in 2008.

  • Devern Hansack, Red Sox RHP: Looking for a dark horse in the wide-open Boston closer race? Hansack struck out 124 batters in 132 1/3 innings while walking just 36 at Double-A last season.

  • Jeff Mathis, Angels C (28 career MLB games): He was on RotoWire's top 100 prospect list last year, but struggled to hold down the starting job in the majors. He'll likely start the season at Triple-A, but it's not hard to see him winning the starting job with the Angels at some point this summer.

  • Hayden Penn, Orioles RHP (14 career MLB games): Penn posted a 2.26 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and a 85/27 K/BB ratio in 14 starts for Triple-A Ottawa last season at the tender age of 21. He struggled once called up to the majors (15.10 ERA in six starts), an even worse performance than his eight-start stint in 2005. He could make the bullpen this spring, but if not, it seems likely he'll get another shot at the rotation with the likes of Jaret Wright ahead of him.

  • Nick Masset, White Sox RHP: The forgotten player in the Brandon McCarthy-John Danks trade, Massett is a dark horse for the fifth starter job this spring.

  • Micah Owings, Diamondbacks RHP: Arizona's third-round pick in 2004 may be the organization's best pitching prospect. He's got an outside shot at the fifth starter's job this spring.

  • Charlie Haeger, White Sox RHP: The knuckleballer is a candidate for the fifth starter's job this spring; last year he walked over four batters per nine innings, but posted a 3.07 ERA with decent strikeout rates. Who knows how to project knuckleballers anyway?

  • Yunel Escobar, Braves SS: While Escobar hasn't hit for much power in his minor league career, he made a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League (hitting .407/.361/.346), and is making a strong impression this spring, hitting over .400 through the first two weeks. He could win a utility infielder role to start the season, and could potentially wind up starting games at second base if Kelly Johnson falters.

  • Luis Cruz, Padres 2B/SS: Marcus Giles and shortstop Khalil Greene have missed around 60 games combined per season over the last three years due to various injuries, so Cruz could get a shot at some point. He can play both middle infield spots and third base well, so he may get called up as a utility player. He's got surprising power (12 homers and 38 doubles at Double-A Mobile in 2006), but needs to improve his plate discipline (.301 OBP last year, .284 career).

  • Scott Moore, Cubs 3B (16 career MLB games): He'll need Aramis Ramirez to get hurt to have a real shot, but Moore hit 22 homers at Double-A last year, and held his own in a September call-up.

  • Kevin Melillo, Athletics 2B: Considering that he was on RotoWire's top 100 prospect list in 2006, his stock has dropped a bit, but he still finished with a .280 AVG, 12 homers, and 14 stolen bases last season at Double-A Midland. A hot start to the season could make him the best minor league option if injuries hit the Oakland infield.

  • J.D. Durbin, Twins RHP: The former top pitching prospect for the Twins has re-emerged this spring. After almost making the major league roster out of spring training in 2005, Durbin went into a mental and physical tailspin that season, and followed it up with a bad 2006 spring training. He rebounded during the regular season by striking out nearly a batter per inning, but in July a nerve problem in his right biceps ended his season. He's out of minor league options, so he could make the 25-man roster in the bullpen. It's plausible he could get an eventual shot in an unstable rotation.

  • Javier Herrera, Athletics OF: Herrera was on many top prospect lists last season, but missed 2006 after Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. He hit .275/.374/.444 as a 20-year old at Low-A Kane County in 2005, but with Oakland thin in the outfield, he could get a look this year.

  • Joey Devine, Braves RHP (15 career MLB games): Devine struggled with a degenerative disc in his back last season, but has looked healthy this spring. The former "closer of the future" for the Braves could still make Atlanta this season as a set-up man; he still has a lot of potential given his strong college and minor league strikeout totals.

  • Shane Youman, Pirates LHP: He could win a job in Pittsburgh's bullpen, or perhaps even wind up as the fifth starter. There's not a ton of upside, but he did post a decent 64/20 K/BB ratio at Double-A last season (although just 19/10 at Triple-A).

  • Alejandro Machado, Twins SS: The Rule 5 pick could make the Twins as a utility infielder if he can overcome a spring shoulder injury. He offers some speed potential.

  • Troy Cate, Cardinals LHP: He's 26 years old and hasn't been regarded as a top prospect, but after posting a 1.21 ERA with a 24/9 K/BB ratio in the Mexican Winter League, he became a sleeper candidate to make it to the big league bullpen. He got sent to the minors a few days ago, but could get a call-up if he begins the season strong. Cate had a nice 78/19 K/BB ratio in the minors last season even, although he was a bit old for the competition at High-A and Double-A.

  • Masumi Kuwata, Pirates RHP: The 38-year-old Japanese pitcher is long past his prime, but he was the Japanese League MVP in 1994 and the Sawamura Award winner (Japan's Cy Young) in 1987. Low upside, but almost any pitcher has a shot to make the roster in Pittsburgh.

  • Juan Miranda, Yankees OF: The Cuban defector signed a four-year, $2 million contract with the Yankees this past winter. His age is listed as 23, but there's speculation he's closer to 25. According to sources within the Yankee organization, Miranda batted .303 with 27 homers, 73 walks and 87 strikeouts for Pinar Del Rio in Cuba from 2002-04. He could either rise quickly through the system (think Kendry Morales), or else be a much older player who's already peaked. A true wild card, he's probably a longshot to reach the majors in 2007 considering that he's with the Yankees.

  • Shinji Mori, Devil Rays RHP: Mori was a potential closer for the Devil Rays last season, but missed the entire year due to a torn labrum. He could miss the entire season again (he's trying to rehab the shoulder instead of having it operated on), so he's a longshot, but he may still qualify as a minor leaguer in your league.

Peter Schoenke is the President of Rotowire. He can be reached here.

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