When prospecting for talent, locate gems from early call-ups

On Fantasy Sports

Commentary

June 21, 2007|By Childs Walker

In 2005, hard-core baseball fans read pitcher Felix Hernandez's minor league box scores like signposts on the road to paradise. In 2002, Mark Prior was the object of similar attention.

We can go all the way back to Willie Mays bashing pitches for Triple-A Minneapolis in 1951 to observe the phenomenon.

Part of the fun in any real or fantasy baseball season comes from anticipating the arrival of elite prospects.

But that joy has faded quicker this year than in any I can remember. Here we are in the third week of June, and virtually every major prospect who was considered close to reaching the big leagues at the end of spring training has been called up.

Some, such as Houston Astros outfielder Hunter Pence and the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun, have become key cogs on teams with playoff dreams. New York Yankees starter Philip Hughes seemed on the way to that status until injuries derailed him.

Others, such as Kansas City Royals slugger Billy Butler and Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Andy LaRoche, have come up and gone back down.

It can be hard to get a bead on how these guys have performed in this swirl of comings and goings, but let's try to cut through the chaos.

Pence is so far the undisputed king of the in-season call-ups. He dominated in spring training and hasn't missed a beat since the Astros promoted him, batting .344 with six homers, 30 RBIs and five steals in 46 games. But there are reasons to be cautious.

First, Pence is 24, so he might be closer to his peak than the younger players near the top of most prospect lists. Second, he's struck out 38 times and walked only six, so he's not the most disciplined hitter. Third, he's unlikely to maintain his .407 average on balls in play.

Scouts and statheads have generally agreed that Pence will settle in as a .280-.300 hitter with 20-25 homer power and maybe 10 steals a year. That's what I expect despite his torrid start.

Braun might have a higher ceiling as a power hitter, but questions about his defense at third base kept him down a bit longer than Pence. He's also had little trouble adjusting to big league pitching, but like Pence, he strikes out frequently without walking much. That was the case in the minors, as well.

Braun should continue to be a fine option this year, keeping his average around .280 with solid pop for his position, but he might lack the superstar promise of a David Wright or Alex Gordon.

Pitching prospects tend to get the most attention because it's hard to find a team that couldn't use another starter. Certainly, the Yankees were desperate when they called up Hughes, who was widely considered the most polished pitching prospect in the game.

The tall right-hander struggled in his first start but dazzled with 6 1/3 no-hit innings in his second. A strained hamstring and sprained ankle could keep him out until late summer, but get Hughes in your lineup as soon as he's available because his combination of stuff and command is rare.

If Hughes wasn't baseball's No. 1 pitching prospect, the Cincinnati Reds' Homer Bailey was. The Texan has the sturdy build and 98-mph fastball that scream ace. Bailey is 2-0 with a 4.00 ERA in three starts for the Reds.

But his seven strikeouts and 11 walks in 18 innings are much less impressive, so I think he might frustrate fantasy owners with inconsistency. He'll certainly need better control to become an elite starter.

The Brewers' Yovani Gallardo and the San Francisco Giants' Tim Lincecum had more impressive minor league statistics than Bailey. I was pumped for Lincecum's arrival because of his insane strikeout rates at Triple-A, and he had four excellent starts in May. But he has struggled lately, walking too many hitters and failing to deceive them with his unorthodox delivery.

I still think he'll be fine, but he might be a guy like Hideo Nomo, whose dominance waned once hitters got used to his style. I'd keep him on the bench for now.

Gallardo also posted awesome strikeout numbers in the minors and began his big league career with a solid 6 1/3 innings against the Giants on Monday. He's generally ranked below Hughes, Bailey and Lincecum, but if I had to pick one for the rest of this year, I might take Gallardo.

The Detroit Tigers' Andrew Miller was thought to be the most talented player in last year's draft, and he's put up three decent starts in the past month. Few pitchers can walk a batter every two innings and remain effective, but Miller didn't have control problems at Double-A so maybe he'll come around. He's certainly intriguing enough to start for most American League-only teams.

Among the hitters, I expect Butler to be outstanding now that the Royals are giving him another chance. Ignore the .243 average he posted in 10 May games and get him into your lineup immediately in AL leagues. He has hit for power and average at every level.

LaRoche might need another year to get comfortable, but I'm happy to see his Dodgers teammate, Matt Kemp, back in the majors. Kemp isn't the most polished hitter, but he can help fantasy teams right away as a guy who might hit 10 homers and steal 15 bases the rest of the way.

I've been disappointed in the Toronto Blue Jays' Adam Lind, who might be squandering the opportunity afforded him by Reed Johnson's injury. That .279 on-base percentage won't cut it, though he has a strong enough track record to deserve our patience.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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