Childs Play: Fantasy options from the minor leagues
Some readers might remember that until last summer, Childs Walker wrote a weekly column on fantasy sports for The Sun. That ritual died for the cause of reducing newsprint costs (tough business, newspapers). But with the Toy Department open and its aisles boundless, Childs is back with his insights, laments and odes to joy regarding pretend baseball and pretend football. For previous editions of Childs Play, click here.
It's too early to draw many conclusions about the major league season (except that you don't want to own any Orioles starter not named Guthrie or Uehara.) So let's talk about some of the minor leaguers that might come up and help your fantasy team this season.
If your league is like most of mine, a lot of these guys are already locked up on reserve rosters. But there are always a few who sneak to the big leagues unowned. And besides, it's always worth knowing how the prospects are playing, for trade purposes and such.
I might as well start with Baltimore baseball messiah Matt Wieters. We all expect Wieters to be a top-level fantasy catcher as soon as he reaches Camden Yards. I wouldn't worry that he's hitting .222 with no extra-base hits at Triple-A Norfolk. Even gods can look bad in small samples.
How about the Orioles' three elite pitching prospects? In looking for useful fantasy prospects, it's always important to find major league teams with obvious holes to fill. Weaknesses don't come much more glaring than the abcess at the back of the O's rotation. Chris Tillman (above) and Jake Arrieta pitched well in their first starts at Triple-A and Double-A, respectively. Brian Matusz posted a 4.66 ERA in his first two outings for Single-A Frederick. Despite their needs, I expect the Orioles to be cautious in reaching for any of the three. Given questions about Tillman's command and about Arrieta's secondary pitches, I'm not sure either would be a fantasy help in '09 anyway.
The most exciting guy at Triple-A right now is probably Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson. The 6-foot-6 Hanson throws 95 mph with three average-to-above complimentary pitches. He has fanned 17 in 10 innings, and the Braves might have a need given the possible retirement of Tom Glavine. Hanson could be good in a hurry, so if he's somehow available in your league, remedy the oversight.
Rangers starter Neftali Feliz is an equally exciting arm at Triple-A, but he's not quite as polished as Hanson and showed it by walking six in his first outing. Arlington is a lousy place to pitch, so if Feliz isn't totally ready, he could get hammered there. Still, if a guy throws 97 mph with an effortless delivery and rolled through as many levels as Feliz did in '08, he has to be in your long-range plans. His teammate and fellow prospect Derek Holland also struggled in his first start.
Among Triple-A hitters, Cleveland's Matt LaPorta could be a quick comer. LaPorta was perhaps the most advanced bat in the 2007 draft and has hit at every level. He's batting .400 now, and if I was a marginal starter such as Ben Francisco, I'd be looking over my shoulder. LaPorta could help AL-only fantasy teams right away.
You also have to like Andrew McCutchen's chances of pushing Nyjer Morgan aside in Pittsburgh. McCutchen hasn't quite translated great physical gifts into great performance, but he gets closer every year. He posted a .531 slugging average and two steals in the first week at Triple-A. If McCutchen hits the big leagues in '09, expect a low average with 15-homer power and 30-steal speed. That would be quite useful for NL-only teams.
Also, keep your eye on Houston's Brian Bogusevic, a converted pitcher who posted a .447 on-base percentage with power at Double-A last year. He's hitting just .207 so far, but the Astros need punch in their line-up and Bogusevic could help them and your NL fantasy team this year.
Detroit prospect Wilkin Ramirez was always a great athlete but never played baseball very well before last season. Now, the outfielder is hitting .310 with five steals at Triple-A. With nine strikeouts and two walks in 31 plate appearances, he seems a poor bet to hit for high averages in the bigs. But we don't sneeze at 20-20 power-speed packages, no matter what they're attached to.
The jump from Double-A to the majors is usually reserved for premium talents, and there are several out there this year. Shortstop Gordon Beckham was regarded as one of the most polished players in last year's draft and has looked too good for Double-A so far. I expect him to join the White Sox sometime this year, and you all don't have to be told to pounce on any middle infielder with power potential (especially in that park.)
Florida first-base prospect Logan Morrison is an extremely polished hitter for a 21-year-old. He will have to annihilate Double-A pitching to reach the majors this year, but a .556 OBP says so far, so good. Morrison doesn't yet have the power we expect from elite corner prospects, but he could at least be a James Loney or Conor Jackson type in the short term.
Brett Wallace can flat hit. Scouts wonder if the stocky Cardinals prospect will ever play an adequate third base. If he can, the Cardinals might push him up to fill in for the injured Troy Glaus. Wallace will probably never be a Glaus-style power threat but could be the first player from the 2008 draft to contend for a batting title. He has a .973 OPS so far in Double-A.
Finally, for you true prospect hounds, there's Stephen Strasburg. Sure, he's still at San Diego State and might not use his 100-mph heat in a professional game this year. But in eight starts, Strasburg is 7-0 with a 1.49 ERA and 107 strikeouts against 11 walks in 54 1/3 innings. Holy crap!