If your fantasy team is struggling like mine is - thanks, Jon Lester! - you’re probably busy scouring the waiver wire or trying to concoct a blockbuster trade that will help it bust out of its slump. After all, you’re stuck with this squad for the next four-plus months - better make the best of it, right? Unfortunately, both of those quick-fix methods have inherent flaws: Players that are still on the waiver wire near the end of May are usually there for a reason, and you generally only get what you give in trades. Don’t fret though, because you might find the solution to your fantasy squad’s problems in the same place that big league teams often find the solutions to theirs.
It’s not always easy to tell which minor leaguers will be able to step right into the bigs and produce, and the list of prospects I’ve picked up and then dropped after a woeful first week or two is pretty long. But every year, I unearth a gem or two. Pablo Sandoval found himself starting at first base for me during championship week last year after terrorizing minor league hurlers to the tune of a .350 average and 20 homers in 112 games. Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy contributed much-needed wins during my playoff run in 2007 after Tim Lincecum helped me get there. Rich Hill, untouchable at Triple-A Iowa, came up and K’d his way to must-start status during my title run in 2006. 19-year-old Felix Hernandez was money for me during crunch time in 2005, and - believe it or not - so was Zach Duke.
But like Mark McGwire famously said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Here are my top 10 minor leaguers most likely to provide fantasy owners with the boost they so desperately need this summer.
1. Matt Wieters, Catcher, Orioles
The 2007 No. 5 overall pick isn’t dominating Triple-A the way he did advanced Class A and Double-A last year, but he’s held his own with a .282 average, four homers and 21 RBI for the Norfolk Tides. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound backstop has outstanding plate discipline for a second-year pro, with 17 walks offsetting his 23 strikeouts, and is no slouch behind the dish, either, having erased 40 percent of attempted base stealers last season. With Gregg Zaun hitting just .194 and Chad Moeller just a tick better at .195, it likely won’t be long before Wieters is playing his home games at Camden Yards. Wieters could settle in as a top-five catcher in the second half if he plays to his potential.
2. Tommy Hanson, Starting Pitcher, Braves
Hanson, one of the Braves’ best finds in the now-defunct draft-and-follow process, went from a good prospect to an elite prospect in 2008 by dominating advanced Class A, Double-A and the usually hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound righty made a good case for a rotation spot by posting a 4.08 ERA and 18-to-6 K-to-walk ratio in spring training but was assigned to the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves for more seasoning. The 22-year-old took the temporary setback in stride and is outclassing the competition with a 1.70 ERA and 64-to-14 K-to-walk ratio in 47 2/3 innings. Given Hanson’s success and the fact that the Braves are right in the thick of things in the competitive National League East, International League hitters probably won’t have to suffer much longer.
3. David Price, Starting Pitcher, Rays
The 2007 No. 1 overall pick made a great first impression last year by posting a 1.93 ERA in five regular-season games and following it up with a 1.59 mark in the postseason. The offseason trade of Edwin Jackson to the Tigers appeared to open up a rotation spot for Price, but the Rays farmed him out to the Triple-A Durham Bulls in a cost-saving maneuver. Command issues (18 walks in 34 1/3 innings) have prevented the 6-foot-6 lefty from dominating the minor league competition as expected this year, but he got on track in his last start by tossing five hitless innings and fanning nine. The Rays can’t afford to fall too far behind the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Yankees in the A.L. East, so expect a promotion for the 23-year-old before the All-Star break.
4. Chris Tillman, Starting Pitcher, Orioles
Tillman, a 21-year-old righty acquired from the Mariners in the Erik Bedard deal, exceeded expectations last season by going 11-4 with a 3.18 ERA and 154-to-65 K-to-walk ratio against older competition in Double-A. The Orioles resisted the temptation to bring him up late in the season because of his age and the fact that his Bowie Baysox made the Eastern League playoffs, but if he keeps dealing for the Triple-A Norfolk Tides and the big league rotation continues to struggle, it won’t be long before he gets the call. A perceived lack of command was Tillman’s biggest drawback entering this season, but he’s squashed those concerns by issuing just 13 free passes in his first 36 innings. Tillman’s 5-0 record, 2.25 ERA and 42 K’s suggest he needs a greater challenge than International League hitters are offering.
5. Clay Buchholz, Starting Pitcher, Red Sox
Buchholz, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound righty, tantalized Red Sox Nation in his 2007 debut, posting a 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 innings and even pitching a no-hitter against the Orioles as a 22-year-old. After flopping in 2008 with a 2-9 record and 6.75 ERA in 15 starts, Buchholz is back on track this season with the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox. International League hitters have proved no match for the 24-year-old, who is 2-0 with a 1.60 ERA and 42-to-12 K-to-walk ratio in his first 39 1/3 innings. Buchholz has five veteran starters blocking his path back to the Sox rotation, but expect him to take the job and run with it when injury or ineffectiveness presents him with an opportunity.
6. Justin Smoak, First Baseman, Rangers
Smoak, the 11th overall pick in the 2008 draft, starred at the University of South Carolina and has had no trouble whatsoever adjusting to pro pitching. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound first baseman went straight to Class A after signing and hit .304 with three homers in 56 at bats for the Clinton Lumber Kings. Promoted to Double-A this season, Smoak has responded with a .331 average, six home runs, 24 RBI and an impressive 26-to-30 K-to-walk ratio in his first 37 games for the Frisco RoughRiders. Smoak faced top-notch competition in the Southeastern Conference and he’s been pushed aggressively through the minor league ranks so far, so don’t be surprised if the Rangers get tired of watching Chris Davis strike out in every other at bat and give him a shot this summer.
7. Fernando Martinez, Outfielder, Mets
Martinez has been a fixture at the top of prospect lists for years, but it has always been more because of his potential than his production. However, it appears 2009 might be the 6-foot-1, 190-pound outfielder’s long-awaited breakout year. Through 37 games with the Buffalo Bisons, Martinez is hitting .287 with 23 RBI, and his seven home runs are just one fewer than he hit all of last year. He’s still only 20 years old, but he already has three minor league seasons under his belt and the Mets have a history of challenging the precocious Dominican. They also have a win-now mentality every year, and if they believe Martinez will help them in their quest for a World Championship, they won’t hesitate to make room for him.
8. Madison Bumgarner, Starting Pitcher, Giants
Minor league hitters have been hopeless against Bumgarner from the day he threw his first professional pitch for the Class A Augusta GreenJackets last April. The Giants thought the 6-foot-4 lefty might need some fine-tuning when they drafted him out of a North Carolina high school with the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft, but Bumgarner made it clear that wasn’t the case by going 15-3 with an absurd 1.46 ERA in 24 starts last season. Advanced Class A hitters didn’t offer any more of a challenge for the 19-year-old, who went 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA in five starts for the San Jose Giants to earn a promotion to the Double-A Connecticut Defenders. Double-A hitters can’t stop the Bumgarner Express, either - he’s 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA and 11 K’s in 12 innings. Bumgarner’s search for some actual competition may lead him to San Francisco sooner than anyone could have expected.
9. Gordon Beckham, Shortstop, White Sox
The No. 8 pick in the 2008 draft made a strong case to be the White Sox’ Opening Day second baseman by hitting .325 with a pair of homers in 37 spring training at bats, but Ozzie Guillen, Kenny Williams & Co. decided against rushing him to the majors and forcing him to make a position switch after just 58 Class A at bats. The 6-foot, 185-pound Beckham has played mostly shortstop for the Double-A Birmingham Barons thus far this season and has held his own with a .272 average, .349 on-base percentage, two homers and 14 RBI, but those numbers don’t even hint at his offensive potential. Guillen has repeatedly said the White Sox won’t rush the 22-year-old, but if Alexei Ramirez and Chris Getz continue to underwhelm, they may be left with no other choice if they hope to compete in the A.L. Central.
10. Michael Bowden, Starting Pitcher, Red Sox
Bowden, a 2005 supplemental first-round pick, has experienced success at every minor league level and fared well in a pair of big league cameos, winning his only Major League start last year and tossing a pair of scoreless innings so far this year. His 0.86 ERA through seven starts for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox suggests that no further seasoning is necessary, but while he’d probably be in the rotation of about 25 teams right now, the contending Red Sox aren’t one of them. Like Buchholz, Bowden will have to wait for an opportunity, but he’s a good bet to make the most of it when it comes.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.