I know that some of you are wondering what the Minors -- outside of the guys who will be Rookie of the Year candidates this season -- has to do with Fantasy success in 2007. Simply put, you can never be too prepared. Knowing what the future may have in store is a key to winning, regardless of what Fantasy league you're in.
So on this Fantasy Opening Day 2007, we'll take a look at both the short- and long-term future. Once again, the Exchange will have its usual set of categories: In the bigs -- prospects making their first splash on the big stage; A phone call away -- Minor Leaguers who are ready, but are just waiting for that first opportunity; A year away -- players who'll likely be at the Double-A level and won't likely make an impact until 2008; and, Down the road -- prospects who are a few years away from reaching the bigs, but who should be on your radar screen if you want to achieve long-term success.
For this Opening Day piece and in the interest of continuity, we'll use the same categories to take a look at the 2007 season as Spring Training is now in full bloom. Remember, I can't mention everyone in this column, so be sure to check out the Exchange every week to keep up on life around the Minors.
In the bigs
The time for Delmon Young has finally arrived. Of course, if you don't know all about him by now, you're going to need a lot more guidance than this column can provide. But look for Young to keep a good head on his shoulders all year and put up solid all-around numbers. He's a rook worth having in all leagues of all shapes and sizes. While we're talking about five-tool outfielders named Young, lets shoot over to the National League West. While Chris Young may not have the same amount of hype that Delmon (no relation) has, that doesn't mean you should pass on him. He's Arizona's center fielder, and I think he's good for at least 15 homers and 15 steals this season, though you may take a little hit with the batting average right away.
It always seems like catching is in short supply at every Fantasy draft. So why not take a shot with a couple of prospects? Joining Young in Arizona should be Miguel Montero. The plan is to have Montero split time with Chris Snyder behind the plate, but Montero is a left-handed hitter, so he'll get most of the time anyway. And it says here that he'll end up the No. 1 catcher before long. Montero's a good No. 2 catcher in mixed leagues and a certainty for NL-only types. You can always head to Coors Field to find another catcher if Montero doesn't float your boat. Even with the addition of vet Javy Lopez, Chris Iannetta is a guy you'll want to keep your eye on. I think he'll pick up at least 300 at-bats this season, enough to at least have an impact in NL-only leagues. He's got a career .303 average and .515 slugging percentage in the Minors, so if he starts getting more playing time, everyone will want him.
While you're in Colorado, pick up Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop. He's as steady as there is and should help out anyone in any league right away. Don't go nuts with projections, but there will be some pop in the middle infield from Tulowitzki. He's the best of the middle infielders who'll have a job almost definitely to start the season.
On the mound, there are some high-profile names I'll get to in a bit. But looking at guys who will likely start the season in the bigs, Matt Garza heads the list. Throw out the window what he did in Minnesota late last year. He was totally out of gas. Now refreshed, Garza won't dominate as much as he did in the Minors, but you should get some nice K's and WHIP from him right away. The Giants' Jonathan Sanchez will also have a big-league job out of camp this spring, but it's unclear in what role. If he wins the No. 5 starter spot -- and I'd take him over Russ Ortiz seven days a week and twice on Sunday -- he's a nice sleeper pick in most leagues. If he's a bullpen guy, Sanchez is someone to watch out for when he does return to the rotation.
A phone call away
With all due respect to the pitchers listed above, this is where the true excitement lies. By now, you've probably heard plenty about the Reds' Homer Bailey and the Yankees' Phillip Hughes. It's hard to remember when there was a tandem of young pitching prospects knocking on the door simultaneously. Both teams want their future aces to start the year in Triple-A, and both pitchers will likely make that decision very difficult. Bailey has more pure power; Hughes the better command. Even if they both have to spend some time in the International League, having both of them will pay some dividends in 2007. If you were going to pick one to get there sooner, I'd go with Bailey just because of opportunity. Throw in terrific prospects like the Mets' Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber, the Indians' Adam Miller, the Devil Rays' Jeff Niemann, the Giants' Tim Lincecum and the Brewers' Yovani Gallardo, and you've got perhaps the best bumper crop of on-the-rise pitching stars that we've ever seen.
Speaking of the Brewers, let's move over to third base, where there's almost as many prospects to keep an eye on. Like with the pitchers, some of these players will have a shot to win a job this spring, others will get there sooner rather than later. In Milwaukee, don't be shocked if Ryan Braun forces the team's hand earlier than expected. With Corey Koskie's future very much in question, Milwaukee will be keeping the position warm for Braun, who went 20-20 (homers-steals) in '06 and has at least that much potential as a big leaguer. With all due respect to Tony Graffanino and Craig Counsell, I'd rather see Braun at third.
What exactly are the Royals going to do? Alex Gordon is ready, but Mark Teahen certainly deserves to stay put. That being said, they'll make room for Gordon and his bat whenever they feel it right. That could be the beginning of April, with Teahen moving to the outfield, or it could be after Gordon gets a month or two at Triple-A Omaha. Over in Los Angeles, Andy LaRoche could do the same thing. Sure, Wilson Betemit's there, but how many of you think that he's the answer. LaRoche has some serious power potential and a good spring could put him in the lineup on Opening Day. If not, he'll tear up Triple-A to force the Dodgers to call him up. While you're making third-baseman lists, add the Devil Rays' Evan Longoria to the short list. There's a logjam, and he could end up not making a true impact until 2008, but you don't want to be caught napping if Longoria keeps exceeding expectations. And let's throw the Angels' Brandon Wood into this mix. He's still at shortstop, but he's going to have to move if he wants to play in the bigs while Orlando Cabrera is still there.
A year away
As I do each year, I'll preface this section with the saying that prospects, especially at the Double-A level, can often accelerate their timetables. That means players listed here could easily see the big leagues in 2007, ahead of "schedule." It may not seem fair for the Diamondbacks to have more on the way, but they do. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez should be on everyone's watch list. They've got plenty of outfielders, so the D-backs don't need to rush him, but Gonzalez will be a prototypical right fielder with the power numbers to boot. If he continues to develop as expected, a September callup could be in the cards.
The same could be said for the Pirates center-field prospect Andrew McCutchen. He pushed up his ETA by double-jumping to Double-A and excelling late last year. McCutchen will start the year in Double-A again, showing speed, an advanced hitting approach and surprising pop. He should be pushing Chris Duffy for a job by Opening Day 2008. Also in the Pittsburgh system, and maybe I'm biased because I live in the Iron City, but I think this is the year that catcher Neil Walker puts it all together. He may need a year at each level, meaning he's more of a 2009 guy, but he's a switch-hitter with pop from both sides who's showing he can stay behind the plate.
On the mound, the Dodgers have another young gun on the way in the form of lefty Scott Elbert. He'll refine his command during this season and I wouldn't put it past Elbert to contribute this year. Even if it's next year, this is a guy who misses a ton of bats (173 K's in 146 innings) and even when hitters do make contact, they don't do much (.190 batting average against). From the right side, Eric Hurley is now the Rangers' top pitching prospect. He'll probably begin the year at Double-A, but he could leapfrog some other arms if he continues to put it all together.
Down the road
As I've been writing this, I keep thinking of names that I'm leaving out, making me more excited for the start of the Futures Exchange every week. I've gone on enough already, so I'll just throw a few more names at you for guys who are a couple of years away. In terms of bats, Yankees and Mets fans already probably know about Jose Tabata and Fernando Martinez. It should be exciting to see who gets to New York first and who has the greater impact.
While McCutchen has jumped slightly ahead of his fellow 2005 draftees, Cameron Maybin, Jay Bruce, Colby Rasmus and Justin Upton should certainly not be forgotten and all could easily move up a category before long. On the mound, keep track of the Dodgers' 2006 first-rounder Clayton Kershaw, who should be another fast-moving high school lefty, the Red Sox's Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden, the Orioles' Brandon Erbe and the Devil Rays' Jacob McGee and Jeremy Hellickson.