Prospecting for gold has become a significant part of the fantasy baseball game. There are dozens of minor leaguers who have promising big league futures, but only a fraction of them have the skills to make an immediate impact in the majors. Which minor league players should you target for this year, and which should be on your fantasy baseball keeper league radar?
Chris Carter, Oakland Athletics
Carter is arguably the finest power-hitting prospect in the minors. Since starting pro ball in the middle of 2005, the 22-year-old has clouted 111 home runs, including 39 last season with Stockton of the high Class-A California League. Carter has almost monopolized the leader board in the Double-A Texas League this season. He leads the circuit in batting average (.333), homers (21), hits (148), runs scored (101), doubles (38), on-base percentage (.429) and slugging percentage (.569). The 6-foot-4, 210-pound first baseman is second in RBIs (90) has also stolen 12 bases.
Carter has been compared to Jermaine Dye. He has both the athleticism and arm to play the outfield and has held his own there in the past. Following last week's release of veteran first baseman Jason Giambi, Carter is now the organization's most logical long-term solution at the position. The A's might not promote Carter this season to keep his arbitration clock from starting, but they will give him a long look next spring; he could open the year as their first baseman.
Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals
Despite hitting .304 with 22 home runs and 85 RBIs with Double-A Springfield in 2008, Craig was forced to play third fiddle to David Freese and Brett Wallace this year in the Cardinals' third base mix. The Cardinals moved Craig to left field and first base, off his natural position, to accommodate the other two players. With Freese struggling and Wallace dealt to the Oakland Athletics, Craig has risen to the top with his torrid hitting this season.
In 382 at-bats with Triple-A Memphis, the 25-year-old is hitting .312 with 21 homers, 62 RBIs and a .902 OPS. Since the All-Star break, Craig has put on a hitting clinic, batting a robust .438 with 13 home runs, 30 RBIs and a 1.396 OPS. With the Cardinals entrenched in a pennant race, the former California Bears star could be promoted to help in a reserve role. Long term, Craig might get a look at third and in left next spring, but that will depend on how the Cardinals handle the impending free-agent situations of Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Troy Glaus.
The Phillies won't part with Brown
Dominic Brown, Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies are so high on Brown that they refused to part with him in a deadline deal that would have landed them Toronto Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, which ultimately killed any chance of a trade. At 6-foot-5, 204 pounds, Brown is an athletic specimen whom some compare physically to Darryl Strawberry. The five-tool player has made significant strides in his ability to drive the ball this season. In 286 at-bats in the minors this year, Brown is hitting .315 with 14 home runs, 51 RBIs and 18 steals in 27 tries.
Last season he averaged a home run every 49.3 at-bats, while this season he averages a dinger once every 20.4 at-bats. Recently promoted to Double-A Reading, Brown has made a seamless transition, hitting .342 with three homers in his first 10 games. The 21-year-old phenom would be on the fast track in most other organizations, but his 2010 outlook is clouded by the fact that both Raul Ibanez and Jayson Werth are both under contract for next season. Brown has the high ceiling of a 25-homer, 25-steal superstar, but he may have to wait until 2011 to become a regular.
Justin Maxwell, Washington Nationals
Like Chris B. Young of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Maxwell is a gifted athlete who can swat the long ball and steal bases in bunches but is set back by his inconsistency in making contact. In 324 at-bats with Triple-A Syracuse, the former University of Maryland star is hitting .250 with 13 homers, 40 RBIs and 28 steals in 34 tries. During the month of August, Maxwell is hitting a robust .385 (15-for-39) with six steals, which should help his cause in getting another look this year with the Nationals.
With 50 career major league at-bats, Maxwell is far from a big league washout, but he also turns 26 this fall, which means he might not have much projection left. Injury has derailed him, so he's trying to earn his way back onto the radar. With left fielder Josh Willingham due to be a free agent after this season, there might be an opening for Maxwell next spring in the Nationals outfield.
Brandon Erbe, Baltimore Orioles
Throughout his minor league career, Erbe has racked up 504 career strikeouts in 480 1/3 innings. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound right-hander has never had trouble overpowering hitters with his low- to mid-90s fastball and his plus slider. Despite his sexy strikeout numbers, Erbe has never been an elite pitching prospect due to his mediocre command and his flyball tendencies.
In 65 1/3 innings this year, Erbe has compiled a 3-4 record, with a 2.76 ERA and 52 strikeouts. On the downside, he has issued 28 walks while surrendering seven round-trippers. In addition to his command issues, the 21-year-old hurler has never developed a quality third pitch. Given the Orioles' plethora of quality young starters, there's a chance Erbe will move to the bullpen, where he is more likely to thrive with a power arsenal of two pitches.
James Simmons, Oakland Athletics
Simmons entered this season with a reputation for being a polished pitcher with superb fastball command who rarely walks batters. Simmons' walk rate has uncharacteristically risen from 2.12 in 2008 to 3.45 this season. As a result, Simmons has gone through some growing pains. In 114 2/3 innings with Triple-A Sacramento, the 22-year-old has gone 7-5 with a 5.10 ERA and an 80-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Despite his struggles, Simmons has shown signs of his old self. In his last start, versus Oklahoma City on Aug. 5, the right-hander tossed six shutout frames while fanning eleven batters. There's a chance Simmons will be summoned to Oakland in September and pitch out of the bullpen, at the very least. Next spring he will be in the mix for a backend-of-the-rotation or relief spot. In the rotation, he's capable of having an impact similar to that of Andy Sonnastine of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Drew Storen, Washington Nationals
Just drafted, Storen is skyrocketing through the Nationals' system. He was recently promoted to Double-A Harrisburg, his third stop since entering professional baseball in June. In 25 2/3 innings, the former Stanford star has posted a 2.81 ERA and fanned 37 batters while issuing only two walks.
Armed with a mid-90s fastball and power slider, the Nationals' first-round pick has both the makeup and demeanor of a big league closer. He's not afraid to pitch inside and challenge hitters. It's not uncommon to see post-collegiate relievers reach the big league level in their first professional season, so there's a chance Storen will get a cup of coffee in September. As for 2010, Storen will not only compete for a spot in the Nationals' bullpen, he's also a serious candidate to assume closer duties in his rookie season.