Lee, Ruf, Salazar: Mining the Minors

In this week’s edition: A former first-rounder the Dodgers may need to turn too sooner than they would’ve hoped; a power bat who could return to the majors once his club packs it in; and an under-the-radar electric arm off to a phenomenal start.

In addition to recently-promoted top prospects, this column offers a fantasy take on those who are formerly-elite or lesser-known and on the verge of getting a shot in the majors. To help owners get an idea of just how good a player is (or might be), there’s a Talent Rating, but just as important is the Opportunity Rating, which points out the likelihood that a player will make his way to, or stay in, the majors during the current season based on various factors (i.e., age, depth chart, recent performance, etc.).

Zach Lee, Dodgers SP
Talent: 8 (out of 10)
Opportunity: 9 (out of 10)
DOB: 9/13/91
Current Level: Double-A
Statistics: 3-2 W-L, 2.15 ERA, 1.20 WHIP; 7.2 K/9, 2.2 BB/9 over 37.2 IPs (7 G/7 GS)
On 40-Man Roster: No
Fantasy Category Strengths: W, WHIP, IP, K/BB
Potential 2013 Fantasy Peak: NL-only SP 5

The fact that Lee is even being brought up here is actually kind of amazing. The Dodgers, you’ll remember, began the 2013 with approximately, oh, 18 starting pitchers. Well, through a trade (Aaron Harang) and a rash of injuries (Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly, Stephen Fife…forgetting anyone?), L.A. now has a shortage of arms. The club has turned to fellow right-handed prospect Matt Magill for now — he was great in his debut in late April then pretty awful last week — but Lee has to be on the short list of those next in line.

The 2010 first-round pick, signed away from a commitment to play QB at LSU, has risen through the system faster than most expected given his dual-sport background — he reached Double-A as a 20-year-old — but also become a bit of a disappointment, as the huge upside everyone was hoping for because of his athleticism doesn’t seem to be there. While the big knock on Lee is that he doesn’t have a true out pitch, there’s plenty to like, including a quality, four-pitch repertoire and good control. Not that Lee has been bad in the minors at all, but he fits the mold of a prospect who just might get better in the majors.

Cohort Mike Newman provided an in-depth look at Lee back in April.

ETA: There’s a chance Lee could be promoted for his debut soon, especially given the desperate measures in L.A. If Magill falters again in his start Friday and Greinke’s miraculously quick recovery is pushed off, Lee could get that spot’s next turn even if he’s not yet on the 40-man.

Darin Ruf, Phillies OF/1B
Talent: 6 (out of 10)
Opportunity: 8 (out of 10)
DOB: 7/28/86
Current Level: Triple-A
Statistics: .274/.346/.487 BA/OBP/SLG, 5 HRs, 9 2Bs, 18 RBIs, 17 Rs, 32:12 K:BB over 127 PAs
On 40-Man Roster: Yes
Fantasy Category Strengths: HR, OPS, XBH
Potential 2013 Fantasy Peak: NL-only OF 5

Ruf led the minors with 38 homers a year ago, then bashed three more in his first 33 big league at-bats last September. That put him on the cusp of a job entering spring, but a slow start in March was too much to overcome, so Ruf, a first baseman by trade, was returned to the minors to work on playing outfield on a regular basis in his first pass at Triple-A. While he’ll likely never be even an average defender in left, Ruf has played 22 games there (and eight at first), so he’s putting his time in.

As for the other side of the ball, the righty slugger has been hot of late, with a triple-slash line of .381/.460/.738 and four of his five homers since April 28. The strikeout rate has ticked up a bit (24%), which is something to keep an eye on, especially since Ruf’s swing might be exploited by more polished pitchers, but he should continue to hit — and hit for power. Already 26, Ruf remains a fringy prospect who’s more of a second-division big leaguer, but one worth carrying at the back of a 25-man roster for his bat.

ETA: Depending on when (or is that if?) the Phillies decide their window is all but closed and a rebuild is in order, Ruf could be called up soon thereafter and see PT while splitting corner outfield duties with lefty-hitting Domonic Brown and Laynce Nix. Figure some time in June.

Danny Salazar, Indians SP
Talent: 7 (out of 10)
Opportunity: 8 (out of 10)
DOB: 1/11/90
Current Level: Double-A
Statistics: 2-3 W-L, 2.67 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 13.6 K/9, 2.7 K/9 over 33.2 IPs (7 G/7 GS)
On 40-Man Roster: Yes
Fantasy Category Strengths: ERA, WHIP, K/9, K/BB
Potential 2013 Fantasy Peak: AL-only SP 5 or RP 4

If you haven’t heard of Salazar, you’re not reading fellow FanGrapher Carson Cistulli, who might have had a few impure thoughts about the electric-armed righty. Salazar has flown under the radar because he missed most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2010. Upon returning, though, his stuff came back and then some, as he now sits in the low-to-mid 90s and has more when he wants it. The changeup is his best secondary pitch.

While he’s off to a crazy start in his return to Double-A this year, the issue with Salazar, who now looks like he could become an intriguing mid-rotation starter or at worst a dangerous late-inning arm, is that he’s never thrown more than 107.1 innings — and that was back in 2009. He could help the Indians this year, but after 87.2 frames in 2012, Salazar might only get 120 total. In other words, Cleveland might rush him to the majors to take advantage of his stuff while they can (perhaps in a relief role to help protect his arm?), which seems like a good possibility after Salazar himself tweeted that he’s apparently been bumped to Triple-A already.

ETA: Salazar’s MLB debut will almost certainly depend on the Indians fortunes, so if they can stay in contention for another month or so, even with the shaky rotation, he could be an option to provide a shot in the arm for the five-man or bullpen around the All-Star break.

Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11

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Isn’t Greinke going to replace Magill after his start today? That may push Lee’s ETA back until the next Dodger SP takes a ride on the injury carousel.