Fantasy owners in search of The Next Big Thing™ should take note of a certain starting pitcher in the Brewers system who is on the verge of the big leagues and has legitimate Cy Young stuff. Unfortunately, Zack Greinke is already owned in your league. Although he’s set to make a rehab start or two while recovering from his fractured rib, Greinke isn’t exactly eligible for a spot in this edition of Mining the Minors. But here are three lesser-known minor leaguers who could make an impact at some point in the near future. In fact, one of them is Greinke’s Nashville Sounds rotation mate.
First, a quick UPDATE: Last week’s inaugural column covered the Rangers’ Chris Davis, who was promoted to the bigs after Josh Hamilton’s injury earlier this week. Quick analysis: Davis won’t likely see regular action, but the fact that he was the first player Texas chose to recall shows the team still thinks enough of him. Plus he did bash 4 homers in his first five Triple-A games — to go with 8 strikeouts — so if he cashes in on a few chances while he’s still hot, it could open up some more opportunities. Whether in Texas or elsewhere.
Now onto the new guys.
Mark Rogers, SP/RP
Current Level: Triple-A
Stats: 2 starts, 0-0 W-L, 0.90 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 8:9 K:BB ratio over 10 IPs
Opportunity Rating: 7 (out of 10)
Talent Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Obstacle(s): Injury history; control issues
Rogers has been the butt of many a joke in baseball circles this year for being the Brewers top-rated prospect after taking over that role by default, following Milwaukee’s trades of Brett Lawrie and Jake Odorizzi last winter. But just because the 25-year-old righty isn’t up to par with other franchise No. 1s doesn’t mean he’s wholly untalented — or that fantasy owners should ignore him. Although he’s struggled mightily with injuries since being drafted all the way back in 2004, including missing all of 2007 and ’08 after two shoulder surgeries, Rogers was selected fifth overall. So he’s got some pedigree on his side. He’s also got big K potential, averaging 10.0 per 9 for his minor-league career. Primarily a starter to this point, Rogers made his MLB debut last September (10 IPs, 2 hits, 11:3 K:BB) but was pushed out of a potential Brewers rotation spot once the team acquired Greinke and Shaun Marcum. That may wind up working in Rogers’ favor, though, since his 5.7 BB/9 rate in the minors makes him a better fit in the bullpen. He’s off to a bit of a deceiving start in his first two outings for Nashville (0.90 ERA but a yucky 8:9 K:BB), and given his age and control issues, there’s not much projection left. Still, Rogers and his mid-90s heat could factor into the Brewers tenuous end-game sitch, making him a sneaky add for Ks and holds.
ETA: The way things are going for Milwaukee’s pen, May is a safe bet.
Cord Phelps , INF
Current Level: Triple-A
Stats: .414 BA, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs, 5:4 K:BB ratio over 29 ABs
Opportunity Rating: 7
Talent Rating: 6
Obstacle(s): Orlando Cabrera and Jack Hannahan short-term; Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis long-term
All Indians fans — and nearly as many fantasy owners — are counting the days until the Chiz Kid makes his big-league debut. But Phelps deserves some pub, too, especially since he’s likely to get to Cleveland first. In addition to an awesome first name, the 24-year-old has a few things going for him as a switch hitter with a keen batting eye (career .390 OBP) who’s capable of playing second and third (which he manned at Stanford and in his AFL stint last fall). Phelps, who was a third-rounder in ’08, doesn’t have much of a power profile, but his homer totals have increased in each of his three seasons, including 8 jacks in 2010 between Double- and Triple-A. Plus his AFL performance — .367 BA, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs, 14:16 K:BB — has put him on the verge of the bigs. Unfortunately, Chisenhall isn’t the only “of the future” player who will stand in Phelps’ path to a starting job in Cleveland at some point later this year, as Kipnis is already pegged for the second base gig once he’s deemed ready. But Phelps, who has the most Triple-A experience of the three, should beat both better prospects to Progressive Field — his non-elite status will actually help in this case, since the Indians won’t have as many qualms about starting his service time clock — giving him a few weeks to establish himself as a starter, before he shifts gears to capable utility infielder mode. Still, there’ll be plenty of chances for him to see time all over the infield, especially since he’s also playing some shortstop at Columbus this season, meaning he could gain intriguing eligibility while posting a solid average (think: .280+), strong OBP and possibly 8-10 homers.
ETA: Whenever the Indians tire of seeing the 36-year-old Cabrera or 31-year-old Hannahan man second and third base, respectively. So May-ish.
Jerry Sands, OF/1B
Current Level: Triple-A
Stats: .424 BA, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs, 2:2 K:BB ratio over 33 ABs
Opportunity Rating: 8
Talent Rating: 8
Obstacle(s): Service time clock; Triple-A seasoning
Pop quiz, hot shot: Who is playing left field for the Dodgers? That’s right: It’s a Tony Gwynn Jr./Marcus Thames platoon! Makes one wonder how much the team misses this guy, regardless of that whole reported second positive drug test. While either Gwynn or Thames would be a serviceable option as a fourth outfielder, neither should be starting regularly. That they have been only speaks to how limited LA’s offense already was, and how much more it’s going to be now that Rafael Furcal is out for as much as two months’ time with a busted thumb. The 23-year-old Sands, who checks in at 6’4″, 220, isn’t quite ready to pitch in just yet, but one gets the sense that his powerful righty bat can’t come soon enough. To the 2008 draftee’s credit, he’s trying his best to get to LA sooner rather than later. After last season’s breakout campaign across Single- and Double-A (.301 BA, 35 HRs, 93 RBIs), Sands got off to a roaring start in his first taste of Triple-A, homering in four straight games with the ABQ.* While GM Ned Colletti would probably prefer not to start Sands’ service time clock sooner than he has to, the fact of the matter is, if the season starts slipping away from the Doyers, their best bet would be to consider promoting from within to improve their team. Especially since the McCourt ownership/divorce mess could continue to keep payroll down (i.e. no big trades). Either way, Sands will get his shot this year — when that will be, exactly, depends on how well he keeps swinging it.
ETA: Early June.
*Short for Albuquerque. Shout out to all my Breaking Bad peeps. Yo.
When it comes to monitoring players for this column, I’ll do the grunt work, but if you have any suggestions for minor leaguers that you would like to see tracked, discussed and evaluated in Mining the Minors, feel free to post suggestions in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get to as many as I can going forward.
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