Surprise, surprise: This season's most-heralded rookies are pretty much all in the majors just in time for them not to accrue enough big league days to become Super-2 players, which would make them eligible for arbitration a year early. Price, Wieters and Hanson should be owned in all leagues. The others, less so: Gamel looks destined to return to the minors after June, Huff has a 9.77 ERA, etc. But to one degree or another, you've already made your decision about whether to own these guys, depending on your team's needs and your league's size.
So who's next? Are there are other reinforcements who'll be coming up from the minors to bolster their big-league teams (and by extension, your fantasy squad)? Well, of course there are. Someone will come up and catch fire, become a momentary fantasy cause célèbre, and get added in a bunch of leagues. Unfortunately, predicting who that'll be gets a whole lot harder when most of the blue-chippers have already risen to the top. Now we're at that part of the season where the best we can do is buy lottery tickets, trying to find the players who'll wind up having the best combination of opportunity, talent and luck. I can almost guarantee there'll be at least one second-half fantasy surprise none of us can name right now. But since we can only do our best, let's take a look at the leading candidates to provide surprise reinforcement from the minor leagues, roughly in order of likelihood.
John Smoltz, SP, Red Sox. There isn't a good track record for pitchers returning from labrum surgery, and 42-year-old pitchers don't typically regain their stuff after a major procedure like this. But the reports on Smoltz are pretty good. He's thrown 11 1/3 minor league innings between Class A Greenville and Double-A Portland, allowing eight hits, no walks and two runs while fanning 10. The Red Sox are talking about calling him to the majors on or around June 16, whereupon he'll presumably jump into the rotation and give the team whatever he can. I'm not expecting the dominant Smoltzie of old, but I think he'll wind up giving fantasy owners more good starts than bad.
Ricky Nolasco, SP, Marlins. I maintain that Nolasco was the unluckiest pitcher in baseball before the Marlins sent him down: His batting average against on balls in play was .402, by far the worst in baseball, and his strand rate was 49.4 percent, also the least fortunate such number around. Now, that doesn't mean he also didn't get hit hard by big-leaguers, because he did. But reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. At Triple-A New Orleans, Nolasco has a 2.40 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP while fanning 12 in 15 innings. I'm buying low on Nolasco now: the Marlins have announced that he'll replace the ailing Anibal Sanchez in their rotation this weekend.
Justin Duchscherer, SP, A's. Unfortunately, Duke hasn't thrown in more than a week, so his rehab is momentarily on hold. The good news is that it isn't Duchscherer's surgically repaired elbow that's bugging him, but rather lower-back tightness. According to MLB.com, Duchscherer hadn't reached the point where he was throwing off a mound, so that notion that he'll be back before the All-Star break is probably folly. But a bad back isn't keeping him all the way down, and when he returns, Duke is probably the ace of Oakland's staff (for whatever that's worth). I think he'll be ownable in a lot of leagues.
Clay Buchholz, SP, Red Sox. If not for Smoltz, Buchholz would probably be at the top of this list. In nine starts for Triple-A Pawtucket, he's got a 1.47 ERA and a 0.75 WHIP with 52 strikeouts in 55 innings. On May 25, he threw a complete-game one-hitter with no walks and seven K's. Yet it seems all but certain he won't be the first man in when the Sox replace someone in their rotation (that job seems reserved for Smoltz). That said, Buchholz will be in the majors at some point this year, probably after the break, and he'll probably be worth a speculative add in most leagues. I can't say the same for Michael Bowden, a bulldog starting pitcher also at Pawtucket who's cruising along with a 2.58 ERA and 1.09 WHIP himself. If he comes back to the majors this year, it'll likely be in middle relief, unless the Sox trade him.
Jeremy Bonderman, SP, Tigers. Like Nolasco, Bonderman only makes this list by the skin of his teeth; the Tigers reportedly will bring him up to start Monday in a doubleheader against the White Sox. Now, that doesn't definitively mean Bonderman will stay in the bigs. But after Dontrelle Willis' unbelievable bout of wildness in Thursday afternoon's game, it looks likely that Bonderman will stick, and maybe Willis will go down. Bonderman had surgery nearly a year ago to relieve pressure and improve circulation in his right shoulder, and while his velocity reportedly isn't quite back to where it was, his slider showed a lot of bite in a recent big league bullpen session. He was fantasy poison in '08 before his surgery (1.56 WHIP), so let's not get carried away. But he does have a couple of 14-win seasons in his past. Deep-leaguers will want to pay attention.
Oliver Perez, SP, Mets. I know. Yuck. But he's out there. The Mets recently slowed Perez down because of tendinitis in his right knee. He hasn't pitched since May 26, and the team doesn't know when he'll be able to go again, so a June return to the majors doesn't seem likely. But New York is struggling to get consistency from the back end of its rotation, so it's not like the opportunity won't be there for Perez if he can prove he deserves it. I expect him to get another serious shot after the break, and he's so mercurial, he'll probably be really good for a stretch. Then he'll stink again. If you can own him for the good starts, though? That would be nice.
Neftali Feliz, SP, Rangers. Feliz is just 20 years old, but as Rick Porcello's owners know, that doesn't mean positive fantasy contribution is impossible. Feliz hasn't dominated at Triple-A: 3.99 ERA, 1.57 WHIP and 35 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings. He also missed some time earlier in the year with a brief bout of shoulder soreness. But the real worry here is control: He seemed to be turning a corner when he walked just a single batter in each of two straight starts, but in his past two outings, he's regressed, walking three and four hitters. Scouts (including our own Jason Grey) believe Feliz has No. 1 upside (more than fellow prospect Derek Holland, who's already in the bigs). If he gets called up, he'd be worth AL-only consideration.
Travis Snider, OF, Blue Jays. Snider managed an on-base percentage of just .292 during his seven-week stint as a starter in Toronto earlier this year, which got him shipped to Triple-A Las Vegas. Unfortunately, since he's been down, he's only hit .258 with zero homers and two RBIs in 31 at-bats. Still, he's the best hitting prospect the Blue Jays have, and given the team's lineup inconsistency, I expect them to give the 21-year-old Snider another look in the second half. It'd be nice if he'd do a little mashing in the minors in the meantime, though.
Matt LaPorta, OF, Indians. LaPorta didn't do much with his May call-up, going 8-for-42 with a single homer and 11 strikeouts. But he also didn't get consistent playing time, as he started just 12 of the 24 games when he was on Cleveland's roster. With a .990 OPS and a .402 OBP this year at Triple-A Columbus, LaPorta doesn't have anything else to prove, and unless they're about to create one massive turnaround, the Indians aren't threatening to win the AL Central this year. To me, that means LaPorta has to come up again within a month or two, and I believe in his bat.
Lastings Milledge, OF, Nationals. Has Milledge learned humility during his banishment from D.C.? Maybe. Has he learned to get on base? Doesn't look like it. His OBP for Triple-A Syracuse was just .277 before he broke a finger in mid-May while trying to lay down a bunt. Milledge will be out for much of June, and will go back to playing in the minors once his hand lets him. But at some point, you have to assume the Nats will want to see if he can help them going forward. After all, he did steal 24 bases for the big club last year.
Brandon Wood, SS, Angels. Stop me if you've heard this before. Wood's a good prospect. Considering how many times he's appeared on lists like this one, you'd think he was 47 years old, but Wood is 24 and is still a good prospect. The Angels called him up in each of the past two seasons, though, and he failed to produce. They also recalled him for about a week in May and he played in exactly three games, then went straight back down to Triple-A Salt Lake. He's bounced between third base and shortstop (he's playing short in the minors right now), and has a .925 OPS, 10 homers and 23 RBIs in 135 minor league at-bats. It's unclear whether the Angels want Wood to supplant current starter Erick Aybar. But there's a chance we haven't seen the last of him in the majors in '09.
Jeff Clement, C, Mariners. Clement's problem isn't his bat. It's his fielding. The kid's hitting .304 with a .903 OPS at Triple-A Tacoma, yet when Kenji Johjima went back on the DL with a broken toe, the Mariners didn't promote Clement. (Instead they're going with a combination of the immortal Rob Johnson and Guillermo Quiroz.) Considering Seattle has one of the worst catching situations in baseball, you'd think Clement's path to the bigs would be relatively short. But as long as the team is just six games out in the AL West, they don't trust Clement to handle their pitching staff. If the squad fails, Clement might be up.
Alcides Escobar, SS, Brewers. Escobar is a shortstop by trade, but the Brewers might have thought about bringing him up to play second, replacing injured Rickie Weeks. So far, they've resisted the temptation, while mostly using Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee at second, but presumably the highly touted Escobar would be next man in. He's stolen 21 bases in 54 games at Triple-A Nashville so far this year, and while his plate discipline might be a problem in the majors at first, his speed could make him a deep-league asset right away.
Brett Wallace, 3B, Cardinals. This spring it seemed like there was an outside chance Wallace would win the Cardinals' third-base gig while Troy Glaus recuperated, but defensively the 2008 first-round pick was way too raw at the hot corner. St. Louis sent him first to Double-A Springfield (where he featured a .403 OBP) and then to Triple-A Memphis. With Glaus now possibly out for the entire season, the Cards are splitting third base between Joe Thurston and Brian Barden, and it hasn't been a disaster. But if the team decides it needs more pop from its infield, and if they can justify the defensive problems it might invoke, Wallace could get a call.
Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins. Sanchez was favored to make the Marlins out of spring training, but turned in just a .194 average in the exhibition season and was sent down to Triple-A New Orleans. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury during a home-plate collision and hasn't played in a game since May 5. If he gets healthy, and if the Marlins decide to trade Jorge Cantu, thereby freeing up first base, the 25-year-old Sanchez could be a cheap source of power and on-base skills.
Eric Young Jr., 2B/OF, Rockies. EY2 is one of the minors' premier running threats, having accounted for 32 steals in 48 games at Triple-A Colorado Springs so far in '09. He's not generally considered a great hitting prospect, and so doesn't figure to supplant someone like Dexter Fowler in the Rockies' plans. But as with Escobar in Milwaukee, if Young does get a call-up, his stolen-base potential conceivably could make him a one-category fantasy threat.
Jesus Guzman, 1B, Giants. Guzman has 36 RBIs and a 1.020 OPS in 44 games at Triple-A Fresno, but during a four-game call-up in May he only got 10 at-bats. His biggest problem is his defense: He's an utter mess in the field, and would be best served playing DH in the majors. But if Pablo Sandoval's sore shoulder eventually allows him to move back to third base from first, Guzman could supplant the struggling Travis Ishikawa at first later in the year. Those in desperate need of power in a deeper league might look Guzman's way.
Christopher Harris is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.