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MLB Skinny: Lacking class

With each passing week, as I peruse the farm systems for this column, looking for notable "on-the-verge" offensive prospects to plug, it becomes tougher and tougher to come up with new names that have realistic short-term fantasy impact potential. In terms of hitters, the cupboards are extremely bare of top-shelf fantasy talent in the upper minor leagues, and it's not as if it's because all the creme has already risen to the top. The level of impact by offensive rookies is at a low point in recent history. Colorado outfielder Dexter Fowler(notes), by virtue of his 24 stolen bases, is the top-ranked rookie hitter in the Yahoo! PLUS game, sitting currently at No. 241. Next in line is Andrew McCutchen(notes) (No. 293), who wasn't even called up until early June. McCutchen's teammate, Garrett Jones(notes), has played in just 30 games this season, but he (along with Colby Rasmus(notes)) paces all rookies with 11 home runs.

Last season, rookies Jacoby Ellsbury(notes), Joey Votto(notes), Alexei Ramirez(notes), Evan Longoria(notes), Geovany Soto(notes) and Mike Aviles(notes) all finished among the top 185 roto players in the Yahoo! game. In 2007, Ryan Braun, Chris Young, Troy Tulowitzki(notes), Hunter Pence(notes), James Loney(notes), Delmon Young(notes), and Dustin Pedroia(notes) were among the top 185 most impactful players in the Y! game. And, while I don't have the Y! rankings beyond the past two seasons, you can bet '06 rookies Hanley Ramirez(notes), Dan Uggla(notes), Ryan Zimmerman(notes), and Prince Fielder(notes) were among the top 185, while several others (Conor Jackson(notes), Nick Markakis(notes), Kenji Johjima(notes), Josh Willingham(notes), Ian Kinsler(notes)) were in the neighborhood.

This season, maybe McCutchen and/or Gordon Beckham(notes) sneaks inside the top 200, but that's far from a certainty. This year seems like the quiet before the storm, as a large crop of "can't-miss" future stars (Jason Heyward, Jesus Montero, Mike Stanton(notes), Buster Posey, Justin Smoak, Desmond Jennings, Carlos Santana, among others) are still a year or two away.

Alright, moving on to the latest market movers …

CORNER INFIELDERS

Three Up/Three Down

Kyle Blanks(notes), SD, 1/O – Sweet 16: .275, 6 HR, 10 RBI, 10 R, SB in past 16 games
James Loney, LAD, 1B – Past 14: .367, 13 RBI, 8 R
Mike Lowell(notes), Bos, 3B – Since return from DL: .378, HR, 12 RBI, 13 games

Pedro Feliz(notes), Phi, 3B – Past 7: .130, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 0 R, 0 SB
Ryan Howard(notes), Phi, 1B – Past 7: .179, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R, 1 BB, 13 K
Russell Branyan(notes), Sea, 1/3 – Past 8: .129, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 2 R, 12 K

Wire flier (best pickup among players owned in less than 50 percent of Y! Plus leagues)
Adam LaRoche(notes), Atl, 1B (39%) – After a nearly three-year separation, LaRoche is back in Atlanta. And he's already representing a comfort level with his surroundings, as he's hit in eight of his first 13 at bats back in a Braves uniform. But, regardless of the uniform, that one thing that we've long known about LaRoche is that he heats up with the weather. For those needing a refresher, here's his career OPS numbers for each month of the season: April (.656); May (.781); June (.798); July (.908); August (.917); September (.927). LaRoche did struggle this July, but he was surrounded by trade rumors and exchanged some words with ownership about how the team was being run, so it seems plausible that he wasn't at his mental best at the time. With the trade deadline behind him, not to mention those troublesome early months of the season, I'm bullish that LaRoche will finish out in his typically strong fashion.

Prospecting
Allen Craig, StL, 1/3 – Before handing over touted relievers Chris Perez(notes) and Jess Todd(notes) to Cleveland in exchange for Mark DeRosa(notes) several weeks back, maybe the Cards should have given Craig a trial run. After all, while far from a defensive standout, Craig is capable of playing most positions on the diamond. This season, he's been a cornerman for Triple-A Memphis, where he's been tearing the cover off the ball of late. On the season, he's hitting .303 with 18 home runs and 57 RBI in 96 games for the Redbirds, but in his past 19 games he's launched a Garrett Jones-esque 10 home runs and has collected 32 hits in 69 at bats (.464). Despite a glove that is a bit sub-standard, Craig's bat looks major-league ready. He's averaged .300 in his minor league career, and he appears easily headed toward his third straight 20-plus home run campaign. At 25, he's overdue for at least a taste of big league pitching. If it happens sometime in the coming weeks, make sure you're paying attention.

MIDDLE INFIELDERS

Three Up/Three Down

Ryan Roberts(notes), Ari, 2/3 – Past 11: .381, 5 HR, 7 RBI, 8 R, SB
Gordon Beckham, ChW, S/3 – Past 13: .380, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 8 R, SB
Jhonny Peralta(notes), Cle, S/3 – Past 11: .408, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 11 R

J.J. Hardy(notes), Mil, SS – Past 15: .191, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 2 R, 0 SB
Clint Barmes(notes), Col, 2/S/3 – Past 14: .088, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 4 R, 2 SB, 13 K
Felipe Lopez(notes), Mil, 2/3/S/O – Past 13: .220, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 5 R, 0 SB

Wire flier (best pickup among players owned in less than 50 percent of Y! Plus leagues)
Casey McGehee(notes), Mil, 2/3 (32%) – Sorry, but I feel compelled to trample over some familiar territory here. McGehee is a player that I've written about in this space before. But, despite hitting .303 with four home runs, 13 RBI and 14 Runs since recommending him back on June 30th, he's actually dropped more than 10 percent in PLUS league ownership. In fact, if you look at the span from June 1 to present, McGehee has been a top 50 offensive fantasy contributor, according to BaseballMonster.com. Currently hitting second for one of the top 12 offenses in the league, he's sustained a .300 clip for more than two months and has three home runs in his past nine games. C'mon, folks, time to get off the fence in regards to this guy.

Prospecting
Scott Sizemore, Det, 2B – With Placido Polanco(notes) set to be a free agent, the Tigers are going to have to decide in the offseason whether top prospect Sizemore is ready to take over at second base in 2010. If that decision were based solely on his first 41 games at the Triple-A level (.314 BA, .875 OPS, 5 HR, 29 R, 8 SB, 18 BB, 28 K), the answer would be a resounding, "Yes!" But, I'm guessing that the Tigers will want to get Sizemore some actual major-league seasoning before entrusting him with the second base gig to open 2010. Said Triple-A Toledo manager Larry Parrish, "Scotty is playing well. He has gotten really hot for us in the last week or so. He is really making a push to be the Tigers' second baseman of the future." That push he refers to a .416 BA, three home runs, 13 runs and three stolen bases in his past 11 games. Baseball America compared Sizemore to Placido Polanco for his ability to make contact and churn out gap shots. Don't be surprised if in the coming weeks, Detroit decides to see first-hand just how ready Sizemore is to replace Polanco.

CATCHERS

Three Up/Three Down

Mike Napoli(notes), LAA, C – Past 20: .309, 6 HR, 13 RBI, 15 R
Kurt Suzuki(notes), Oak, C – Past 14: .278, 3 HR, 11 RBI, 7 R, SB
Chris Iannetta(notes), Col, C – Past 10: .290, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 6 R

Brandon Inge(notes), Det, C/3/O – Post break: .180, 0 HR, 1 RBI, 4 R, 23 K
Ivan Rodriguez(notes), Hou, C – Past 8: .100, 0 HR, 0 RBI, 3 R, 0 SB, 11 K
Jason Varitek(notes), Bos, C – Past 16: .173, 0 HR, 7 RBI, 2 R

OUTFIELDERS

Three Up/Three Down

Will Venable(notes), SD, OF – Past 7: .481, 5 HR, 12 RBI, 7 R, SB
Angel Pagan(notes), NYM, OF – Past 8: .355, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 5 R, 2 SB
Rajai Davis(notes), Oak, OF – Past 19: .367, HR, 18 RBI, 13 R, 8 SB

Vernon Wells(notes), Tor, OF – Past 18: .219, HR, 4 RBI, 5 R, SB
Randy Winn(notes), SF, OF – Past 13: .167, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 6 R, SB
Manny Ramirez(notes), LAD, OF – Past 12: .191, HR, 3 RBI, 4 R, 0 SB, 12 K

Wire flier (best pickup among players owned in less than 50 percent of Y! Plus leagues)
Marlon Byrd(notes), Tex, OF (24%) – Byrd is currently ranked as the No. 177 player in the Yahoo! game. There's not an outfielder ranked higher than him available in more than 50 percent of Yahoo! PLUS leagues. Yet Byrd has been spurned by more than three-quarters of the PLUS community despite hitting .300-plus, producing more than 90 RBI and 90 Runs and falling a couple home runs short of the 20/10 club in his past 162 games with the Rangers. With Josh Hamilton(notes) continuing to scuffle since coming off the DL, Byrd has been bumped squarely into the heart (third/fourth) of the No. 11 offense in the league. Considering his recent past success, the piece of real estate he's occupying in the Rangers' lineup and the fact that his two best batting months for his career are August (.296) and September (.298), I'd be all over Byrd if I needed outfield help in a league of 12-plus teams.

Prospecting
Desmond Jennings, TB, OF – A recent promotion to Triple-A Durham at least creates a glimmer of hope that the Rays' top offensive prospect (ranked No. 18 on Baseball America's mid-season top 25 prospects list) could see Tropicana Field come September. Jennings has displayed an excellent eye at the plate this season (56 K, 50 BB) and throughout his short minor-league career. He also has a little pop in his bat (10-15 HR upside). But he'll ultimately earn his fantasy pay as a three-category stud (a prototype leadoff hitter with future .300, 100 R, 50 SB potential). If he does get a call-up in the final month, you'll want in on that action if you are hurting for speed.

STARTING PITCHERS

Three Up/Three Down

Jeff Niemann(notes), TB, SP – Past 6: 4-1, 2.57 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 6 BB, 28 K, 42 IP
Jonathan Sanchez(notes), SF, SP – Past 7: 3-1, 2.52 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 43 K, 35.2 IP
Brett Anderson(notes), Oak, SP – Past 7: 3-1, 1.93 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 48 K, 46.2 IP

Aaron Harang(notes), Cin, SP – Past 5: 0-5, 6.82 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 6 HR, 30 K, 30.1 IP
Johnny Cueto(notes), Cin, SP – Past 6: 0-5, 7.15 ERA, 1.90 WHIP, 7 HR, 16 K, 22.2 IP
Yovani Gallardo(notes), Mil, SP – Past 6: 2-3, 6.06 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 40 K, 35.2 IP

Wire flier (best pickup among players owned in less than 50 percent of Y! Plus leagues)
Mat Latos(notes), SD, SP (61%) – I'll make a semi-rare exception and go beyond the stated 50 percent ownership threshold for this recommendation as I hadn't previously mentioned Latos while he was down on the farm for the Padres and … well, he deserves mentioning. The 6-foot-6 Latos is an imposing figure on the mound and entered the season ranked by Baseball America as the Padres' No. 2 prospect behind Kyle Blanks. He's since gone 8-1 with a 1.37 ERA between Low-A and Double-A assignments before getting called up by San Diego in mid-July. His minor league efforts earned him a spot in the top 40 on Baseball America's mid-season prospect rankings list. Since landing in Southern California, Latos has taken the hill four times and is 3-1 with a 2.66 ERA. His past two starts have both been of the quality variety, including a seven-inning, one-hit, one-run effort at Cincinnati last week. Latos still needs to work on honing his command, but his 95 mph average fastball and complementing slider/changeup (both of which average roughly 12 mph less than his fastball) have treated him well in the show, thus far (.190 BAA). His pedigree and the safe pitching environment of Petco Park should be enough to warrant test-driving Latos in fantasy leagues.

Prospecting
Aaron Poreda(notes), SD, SP – Poreda was the most coveted prize – the White Sox top pitching prospect – among the group of youngsters the Padres acquired in the deal for Jake Peavy(notes). A 6-foot-6 lefty, Poreda throws upper 90s gas and complements it with a hard slider. And, until this season, he'd done a commendable job of keeping those pitches in the strike zone (46 BB in 83.1 IP in '09 compared to 40 BB in 161 IP in '08). Despite the lapse in control, Poreda has still managed a combined ERA below 3.00 while pitching at three different levels this season. The Padres plan to give Poreda some starts in San Diego this season as they hope to synchronize their stable of young arms (Latos, Poreda, Clayton Richard(notes)) in a manner similar to Atlanta in the 90s or Oakland early this decade when they brought Mark Mulder(notes), Barry Zito(notes) and Tim Hudson(notes) along together. When Poreda gets the call, he's a NL-only grab, and at the very least a mixed league curiosity.

RELIEF PITCHERS

As in the past, I defer to my colleague, Andy Behrens, on this one. He puts out an excellent bullpen roundup – "Closing Thoughts" – each Monday in the Roto Arcade blog. And, of course, all bullpen tremors are recorded in our nightly Closing Time piece.

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