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Down on the Farm: Zunino's arrival imminent?

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Justin Smoak is owned in only 19 percent of Fantasy leagues, and yet how he performs over these first few weeks could change the course of all of them.

That's because he's the path of least resistance for what figures to be the most impactful midseason call-up of 2013.

OK, the second-most. Naturally, I wouldn't want to sell Wil Myers short, but Mike Zunino's potential and perhaps his major-league readiness aren't far off.

How can that be, you ask, if he was the third overall pick just last year?

Well, not only did he play three years of college ball, which immediately gives him a leg up on every other player selected at that point, but he dominated there, winning the Golden Spikes Award in 2012. The last six recipients of that award -- Trevor Bauer, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Buster Posey, David Price and Tim Lincecum -- all made quick ascensions, and with the exception of Bauer and, to a lesser extent, Price, they all lived up to the hype right away.

Plus, all the scouting reports on Zunino are quick to mention his leadership ability, work ethic and baseball acumen -- you know, all those intangibles that might normally hold a player back even when he's hitting the daylights out of the ball.

Not that Zunino isn't hitting the daylights out of the ball.

He had eight extra-base hits in his first five games this season -- his first stint at Triple-A, mind you -- and though a mini slump has brought his batting average down to size, it doesn't change the fact that he's making good, hard contact against some of the best pitchers the minor leagues have to offer. And his plate discipline is exactly what you'd hope for. In 201 minor-league at-bats, he has 26 walks.

Most Owned Minor Leaguers (as of 4/18)
Player Name Own %
1. Wil Myers, OF, Rays 78
2. Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS, Rangers 53
3. Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals 50
4. Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers 45
5. Billy Hamilton, SS, Reds 41
6. Zack Wheeler, SP, Mets 41
7. Travis d'Arnaud, C, Mets 41
8. Dylan Bundy, SP, Orioles 40
9. Jose Valverde, RP, Tigers 38
10. Dan Straily, SP, Athletics 35

It's all the right ingredients for a quick promotion.

In fact, if he had some silly placeholder like Francisco Cervelli or Nick Hundley blocking him, he might already be the most added player in Fantasy. But right now, the Mariners' starting catcher is Jesus Montero, who's only a year removed from being an elite prospect himself.

Of course, he's not quite the roadblock he appears to be. According to popular opinion, urban legend and perhaps even the naked eye, Montero isn't any more a catcher than David Bowie is an actor. He could do it in a pinch, but you wouldn't want to base the whole production on it.

The Mariners have to know that, despite their claims to the contrary. With Montero slumping in the early going, they've already taken to sitting him -- a 23-year-old whose development hinges on consistent playing time -- for backup Kelly Shoppach. If Montero was Charles Johnson back there, you can bet that wouldn't be happening, but he's a liability when he's not hitting.

Sounds like a perfect candidate for the DH spot, doesn't he?

Which brings me back to Smoak. You probably don't need me to connect the dots. If Smoak continues to hover around the Mendoza line, as he did for the first three years of his career, then the Mariners will likely pull the plug on him once and for all, allowing Kendrys Morales to move to first base, where he belongs anyway, allowing Montero to move to DH, where he belongs anyway, allowing Zunino to reach the majors.

Where he belongs anyway? The one making that decision wouldn't dispute it.

"He just needs to play," general manager Jack Zduriencik recently told ESPN.com. "He's a fast-tracker, and if you brought him to the big leagues today, he'd handle himself."

Granted, saying Zunino would "handle himself" isn't the same as saying he'd dominate, but rarely does a general manager give such a definitive take on a prospect who isn't already on a flight to meet up with the big club.

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And obviously, no one knows just how he'll perform once he gets the call, but my guess is his pedigree, skill set and effortless climb up the minor-league ladder put him more on the Posey track than, say, the Montero track.

And Posey won Rookie the Year.

Cautiously, I'll predict Zunino is the Mariners' starting catcher by June, but in all honesty, I wouldn't be surprised if they called him up next week, particularly if they have designs on competing this year.

In leagues where every team starts two catchers, that ETA makes him worth stashing already, ahead of all-or-nothing types like J.P. Arencibia and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, not to mention fellow prospect Travis d'Arnaud, who was the preferred stash just two weeks ago.

And I was saying that even before the foot injury. Unlike Smoak, d'Arnaud's path of least resistance, John Buck, has made the transition more agonizing than it needs to be.

Five on the Farm ... by Michael Hurcomb (@CBSHurc), CBSSports.com

Like many first-round picks, the spotlight was focused on Jayson Werth when he was drafted in 1997. By 1999, he cracked Baseball America's Top 100 prospects list, checking in at No. 52. The following year, Werth moved up four spots on the list and made the Top 50. He was a rising star and seemed destined for major-league stardom.

Sometimes well-laid plans go awry. After a second straight poor season of middling performance between high Class A and Double-A, Baseball America dropped Werth from its Top 100 list heading into 2001 and he appeared headed for baseball obscurity.

The Orioles, who drafted Werth, shipped the young outfielder to the Blue Jays in December 2001 and the change of scenery seemed offer the proper motivation. During the 2001 season, his slash line between Class A and Double-A was .271/.382/.472/.853. Werth found himself once again on Baseball America's Top 100 list in 2002 and stayed there into 2003.

It took Werth several more years before having a breakthrough year at the major-league level, but he isn't the first -- and won't be the last -- prospect to endure some trials and tribulations on his path to the majors.

Therefore, this week is dedicated to five players who are following a similar path as Werth endured. They were once highly touted prospects who are starting to make a comeback in the minors and could once again be reappearing on Fantasy radars.

John Lamb, SP, Royals
Last Top 100 ranking: No. 18 by Baseball America in 2011
Lamb was considered the Royals' top pitching prospect before blowing out his arm in 2011. Unfortunately, his return from Tommy John surgery was delayed last season because of tendinitis in his left foot. Lamb made only six starts, posting a 6.92 ERA, and showcased reduced velocity before being shut down. However, the Royals are confident Lamb's velocity will return the farther he distances himself from his surgery date. Baseball America still considers Lamb to have the best changeup in the organization, but he's still working on refining his curveball and getting his command back. Lamb is off to a good start at Class A Wilmington and is on the 40-man roster, so Kansas City thought enough of him to protect the left-handed hurler from the Rule 5 draft. If Lamb can regain his pre-surgery form, he has frontline starter potential.

Michael Choice, OF, Athletics
Last Top 100 ranking: No. 59 by MLB.com and No. 80 by Baseball America in 2012
It's not like the 2010 first-round pick has completely fallen off the radar since MLB.com and Baseball America consider Choice a Top 3 prospect in the A's system. But to drop him off the Top 100 list after one tumultuous season is a little harsh, especially since he is off to a torrid start at Triple-A Sacramento this season. Through 12 games, Choice has four home runs, 15 RBI and is slugging .604. He made some tweaks to his swing last season before breaking his left hand in July, but he's clearly fully recovered. Choice has ridiculous power -- he has a career .507 slugging percentage -- but he might strike out too much to hit for a decent average. Remind you of any former top A's prospect? Chris Carter certainly comes to mind. Choice could make a push to join the A's outfield rotation next season.

Bryce Brentz, OF, Red Sox
Last Top 100 ranking: No. 64 by MLB.com in 2012
It's amazing Brentz didn't crack Baseball America's Top 100 list after he hit 30 homers and slugged .574 in 2011. While his production dropped off last season, it's still not like Brentz's major-league trajectory took a major hit. He hit 17 home runs and slugged .465 in 127 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Not only is Brentz lauded for his power, but he has a cannon for an arm. Eastern League managers rated Brentz's arm tops in the league last season. The knock on Brentz is that he will strike out a lot and chase breaking balls, but if he has a good season at Triple-A Pawtucket he could threaten for regular at-bats at the major-league level in 2014.

Tyler Matzek, SP, Rockies
Last Top 100 ranking: No. 32 by Baseball America in 2011
Matzek's career got off to a stellar start before it quickly spiraled out of control. His problem proved to be he was overly analytical and it messed him up on the mound. The 2009 first round pick took some time off in 2011 to work with his youth pitching coach before resuming his pro career. Matzek ended up leading the California League in strikeouts (153) in 2012, but he also led the league in walks (95). There's no denying Matzek has the arsenal to pitch his way into the major league rotation, but his command needs serious improvement. Matzek is walking 7.0 batters per nine innings in his career. It's clear what's keep him on prospect radars: Matzek's career K/9 rate is 9.7 in 70 career starts.

Jared Mitchell, OF, White Sox
Last Top 100 ranking: No. 55 by Baseball America in 2010
Mitchell's career was derailed in 2010 after tearing tendons in his left ankle. He sat out that season and didn't adjust well once he returned to the lineup in 2011. However, Mitchell had a promising season in 2012, showcasing all the raw tools that made him a first-round pick in 2009. All the White Sox did this spring was rave about Mitchell, who is considered one of the team's Top 10 prospects by MLB.com and Baseball America. However, Mitchell is not without his flaws. He has a huge hole in his swing, which has resulted in 423 strikeouts in 304 minor-league games, and doesn't hit left-handed pitchers well. Mitchell is a patient hitter, but he's batting just .234 in his career and is off to a slow start (.156) at Triple-A Charlotte this season. He's a great athlete, but Mitchell is teetering on that ominous starter or platoon-player line in the majors.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Mets' Jacob deGrom working on perfecting his curveball
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(1:42 am ET) Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom is working on perfecting his curveball this spring, according to the New York Post

"This spring is so different," deGrom said. "I can really come in here and work on things. Last year when I was over on the big league side, I didn’t throw my curveball one time because I was trying to make the team and prove I could get outs in spring training."

After experiencing some success in the majors, deGrom said he is more willing to work on stuff this time around. While he actually started using his curve more late last season, it seems like deGrom is going to work on perfecting the pitch during camp. 

"It’s a great pitch whether it be strike one or a strikeout pitch," deGrom said. "Talking to Gee, Wheeler and all those guys and see how they throw theirs and taking little bits of information from them and trying it in bullpens. Sometimes I throw it at 78 (mph) and that’s a big difference from the slider. It gets the hitter off balance."

deGrom, 26, posted a 2.69 ERA over 140 1/3 innings last season.


Rockies' Charlie Blackmon hoping for more consistency
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(1:15 am ET) Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon is hoping for more consistency in 2015, according to the Denver Post

Blackmon had a breakout season in 2014, but admits it's hard to be on every single game. "Last year, I swung the bat really well at certain times," he said. "But you go through a lot of ups and downs over 162 games, and that was a learning experience. I think that's going to help me this year."

Blackmon said his strong start made him a target for other teams, and that may have contributed to a slight slump during the season. Blackmon added that he's hoping to hit the ball to all fields this season.

Manager Walt Weiss is hoping Blackmon can deliver more of the same. "I don't know if he necessarily has to have an encore. I'm thinking more of the same," Weiss said. "I think Charlie would say that he wants to be more consistent."

The 28-year-old Blackmon hit .288/.335/.440 over 593 at-bats last year. 


Twins' Gibson feels 'a little more comfortable' with curveball
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:29 am ET) Twins pitcher Kyle Gibson surrendered one run on two hits and one walk in two innings while striking out two in his spring debut Thursday, using the outing to work on his curveball, the Associated Press reports.

"I felt really good," Gibson said. "I'm working on some stuff, and some stuff worked out that I was working on. I threw more curveballs than normal. That's what spring training's for. It's just fun to be able to work on a particular pitch. I feel a little more comfortable."

Gibson, who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, completed his first full major-league deal in 2014, going 13-12 with a 4.47 ERA and 107:57 K:BB ratio in 179 1/3 innings.


Blue Jays' Barton hoping his glove wins him a spot
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12:28 am ET) Blue Jays first baseman Daric Barton is hoping his glove can win him a spot on the 25-man roster, according to the Toronto Sun.

Barton isn't much of a power hitter, but gets strong marks for his defense at first. Manager John Gibbons is well aware of Barton's skills. "One thing that put Daric on the map was that he was such a disciplined hitter and a great defender," Gibbons said. He added that the first baseman is involved in a large chunk of plays, so defense at the position is probably more important than people realize.

With that said, Barton may need a trade to make the opening day roster. As currently constructed, the Blue Jays may carry three catchers. If the team retains Dioner Navarro, Barton could find himself in the minors.

The 29-year-old Barton hit .158 over 57 at-bats last year.


Pirates' Pedro Alvarez feeling comfortable at first
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12:21 am ET) Pirates infielder Pedro Alvarez is feeling comfortable at first base, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After playing third the past couple of seasons, Alvarez will transition to first base full-time in 2015. The 28-year-old is still getting used to the position, but he seems comfortable with the change.

"It’s just a matter of getting used to seeing the field from that point of view, get the reps in so that the responsibilities that come with playing the position become second nature," he said. "That’s just with time and repetitions."

Alvarez hit .231/.312/.405 over 398 at-bats last season. 


Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman gets strong marks at first
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12:17 am ET) Nationals infielder Ryan Zimmerman received strong reviews after playing his first game at first base this spring, according to MLB.com.

"He is still in the stages of having to think about it out there, because it's not natural yet," manager Matt Williams said. "He looked fine. He has fantastic hands." Zimmerman was tested during the start, and had to make two scoops in order to prevent possible throwing errors. 

He's been taking extra practice at the position this spring, and was fairly happy with how his first game turned out. "You can do so many drills, exercises and things like that until you have to go out there and play," Zimmerman said. "So it's nice to have a few chances. The more I play over there, the more comfortable I will get. I feel fine."

Zimmerman, 30, hit .280/.342/.449 over 214 at-bats last year. 


Orioles' Brian Matusz tosses scoreless inning in return
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12:09 am ET) Orioles pitcher Brian Matusz tossed a scoreless inning in his return to the mound.

Matusz came into camp dealing with a shoulder issue, but said he was pretty close to 100 percent. He allowed one hit during his one inning of work, and struck out one batter. Matusz is expected to open the season in the team's bullpen. 

The 28-year-old posted a 3.48 ERA over 51 2/3 innings last year.


Red Sox's Rusney Castillo wouldn't alter plan if sent down
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(12:06 am ET) Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo won't be upset if he winds up being sent down to the minors, according to the WEEI.

That's not a likely outcome, but with his recent oblique injury, there's a chance Castillo could fall behind the other outfielders on the roster. "To me it wouldn’t be anything that would alter my plan, or my attitude, or my perspective," he said. "If that’s what it’s got to be, that’s what it’s got to be. I’m just worrying playing and continuing to get reps and reps wherever they may come."

Castillo did note that he's feeling a lot better, and is expected to return in about a week. Castillo hit .333 over 36 at-bats in the majors last year. 


Red Sox's Jackie Bradley Jr. showing off new swing
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(3/5/2015) Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is showing off his new swing this spring, according to the Boston Herald

Bradley started working out at the team's facility in November, and started hitting in January. He worked with assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez for a good portion of the offseason. "Jackie was dedicated," Rodriguez said. "He listened, too. He was open to what we talked about."

Manager John Farrell has noticed the change in Bradley's approach. "In BP, to me, it seems like there’s more of a willingness to stay in the middle of the field and not look to lift a ball too much," Farrell said. "I think it’s more of his natural swing, which he was drafted with."

Bradley said his swing has been a "work in progress." While it doesn't appear Bradley has a starting role, his defense should make him a useful major-league asset.

The 24-year-old hit .198/.265/.266 over 384 at-bats last year. 

 


Molitor: Eduardo Escobar 'will be' important part of Twins in 2015
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(3/5/2015) Twins manager Paul Molitor marked infielder Eduardo Escobar as "an important part" of the team in 2014 and believes he will be the same this season, the Star Tribune reports.

"He was an important part of our team last year," Molitor said. "He will be this year, too."

Escobar delivered the best performance of his career in 2014, hitting .275/.315/.406 with six home runs and 37 RBI in 433 at-bats. However, he arrived at camp to learn he was in a competition for the shortstop role with last year's center fielder, Danny Santana. Breaking the news to Escobar was a delicate conversation for the manager.

"Obviously," Molitor said. "You’ve got a guy who came in and played every day for you last year, and then you’re thinking about doing something different. I’ve tried to explain it to him the best I could. His answers, at least for now, are, 'No problem. I understand.'"


 
 
 
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