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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
Anibal Sanchez coming back Tuesday
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(5:12 pm ET) The Tigers will activate right-hander Anibal Sanchez from the 15-day DL Tuesday, according to MLB.com. Sanchez, who has been out since Aug. 8 with a strained pectoral, threw a simulated game Sunday. 

Sanchez didn't have a chance to go on a minor-league rehab assignment because of the timing of his recovery, so he'll pitch out of the bullpen.


Ivan Nova hoping to return in May
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(5:05 pm ET) Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova, who had Tommy John surgery in late April, hasn't had any setbacks so far and is aiming to return in May, manager Joe Girardi told the Wall Street Journal. He began a throwing program in late August.

Adam Eaton out due to personal matter
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(4:56 pm ET) CSNChicago.com reports that Adam Eaton has been away from the White Sox, as he has been dealing with a family matter. Eaton was away for Sunday's game at the Rays, and he is also out of the starting lineup for Monday's series opener at the Tigers. Moises Sierra is starting in center field in Eaton's absence.

It is not yet known when Eaton will return to the team.


Steve Pearce looking at Wednesday return
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(4:55 pm ET) Orioles outfielder Steve Pearce was out of the lineup for a third straight game because of a sore wrist Monday at the Yankees, and according to MASNsports.com, he's not aiming to return until Wednesday.

Pearce, who received a cortisone shot in his wrist Saturday, was red hot before the injury, batting .405 (15 for 37) with four home runs in 11 games.


Brian Dozier to rest after heating up
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(4:44 pm ET) Twins manager Ron Gardenhire left Brian Dozier out of the starting lineup for Monday's game against the Diamondbacks. Doug Bernier got the start at second base in Dozier's place.

Dozier has a modest four-game hitting streak, but it represents his best stretch during an otherwise difficult month of September. He is 7 for 17 (.412) with a home run over the last four games, but prior to that, he was batting .136 for the month.


Chris Young out of rotation for now
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(4:42 pm ET) Mariners starting pitcher Chris Young will not make his scheduled start Thursday at Toronto, according to MLB.com, though manager Lloyd McClendon didn't rule out him starting in the playoffs should the Mariners advance.

"I think he's probably out of gas from the starting standpoint," McClendon said. "Having said that, 8-10 days from now, who knows."

Though Young has been a key part of the Mariners' success this season, he has struggled in his last five starts, compiling an 8.35 ERA. His 165 innings this year are 50 more than he had last year and his most since he had 173 for the Padres in 2007. He will work out of the bullpen for now.


Joe Mauer to grab some pine
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(4:37 pm ET) Joe Mauer was left out of the Twins' starting lineup for Monday's game versus the Diamondbacks, as Chris Parmelee got the nod at first base. It is only the third time that Mauer has not started a game since he returned on Aug. 11 after spending time on the disabled list with a strained oblique.

Tyson Ross turns focus to 2015
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(4:30 pm ET) Padres starting pitcher Tyson Ross, who missed his last start because of discomfort in his lower forearm, realizes he may have pitched for the last time this season, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"I think the focus now is the long term, the 2015 season," he said. "I'd like to pitch, but I also need to get ready for next season and pitching deep into October."

Though Ross played catch Thursday and Friday, he hasn't exactly stayed in his routine since the injury, spending much of his time in the training room, which also diminishes his chances of returning this season.

"If he can amass the same number of innings or more next year, they're probably more important than the innings he might pitch the remainder of this week," manager Bud Black said.


Aaron Hicks returns from brief respite
by Al Melchior | Data Analyst
(4:28 pm ET) Aaron Hicks was in the Twins' starting lineup for Monday's game against the Diamondbacks. He missed the previous two games with a sore back.

Masahiro Tanaka gets good reviews
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(4:21 pm ET) Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka said he felt no pain in his right elbow after making his first start in more than three months Sunday against Toronto.

"Obviously, I'm very relieved," Tanaka said through a translator. "I don't exactly remember when, but gradually, as the game went on, I guess I stopped thinking about it."

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was pleased as well, according to MLB.com.

"His warmups were really good. The sim games, the last one, the warmups were OK. Today there was a difference and you could see it right away in the force with which he threw the ball and the quickness to his arm, all of the things that you saw before he went on the DL. Warming up today, you could see it."

Tanaka will make another start Saturday at Boston to give the Yankees an even better indication if he can avoid surgery to repair the partially torn UCL in his right elbow.

"It's possible that he can get through this for quite a while. It's possible that it comes up and bites him, and that's it," Rothschild said. "We're hopeful that's it's the earlier scenario and that he's going to be fine and have a nice, long career with no problems."


 
 
 
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