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Prospects Report: Minor details early on

Senior Fantasy Writer
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As the unexpected leadoff hitter for the Cubs, Emilio Bonifacio has been one of the best finds off the waiver wire so far this season and a lifesaver for Rotisserie owners who neglected speed on Draft Day.

But part of me is hoping he'll fail.

It's the same part that cringed when Starlin Castro hit two home runs Tuesday and rooted for Luis Valbuena to beat out Mike Olt for the starting third base job this spring.

What kind of Fantasy owner does that? The same kind that's anxious to see Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and, to a lesser degree, Arismendy Alcantara contribute in the big leagues.

Most owned minor leaguers
Player Own %
1. George Springer, OF, HOU 75
2. Archie Bradley, SP, ARI 61
3. Javier Baez, SS, CHC 57
4. Oscar Taveras, OF, STL 47
5. Noah Syndergaard, SP, NYM 44
6. Byron Buxton, OF, MIN 40
7. Gregory Polanco, OF, PIT 35
8. Kevin Gausman, SP, BAL 32
9. Kris Bryant, 3B, CHC 29
10. Dylan Bundy, SP, BAL 24

In a perfect world, they'd be the Cubs' starting shortstop, third baseman and second baseman by season's end, but in this imperfect world of ours, when they arrive depends partly on when the Cubs can make room for them. With the unlikely emergence of Bonifacio, they're suddenly blocked at every turn.

Or so it seems. But then, a big reason why we had so much hope for them in the first place was because we thought only Valbuena and Darwin Barney stood in their way. By awarding those jobs to Olt and Bonifacio instead, the Cubs showed a willingness to move on, which was the biggest hurdle. And by assuming they didn't even have a chance, we showed our lack of faith in Olt and Bonifacio.

I'd be lying if I said I had just as little faith in Bonifacio today. My lack of faith was in response to what I perceived to be a league-wide lack of faith when the Royals released him just before spring training. He stabilized their second base vortex and rediscovered his form with a .285 batting average and 16 stolen bases in 42 games late last year after an ill-advised stint with the Blue Jays, who clearly didn't know what to do with him, so you'd think they could have gotten something in return. He hit .296 with 40 stolen bases in 152 games for the Marlins as recently as 2011, and I don't see why, back playing every day for a team that gives him free rein on the base paths, he couldn't do something similar at age 29. I also don't see why he has to stay at second base if he does. He's already getting some starts in center field and could move there full time if the needed arises.

Olt is a different story. Certainly, he has a pedigree, but his stock plummeted when he hit .197 between the Rangers' and Cubs' Triple-A affiliates last season. The Rangers blamed his struggles on a vision problem that they more than once claimed to have conquered only to unload him on the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He showed signs of turning the corner with his performance this spring, but already he's contending with a shoulder injury that diminishes his chances of putting his best foot forward. And even in his "good" minor-league seasons, he wasn't exactly contending for batting titles. The Cubs may not have the patience for a streaky Mark Reynolds type, especially when they have more talented players knocking on the door.

In other words, Baez, Bryant and Alcantara aren't any more blocked than if the Cubs went with the stiffs we originally thought they would at third and second base.

For Baez, anyway, Fantasy owners have already deduced as much. He's the third most owned minor leaguer at 57 percent, behind only must-stashes George Springer and Archie Bradley. Particularly in Rotisserie leagues, where home runs are scarce and middle infielders are in short supply, he might rank up there with them. Coming off an impressive spring power display that validated the Gary Sheffield comparisons, he figures to be first in line regardless of which position opens up first. From the day the Cubs selected him ninth overall in the 2011 draft, most assumed he'd have to move off shortstop eventually, if only to accommodate Castro.

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Of course, third base was supposed to be his fallback position, but that was before the Cubs made Bryant the second overall pick in the 2013 draft. Bryant doesn't have anywhere else he can go, which is why that Baez-to-second base talk gained momentum this spring. Why make the effort to transition Baez to third base if Bryant is coming up right behind him?

The Cubs have kept Baez at shortstop for the time being, which could indicate they have something else up their sleeve. They've shown they're open to trading just about anyone at the big-league level, making Castro's resurgence not such a bad thing. He was never the Theo Epstein type, so if he can resuscitate his value enough to fetch what a 24-year-old All-Star shortstop signed to a team-friendly long-term deal should, Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer may choose to break up the logjam that way. That's mere speculation, of course.

I should point out Alcantara isn't the same caliber of prospect as Baez or Bryant, who are practically superstars already without even setting foot in the big leagues, but he showed with a breakthrough performance at Double-A Tennessee last year that he can be an impact player in the majors. Maybe even a Jimmy Rollins type, though he probably won't reach quite the heights Rollins did.

The Cubs have done such a good job accumulating minor-league talent during this first stage of their massive rebuild that they'll have to get creative to fit it all onto a big-league roster. But while their big-league talent already appears to have improved, the changes they've made so far aren't intended for a long haul. Baez, Bryant and Alcantara still determine when the second stage begins by how quickly they progress in the minors.

So despite any early season developments, my short-term outlook for them hasn't changed. I'll be keeping a close eye on all three -- especially Bryant, who seems too distant to stash just yet but too high-end to pass up if that changes.

Now then, about that Jorge Soler ...

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

In recent years, the Reds have not been shy about quickly getting their top pitching prospects to the majors.

They skipped the minor leagues entirely with Mike Leake, who in 2010 became the 21st player since the MLB draft was instituted in 1965 to play in the majors without first playing a game in the minors. Last season, Tony Cingrani was added to the roster in mid-April after Johnny Cueto landed on the disabled list, despite Cingrani barely getting any service time above Double-A and only logging 197 1/3 innings in his first two pro seasons.

The next great pitching prospect in the Reds' pipeline is Robert Stephenson, who was a 2011 first-round pick (27th overall), and Fantasy owners are wondering how quickly can he ascend to baseball's highest level.

Stephenson is considered the Reds' top prospect by Baseball America and MLB.com, as well as a top 100 prospect by both outlets. Baseball America has Stephenson rated as the 19th-best prospect, while MLB.com ranks him 18th overall.

Stephenson has clearly blazed a trail in his first two pro seasons, and his third year is off to a stellar start. In his season debut for Double-A Pensacola, Stephenson allowed one hit and one walk over five scoreless innings, while striking out 11. In 38 career appearances (37 starts), the right-handed pitching prospect has a 2.98 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, while striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings.

Stephenson has added velocity to his fastball since being drafted. Coming out of high school, his fastball was in the low-to-mid-90s. He now throws it in the mid-to-high-90s. Stephenson also has a curveball with a big 12-to-6 break and a changeup that gives him the potential to have three above-average offerings.

When Mat Latos returns from the disabled list, the Reds will have a pretty solid five-man rotation, making it difficult for Cincinnati to carve out an opening for Stephenson. Even if someone goes down with an injury, Alfredo Simon has proven he can be a viable replacement.

It will probably take a trade or long-term injury for the Reds to even consider bringing Stephenson to the majors. While there's no guarantee Stephenson will get a chance to make his MLB debut in 2014, if he continues to progress at his current pace, you can bet the Reds will probably make room for him in the rotation next spring.

Byron Buxton, OF, Minnesota
Affiliate: Extended Spring Training
2014 stats: N/A
Buxton is being stashed in 41 percent of leagues, which is a strong indication Fantasy owners believe Buxton could make a significant impact this season. However, he remains sidelined due to a wrist injury suffered late in spring training. The Twins are going to do nothing to risk Buxton's future, and have indicated he's not likely to join the roster at Double-A New Britain until May. However, there's probably a good chance Buxton will have to get some at-bats in Triple-A before his promotion to the majors, especially after the Twins saw how Aaron Hicks struggled with the jump from Double-A. If all went according to plan, Buxton might have forced his way into the majors in June. Unless he goes on an absolute tear once healthy, Buxton now might be looking at a late-summer promotion or September callup to the majors since the start of his season has been delayed.

Nick Franklin, SS, Seattle
Affiliate: Triple-A Tacoma
2014 stats: .533/.563/.933/1.496, two home runs, three runs, five RBI and one stolen bases in four games
Franklin was banished to the minors after losing out to Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job this spring. Franklin hasn't sulked about the demotion, as he's off to a stellar start in Triple-A. He could always force his way back onto the Mariners' roster if he continues to rake in the minors, but it's likely going to take an injury to either Miller or Robinson Cano before he sees regular at-bats. A trade likely remains Franklin's best chance of becoming a regular in the majors again, and it could very well happen later this summer if he continues to prove he's too good for Triple-A. Franklin showed last season he could hit in the hitter-friendly PCL, and he's doing it again this season. Though, what's really hurting Franklin was his disappointing debut last season and his so-so spring. Franklin has showcased his potential on occasion, which is likely going to be enough for another organization to make an offer the Mariners will eventually take. Franklin could be worth stashing in keeper and deeper seasonal formats, but you could be waiting until July's trade deadline before putting him in your active lineup.

Joc Pederson, OF, L.A. Dodgers
Affiliate: Triple-A Albuquerque
2014 stats:.429/.529/.857/1.387, two home runs, two RBI, six runs and two stolen bases in four games
Offensively, Pederson looks ready for the majors. However, the Dodgers have a glut of outfielders at the major-league level, which is blocking Pederson's path. The Dodgers would probably like to trade Carl Crawford or Andre Ethier to free up at-bats for Pederson, but their bloated salaries make it difficult. Though, given Matt Kemp's and Crawford's recent history with injuries, Pederson might still be a phone call away from his MLB debut. Again, if Pederson was in another organization, we would be telling seasonal-league owners to stash him with confidence. But if all things remain the same in Los Angeles, owners could be waiting indefinitely for Pederson to be an impact Fantasy player. It's a shame too, since Pederson can really rake. In 324 career games, he is batting .302 with a .395 on-base percentage, .507 slugging percentage and .902 OPS.

Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, SPs, N.Y. Mets
Affiliate: Triple-A Las Vegas
Montero stats: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, five strikeouts, four hits and no walks in one start (six innings)
Syndergaard stats: 1-0, 3.00 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, five strikeouts, two earned runs, six hits and one walk in one start (six innings)
The Mets have to be giddy after watching two of their top pitching prospects -- Montero and Syndergaard -- breeze through their first starts in the hitter-friendly PCL. If the Mets were in dire need of starters, then both players probably could have been serious contenders for the rotation this spring. But the Mets weren't pressed for arms, so both players headed back to the minors to delay the clock on their arbitration years and continue to refine their mechanics. There's a good chance both players make their MLB debuts this season, but I'm not so sure it will be as soon as you would hope as a Fantasy owner. Right now, the Mets have a pretty decent rotation with Dillon Gee, Jonathon Niese, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler and Jenrry Mejia. All these pitchers are capable of keeping their rotation spots, barring injury, so the Mets would be faced with some tough decisions if they wanted to bring Syndergaard or Montero to the majors, let's say, in June. Both players are still worth stashing in deeper Fantasy formats, especially Syndergaard, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if neither player is a regular in the rotation until July at the earliest.

Tom Murphy, C, Colorado
Affiliate: Double-A Tulsa
2014 stats: .357/.400/.786/1.186, two home runs, five RBI and four runs in four games
Murphy is being viewed as the Rockies' catcher of the future given Wilin Rosario's inconsistency on defense. Murphy is likely to push Rosario to first base or a corner-outfield position one day, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit if Murphy gets called to the big leagues later this summer, especially around the time top pitching prospects Eddie Butler and Jon Gray could be making their MLB debuts. Murphy is currently working with both players at Tulsa, so the Rockies might promote Murphy at the same time to ease the transition of Gray and Butler to the major-league level. Fantasy owners want to keep tabs on Murphy's progress since he has been a pretty outstanding offensive option in the minors. He is batting .290 with a .367 on-base percentage, .537 slugging percentage and .904 OPS in 159 career games.

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Player News
Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland won't play spring games until next week
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:36 pm ET) Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland will run the bases on Tuesday, and won't seen any spring games until next week, according to the Star-Telegram. Texas is taking a cautious approach with Moreland in camp after he underwent ankle surgery last June.

The 29-year-old Moreland hit .246/.297/.347 over 167 at-bats last year.


Blue Jays' Gibbons yet to settle on closer, could use committee
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:34 pm ET) Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said Tuesday that while Brett Cecil has the ability to close, he might not serve as the team's closer, the National Post reports.

"He could do it. He might not. It might be somebody else," Gibbons said.

The manager also raised the possibility of using multiple closers.

"It could be one of those deals where one night he might be closing, the other night he might have to come in at the end of the seventh or eighth inning," Gibbons said.

Despite the face that Gibbons hasn't deemed Cecil his closer, he did praise his pitching ability Tuesday.

"He’s got some overpowering stuff," Gibbons said. "He’s a lefty and I don’t think there’s a better curveball out there. He can throw it for strikes, he can bring it down low in the zone and bounce it for a strikeout. That’s kind of his go-to pitch. He doesn’t rattle. He’s pretty confident and calm when he’s out there."

Cecil went 2-3 with a 2.70 ERA, 76:27 K:BB ratio and five saves in 53 1/3 innings in 2014. He owns a 11.1 career K/9 rate in relief.


White Sox's Geovany Soto feeling good at the start of spring games
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:23 pm ET) White Sox catcher Geovany Soto said he is feeling good after being limited to 78 games the last two seasons due to injuries. He missed time in 2014 because of arthroscopic surgery on his left foot and a torn meniscus in his right knee.

"I love where I'm at," Soto said, per The Chicago Tribune. "My legs feel great. My whole body feels great. I'm just anxious to get started and show these guys what I can do, hopefully stay healthy and break camp."


Dodgers' Mattingly: Hyun-Jin Ryu's (back) next step will be BP
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:22 pm ET) Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters that starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu came out of Monday's bullpen session "fine," and that his next step will likely be throwing batting practice, according to SB Nation.

Ryu is dealing with a back injury, but has been throwing the last couple of days without pain. At this point, Ryu remains without a timetable for his first spring game. He went 14-7 in 2014 with a 3.38 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 152 innings pitched last season.


Hinch: Astros 'likely' to use seven-man bullpen in 2015
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:15 pm ET) Astros manager A.J. Hinch indicated that the team is likely to use a seven-man bullpen this season, leaving two spots open for competition this spring, the Houston Chronicle reports.

"Likely," Hinch said of a seven-man bullpen. "There’s always a chance that (changes) depending on how the schedule plays out, and there’s always a debate on how many pitchers to carry during interleague. Now interleague is pretty much year round, so I mean, in a perfect world with our roster, it’s likely to carry a seven-man ‘pen. If we feel like we need an extra pitcher or injury happens, there’s different ways to shape our roster, then we will, but likely 12."

The two open spots will likely be filled by a left-handed pitcher and a long reliever. The competition for the second lefty in the pen likely comes down to Kevin Chapman and nonroster invitees Joe Thatcher and Darin Downs. The long relief role has a broader list of candidates, including Alex White and Asher Wojciechowski, who will prepare both as starters and relievers.

"We’re going to stretch out a lot of our guys," Hinch said. "Some of them are because they’re competing in that fifth starter spot, some of them are bullpen guys. Will Harris is going to throw multiple innings. Obviously (Sam) Deduno has been a starter in the past, he’s in a competition for the fifth man spot. Wojo, White, those guys are going to need to, going to plan for the season on both fronts, whether it’s a starter or reliever. But we’re preaching multiple innings. It’s important if you have a seven-man bullpen that you have a couple of guys that can get four, five, six outs if needed and be a bridge to the rest of the bullpen."


Rangers' Tolleson: 'I'd like to be that bridge' between starters, closers
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:15 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Shawn Tolleson told reporters he would like to become the link between the starting rotation and back-end relievers Tanner Scheppers and Neftali Feliz this season, according to the Dallas Morning News.

"I would like to be that bridge," Tolleson said.

Tolleson led the club with 71 2/3 innings of relief last season. He pitched more than one inning 20 times and held left-handed hitters to a .282 on-base percentage.

"He's got the skill set to be one of those that we use in the latter portions of the game," manager Jeff Banister said. "He seems to love the competition."


Nationals faced with tough decision regarding Michael Taylor
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:10 pm ET) The Nationals are faced with a tough decision when it comes to outfield prospect Michael Taylor, who appears to be on the cusp of being ready for a regular role at the major-league level.

A major issue is playing time since the Nationals have a starting outfield of Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Denard Span. Taylor would be a solid fourth outfielder, but having him coming off the bench is not ideal for his development.

“It’s the same age-old decision that must be made regarding guys that are just on the cusp of being big-league ready and everyday players,” manager Matt Williams said, per NatsInsider.com. “And a question of depth on your team, too. … It’s a question of depth on your team, it’s a question of how much playing time they’re really going to get, and are they better served staying in the minor leagues and getting those at-bats until their opportunity arises. But Mike’s close. He’s really close.”


Nationals' Aaron Barrett: 'I'm ready for a full season'
by Igor Mello | CBSSports.com
(12:06 pm ET) Nationals pitcher Aaron Barrett worked on strengthening his shoulder and legs in the offseason to improve his longevity throughout the entire season. Barrett admitted he wasn't used to a full major-league schedule, which contributed to him feeling "tired" in the middle of his rookie season.

"I'm ready for a full season," Barrett said. "Last year was a long season for me. It was my first year up. I had a lot of appearances, a lot of warm-ups and stuff like that. I think that is part of the process of coming up and working on that. I did as much training as I possibly could for this year."


Daniel Descalso brings versatility, playoff experience to Rockies
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(12:06 pm ET) Rockies infielder Daniel Descalso is ready to fill the role of versatile veteran who can play second base, third base or shortstop as needed, the Denver Post reports.

"I'll be ready for whatever comes my way," Descalso said Monday. "It's been a while since I've played just one position for any length of time, so I've worked hard to reach a comfort level at all three spots. I have an idea of what it takes to stay sharp."

Another factor that piqued the interest of the Rockies this offseason was his postseason experience, as he has played in 44 postseason games and won one championship.

"All of that factored in quite a bit," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think we sometimes underestimate the value of that — guys that have played in big games, pennant races, and have won a World Series. Those types of players are valuable, and that's a big reason why we brought Danny in here."

Descalso has made 110 starts at second base, 91 at third base and 88 at shortstop in his five-year career, seeing at least 100 appearances at all three poitions. He hit .242/.333/.311 in 161 at-bats last year with the Cardinals.


Francona: Jason Kipnis likely to make spring debut this weekend
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:02 pm ET) Indians manager Terry Francona said Tuesday second baseman Jason Kipnis (hand) will likely make his spring debut this weekend, per MLB.com.

 
 
 
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