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Yunesky Maya: Mining the Minors

For those of you wondering, yes, go pick up Royals prospect Eric Hosmer, if he’s still available in your league. The first baseman has been called up sooner than expected — leading the minors in average and on-base percentage will do that — and will be in Friday’s lineup. He’s going to take over the starting job, and he’s worth a shot in every league, even 10-team mixed, on the chance that one of baseball’s best prospects translates his talents to the big-league level immediately. If so, we could be looking at this year’s Buster Posey.

Now back to your regularly-scheduled Mining the Minors programming, as we take a look at another minor-leaguer who could soon be making his own way to the majors, even if he’s not quite as highly-regarded.

Yunesky Maya, SP
Organization: Nationals
Current Level: Triple-A
Statistics: 1-2 W-L; 3.73 ERA; 1.02 WHIP; 26:7 K:BB over 31 1/3 IPs
40-man roster: Yes
Opportunity Rating: 8
Talent Rating: 7
Obstacle(s): Early-season performance of Nationals rotation

Much like Reds phenom Aroldis Chapman, Maya defected from Cuba in 2009 and made his MLB debut last season. But the comparisons pretty much end there. For one, Maya is already 29, so he doesn’t have Chapman’s upside. For another, he’s right-handed. And to top things off, he’s more of a savvy, finesse pitcher; Maya’s fastball clocks in right around Chapman’s changeup. But while Maya’s introduction to baseball in America has come with much less fanfare, he actually may wind up being the more valuable fantasy pitcher for this season — after all, Chapman is stuck in a setup role, which limits his value.

Maya signed a four-year, $7.4 million deal with the Nats last July after winning the equivalent of the Cy Young in Cuba’s Serie Nacional in 2009 with a 13-4 record, a 2.22 ERA and topping the league in wins, innings and shutouts, while also finishing second (to Chapman) with 119 Ks. Following just 21 innings across three levels (3.38 ERA, 1.31 WHIP) last year, Maya earned a September call-up, which may have been asking too much of a pitcher whose only game action in more than a year came in those five minor-league outings. The results were disappointing — 0-3 W-L, 5.88 ERA, 1.58 WHIP — but almost unfair. To his credit, Maya turned things around in the offseason when he participated in the Dominican Winter League and was named the circuit’s top pitcher with a 1.32 ERA and 42:9 K:BB ratio.

That success has carried over to start 2011. After falling just short in his attempt to make the Nats out of camp, Maya’s first Triple-A start of the year was shaky (5 ERs in 4 2/3 IPs), but he’s turned it around since, surrendering just 8 runs in his last 26 2/3 (2.70 ERA), including 8 innings of 3-hit, no-run ball in his last outing. While he’s never going to be a big strikeout guy, Maya’s currently getting 7.5/9, so it’s not like he’s Nick Blackburn. His control (2.0 BB/9) should help limit the damage, too, and his big-time success pitching as a pro in Cuba proves he’s battle-tested and more big-league ready than most pure prospects. Overall, he should be an innings-eater who doesn’t hurt owners, while also twirling the occasional borderline gem. Don’t expect anything above a No. 4 fantasy starter, even in deeper leagues, but there’s still value in having a guy who should throw his share of quality starts.

Unlike a typical minor-leaguer, the Nats are paying Maya on a major-league contract for the next three years, so it’s in their best interest to see what they have in him sooner rather than later. There isn’t a spot for him for the time being, what with the Nats rotation pitching waaay over their heads. But considering the track records of those five, especially the back end, it’s only a matter of another Jason Marquis injury or a couple John Lannan bashings — like last night’s 2-inning, 6-run yuckfest against the Phillies — before Maya gets his next shot. Expect him to do more with it this time around.

ETA: June, by which point something is likely to give with the Nationals rotation.

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When it comes to monitoring players for this column, I’ll do the grunt work, but if you have any suggestions for minor leaguers that you would like to see tracked, discussed and evaluated in Mining the Minors, feel free to post suggestions in the comments section. I’ll do my best to get to as many as I can going forward.