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Vitters, Lavarnway and Straily: Mining the Minors

One infielder, one catcher, one pitcher. What more could you want, really?

In addition to recently-promoted top prospects, this column offers a fantasy take on those who are formerly-elite or lesser-known, as well as veteran minor leaguers and injured major leaguers, all of whom are on the verge of getting a shot in the majors. To help owners get an idea of just how good a player is (or might be), there’s a Talent Rating, but just as important is the Opportunity Rating, which points out the likelihood that a player will make his way to or stay in the majors during the current season based on various factors (i.e., age, depth chart, recent performance, etc.).

Josh Vitters, Cubs 3B
TALENT: 7 (out of 10)
OPPORTUNITY: 9 (out of 10)
DOB: 8/27/1989
MILB STATS: .300/.353/.508, 22 doubles, 13 HRs, 47 RBIs, 50:21 K:BB over 303 ABs

It’s been a long, slow, often meandering and swing-filled journey for Vitters, who was the No. 3 overall pick way back in 2007. Known for his pure hitting ability from the right side out of high school, Vitters earned plenty of criticism over his first four full seasons for an ultra-aggressive approach, one that saw him walk just 71 times over 1,666 plate appearances (4% BB). It’s not easy to succeed while swinging that much, and yet aside from a rough 2010 (.247-10-39 in his first shot at Double-A, albeit while missing the final two months with a broken finger), Vitters always managed to put up solid, if unspectacular numbers. To wit, he’s a career .281/.324/.450 slasher and has only whiffed in 15% of his PAs.

Well, maybe — just maybe — he’s starting to put things together this year. Vitters is hitting an even .300 and on pace for career-highs in doubles and homers, perhaps a sign that the power many projected is finally coming. And get this: He’s … walking. Okay, it’s not like he’s turned into Free Pass Willie or anything, but with 21 walks already, he’s just one shy of his most ever in a season. Plus, Vitters’ splits across May and June are particularly impressive: .304 BA with 16 doubles, 14 walks and all 13 of his four-baggers. All of a sudden, what once seemed like a high draft pick that wouldn’t amount to much has turned into a young player who looks capable of making a career for himself in the near future.

ETA: The best part about all this is that Vitters is having arguably the best two-month stretch of his career at a time when the Cubs are in desperate need of a third baseman. With Ian Stewart once again terrible and now out of the picture after getting hurt for the rest of the year, there’s a very real chance that Vitters will get a look in the final month or two. The other thing to point out is that Vitters is probably not even league average at the hot corner, so that may impact the team’s decision, but it’s not like a few errors are going to derail the Cubs’ season, so they might as well get Vitters ready for what could be the starting job by Opening Day 2013.

POTENTIAL FANTASY ROLE: CI in NL 10-team leagues or Reserve CI in mixed 14-team leagues

Ryan Lavarnway, Red Sox C
DOB: 8/7/1987
MILB STATS: .315/.402/.472, 18 doubles, 7 HRs, 36 RBIs, 46:36 K:BB over 248 ABs

A candidate to break camp with Boston, Lavarnway was in a tough spot to begin the year and didn’t do himself any favors early on. For a power bat who smashed 21, 22 and 34 homers (including the majors) each of the past three seasons, the righty-swinger had hit all of three through May. Whether it was just a slow start or perhaps lingering disappointment over not making the Red Sox roster out of spring training, the Yale product got back on track in June, going .405/.469/.667 with four homers and 18 RBIs.

But while it’s clear that Lavarnway can rake, the big concern is just how rough he would be behind the dish in the majors. He’s shown improvement since being drafted in 2008, but it’s not likely many teams would feel good about letting him catch on a regular basis. He’s probably not a full-time starter on a first-division team, but given the state of backstops in the majors, Lavarnway would do enough damage in 450 or so at-bats as a hybrid catcher/first baseman/designated hitter because his bat will play.

ETA: With the trade deadline approaching, Lavarnway could make his return to the bigs soon. Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach have actually performed extremely well for Boston, making Lavarnway a nice chip. If he gets dealt this month to a team that brings him up, he’d make for a strong play in leagues with two catchers.

POTENTIAL FANTASY ROLE: C1 in AL 12-team leagues or C2 in mixed 12-team leagues

Dan Straily, A’s SP
DOB: 12/1/1988
MILB STATS: 5-5 W-L, 3.02 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7 HRs, 134:31 K:BB over 104.1 IPs

Ladies and gentlemen, your minor league strikeout leader. Straily, a right-hander, has come from out of nowhere to post some of the most dominant stats in the high minors this season. Even better, after taking a big step forward at Double-A to begin the year (3.38 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 11.4 K/9), Straily has gotten off to an even hotter start in three outings since being promoted to Triple-A (1.42, 1.00, 12.3). The biggest difference in 2012? He’s gone from being a hit-per-inning starter to surrendering just 81 over 104.1 innings. And it’s not like this is some BABIP-fueled luck: Batters are hitting .304 on balls in play.

Still, don’t go dropping Trevor Bauer to pick up Straily. He’s got decent enough stuff — low- to mid-90s fastball with a slider and change — but his pre-2012 career arc is that of a back-end starter in the bigs who’s capable of eating innings but not mowing down the competition. The fact that Straily’s done better this year, though, is encouraging, especially since he falls into the see-it-to-believe-it category. He’s not all that different from fellow A’s fringy pitching prospect A.J. Griffin, who’s now made three very good big league starts, so there’s something here, just don’t go overboard with your expectations based on the digits.

ETA: Straily almost certainly will get a few turns with the A’s before the season is up. Oakland could trade both Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson isn’t likely to return before August, so the time is nigh for Straily. There are higher upside arms on the way, but Straily has a window between now and early 2013 to take advantage of an opportunity.

POTENTIAL FANTASY ROLE: SP5 in AL 10-team leagues or Streaming SP in mixed 14-team leagues