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All-Star Futures Game preview

Jul 11, 2009, 2:57 PM EDT

Unfortunately, the All-Star Futures Game, while a great idea, still
hasn’t really caught on as an event because of MLB’s insistence on
playing it while all of the major league games are going on the Sunday
afternoon before the All-Star Game. On the plus side, at least they
treated it like a real game for the first time last year and played
nine innings. The previous nine contests were all seven innings in
length.

Since the series began, the U.S. and World teams are tied 5-5, with
the World winning the last two contests. Futures Games MVPs have
included Grady Sizemore, Jose Reyes and Alfonso Soriano. Last year; it
was Red Sox prospect Che-Hsuan Lin, who hit a two-run homer as part of
the 3-0 victory at Yankee Stadium.

This year’s contest will feature 50 players, including at least one
from every team. Here’s a quick look at some of the top prospects to
keep an eye on:

U.S. Team

Madison Bumgarner (LHP Giants) – Bumgarner, the 10th overall
selection in the 2007 draft, has taken over as the game’s No. 1
pitching prospect while going 9-2 with a 1.66 ERA, 64 H and 68/20 K/BB
in 81 1/3 innings between Single-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut
this year. He has exceptional command for a 19-year-old, which is one
reason I think he could help the Giants next month if the team is
willing to rush him to the majors.

Jason Heyward (OF Braves) – The 19-year-old Heyward gave Atlanta
fans a taste of the future when he hit .300/.364/.475 in 40 at-bats
this season. The Braves played it safe anyway and assigned him to
Single-A Myrtle Beach, where he hit .296/.369/.519 through the end of
June. Since his recent move up to Double-A, he’s hit .346/.438/.615
with no strikeouts through 26 at-bats. He’s baseball’s best prospect,
and it looks like he’ll be ready to make an impact at some point during
2010.

Mike Stanton (OF Marlins) – Stanton and Heyward could face
comparisons throughout their career, given that they’re natural right
fielders with big power potential born two months apart. Stanton had
been posting the bigger numbers: he hit 39 homers last year and he was
at .294/.390/.578 through 50 games at Single-A Jupiter to begin this
year. However, he has fallen to .216/.319/.431 in 116 at-bats since
moving up to Double-A. The big concern with Stanton is strikeouts, and
though he has lowered his K rate this year, he’s still fanned 80 times
in 80 games. Odds are that he’ll have some 40-homer seasons in the
majors, though they probably won’t come with particularly strong OBPs.

Brett Wallace (3B Cardinals) – The U.S. team is loaded at third
base, with the third overall pick in the 2007 draft (Josh Vitters) and
the second overall pick in the 2008 draft (Pedro Alvarez) joining
Wallace. Wallace is the most advanced prospect of the group, but he’s
also the least capable of handling third. He’s hit .294/.375/.443
between Double- and Triple-A this year. Since first base is pretty well
blocked off in St. Louis, Wallace’s name could keep coming up in trade
rumors.

Chris Tillman (RHP Orioles) – Tillman and fellow Orioles prospect
Brian Matusz were both deservedly named to the team. Tillman, who was
part of the Erik Bedard deal with Seattle, should be the first to
arrive to the majors, perhaps next month. He’s 7-5 with a 2.50 ERA, 72
H and 88/22 K/BB in 86 1/3 IP for Triple-A New Orleans.

World Team

Jesus Montero (C Yankees) – Like Heyward and Stanton, Montero is a
19-year-old who opened this year in high-A ball and has since moved on
to Double-A. He has the most impressive numbers of the trio, as he hit
.356/.406/.583 in 180 at-bats at Tampa and is at .285/.353/.472 since
moving up to Trenton. If only he were a legitimate catcher, he’d rival
Heyward as the game’s top prospect. Even viewed strictly as a first
baseman/designated hitter, he’s clearly right up there.

Carlos Santana (C Indians) – Santana, who was acquired from the
Dodgers in the Casey Blake deal last year, started out as an
outfielder, but there’s little doubt now that he’ll make it as a major
league catcher. That he’s a switch-hitter isn’t the only reason he
deserves comparisons to Victor Martinez: he’s hitting .266/.394/.494 in
Double-A this season. He has all of the tools defensively and only
needs to add more polish.

Alcides Escobar (SS Brewers) – The only one of the 50 players with
major league experience, Escobar spent last September on Milwaukee’s
bench. He may not be much more than a singles hitter in the majors, but
he has Gold Glove potential at shortstop. The Brewers will consider
playing him at second base in the second half if Craig Counsell loses
his hold on the job.

Neftali Feliz (RHP Rangers) – The Rangers recently opted to send
Feliz to the bullpen to see if he could be of use later this year. He’s
since allowed one run and posted a 9/1 K/BB ratio in 8 2/3 innings.
Feliz, a former Braves prospect who was picked up as part of the Mark
Teixeira trade in 2007, has one of the best arms in the minors.
Durability is a question mark, which is one more reason the Rangers
made the move now. He still projects as a starter for the long haul.

Junichi Tazawa (RHP Red Sox) – Last winter’s controversial import
has gone 8-5 with a 2.79 ERA, 72 H and 79/25 K/BB in 87 innings for
Double-A Portland. If the Red Sox needed help, he’d seem to be about
ready to get a look as a middle reliever. As is, they can continue to
groom him as a starter in Double-A and see what develops. It might be
that he’ll fit best as a setup man.

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