Perhaps the season's most anticipated minor league call-up to date will hit Boston tomorrow. A scrappy about-to-be-35-year-old former Cy Young Award winner will pitch for the Red Sox. That's right: It's the Return of the Blob. Bartolo Colon is back in the majors.
For what it's worth, I think Colon is probably worth adding in all leagues if you have an available bench spot, on the off chance that he's able to stay healthy and throwing gas. The Sox say he consistently touched the mid-90s in his final Triple-A start, and since Colon has never been what you'd call deceiving, a lively fastball is an absolute must for him. The dubious Clay Buchholz fingernail injury is a not-so-elaborate ruse aimed at giving Colon a good look before June 1. No promises, but this guy won his Cy Young in 2005. It's not as if we're talking about someone a decade past his prime.
Colon's imminent ascension has me wondering: Who are the guys currently in the minors who'll provide the most fantasy value from this point forward in 2008? Clearly, the answer to that question will be a function of talent, maturity and (most importantly) opportunity. What follows is my list (in reverse order) of top 10 impact minor leaguers for the rest of '08, but first, my honorable mention list: Chris Carpenter, SP, Cardinals; Jeff Clement, C/DH, Mariners; Chris Davis, 1B, Rangers; Adam Lind, OF, Blue Jays; Ryan Tucker, SP, Marlins; Ian Stewart, 3B, Rockies; Curt Schilling, SP, Red Sox; Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates; Nelson Cruz, OF, Rangers; Steve Pearce, OF, Pirates; Gio Gonzalez, SP, A's; Kevin Mulvey, SP, Twins; Denard Span, OF, Twins; Carlos Gonzalez, OF, A's; James Simmons, SP, A's; Cameron Maybin, OF, Marlins.
10. Jason Schmidt, SP, Dodgers. Of the aging injured hurlers (Carpenter, Schilling, Mark Mulder), Schmidt's the only one currently throwing in games. He's made two appearances at Class A Inland Empire, and reportedly was able to touch 90 mph last time out. The Dodgers will let Schmidt guide them through his rehab from shoulder surgery, but if he stays pain-free, he could be in the bigs by July. Don't expect miracles, though.
9. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers. I know, I know. You wanted Kershaw higher. The 20-year-old lefty is a cause célèbre in fantasy circles right now, and his stuff is terrific. But his stamina isn't. Sure, the Double-A Jacksonville Suns are probably babying him, but the fact remains: He's averaging less than 5 1/3 innings per start. And while his control has been better at Double-A (15 walks in 42 1/3 innings), the memory of last year's 67 free passes in 121 minor league innings still stings. I have every confidence he'll come up and show flashes in the majors. But he won't be an automatic fantasy stud.
8. Andy LaRoche, 3B, Dodgers. Gee, I guess the Dodgers have some prospects. LaRoche still hasn't gotten a fair shake at third, and Blake DeWitt's good start has lessened the pain of Nomar Garciaparra's, well, pain. But while DeWitt was a legit prospect, I don't think he's a .318 big league hitter and eventually the Dodgers will want more power out of third base. LaRoche will get a call. It's certainly not right to damn the 24-year-old for 93 at-bats in '07. His OPS at Triple-A Las Vegas right now is 1.066.
7. Chris Volstad, SP, Marlins. The first prep pitcher drafted in '05, Volstad is 6-foot-7 but isn't a classic power hurler, relying instead on a heavy two-seamer in the 89-92 mph range. He doesn't project as an ace, but he's been very effective at Double-A Carolina this year: nine starts, 2.79 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, .226 BAA. I put him slightly ahead of Kershaw for '08 because (a) he's a year further into his development, and (b) he hasn't had awful control problems in the recent past. He should be up with the big club sometime in June.
6. Homer Bailey, SP, Reds. Bailey was a fantasy darling last spring, but fought a groin injury and pitched badly, to the tune of a 5.76 ERA and a 1.57 WHIP when he made it to the majors. It was disappointing that both Johnny Cueto and Edinson Volquez outpitched Bailey this spring, but he's been strong at Triple-A: nine starts, 3.88 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 44 K's in 55 2/3 IP. He's been weaker his past two times out, making an imminent call-up unlikely. But his stuff is still nasty: mid-90s heat, knee-buckling curve. His change still needs work, and he has Jon Lester-like efficiency problems. But he can be a true No. 1 starter. He'll be worth the investment once he gets the call.
5. Colby Rasmus, OF, Cardinals. Rasmus is off to a terrible start at Triple-A Memphis: .182 AVG, .270 OBP, .579 OPS in 165 AB. But he was a slow starter in both '05 and '06, too, and wound up with huge numbers in those seasons, so he should be fine. What's really holding Rasmus back right now is the performance of St. Louis' outfield. Even when Rick Ankiel hurt his shoulder this weekend, the team had Ryan Ludwick going ballistic, with Chris Duncan and Skip Schumaker each posting OBPs over .350. Once Ludwick cools way down, Rasmus should get a chance, and he's a legit five-tool prospect.
4. Jay Bruce, OF, Reds. Bruce is hitting .363 for Triple-A Louisville with 10 homers, 36 RBIs and a 1.061 OPS. Last year, at age 20, Bruce turned an injury fill-in assignment at Triple-A into a full-time job, putting himself a year ahead in his development. Now he's 21 and has very little left to prove at any minor league level. Once he gets called up, his weakness will be strikeouts, which means we can't expect him to hit for a particularly high average. But with his skills, in that ballpark, he'll be a power threat right away, plus he can run. The biggest problem Bruce has right now is Dusty Baker's affinity for veterans. That's the only thing keeping him at No. 4 on this list.
3. Chase Headley, OF, Padres. When the Padres cut Jim Edmonds, it was the clarion call for Headley. With the likes of Jody Gerut and Scott Hairston playing most nights, San Diego seems to be waiting for June 1 to pass, when Headley gets another year tacked on to his "super two" arbitration rights. I think he'll be up soon thereafter. He absolutely killed it in spring training (.349 AVG, 1.106 OPS) and slumped at Triple-A when he didn't make the big club, but now he's back up to .289 for the season at Portland with an .849 OPS. Like Bruce, he'll be prone to strikeouts during his rookie year, and he doesn't have the steals upside that Rasmus and Bruce do. But I've got him ranked as the top positional minor leaguer right now simply because I think he has the clearest path to the bigs.
2. Francisco Liriano, SP, Twins. When I was asked to give my "Starting Pitcher To Trade For At The All-Star Break" this March, I said Liriano. That was before he was sent down, and came simply because of Tommy John surgery pathology: While a pitcher might feel great, control seems to be the last thing that comes back. Now, Liriano's composite numbers at Triple-A Rochester don't look great: five starts, 4.28 ERA, 1.43 WHIP, 19 K's and 15 walks in 32 2/3 IP. But he's been a lot better in his last three outings, including an eight-inning effort last Thursday in which he allowed seven hits and one walk. His velocity was higher, and that control improvement means everything. Don't expect to see him in Minnesota until mid-June at the earliest, but I do still think he'll be a significant fantasy contributor from July forward.
1. Rich Hill, SP, Cubs. I'm not giving up on Hill. Right now, he's a mess. He walked 18 in just 19 2/3 innings before the Cubs rightly gave him the boot to Triple-A Iowa, and since then he's walked another eight in 13 1/3, making it apparent that whatever ails him isn't going to be solved by a simple four-start tune-up. In fact, the Cubs placed him on the minor league DL on Monday with lower-back pain. It would be very easy to write this guy off for '08, but I think you do so at your peril. The Cubs are trying to win a pennant, so I agree: They have no business allowing Hill to work through his mechanical issues in games that count. But a time will come when Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis and Sean Gallagher are not going to cut it, and Hill will get the call. He needs to figure out how to get that freakish curveball over again, but right now the problem lies squarely between his ears. He'll get it figured out, and the back injury isn't serious. If you have a spare bench spot, I'd add Hill now, because he's going to be very good for the Cubs again in '08.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner across all three of those sports. You can e-mail him here.