Minor-league seasons begin Thursday, which brings a whole new world to scout for potential impact waiver-wire options.
Sure, you can refresh the stats on the free-agent lists in your fantasy league every morning. But that tends to reveal the same Joe Shmoes every week. And, if you pick up the one that was hot last week, he tends to go 2-for-19 the next. Market corrections. And chasing your tail.
Ah, but those highly regarded prospects, now those seem to dominate every week, every day, down on the farm. They can be invaluable assets for when they actually do arrive.
It tends to be around June 1 when the biggest names are ushered to the major leagues, especially those franchise-player types who come up for smaller-budget, non-contenders that merely sent their prospects down to save them from the Super Two arbitration designation. Well, Super Two is going away, but this year's best prospects to open in the minor leagues still won't be coming up until after a couple of months.
There is no Stephen Strasburg-type super prospect in this bunch we will analyze below, but there are some potential Buster Poseys, perhaps.
First, we start with the five most-owned fantasy players to start the season in the minors:
Destination: Low Class A, Hagerstown SunsMLB ETA: No sooner than this September
What needs to happen: The 18-year-old Harper just needs some pro experience. His college numbers suggest he can hit right away, a notion also supported by his work in the Arizona Fall League (.343 in nine games) and major-league spring training (.389 in 13 games). Harper is a one-in-a-generation talent who can make his own timetable to the majors. September is a possibility. Playing the outfield shouldn't be a real obstacle, although they are trying him in center initially.
What to do: No matter how good Harper's numbers get, he still figures to be merely a long-term keeper prospect for fantasy purposes. His impact in 2011 will be minimal, if non-existent. The fact he is owned in over one-third of leagues right now shows fantasy owners in annual leagues are likely wasting a reserve spot on him.
Destination: Triple-A, Omaha Storm ChasersMLB ETA: June 1
What needs to happen: Moustakas went to Spring Training with a very slim chance of opening the year in Kansas City, but he hit just .227 with a homer. The Royals had professed the desire to make their players spend a full season at every level, but Moustakas cracked that with his combined .322, 36 homers, 124 RBI, .999 OPS and .369 OBP in 118 games between Double- and Triple-A. A hot start in Triple-A could put Moustakas on a fast track to the majors and a fantasy impact.
What to do: Watch him like a hawk, and don't even bother paying attention to what happens at third base in Kansas City (Mike Aviles or Wilson Betemit). Moustakas is a get-out-of-the-way prospect at 22. The Royals have already cleared Billy Butler and Alex Gordon from the hot corner to open up the spot for him sometime this season. The California high school product should be the best of that trio.
Destination: Triple-A, Durham BullsMLB ETA: June 1
What needs to happen: Jennings was considered a candidate to be in the major leagues out of spring training this winter, but that changed when the Rays signed Johnny Damon to play left and Manny Ramirez to DH. Jennings hit just .154 in 26 spring training at-bats and will need time to show some dominance in Triple-A. Jennings has never shown great power, but he is a Carl Crawford type who can be a monster in Rotisserie formats right away. It might just take a Ramirez or Damon DL stint to get him in the major leagues. Once he arrives, he could stay there for good.
What to do: Jennings is a Moustakas-like must-track day-to-day if you're in a Rotisserie format. Not only should you follow Jennings' box scores, but you also have to track the injury report entries on Ramirez and Damon. That trio will all be closely linked. The lack of true power -- it tends to be the last thing to come -- makes Jennings more of a Rotisserie specialist initially. This writer once said the same thing about Andrew McCutchen, though, and look how that turned out.
Destination: Triple-A, Tacoma RainiersMLB ETA: June 1
What needs to happen: Ackley was another one who had a very legit look at making the team out of Spring Training. Instead, the Mariners decided to go with Jack Wilson at second base. That is hardly a road block. The Mariners just want the Strasburg consolation prize of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft (second overall pick) to assert himself out of the gate in Triple-A. He needs to add the kind of power that can make him a big-time run producer among fantasy second basemen.
What to do: Watch Ackley's power numbers. He has already shown a 1-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio; he just needs to add the aggressiveness to his résumé. If Ackley goes on an extended power tear, he could be ushered to the majors quickly. There is no road block for when his bat tells the Mariners he is ready.
Destination: Triple-A, Scranton Wilkes-Barre YankeesMLB ETA: Late July
What needs to happen: Catchers just don't arrive at 21, especially not for a contender during a pennant race. Even Posey was 23 last season, and the Giants initially brought him up as a part-time first baseman just to see if he could hit. He did. Montero has already shown he can crush Triple-A to the tune of .289 with 21 homers, 75 RBI, .870 OPS and .353 OBP, but Russell Martin and Jorge Posada have both gotten off to good starts and the Yankees will have little reason to go away from those veterans, barring injury.
What to do: Stick pins in your Martin or Posada dolls. No one should really root for a player to be injured, but in the cases of Martin and Posada, injury tends to find them. We listed the ETA for Montero to be late July instead of early June, because the summer months is the time for: 1.) Worn-down backstops; and 2.) trade-deadline hi jinx. You can guarantee if Montero gets worked in a big trade, it will come after a brief audition in New York. It could be more likely the Yankees deal Martin than Montero.
It should be noted Domonic Brown (wrist) did not make this top five because he is currently on the Phillies' 15-day DL. He should get a lengthy rehab stint in Triple-A. Otherwise he would be No. 1 on this list for the earliest impact among prospects to be "called up."
Here is a preseason minor-league must-track team. Notice Harper is not on the list because his arrival has to be deemed unexpected this season. There are hundreds of prospects in the minors who are owned by fantasy owners, but here are the top ones to track by position:
Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time. And don't forget to check out the SI Inside Fantasy Podcast featuring Mack and Will Carroll.