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Futures Game Players to Watch

Alex LiddiAll star festivities start before the all star break, with the futures game (this Sunday, 11 AM PDT). Baseball America selects some of baseball's finest prospects in their expert estimation from around the minors, and assembles them on one field in a United States versus the World format. Only two prospects can be picked from each farm system, so it is a virtual lock that every organization will be represented. Really, everyone is worth watching in this game. However, here are a few players I will be watching in particular:

WORLD ROSTER

Neftali Feliz, RHP, AAA, Rangers - Feliz is only 21 years old, and doing a fine job in AAA. Perhaps most impressive, he has allowed only 1 home run in 69.1 innings pitched. Neftali has flown through the Rangers system, and he may be in Texas impacting the AL West pennant race by the end of the year. He is a legitimate in-house option for them, and looking more long-term he could anchor their pitching staff for years to come.

Junichi Tazawa, RHP, AA, Red Sox - There was a bidding war over this Japanese pitcher in the offseason, with some scouts and clubs thinking Tazawa was ready for the majors. Boston signed him for fairly big money, especially for a guy that they sent to AA. Junichi is having a solid year though, and at 23 is a solid looking prospect. It will be even more interesting to see if Tazawa blazes the trail for many Japanese players to not sign with Japanese teams and head to America, or if he remains an exception.

Carlos Santana, C, AA, Indians - It's doubtful that the Indians will trade Victor Martinez, but the main reason they can somewhat seriously consider it is because of Santana (though, honestly, Victor's current backup, Kelly Shoppach, isn't all that bad). If Santana has a great futures game, don't be surprised if the national media starts reporting more Victor Martinez trade rumors. Personally, I think Santana is clearly at least a year away from the majors, and on top of that I think he is a bit overrated at this point.

Jesus Montero, C, AA, Yankees - Meet the heir apparent to Jorge Posada. At 6'4", Jesus is a tall catcher, and I do not know how good his defensive skills are. However, he can definitely swing the bat. Montero is only 20 years old, and already holding his own in AA. In particular, his power numbers are impressive. If the Yankees can squeeze one or two more decent years out of Jorge, it doesn't look like they will have to worry about catcher for another decade.

Alcides Escobar, SS, AAA, Brewers - Escobar has been a highly thought of prospect for a few years now, though his path to the majors is still blocked by the rather young JJ Hardy. The reason Hardy rumors continue to persist are because of how good most scouts think Escobar is. I have never had the chance to see him play, but reports are that his defense is fantastic, and he projects as a good hitter too. Escobar hits for good average, but he'll never have the power that JJ Hardy has. He is another prospect that I think is overrated just a bit, though I like his future. Expect JJ Hardy rumors to ramp up if Escobar has a great futures game.

Alex Liddi, 3B, A+, Mariners - This is the third time I've written about Liddi this week, so if you follow me you've probably got a good idea what I'm about to say. He has always had five-tool talent, but put it all together for the first time in High Desert. He is a threat to capture the California League triple crown right now, and I hope he gets significant playing time in the Futures game. I want to see how he handles himself against pitchers in more advanced leagues, even if it is for only an at-bat or two.

Dayan Viciedo, 3B, AA, White Sox - Viciedo, like Tazawa, was a highly touted international free agent. This time, the White Sox won the bidding war, and many believed Viciedo may go straight to the majors. Chicago started him out in AA though, and it is a good thing they did. The Cuban is overly aggressive, like Cubans tend to be, and as a result he has struggled. Then again, he is only 20 years old playing in AA ball, so it was probably unfair to expect him to dominate. Suffice it to say his production did not get him in the futures game; his raw talent and potential did.

Tyson Gillies, OF, A+, Mariners - Representing the M's along with Liddi is Tyson Gillies, a 20-year-old Canadian with significant hearing loss. He profiles as a leadoff hitter with good defense in center field, and he has enjoyed a fine season so far in the leadoff spot for the potent High Desert lineup. Again, if you follow me, this is the third time you've read something about Tyson this week. He's still the same player he was at the start of the week, and I am looking forward to seeing him play.

UNITED STATES ROSTER

Brad Lincoln, RHP, AAA, Pirates - The 2006 watchlist member is recovering from major arm surgery quite nicely, and will likely be in the majors by year's end. Pittsburgh has a few nice starters, but nobody with the power stuff that Lincoln has.

Brian Matusz, AA, Orioles - Baltimore's first-round pick just a year ago is flying through the minors, and may even reach the majors by the end of the year. He was considered one of the most polished pitchers in the 2008 draft, making him a candidate to rise through the minors quickly. Still, Matusz has certainly been more overpowering than I expected him to be thus far, and I think the Orioles may have a better pitcher on their hands than maybe even they thought they were getting.

Chris Tillman, AAA, Orioles - Yes, this is the same former Mariners farmhand included in the Erik Bedard deal. He is now one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, and if you think the Bedard trade looks bad now, wait until Tillman makes the majors. He and Matusz should anchor the top of Baltimore's rotation for years to come. They even complement each other nicely, with Tillman being a righty and Matusz a lefty.

Tyler Flowers, C, AA, White Sox - Flowers can flat-out rake. His bat would is easily good enough to get him to the majors at any position, but at catcher it makes him especially valuable. He is a little bit older at 23 years of age, but he should be ready to crush major league pitching right as A.J. Pierzynski runs out of gas.

Pedro Alvarez, 3B, AA, Pirates - The 2008 watch list member has prodigious power. In fact, I'd like to see him in home run derby on Monday, because he would more than hold his own. Pedro's plate discipline is lacking though, and I am worried that he may never develop it because it looks like Pittsburgh is already pushing him quickly through the minor league system. I expect him to look a bit like Wily Mo Pena at the plate in the futures game.

Brett Wallace, 3B, AAA, Cardinals - If there is one prospect to watch in this entire game, it has to be Brett Wallace. Granted, I am partial to him, considering he was on my 2008 watchlist. However, he should get the warmest ovation since the game will be in St. Louis. More importantly, the Cardinals need some bats to protect Albert Pujols, and Wallace is the best internal option they have. You can bet that Cardinals fans know that, and that they will be watching Brett intently. Wallace is the mostly likely player in this game to impact the 2009 playoff picture.

Jemile Weeks, 2B, A+, Athletics - Another 2008 watchlist member, Weeks started the year hurt, but is off to an extremely fast start as a professional now that he is healthy. He has been awful against left-handers (in a very small sample size though), but he has more than made up for it against righties. Also, Jemile's defense receives high marks. His set of skills at second base definitely make him a candidate to fly through the minors.

Every player in the game deserves a write-up, but here is more than a handful of gems that I am particularly looking forward to seeing. The futures game is a great kick-off to the all-star festivities, and the first opportunity to see many of baseball's future all-stars.