I consider myself a fan of the Arkansas Travelers, mainly because I'm a lover of baseball in general. But my fandom is two-faced. Though I enjoy the experience of the games, I don't much give a damn who wins them. Just give me a few cheap beers and a triple — for the record, the most exciting play in baseball — and I'm happy.
I don't beat myself up over this lack of enthusiasm. I can't imagine that many Arkansans are riled by a team whose roster is a funnel to the Los Angeles Angels. But my interest in the Travelers squad has a mercenary edge to it. While my friends waste their time this summer going to see games at Yankee Stadium or Camden Yards, I'll be getting the dirt on the youngsters who will demand top dollar in our fantasy league in 2011.
Fantasy baseball performance and on-field performance are compatible, of course. Unfortunately for both me and the guy who's too depressed to get out of bed after a loss to the Frisco RoughRiders, the Travelers do not look to have much in the way of top prospects this year.
Part of the problem is the Angels' recent management strategy, which dictates that the club sign at least one multimillion-dollar free agent annually, even if that multimillion-dollar free agent is Gary Matthews Jr. (They did a bit better this year with Torii Hunter.) According to MLB rules, when a franchise signs a top-quality player, it has to give his previous team a high draft pick. So the Angels haven't been doing their farm system any favors of late — they haven't had a first-round pick for three of the past four seasons.
Nick Adenhart, the Travelers' top pitcher last year, has moved up to Triple-A and may be in the majors by the end of the year. The rest of the Travelers staff, with the exception of Anthony Ortega, carries over from last year.
At the plate, the most exciting new addition is outfielder Chris Pettit, who was the Angels' minor leaguer of the year in 2007. The rest of the outfield has played for the Travelers before, but the infield is all newcomers. The one to watch is Hainley Statia, a 22-year-old shortstop who is lauded for his glove.
Later in the season we might see Hank Conger, considered to be the Angels' catcher of the future. Just 20 years old, Conger recently suffered a shoulder tear and will start at Class A when he returns. But if he comes back hot, he could be a Traveler by season's end.
Of course, the whole Texas League will have gems to offer, including Daniel Cortes, a hard-throwing right-hander for the brand-new Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Who knows if there will actually be a rivalry between the Nats and the Travs. But there will be plenty of prospects to watch and enough solid baseball to go around. With any luck, the Travelers will even bust out their classic “half-price Pabst cans after the seventh inning stretch” promotion from time to time.