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All-Star Futures Game preview

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.