They are all just one step away. In some cases, they're even closer than that. Yet when the 2008 seasons kicks off, the International League will have a host of players who, by some accounts, should be playing at the big-league level.
Instead, they'll be in cities like Durham, Louisville and Charlotte, plying their trade and awaiting the call to the Majors. Here's a closer look at 10 players worth noting as the IL season gets under way.
1. Jay Bruce, OF
Louisville Bats (Cincinnati)
The former first-rounder excelled at three levels last year, including 187 at-bats with Louisville. Overall, he hit .319 with 26 homers, 89 RBIs and 80 extra-base hits. He was named the top prospect in all of baseball by MiLB.com, and with good reason. He got nicked up early in camp with a strained quadriceps muscle, costing him nearly a week of playing time, and a few more months at Triple-A clearly won't stop him. He's going to be in the heart of the Cincinnati order before long.
2. Evan Longoria, 3B
Durham Bulls (Tampa Bay)
Longoria made a good case to stay with the parent club this spring, hitting .262 with three homers and 10 RBIs, but in the end it wasn't enough. He'll be back in Durham, at least for the start of the season. He finished up with the Bulls last year, hitting .269 with five homers and 19 RBIs as Durham reached the IL finals. His 21 homers at Double-A Montgomery set that franchise's record. Overall, he struck out 110 times last year, but he also drew 73 walks, allowing him to post an OBP that hovered around .400 all season.
3. Josh Fields, 3B
Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
That Fields is on this list is a great surprise to just about everyone. The former first-rounder jumped into the Chicago lineup last summer when Joe Crede had season-ending surgery. He performed well, hitting 23 homers (18 in the second half) and driving in 67 runs. But because Crede is healthy again, and there's nowhere for Fields on the Major League roster, White Sox brass reluctantly sent him back to Charlotte last week. How long he'll be there is anyone's guess, but for whatever amount of time he spends with the Knights, Fields will be worth watching.
4. Larry Parrish, manager
Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit)
Parrish returns to the bench after sitting out last season following ankle surgery. He led the Mud Hens to back-to-back International League titles in 2005-06 and figures to have them contending for a crown again this year. Though Mike Rojas did a splendid job leading Toledo to the playoffs in Parrish's absence, the idea of dealing with the ultra-frank Parrish will once again make Northwest Ohio one of the places to be this summer.
5. Jeff Larish, 1B
Toledo Mud Hens (Detroit)
You can't have a Parrish without a Larish. Seussian as that may sound, the idea that the former Arizona State slugger will be just as important as the skipper in any playoff run for Toledo isn't far-fetched. Larish, who had a splendid season last year at Double-A Erie, is expected to anchor the middle of the Mud Hens lineup, providing protection for Matt Joyce and pop in his own right. He hit 28 homers and drove in 101 runs, both tops in the Eastern League a year ago.
6. Phil Humber, RHP
Rochester Red Wings (Minnesota)
One of the main characters in the deal that sent Johan Santana to New York, Humber had a good spring, going 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in 14 innings. But it wasn't enough to crack the Minnesota rotation, so he'll begin the season in upstate New York. The former Rice star has successfully come back from Tommy John surgery, going 11-9 with a 4.25 ERA in 25 starts for New Orleans last season and a 7.71 ERA in seven innings with the Mets.
7. Alan Horne, RHP
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees (New York)
The thrice-drafted former Florida star blossomed last season at Trenton, going 12-4 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 Eastern League starts. The buzz in New York, and rightfully so, has been about the big three pitching prospects -- Joba Chamberlain, Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes -- but Horne should not be overlooked. He figures to play as prominent a role in the Yankees' future as the aforementioned hurlers. He may not make it to New York this season, but he should be fighting for a rotation spot in 2009.
8. Homer Bailey, RHP
Louisville Bats (Cincinnati)
Bailey got a taste of life in Cincinnati last season, going 4-2 with a 5.76 ERA in nine starts. He was also 6-3 with a 3.07 ERA in 12 starts at Louisville, putting him a position to win a spot in the Reds' starting rotation this spring. Didn't happen. The former first-rounder had a rough spring (1-3, 5.21 ERA, 24 hits allowed and 16 walks in 19 innings), so from that standpoint his being sent back down wasn't much of a surprise. The fact that he missed a big chunk of last year with a groin injury also prevented him from gaining some valuable mound time -- time he'll be able to make up over the next few months in Louisville.
9. Adam Miller, RHP
Buffalo Bison (Cleveland)
Miller also had his share of injuries last season and continued to deal with setbacks this spring, suffering from a blister problem that limited him until late in March. When he's healthy, he's one of the best and brightest pitchers in the Minors. The last 14 months, however, have featured one impediment after another for the former first-rounder. He was 5-4 with a 4.82 ERA in 19 games (11 starts) for Buffalo last year, and figures to be at the front end of the Bisons' rotation once he's at full speed later this month.
10. Brandon Jones, OF
Richmond Braves (Atlanta)
The multifaceted Jones spent half a season in Richmond last year, helping the Braves win an International League crown. He hit .300 with four homers and 26 RBIs in 170 at-bats. Between Richmond and Double-A Mississippi, he batted .295 with 19 homers, 100 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He's one more on a big list of players who just need a touch more seasoning at Triple-A.