They're so close yet so far away. The players in the Pacific Coast League, like their International League brethren, are within a whisper of playing in the Major Leagues. In some cases, they've already had a taste. Yet through no fault of their own, most of them find their path to the big club blocked.
Most of the players on this list could probably be playing in the Major Leagues for one franchise or another on Opening Day, but because of talent at the big-league level, they find themselves toiling once again -- at least at the outset -- in the Minors. Here's a closer look at 10 players who will be worth watching in the PCL.
1. Wladimir Balentien, OF
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
The Curacao native's steady ascent continued in 2007 with a stellar season at Triple-A Tacoma, where he hit .291 with 24 homers and 84 RBIs. He's cut down significantly on his strikeout total in each of the last three seasons (160-140-105), while raising his OBP from .337 to .362. He was hitting .319 with a team-leading three homers at the time of his demotion to Minor League camp this spring. Though he has nothing left to prove in the Minors, there's nowhere for him to play in Seattle's stocked outfield.
2. Chase Headley, OF
Portland Beavers (Padres)
Headley was named Texas League MVP last year, but odds are he won't be in the PCL long enough this season to garner serious consideration for the honor. He led the Double-A circuit in average (.330), on-base percentage (.437) and slugging (.580). He also hit 20 homers, knocked in 78 runs and was one of the driving forces behind San Antonio's push to the Texas League title. Headley also drew 74 walks for the second consecutive season and finished tied for third in the league in hits (143). He's a switch-hitter who is comfortable from both sides of the plate and has shown better-than-average power to all fields. He also got a brief taste of life in San Diego and hit .222 in eight games. He's currently working on making the move from third base to the outfield.
3. Colby Rasmus, OF
Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals)
There isn't much that Rasmus doesn't do well -- so well, in fact, that you'd better catch him in Memphis sooner rather than later since there's a good chance he'll be in St. Louis before long. The former first-round pick, whose brother Cory shares the same distinction with Atlanta, had his third straight big season in '07, hitting .275 with 29 homers and 79 RBIs for Springfield in the Texas League. He also stole 18 bases, and though he whiffed 108 times, he drew 70 walks, which contributed mightily to his .381 OBP. He also led the Texas League with 93 runs and 69 extra-base hits. He hit .302 with three homers and nine RBIs in his first 43 at-bats with the Major League club this spring.
4. Greg Reynolds, RHP
Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
The Stanford product pitched well when he was on the mound last year, going 4-1 with a 1.42 ERA in eight starts for Double-A Tulsa before inflammation in his rotator cuff put him on the shelf. He underwent a minor surgical procedure to alleviate the problem last summer and was back at full strength this spring. Because he's pitched in 19 games since the Rockies selected him with the second overall pick in the 2006 draft, there's no need to rush the big right-hander. Odds are he'll spend most, if not all, of the season with the Sky Sox to help beef up his resume and give him some valuable experience.
5. Nick Adenhart, RHP
Salt Lake Bees (Angels)
Adenhart spent much of the spring battling for the fifth spot in the Angels' starting rotation, and for the most part he looked very good. Though he fell short of winning that spot, he impressed manager Mike Scioscia at almost every turn. Then again, it would have been difficult to imagine him not impressing the Angels' skipper. This is a guy who has gone 28-15 with a 3.11 ERA in 65 Minor League games (64 starts) since the Angels stole him in the 14th round of the 2004 draft. He throws all his pitches for strikes and has better-than-average control. Adenhart has also allowed a homer once every 36 innings as a pro, which includes surrendering just one roundtripper in 52 1/3 California League innings in 2006.
6. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
The Rangers sent the former first-round pick back to Oklahoma City last week after he lost out to Gerald Laird in the battle for starting catcher. The move doesn't come as much of a surprise, because the Texas brass likes Laird and wants Saltalamacchia to get as much playing time as possible. It wouldn't have made much sense to have him sit behind Laird when he can be playing every day for the 'Hawks. "Salty" appeared in 93 Major League games last year, splitting them almost evenly between Atlanta and Texas. He hit .266 with 11 homers and 33 RBIs while seeing nearly as much time at first base as he did behind the plate.
7. Carlos Gonzalez, OF
Sacramento River Cats (Oakland)
Gonzalez has been dealing with some hamstring issues this spring and may be slowed a bit through early April. Once he gets going, though, there are few players in the Minors as electrifying as the Venezuelan native. He spent the bulk of last season at Double-A Mobile, hitting .286 with 16 homers and 75 RBIs. Gonzalez got bumped up to Tucson for 10 games and hit .310 with a homer and 11 RBIs in 42 at-bats. Questions about his maturity and whether he gives 100 percent at all times have dogged Gonzalez for several years, but that shouldn't prevent him from having a big year for the Cats.
8. Max Scherzer, RHP
Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks)
Scherzer signed late after the D-backs grabbed him with their top pick in 2006, and he didn't make his debut until last season. If the late start bothered the University of Missouri product, it didn't show. He was 6-4 with a 3.28 ERA while splitting 17 starts between Visalia of the California League and Mobile of the Southern League. Scherzer's fastball routinely arrives in the mid-90s with nice movement. There are some who believe he could be a future closer, but for now that's just talk.
9. Hernan Iribarren, OF
Nashville Sound (Brewers)
Iribarren is about as close to being a "RoboHitter" as anyone in the Minors. It doesn't matter where he goes, the Venezuelan native simply hits, hits and hits some more. He's got a career average of .323 through four Minor League seasons and has never had an OBP lower than .360. Iribarren has some speed -- he stole 18 bases last year -- and appears as if he'd be a good No. 2 man in just about any order. Milwaukee moved him to the outfield in the Instructional League and though he's still a work in progress out there, he's solid enough that he may get a call at some point this summer to join the parent club.
10. Samuel Gervacio, RHP
Round Rock Express (Astros)
The Astros system is a bit thin heading into this season, but one player worth watching will definitely be Gervacio. He has very quietly put together an impressive Minor League career, going 15-12 with a 2.38 ERA and 36 saves in 125 relief appearances. Gervacio split last season between Salem and Corpus Christi, going 5-5 with a 2.31 ERA and 18 saves in 78 innings. He struck out 104 and walked 26, allowing just two home runs in the process.