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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Local minor leaguers wait for call to bigs

— From the moment Al Lopez caught his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1928 to the initial appearance of reliever Kevin Quackenbush for the San Diego Padres this season, there have been 73 Hillsborough County products to make a major-league roster.

Who's next? It's always a relevant question. For it seems the well of prospects never runs dry.

Former Plant High and University of Florida standout Preston Tucker has displayed his power in the minor leagues and landed this season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, one step short of the Houston Astros.

Former premium draft picks Lance McCullers (Jesuit), Tyler Danish (Durant) and Keon Barnum (King) have displayed steady progress and are with Class-A teams, while maintaining their status as big-time prospects in their organizations.

Meanwhile, high-profile players such as Michael Burgess (Hillsborough), Mychael Givens (Plant) and Kenny Wilson (Sickles) are showing the value of persistence. They have each endured their share of disappointments, but after some adjustments, they haven't lost sight of the ultimate goal.

Tucker, 23, is batting .297 after a slow start at Oklahoma City, where he was promoted on June 12. Tucker, an outfielder, led the Texas League with 17 home runs, 43 RBIs, 17 doubles and a .536 slugging percentage in 65 games at Double-A Corpus Christi. He also hit two home runs in the Astros' Futures Game at Minute Maid Park.

Last year, his first full professional season, Tucker had 25 homers and 103 RBIs across two leagues.

“He has done everything we've asked and more,'' Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told the Houston Chronicle. “When he first got to Double-A last year, he was focused on hitting. The power wasn't there, but he wanted to make sure he was having the right approach.

“If you look at what's happened this year, all of a sudden the power is exploding. But it's coming at a low strikeout rate and a high walk rate. This is exactly the type of player that we're hoping to draft and develop in the system.''

The Astros also have high hopes for McCullers, the former prep All-American and Gatorade National Player of the Year who was the 41st overall selection in the 2012 draft.

McCullers has accelerated his reputation as a power pitcher with the Lancaster JetHawks, a high-Class A team in the hitter-friendly California League, where he has 77 strikeouts in 63 innings. That comes on the heels of last season's 117-strikeout performance (with only 49 walks) in 1042⁄3 innings for Class A Quad Cities.

Danish and Barnum are teammates with the Winston-Salem Dash, a Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.

Danish, 19, is the second-youngest player in the Carolina League, just 13 months after his graduation from Durant and his selection as the 55th overall pick. He began at Bristol (Va.) in the Rookie League, but has since been twice promoted and holds a 6-1 professional record with a 2.06 ERA.

Barnum, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound first baseman, was the draft's 48th overall pick in 2012, then he passed up a scholarship to the University of Miami to sign with the White Sox. His power numbers have lagged (15 homers in 160 pro games) and his strikeout totals have been too high (114 this season in 91 games), but the White Sox remain convinced about his potential.

For the longest time, potential was a word that surrounded Burgess — and sometimes, it haunted him.

Burgess, who hit one of the longest home runs anyone had witnessed at Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium during the state championship game, was a first-round selection (49th pick overall) by the Washington Nationals in 2007.

He displayed power (129 homers in eight professional seasons), but also was a prolific strikeout batter (five seasons of 100 or better, including 162 overall in 2008).

He's in his fourth organization, playing for the Class A Frederick Keys, a Baltimore Orioles affiliate, and has never advanced past Double-A. Still, he might finally be on the right track. Burgess is batting .310 (he's a .252 career hitter in the minors) with 15 homers and 67 RBIs in 77 games.

Meanwhile, Givens, a second-round pick of the Orioles in 2009, has spent this season as a pitcher after serving as an infielder for four seasons. Givens filled both roles at Plant, sometimes displaying a fastball that reached the mid-90s, but he was eager to play every day in the professional ranks.

Wilson, a second-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008, displayed much promise during his minor-league career. His progress was slowed at times by injuries, but his speed (218 stolen bases in seven pro seasons, including four years of 40 or more) was intriguing. He has bounced around between three organizations this season, having twice been put on waivers, but he is currently with the Triple-A Sacramento RiverCats, an affiliate of the Oakland Athletics.

He's hoping for a fresh start, knowing that mental toughness and patience almost count for more than raw skill in the minor leagues.

That's the professional baseball life. The players who best master those qualities might be the ones who serve as answers to that elusive question:

Who's next?

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