by Ben Carsley, Staff Writer
Balancing long-term potential with immediate impact is the hardest part of ranking fantasy prospects. Is it more important for owners to know about a 19-year-old who could be the next Carlos Beltran in three years, or a 24-year-old shortstop who will likely hit .300 in 2010? Decisions such as these are nearly impossible to make, but are exactly the kinds of questions I will be trying to determine in MLBFP’s Top 10 Fantasy Prospects By Division Series.
Top 10 National League East Fantasy Prospects
The NL East is a future fantasy goldmine, containing the two best prospects in all of baseball: in Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg. This division is as good a choice as any to kick off the Top 10 Fantasy Prospect Series.
The Top 10
1) Jason Heyward (OF, Atlanta Braves) ETA: 2010
What is there to say about Heyward that hasn’t already been said a thousand times? A five-tool outfielder, the 20-year-old prospect tore the cover off the ball last season, hitting .323-17-63 with 10 stolen bases between stops at Single, Double, and Triple-A. Heyward will be given the chance to win the everyday right-field job out of spring training, and, given that his competition currently comes in the form of Matt Diaz and Melky Cabrera, his odds are pretty good. If he gets 500 at-bats this season, Heyward could post numbers along the lines of .285-18-80 with 10 stolen bases. As he progresses in his career, Heyward should resemble a slimmer, in-his-prime Carlos Lee, and consistently hit 30-plus homeruns with a .320 batting average and 10 stolen bases. Those numbers would make him a top five fantasy outfielder and a top 20 player overall.
2) Stephen Strasburg (SP, Washington Nationals) ETA: 2010
It’s pretty fashionable right now to predict that Strasburg will be a top-five fantasy pitcher by mid-June. Strasburg’s talent is undeniable, and in keeper leagues, I would take him over any minor leaguer, Heyward included. But to predict that any rookie, no matter how good, is going to pitch his first minor league inning in April and be better than Roy Halladay by June, is a bit of a stretch. If the Nationals are smart (and that’s a big if), they will keep Strasburg in the minors until June, delay his arbitration clock, and then let him throw 130-150 innings in the majors this year. Assuming he gets those innings, I could see Strasburg striking out 140 batters with a sub-4.00 ERA and 8-10 wins. That makes Strasburg worth owning in all fantasy leagues, but in non-keeper leagues, I wouldn’t reach for him too early just because he’s a sexy name. His upside is ridiculous, but the innings, the inexperience, and his supporting cast don’t point to absolute stardom just yet. By 2012, however, Strasburg will likely be a top-three fantasy pitcher and a top-25 overall pick.
3) Mike Stanton (OF, Florida Marlins) ETA: Late 2011
Stanton has ridiculous, outrageous power. Ryan-Howard-meets-Adam-Dunn kind of power. And that makes him an absolute fantasy gem. Exactly five players hit 40 or more homeruns last season, and only six more matched or exceeded 35. Stanton has the capability to reach those numbers on a regular basis, but, unlike Dunn or Mark Reynolds, may be able to do so without killing your team’s batting average. Many scouting reports have bemoaned Stanton’s low contact rates and trouble hitting breaking balls, but he was only 19-years-old last season, and has already reached Double-A. Stanton has plenty of time to work on his deficiencies, and if he can hit .280 with a .350 OBP, he could legitimately become a top-15 fantasy player. Even is he never does completely refine his approach, .250 hitters with 40 home run potential certainly still have their place in the fantasy world.
4) Logan Morrison (1B, Florida Marlins) ETA: Late 2010
Ever fantasy owner wants their first baseman to be one of the lynchpins of their offense, and that is exactly what Morrison has the potential to be in the future. A good hitter, who has improved his OBP steadily over the past three seasons, Morrison has been slowed down only by a wrist injury he suffered last season, which hampered his ability to hit for power. Many experts have brushed this injury aside, and I will gladly defer to their superior medical knowledge, but I also know that wrist injuries are to hitters what elbow injuries are to pitchers, and that makes me leery. If he does fully recover, Morrison can become a Lance Berkman-type .300-30-100 player, which would make him a top-25 fantasy contributor overall. I’m still cautiously optimistic about Morrison’s future, but want to see how quickly his power returns before I completely regain faith.
5) Dominic Brown (OF, Philadelphia Phillies) ETA: 2011
A five-tool player, who Keith Law affectionately refers to as a “freak,” Brown could become a better player than Morrison down the load, but is ranked below him because he is unlikely to contribute at all in 2010. That the Phillies were ok with giving up Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor, but refused to part with Brown, should tell you all you need to know about his skill set. A potential fantasy stud, the highest ceiling for Brown is what B.J. Upton was supposed to be; a .290 hitter with 25-plus homerun power and the ability to steal 20-30 stolen bases annually. More conservative predictions would have Brown posting a .280-20-80 line with 20 stolen bases, which is what he’s more likely to produce when he first joins the big leagues. While Philadelphia’s outfield is currently stacked, Jayson Werth is a free agent after the year, and the Phillies would be wise to let him walk and allow Brown to compete for the job. In 2011, Brown will be an excellent late round pick, but he’s not worth drafting in 2010.
6) Derek Norris (C, Washington Nationals) ETA: Late 2012
Norris is unlikely to make an impact in fantasy leagues for quite a while, but he’s ranked so highly because he has the opportunity to be an exceptionally rare fantasy asset: an offensively valuable catcher. Norris built on his breakout 2008 campaign last year, and put up a .286-23-84 line in Single-A, all at the age of 19. For comparison, Brian McCann’s stat line last year read .281-21-94, and he was among the top five most valuable fantasy backstops. Buster Posey and Carlos Santana aside (and assuming Jesus Montero moves from behind the plate), Norris is the best fantasy catching prospect in baseball right now. Hopefully the Nationals don’t rush him, and give Norris an entire season at Double-A. If he produces like he did in 2009, Norris will likely be a top-15 fantasy prospect next season. A relatively unknown prospect headed into last year, there is an off-chance Norris may still be available in some dynasty leagues. If he is, he should be picked up immediately.
7) Jenrry Mejia (SP, New York Mets) ETA: 2011
Mejia skyrocketed up nearly everyone’s prospect rankings in 2009, as he transformed from an intriguing but unproven 18-year-old into an electric 19-year-old. Mejia dominated Single-A, posting an ERA of 1.97 with a 7.89 K/9 ratio. Mejia did face some adversity once promoted to Double-A, but still posted a sub-4.50 ERA while improving his K/9 ratio to 9.54. Mejia is a ways away from having significant fantasy value, and his control (3.71 BB/9) is a little concerning, but he has the upside of a frontline fantasy starter. An optimistic projection would have Mejia posting a 3.50 ERA with 190 strikeouts and 12-16 wins sometime in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully, the Mets will allow him to take his time, and won’t rush him in an attempt to aid their pitching-starved major league roster. He will likely be well worth the wait, and is a good pickup in all dynasty leagues.
8) Wilmer Flores (SS/3B, New York Mets) ETA: 2013
Flores’ 2009 stats are pretty underwhelming: .265-3-35 in nearly 500 at-bats in Single-A. What makes Flores so special, however, is that he put up those numbers at the age of 17. There’s is no denying Flores has the raw skills to carry a special bat. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, his lack of mobility and speed means that his odds of staying at shortstop are slim to none. Regardless of his position, Flores has a chance to be a big-time fantasy contributor, which explains why, although he’s probably three full seasons away from seeing major league at-bats, he makes this list. If Flores has a good year in 2010, he will most likely be a top-15 fantasy prospect in 2011. Grab him in dynasty leagues if you can.
9) Fernando Martinez (OF, New York Mets) ETA: 2010
Martinez was initially vastly overrated, struggled in 2009, and is now somewhat underrated. A potentially above-average everyday outfielder, Martinez is only 21, and still has plenty of time to get his career back on track. His biggest problem so far has been his lack of health; to this point in his career, Martinez has made J.D. Drew look like Cal Ripken Jr. If Martinez were given 500 healthy major league at-bats this year, he could easily hit .280-15-70 with 10 stolen bases, making him a decent third or fourth outfielder in NL-only leagues, and a borderline bench player in regular leagues. The problem, however, is that between his injury history and the current composition of the Mets’ outfield, Martinez is unlikely to get more than 300 at-bats. He is worth a flier in the late rounds of any draft, and is especially worthy of consideration in keeper leagues, but should not be counted on for significant production in 2010.
10) Drew Storen (RP, Washington Nationals) ETA: 2010
Storen does not have as high of a ceiling as several other prospects in the NL East, but takes the final spot in my top 10 simply because he is very likely to be a fantasy contributor by midseason. A three-pitch reliever with outstanding control, Storen will likely be shuffled between Double and Triple-A until June, so that the Nationals can delay his arbitration clock. The signing of Matt Capps hurts Storen’s chances to close this year, but Storen has better stuff than Capps and will likely be the closer by mid-2011. Even if he isn’t compiling saves, Storen will likely be a decent pick-up for fantasy owners, as he should provide Ks and a great WHIP, along with some holds and vulture wins. Storen probably shouldn’t be drafted in regular 10x10 leagues just yet, but is a nice late-round pick in NL-only leagues, and should be monitored very closely in leagues that score holds.
The Next 5
11) Julio Teheran (SP, Atlanta Braves) ETA: 2013
Teheran has the most upside of any pitching prospect not named Strasburg in the division, but is several years away from a big league appearance. His 96 mph fastball and improving secondary pitches give him the ceiling of a future ace or dominant closer.
12) Phillippe Aumont (SP, Philadelphia Phillies) ETA: 2011
Aumont’s talent dictates him being higher on this list, but as of 2009, it looks like he will be a reliever. If he closes, Aumont will still be a very valuable fantasy asset, but his injury history knocks him below the more projectable Teheran and the nearly MLB-ready Storen.
13) Freddie Freeman (1B, Atlanta Braves) ETA: 2011
Freeman’s power diminished last season, leaving many to fear he’s more Casey Kotchman than Billy Butler. If Freeman regains his power, he will likely be a top-30 fantasy prospect next year. If not, he might fall out of the top-100 entirely.
14) Ike Davis (1B, New York Mets) ETA: 2011
One of the Mets’ first round pick in 2008 (along with Reese Havens), Davis absolutely crushes right-handed pitching, but really struggles against lefties. If he can solve this problem, he will be a top-15 fantasy first baseman. If not, he’s the second coming of Adam LaRoche: still valuable, but for fantasy owners, a mediocre corner infield option at best.
15) Ian Desmond (SS, Washington Nationals) ETA: 2010
Other players, such as Matt Dominguez, Arodys Vizcaino, and Randall Delgado, are much better prospects, but Desmond is likely to contribute in 2010. He will never be a fantasy stud, but could hit .280-10-55 with 10 stolen bases, which, because of positions scarcity, would make him draft-worthy in NL-only leagues.
Top 10 National League Central Fantasy Prospects
Next up for our Top 10 Fantasy Prospects by Division Series is the National League Central, a division that contains both immediate fantasy contributors and some sleepers for 2012 and beyond. Stocked with professional bats and high-upside arms, the NL Central is a division fantasy owners are going to want to pay attention to for the next several years.
The Top 10
1) Pedro Alvarez (3B, Pittsburgh Pirates) ETA: Late 2010
Alvarez, the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, is a big, 23-year-old lefty with huge power. After struggling in Single-A to start the season, Pittsburgh decided to promote Alvarez to Double-A anyway, where he promptly raised his batting average and slugging percentage by around .100 points each. Alvarez does have some significant flaws. He will very likely have to move to first base down the line, diminishing his fantasy value, and there’s legitimate concern over his troubles with left-handed pitchers. But even if Alvarez never gains complete mastery over lefties, he will be an enormous fantasy asset. By 2012, Alvarez, who will be playing half of his games in lefty-friendly PNC Park, could be posting Justin Morneau-like lines of .290-30-100, which would make him a top-30 fantasy player. Alvarez will be long-gone in dynasty leagues, and is largely ignored in re-draft leagues, but that might be a mistake. He’s unlikely to win the Pirates’ third base job out of spring training, but could easily hold the position by July. If he gets 300 ABs, a .275-18-55 line is not out of the question. That makes him a great late round pick in NL-only leagues, and an intriguing grab in mixed leagues as well.
2) Aroldis Chapman (SP, Cincinnati Reds) ETA: 2011
Based on pure talent alone, Chapman is not only the top fantasy prospect in the NL Central, but he’s probably a Top Five fantasy prospect overall. Armed with an explosive triple-digit fastball, a filthy slider, and a developing changeup, Chapman has the arsenal needed to be a true ace at the major league level. What troubles scouts and fantasy owners alike about Chapman, however, is his lack of control and command. Chapman’s ceiling is ridiculously high. If everything clicks and he starts locating his pitches, Chapman could easily post Johan Santana-like numbers if he starts or Billy Wagner-like numbers if he closes. What prevents me from being a real Chapman fan, however, is that there is a real potential for Daniel Cabrera-syndrome here: a pitcher with unparalleled stuff, but an inability to get the ball over the plate with any consistency. Chapman should be taken in all dynasty leagues at this point, but personally, I will not be drafting him in any re-draft leagues this year. There’s an off chance he will skyrocket his way through the Reds’ farm system, but it’s far more likely that Chapman will need to spend significant time in the minor leagues to refine his control and command.
3) Starlin Castro (SS, Chicago Cubs) ETA: 2011
One of the most exciting players in the minors, Castro has done nothing but hit since his professional career began in 2007. Just 19-years-old last season, Castro hit .299-3-49 with a .342 OBP and 28 stolen bases between Single and Double-A. Many describe Castro as a five-tool prospect, but before I peg anyone to hit 15-20 homeruns a year, I want to see them hit more in a minor league season than Castro’s career best of three. If Castro doesn’t develop power, he’s still capable of hitting .300-5-70 with 25 stolen bases, which would make him an enormous fantasy asset due to his position. If he does develop power on top of his already impressive repertoire, than Castro could turn into Brandon Phillips with a higher batting average. An obvious must-have in dynasty leagues, Castro would be best served if allowed to spend all season in Triple-A. He’s still very young, and the Cubs can afford to wait since Ryan Theriot is a league-average shortstop. But there’s a chance Castro could force his way into the major league lineup at some point in 2010, and if he’s called up, he should be picked up in all but the shallowest mixed leagues.
4) Alcides Escobar (SS, Milwaukee Brewers) ETA: 2010
Of all the players on this list, Escobar is the most likely to make a significant fantasy impact in 2010. After hitting a very respectable .298-4-34 with 42 stolen bases in the minors last year, Escobar was promoted late in the season, and batted .304-1-11 with four stolen bases in 125 major league ABs. If you project that line over a full season, it’s a pretty accurate representation of what Escobar is likely to do in his career. What Escobar doesn’t do is hit for power or walk, but the former is typical of fantasy middle infielders and the latter is less significant in fantasy than in the actual game. The Brewers traded J.J. Hardy this offseason, meaning that the starting shortstop job is Escobar’s to lose in spring training. Knowing that, I expect Escobar to get 500 ABs and hit .285-7-50 with 25 stolen bases, making him a good shortstop in NL-only leagues and a decent middle infielder in mixed leagues. As he matures as a major leaguer, Escobar could develop into a Rafael Furcal-type player, and regularly bat .300-10-55 with 30-plus stolen bases, which would make him an asset to any fantasy player.
5) Yonder Alonso (1B, Cincinnati Reds) ETA: 2011
Alonso is in a similar place as fellow first-base prospect Logan Morrison, as he broke his hamate bone last season, limiting him to only 340 plate appearances and zapping him of much of his power. What was good to see, however, was that Alonso still took very professional ABs, and was able to walk nearly as many times (41) as he struck out (46). A natural hitter, Alonso has excelled at every stop on his ascent up Cincinnati’s farm system, and will likely do the same in 2010. He has struggled against left-handed pitching, but most young left-handed batters do. I expect Alonso to split time between double and triple-A this year, and push for the Reds’ starting first base job in 2011, with Joey Votto moving to left field. At his peak, I like Alonso to post Kevin Youkilis-like lines of .300-25-100, albeit with a slightly lower OBP than Boston’s first baseman. Numbers like that would make Alonso a Top 12 fantasy first baseman, and a very solid corner infielder. For 2010, Alonso should go undrafted in re-draft leagues, but owners should pay attention from July onward incase Alonso forces his way onto the big league club sooner than expected.
6) Josh Vitters (3B, Chicago Cubs) ETA: Late 2011
Vitters has more potential than Alonso or Escobar, but has significantly more red flags as well. A great natural hitter, Vitters has the tools to hit .300-30-100 in the majors, and do it consistently. His biggest problems as a prospect are his shaky defense at third base and his utter contempt for walks, which at first glance would appear to be irrelevant to fantasy owners. Upon closer look, however, this could significantly hamper Vitters’ value. If he moves from third to left field, position scarcity knocks him down a few pegs. If he doesn’t increase his walk numbers, his run totals will suffer, and major league pitchers will be able to get him to chase far more easily than their minor league counterparts. There is a lot to like with Vitters, but his star has diminished a bit over the past two seasons. Many initially thought he would be ready by 2010, but now a mid-season call-up in 2011 looks to be the best-case scenario for him. Vitters is still just 20-years-old, and should be owned in all fantasy leagues, but is in danger of becoming more of a solid complementary player than an absolute fantasy stud.
7) Brett Lawrie (2B, Milwaukee Brewers) ETA: 2012
The Brewers’ first round pick in 2008, Lawrie played well last season, hitting .274-13-65 with 19 stolen bases between Single-A and a cameo in Double-A at the season’s end. Another natural hitter, Lawire has a smooth, level swing that should allow him to hit for a decent average with solid power for someone his size. Drafted as a catcher, Lawrie has already had to move from behind the plate, and while he’s currently attempting to learn how to play second base, there is no guarantee he will stay there. Lawrie would make an outstanding offensive middle infielder, but if he has to move to a corner infield or outfield spot, his fantasy value would diminish significantly. Once he reaches the majors, Lawrie projects to hit .290-20-85 with 10 stolen bases, which would make him a premium fantasy second baseman. There’s a lot to like here, but part of me worries about Lawrie becoming the next Todd Frazier: a player with a good bat, but no real position, whose offense never fully develops because of his constant focus on defense. Hopefully, the Brewers learn from the Reds’ mistake and give Lawrie all the time he needs to develop.
8) Jason Castro (C, Houston Astros) ETA: Late 2010
Castro is one of the more easily projectable players on this list, as he is unlikely to ever be a star, but can be the ever-illusive offensively valuable fantasy catcher. Castro hit .300-10-73 with a .380 between Single and Double-A last season, which is a fairly accurate representation of what he can hit for in the majors once he establishes himself. Castro’s defense and leadership skills make him a better MLB prospect than a fantasy one, but a catcher who will boost your average and add decent RBI and run numbers is a player worthy of fantasy mention. With absolutely no one blocking him in Houston, Castro could surprise and take the job out of spring training, but is more likely to get a cup-of-coffee in September and assume the starting role in 2011. Once he does cement himself in Houston’s lineup, Castro should hit .290-15-75 on a fairly consistent basis, making him a Top 12 fantasy catcher. Castro shouldn’t be drafted in April, but if he’s called up, may be a better fantasy option in August and September than players like Kurt Suzuki or Bengie Molina.
9) Shelby Miller (SP, St. Louis Cardinals) ETA: 2013
The top prospect in St. Louis’ system, Miller is so raw and so young that he almost didn’t make this list, but his upside is too large to ignore. A big righty with above average stuff, Miller is somewhat hard to project because of his shaky command and lack of professional experience. The Cardinals’ first-round pick in last year’s draft, Miller threw just three innings in Single-A last season, where he is likely to spend all of 2010 as well. Miller is farther away from making a fantasy impact than anyone else on this list, but has the upside of a true number one starter, capable of putting up 15-18 wins with 180 strikeouts and a sub-3.50 ERA. Miller has no shot at making a seeing the majors for several years, and because he was overshadowed my fellow ’09 draft picks such as Tyler Matzek, Zack Wheeler, and Matthew Purke, there’s a good chance he’s available in dynasty leagues. I won’t go as far as to say he’s a must-have, but Miller is certainly a good choice to round out a minor-league roster. His owners will have to be patient, but they could ultimately be rewarded with Josh Johnson-type numbers.
10) Jay Jackson (SP, Chicago Cubs) ETA: 2011
A ninth-round pick in the 2008 draft, Jackson looks to be a steal so far, as he has reached Triple-A in just his second professional season. An athletic righty with three above-average pitches and a developing changeup, Jackson has been pushed fairly aggressively by the Cubs, but has fared well, as he posted a 2.98 ERA with 127 strikeouts in 127 innings last year in stops between Single, Double, and Triple-A. There is some temptation for the Cubs to continue pushing Jackson and hope he can make an appearance as a reliever later in 2010, but the smart move is for them to allow him to develop, as he still has significant potential as a starter. Jackson profiles as a number three starter on a contender, who could grab 14-16 wins while posting a sub-4.00 ERA and around 160 strikeouts, if given 200 innings. Those numbers would make him a sold fifth fantasy pitcher in mixed leagues, but his WHIP will likely prevent him from ever being a fantasy stud. Still, pitchers like Jackson are quite useful in the fantasy world, and if owners are looking for immediate impact, Jackson is an even better pick than the higher ranked Miller. Jackson is probably unclaimed in many dynasty leagues, and while he lacks tremendous upside, he’s also a pretty safe bet to be a solid fantasy contributor.
The Next Five
11) Todd Frazier (2B/3B/OF, Cincinnati Reds) ETA: 2010
Cincinnati has moved Frazier all over the diamond in an attempt to get his bat to the big leagues sooner, but all the defensive tampering has prevented him from ever putting up the monstrous offensive season that many think he is capable of. Many will be surprised to see Frazier so low on this list, and if he can stick at second or third I would re-rank him at number seven, but I still see a long-term left fielder, and that significantly lowers his fantasy value.
12) Jose Tabata (OF, Pittsburgh Pirates) ETA: 2011
I’m growing tired of hearing all about Tabata’s potential while watching him post mediocre results. His all-star caliber tools are too impressive to ignore, but this is the last season I’m willing to give Tabata the benefit of the doubt. If he doesn’t perform in 2010, I will no longer think he’s worth owning in dynasty leagues.
13) Jiovanni Mier (SS, Houston Astros) ETA: Late 2012
One of my favorite fantasy sleepers, Mier is a few seasons away, but I’m a big believer in his solid pop and above average speed. Mier’s ceiling has him hitting .280-15-65 with 25 stolen bases at the major league lever, making him a potential Top 10 fantasy shortstop. Grab him in dynasty leagues now.
14) Tony Sanchez (C, Pittsburgh Pirates) ETA: Late 2011
The Pirates were slammed for taking Sanchez with the fourth overall pick in the 2009 draft, but he’s still likely to be a solid fantasy contributor within the next two seasons. Because of the negativity surrounding him on draft day, Sanchez is actually a fairly underrated prospect. He’ll never be a star, but should hit .280-15-75, which would make him a solid, Kurt Suzuki-esque fantasy catcher.
15) Andrew Cashner (P, Chicago Cubs) ETA: 2011
This pick was almost Cubs outfielder Brett Jackson or Reds third baseman Juan Francisco, but the former is too far away and the latter has too many red flags to bump Cashner off my list. Cashner is currently a starter in the Cubs’ system, but has closer written all over him. If converted back to the bullpen, as I expect, he could be ready by 2011, and should post solid strikeout numbers with a solid WHIP.
Top 10 National League West Fantasy Prospects