8 home runs in a month? Coming right up (AP Photo/John Dunn)
Every year, highly regarded prospects with little to no previous MLB exposure are hyped as possible fantasy studs for the upcoming season. It may not surprise anyone that, for the most part, first year players struggle to live up to expectations for a myriad of reasons: injury, lack of roster space/position blocking, regression at the high A level, financial reasons (read: arbitration eligibility deferral). But this doesn’t stop us in the fantasy world from dreaming that we will draft the next Jason Heyward or Ryan Braun or pick up the next Mike Stanton, Kevin Maas or Shane Spencer off of waivers (Yes, I am a Yankee fan; I am enlightened) – and hopefully avoid the next Alex Gordon or Brandon Wood.
This article will explore my top 20 ‘impact prospects’ in four installments. Obviously ‘impact’ is an amorphous term, so perhaps a definition is in order. For hitters: more than a token appearance with a club at some point during the year and production at or above a .330 wOBA, or weighted on base average, will be considered to have made an ‘impact’ (wOBA gives proper weight to all of the things hitters can do to produce value). Why .330 wOBA? Given that .330 is around league average from year to year, if a rookie can produce at or above that number, we will consider them to be on the right track towards giving your team a boost. After all, not many rookies are putting up monster numbers the first go round. For pitchers, it gets a little more complicated. For starters we will use: at least 80-100 ip, mid 4 ERA, low 4 FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, which tries to take out some of the random outcomes out of a pitcher’s control once the ball leaves their hands (more wOBA and FIP information can be obtained at fangraphs, a great saber stat resource). For relievers: 25-50 innings, mid 3 era and FIP to match. Now, I know no fantasy format that uses wOBA or FIP yet as categories; they are still too exotic and fantasy games are more about counting stats anyway. However, you can rest assured that a good wOBA/good FIP usually is a good indication of solid fantasy production. For the definition of prospect, we will use the standard rookie eligibility definition: no more than 130 at bats, or 50 innings pitched, or over 45 days on the 25 man roster, minus DL or military service time. Some of these guys have their names all but penciled in on big league rosters, some are just complete crapshoots. For draft position, I am assuming either keeper leagues or at least 12 team standards.
So without further adieu, here are my #20-#16 prospects for the 2011 fantasy season. 15-11, 10-6, and 5-1 will be unveiled shortly thereafter.
Zach Britton (Jeff Gross/Getty Images North America)
20. Zach Britton, Bal, SP – Baltimore’s newest highly regarded pitching prospect will more than likely make the jump to The Show this year. Britton will probably compete for the #5 spot in the rotation, having proven himself in the Oriole’s system the past three seasons. He posted a sub-3 ERA and a low 3 FIP his last two seasons, with acceptable strikeout and walk ratios (about 7-8 K/9 and 3-3.5 BB/9). Britton is not someone you are going to break out the champagne for, but the southpaw will get his chance sometime this season, possibly early on if he wins that last starter spot. The downside is of course his division, his team, and his home park. But he has the potential to be another young arm who impresses in his debut season, not unlike Brian Matusz in 2010, and who could be worth a look on the early season waiver wire.
Brett Lawrie (AP)
19. Brett Lawrie, Tor, 2b – At first glance, Lawrie doesn’t seem like a guy who will get much playing time this year, as Toronto already has a 2b one year removed from a monster season: Mr. Aaron Hill. But Lawrie, part of the Shawn Marcum trade, has an intriguing combination of speed and power (.450 slugging, 35 doubles, and 30 steals in double A last year), a skill set that just might force Toronto to use him somewhere if he continues his progression. It could be in the outfield, since Jose Bautista might spend most of his time at 3b instead of in the outfield, and Adam Lind is better suited to the DH role than being a liability on the turf. Lawrie might even spell Hill at times if he continues his love affair with Mr. Mendoza. He would be higher up the board but for the position blocking, but Lawrie should be on your radar as someone who could produce big dividends as a MI should an opportunity present itself on the 25 man roster.
Brandon Belt (Bill Mitchell)
18. Brandon Belt, SF, 1b – Belt is another big minor league bat who seems blocked at the Major League level for the time being, since the defending champs have Aubrey Huff as the incumbent 1b. However, Belt demonstrated prowess at all three minor league levels last year (ignore the .229 average at triple A, and pay attention to the .393 OBP and .563 slugging). Yes, Belt strikes out a good 20% of the time, and this jumped up to 31.3% in his 13 games at triple A, but he also walks nearly as much as he K’s. SF is not an offensive juggernaut by any means. If Belt continues his torrid pace on the farm, it will be difficult to impossible for the Giants to keep him down, especially if Huff or someone like Nate Schierholtz struggles. Belt isn’t worth a draft pick, but definitely keep an eye on his progress as the season rolls on.
Mike Minor (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
17. Mike Minor, Atl, SP – Minor started for the Braves last fall and did well, debuting with the big boys in the 2nd half and continuing the high K and low walk rates he exhibited in the minors. He should compete for #5 spot in a crowded and young Atl rotation. He was solid at AA in 2010, and even better in his 6 game triple A stint, going for 10 k/9 and 3.24 bb/9 with a sub 2 ERA and 2.45 FIP. Minor didn’t do well with the long ball during his first few major league games, with a massive 1.33/9 hr rate. His groundball rate was also way too low (34.9%), but his fip was over 2 runs below his era (3.77 compared to 5.98). He could prove useful as he pitches in the friendly confines of the NL east. Besides Philly, no offense in that division should scare anyone. He is worth a look late in drafts if he wins the #5 spot. Even if he goes back to the minors to sharpen skills, he could be back up quickly if Rodrigo Lopez and Brandon Beachy, his main competition for the last rotation slot, are ineffective. You can almost count on Lopez to be. Beachy is another intriguing propect, just outside of my top 20, so don’t sleep on him.
Chris Sale (Andrew Weber/U.S. Presswire)
16. Chris Sale CWS, SP/RP – Sale came up at the end of last season and produced impressive numbers out of the White Sox pen to the tune of 12 K/9, a 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 2.74 FIP in 23.1 innings. Sale’s role is not 100% clear going into the 2011 season, but it looks increasingly likely that he will start the season in the bullpen. He doesn’t have much experience (a total of 33.2 innings in his professional career), but could be a balm to your K, ERA, and WHIP should he stay in a relief role, where he might even compete for the closer job as the season wears on. As a starter, he offers more value to the Ivory Hose over the long haul, but less as a fantasy asset, since he is completely unproven in that role. Monitor Sale during spring training to see exactly how he is used, then act accordingly: draft late if reliever, avoid if they decide to insert him into the rotation.