By now, fantasy players are all over who will be the ‘hot prospect’ leading into the 2011 season. Every year, there seems to be a “can’t miss rookie” who’s coming into the league. Last year, Jason Heyward was flying off the board well before he should have. In 2009 it was Matt Wieters. Who is it in 2011? Well, many people are targeting names that they know or have seen in the past. Freddie Freeman, J.P. Arencibia, Desmond Jennings and Domonic Brown are four names that are all good candidates to have good 2011, and they are names that most fantasy players already know. I’m here to focus on a few names that you may not know, or at the very least, aren’t as familiar with. Though, I had to sneak at least one bigger name in here.
1. Brandon Belt
Summary – Simply put, this kid can flat out rake. Last year was his first in professional baseball, and he quickly progressed through the minor leagues. Let’s just cut to the chase on this kid. He hit .352 for the year between Single-A, Double-A and Triple-A. He hit 23 home runs and drove in 112. He had 43 doubles. He stole 22 bases. Oh, and his on-base plus slugging was … get this … 1.075. Those are ridiculous numbers for a seasoned veteran, let alone someone who is just learning the nuances of professional baseball.
The Upside – Belt is a gifted player without a doubt. He’s above average defensively, with above average speed. He does not possess outstanding speed, but he does have enough to be a serviceable outfielder if the Giants want to go that route with him. The more that I’ve read about Belt, the more excited I have become about his prospects. He apparently possesses a wonderful work ethic, and has worked tirelessly to change his swing this past year. With good gap power, Belt’s number of doubles may translate into some more home runs in the long run. I tend to think that he may never be a guy who hits 30 home runs, but I do see him as a guy who can, and will, contend for a batting title.
The Downside – I’m going to have to dig really hard here to find some. His floor is already higher than most that I’ve seen. The ‘worst’ that I’ve ever seen him compared to is Wally Joyner. Sorry, if the worst you can be compared to is a guy that played 16 years in the major leagues, with a career .289 average, well, I’d be happy with that. Fact is, there are some that are worried about the long-term power numbers. He’s tall and lean, and does not appear to be a guy that will ever turn into an ‘elite’ power hitter. The other downside? He doesn’t have a clear path to the ‘big club’ right now. Aubrey Huff signed a two-year deal in the offseason, which could mean he’ll be taking some time in the outfield this spring.
Overall – This kid is near big league ready. He’ll likely be starting the year at Triple-A Fresno, but a mid-season call up appears likely. The Giants will likely give him some time to learn the outfield before giving him the job, but this guy is a professional hitter. He’ll likely be a limited participant for your fantasy squad this season, but he’s a long-term name that you’ll need to pay attention to.
2. Jesus Montero
Summary – Yeah, yeah. This guy doesn’t fit my bill of a player people don’t know. Well, there may be a few of you. This kid absolutely pounds the baseball. He’s had 17-plus home run in each of his full minor league seasons (discounting 2007) and has played each level at a young age. He’s always among the Top 10 prospects in the game, and he will be ready for the big leagues this year.
The Upside – Did I say this kid can hit? Montero projects as a hitter who can, and likely will, hit over 30 home runs per season. For someone with catcher eligibility, those numbers are insane. And he’s not just a power hitter. His three full minor league seasons, his averages were .326, .337 and .289. That’s .289 as a 21-year old in Triple-A. Along with his big home run numbers, he’s also shown pretty high contact rates, which would lead you to believe he can hit for average at any level. He could emerge as one of the top hitters in all of baseball. Really.
The Downside – Everything, and I mean everything that I’ve read, projects Montero as a designated hitter. That much-loved catcher eligibility that you’re looking for may go the way of David Ortiz. It would be possible for a move to first base, if not for Mark Teixeira’s gigantic contract sitting there. Montero will get some time at catcher, but when he does, other teams are going to run on him. And with the Boston Red Sox in the division, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and company could be running forever. Offensively, there really isn’t any downside of which to speak.
Overall – High ceiling, high floor. Montero’s going to contribute, and soon. Once Jorge Posada steps onto the disabled list for the first time, Montero will likely step in and seize that designated hitter role. I don’t see many growing pains for him at the plate. In the field? Good luck.
3. Lorenzo Cain
Summary – One of the pieces that landed the Milwaukee Brewers Zach Grienke, Cain could step in and immediately be the centerfielder for the Royals. What’s standing in his way? Melky Cabrera. In other words, the job could be his right out of spring camp. Cain had quite a bit of time in the majors last season with Milwaukee, and he very well could use that as a stepping stone to a good season. He did hit .306 in more than 100 at-bats, so it’s entirely possible.
The Upside – Speed. And cheap. Cain is a guy that can step into a deep mixed league team and contribute with 30 steals, given he gets that opportunity. Your league mates likely won’t have the slightest clue who he is when you draft him in the last round. Just laugh at them for taking Jacoby Ellsbury in the first few. Cain has never really hit for much power (11 home runs is his high), but there’s a bit of projection there with quite a few doubles. I wouldn’t bet on more than 10 home runs in most, if that, per season, but for your last-round pick in a very deep league? You can expect a .285 average, 10 home runs and 60 runs batted in with 30-plus stolen bases. Cheap, and I like.
The Downside – High strikeout rates. Cain’s never had a great grasp of the strike zone, and it has hindered him a bit. He’s gotten better on his way through the minors, which is a great sign, but cause for a bit of concern. He also will likely start the season in Triple-A, with Cabrera starting. They’ll want to get Cain playing every day, but you may not reap the benefits until May.
Overall – Why spend an early-round pick on a guy like Jacoby Ellsbury when you can get Rajai Davis 15 rounds later? Or Cain even later than that? Cain won’t steal the same amount of bags that the other two will, but he’ll possibly give you a bit of love in the other categories that they wouldn’t. And for that reason, I’d risk a latter round pick on him.
4. Dustin Ackley
Summary – Ackley came out of college with more hype than just about anyone in the past few years who was not named Harper (or after this year, Rendon). At North Carolina in 2008, look at these numbers: he hit .417 with 22 home runs and a 1.280 on-base plus slugging percentage. Last year was his first, and only, year in professional baseball – and there’s quite a bit to like about him. He may not be a long-term second baseman, but he’ll be a big leaguer for quite some time. With not much in front of him in Seattle, he’ll likely start the year in Triple-A Tacoma, but I wouldn’t doubt if he’s up June 1, or earlier.
The Upside – Ackley is an on-base machine. In his first year of professional ball, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 79-75. In other words 1-1. That’s absurd for someone who’s just learning the game. He didn’t have a great year at the plate in both Double A and Triple A, statistically hitting only 10 home runs and batting only .267. However, he was the MVP of the Arizona Fall League, where baseball’s elite prospects play in the fall. In only 66 at-bats, he hit .424 with five home runs and 19 runs batted in with four stolen bases – erasing any doubts. He’s an above-average runner who I can see stealing 20 bases in time (not this year), and being around 15 home runs (not this year either).
The Downside – Hard to tell. A lack of power projection? Some see him as a guy in the mid-20s yearly. I see him in the upper teens to mid-20s each season. It’s certainly not his batting eye. Rumor has it that he’s a bit below average in the field, and will likely have to move to the outfield to cover his deficiencies at second base. However, the other rumor is that his throwing arm is … well … Johnny Damon-esque. In other words, not so good.
Overall – Ackley is going to be a good MLB player. He’ll even hit for your fantasy team this year, but temper expectations. I certainly see him as being a guy who will be in the .310-plus range throughout a lot of his career, but where he will play remains to be seen. He’ll be near 20-20 yearly, and with that average he’ll be a fantasy force for years. Just not quite yet.
5. Danny Espinosa
Summary – Who? Espinosa is the front-runner for the starting second baseman gig in Washington. He’s continually shown progression through the minors not only at the plate, but also on the base paths. There’s a lot of potential here, but for some reason Espinosa’s not getting a lot of hype for it. With fellow youngster Ian Desmond in the middle, the Nationals could have a nice middle infield combo for quite some time.
The Upside – There’s a lot here. In his first full year of pro ball (2009), Espinosa hit 18 home runs and stole 29 bases. In his second year he hit 22 home runs and stole 25 bases. He even hit five home runs in 103 big-league at bats last year. In other words, this kid’s flying under the radar everywhere and presents value. I’m not necessarily sure that I see the power continuing at this rate, but there are enough extra-base hits to suggest this is not an aberration. He’s another guy with nothing really in his way, and could easily win this gig on opening day.
The downside – Just like many young hitters, Espinosa has a high strikeout rate. But, dissimilar to others, his truly worries me. Of those 103 major league at bats, he also struck out 30 times. That’s approaching Mark Reynolds’ status (OK, not quite that high, but you get the idea). The year before? Much of the same, near 30 percent. For a second baseman with still questionable long-term power projections, these numbers are a huge red flag.
Overall – Even with the strikeout numbers the way they were, Espinosa is a guy to watch in deeper mixed leagues as a very, very cheap middle infielder. No one will have him on their radar, and he’s a guy who can possibly contribute to quite a few categories. Just watch for a low batting average and ready the alarms for when he gets the hat trick on consecutive nights. Either way, wouldn’t you be OK with investing your last-round pick on a 15-15 guy? I know I would.
Others to watch: Hank Conger, Matt Dominguez, Mike Moustakas, Brandon Allen, Brent Morel
Of the names above, Conger, Morel and Dominguez all will likely have starting gigs to begin the year, but I think upside is limited with all three. Allen has been (and I’m not sure why) railroaded out of a spot in Arizona (signings of Juan Miranda and Russell Branyan). Moustakas will make it this year, but likely will have a limited impact this season. But Royals fans will finally have something to be thankful for when this kid takes the field.
Enjoy these rookie players, and especially enjoy the price you pay (or don’t pay) for them on draft day.