Freddie Freeman is ready to make his mark in the majors.
And the 2011 RotoRob MLB Draft Kit rages on. So while you ponder whether the Toronto Blue Jays have improved enough to make some real noise in a stacked AL East, let’s take a look at our Top 10 rookies for 2011.
The 2010 season was flush with top-notch rookies, and names such as Buster Posey, Jason Heyward, Neftali Feliz and Stephen Strasburg quickly became household names and valuable Fantasy assets. But beyond the headliners, players such as Ike Davis, Gaby Sanchez, Mike Stanton, Pedro Alvarez, Jaime Garcia and Madison Bumgarner all found their way into mixed-league Fantasy relevance during the season. Still other rookies — Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, Wade Davis, Brian Matusz and Travis Wood are the most notable — provided sparks for Fantasy owners in single-league formats. All told, it was a banner year for both MLB rookies and the Fantasy owners that watched them make their mark in the majors.
While the ‘10 campaign undoubtedly set the bar very high, 2011 ushers in another strong group of first-year players that look poised to make an impact in both big-league ballparks and Fantasy lineups. Some of these players will be familiar names, as they made their big-league debuts last season, while others may be relatively unknown. Not all will start the season in the bigs; the economics of baseball dictate that small-market teams sometimes send their top prospects to the minors just long enough (typically late May or early June) to delay their arbitration-eligible date by one year and avoid “Super Two” status. The lesson here is this: Even if one of your targeted players is a late spring cut, keep one eye on his minor league numbers and another on the calendar. When Memorial Day rolls around, be prepared to pounce when your guy is called to The Show.
Let’s have a look at the players we think are most likely to make a Fantasy splash in 2011; if you’re considering drafting any of these rookies, it’s important that you keep a close eye on his development as Spring Training unfolds. This will allow you to better assess a given player’s chance to break camp with the big club, and consequently begin paying immediate Fantasy dividends. As if you needed another reason to watch spring baseball.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays: The man they call “Hellboy” brandishes a running low-90s fastball, a tight-breaking curve, and a devastating change-up that could become one of the league’s best put-away pitches. No word on his preferences regarding cats, Baby Ruth bars or gnarly cigars…but we can tell you that his change made some very good major-league hitters look rather foolish last year. Hellickson was the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 2010, thanks to a dazzling 2.72 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 119.1 innings between Double and Triple-A. His four major-league starts resulted in an ERA of 2.05, 25 strikeouts and only four walks in 24.1 innings of work. The youngster’s command is impeccable, as he has averaged just 2.1 walks per nine innings during his six-year minor-league career. The trade of Matt Garza to Chicago opens a rotation spot for Hellickson, and he looks to be ready to step in and make a run at the AL Rookie of the Year in 2011. Hellboy’s ace-quality stuff should produce plenty of strikeouts and strong ratios, and if the Rays’ depleted lineup can muster some run support, he could rack up his fair share of wins as well.
2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves: The Braves allowed both Derrek Lee and Troy Glaus to leave town, so apparently the team is convinced that the sweet-swinging Freeman is ready to man the helm at first base. Take a look at Freeman’s 2010 line in the minors and you’ll see the source of that confidence: A .319 average, 35 doubles, 18 homers and 87 RBI in 124 games at Triple-A. The big lefty does not project to be an elite power hitter, but at only 21 years of age, there is still time for him to develop a bit more pop. He should have a full-time job from the get-go in 2011; Fantasy owners should expect the inconsistency that comes with being a rookie, but Freeman looks like the kind of guy that will play this game at a high level for a long time.
3. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, IF, Minnesota Twins: Nishioka is a slap-and-dash style hitter that led the NPB Pacific League in batting last season, finishing with a stellar .346 mark. He possesses an outstanding batting eye, and his eight triples, 11 homers, 121 runs and 22 steals in ‘10 shows that he has the ability to produce meaningful Fantasy numbers this season. It’s very doubtful that he’ll post double-digit homers in the States, but his fine OBP skills should afford him plenty of opportunities to swipe a few bags and score plenty of runs. He batted at least .300 in three of the past four seasons, and his career average in Japan was .293. As your mixed-league draft is winding down, Nishioka makes a great selection as your reserve middle infielder. He carries more upside than any of the players that are likely to be drafted alongside him, and if he wins a place at the top of the Twins’ lineup, he could pay some serious Fantasy dividends in 2011.
4. Danny Espinosa, 2B, Washington Nationals: Espinosa smacked 22 homers and swiped 25 bags between Double and Triple-A last season, then swatted six bombs in just 103 at-bats in the bigs. The youngster possesses tremendous power for a middle infielder, but his swing-from-the-heels style typically leads to a mediocre batting average. He has managed just a .270 career average in three minor-league seasons, and his .214 showing with the Nats last season “featured” 30 strikeouts in just 112 plate appearances. Espinosa underwent hand surgery in the offseason to have the hook of his hamate bone removed — a procedure which often leads to a temporary loss of power at the plate. Despite these shortcomings, he is penciled in as the starting second baseman in Washington this season, and his combination of power and speed should earn him plenty of looks near the end of most mixed-league drafts.
5. Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: The Phils have been rather vocal in their assertions that Brown is not likely to open the season in the majors. While this may turn out to be the case, the fact remains that left fielder Raul Ibanez has plenty of kilometres on his odometer, and right fielder Ben Francisco is, well, Ben Francisco. The Phils laid out a huge wad of cash to land Cliff Lee this offseason, so delaying the arrival of Brown’s arbitration years by stashing him in the minors for a spell is probably a wise financial move. Make no mistake, though: Brown can hit, and just as importantly, run. He smacked 20 homers and stole 17 bases in 93 games between Double and Triple-A last season, while batting a cool .327. Unless he really tears it up this spring, Brown will probably start the season in Triple-A, but we look for him to have a regular job in the bigs by mid-season…if not before. He is a classic five-tool player that should be a Fantasy staple once he establishes himself in the bigs.
6. Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta Braves: It’s hard to not be excited about Kimbrel’s prospects as Atlanta’s closer this season; he saved 23 games and posted a 1.62 ERA at Triple-A last season, while fanning 83 batters in 55 2/3 innings pitched. While those numbers are impressive enough, the part that makes Braves’ fans — and certain Fantasy writers — positively giddy over this kid is the fact that he was even better during his brief stints in the majors. The youngster posted a stellar 0.44 ERA and fanned a staggering 40 batters in just 20 2/3 innings of work. He surrendered only nine hits, and allowed just one earned run over the course of his 21 appearances. Kimbrel’s heater sits at 95 and will touch 98, while his 85-mph slurve-like breaking ball is also a plus pitch. The wet blanket on this fire is Kimbrel’s shaky command, which led to an average of almost seven walks per nine innings in the bigs last year. He’ll have to beat out flamethrowing southpaw Jonny Venters for the closer’s gig this spring, but it would be a surprise if Kimbrel didn’t emerge on top in that competition. If he can harness his wicked stuff, Kimbrel could be a dominant major-league closer for years to come.
7. Kyle Drabek, SP, Toronto Blue Jays: Drabek underwent Tommy John surgery back in 2007, but his 2010 season in Double-A served notice that he’s back in fine fettle. The young right-hander posted a 2.94 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, while fanning 132 batters in 162 innings of work. Drabek has four solid pitches, most notably his spike curveball, but is still learning to locate his offerings effectively. The Jays have said that Drabek will have a shot at earning a rotation spot this spring, but practicality suggests that he may make a few starts at Triple-A before being summoned to the bigs. Drabek’s stuff does not scream “ace,” but his overall skill set projects as that of a No. 2 or No. 3 starting pitcher.
8. J.P. Arencibia, C, Toronto Blue Jays: He belted 32 homers and delivered 85 RBI at Triple-A last season, and has averaged one long ball every 19.5 at-bats during his four-year minor-league career. He smacked a pair of dingers and collected four hits in a memorable major-league debut last Aug. 7, but managed just one more safety in his final 30 at-bats. Arencibia will swing and miss a lot, his defense is mediocre at best, and his batting eye is so-so, but his prodigious power (and lack of competition now that John Buck is gone) should all but guarantee him a starting job with the Jays in 2011. Fantasy-wise, Arencibia is probably best suited to two-catcher formats as a low-end No. 2 backstop with upside. He figures to provide some nice pop, but it will almost certainly come packaged with a rather low batting average.
9. Aroldis Chapman, RP, Cincinnati Reds: The Chapman Hype Train was already rolling full-speed ahead when he made his major-league debut last August 31, so imagine the real and cyber-ink that flowed when he uncorked a 103-mph fastball that very night. Nothing could have prepared fans for what happened the following night, though, as the lanky lefty unleashed a heater of historic proportions, clocking 105 on the gun. While his blistering heat earned him more attention than Kim Kardashian at a frat-house kegger, it was (and is) his knee-buckling 86-mph slider that looks to be his primary put-away pitch. He doesn’t really have a third pitch, and thus begins the first of many cautionary tales surrounding this exciting young southpaw. The Reds do not seem to have their mind made up as to what role Chapman will fulfill in 2011. There is talk of stretching him out into a starter, but Cincy’s crowded rotation and shaky back end of the bullpen might necessitate him reprising his setup role…or even closing games if Francisco Cordero’s 2010 struggles carry over into ‘11. Chapman battled some command issues at Triple-A last season, and Reds’ skipper Dusty Baker is not exactly known for his adept handling of young pitchers. Chapman’s 2011 Fantasy worth will ultimately be determined by his role, so keep a close eye on his situation this spring; heck, everyone else will be watching.
10. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals: Last year, Moustakas treated minor-league pitching like Godzilla treated Tokyo — mashing 36 homers, delivering 124 RBI and batting .322 in 118 games between Double and Triple-A. What’s even more impressive is that he fanned just 67 times in 484 at-bats. Moustakas is arguably the minors’ best hitting prospect, but there are a few caveats here: He’s a bit of a clank at third base right now (.936 fielding percentage last season), and the Royals will probably not try to rush the 22-year-old to the bigs before he’s ready. His batting eye is still a work in progress, but when you can rake like this guy, it must be tough to watch any pitches go by. The best-case scenario would have him being recalled in June, but even that might be a bit optimistic. There is an old baseball axiom about a team finding a place for you if you can hit, though, and if Moose mashes from Day One in ‘11 he may force the Royals’ hand. Watch him this spring, and then keep tabs on him at Triple-A…this kid can hit, and his day is coming.