The annual unveiling of ESPN Insider colleague and former Baseball Today podcast partner Keith Law’s top-100 prospect rankings are one of my highlights of February, and I do appreciate their release days before my most important dynasty league draft! As great as Law’s rankings are, however, there’s a large difference in comparing the value of young, generally unproven baseball players for real life and those for immediate fantasy aid.
As a result, it’s time for my annual look at the top 10 prospects for fantasy purposes this season. After all, most prospects aren’t expected to contribute for a big league team right away, and Law’s rankings reflect the long-term proposition as well as proper risk and reward, but also take into account factors that aren’t so critical for us, such as defense. In fantasy, unless it’s a dynasty/keeper format, you’re looking for numbers during the next few months, the most immediate of rewards really, and while some rookie-eligible players will surely provide them, most will not.
It’s also worth noting that while a prospect is always technically a rookie, a rookie is not always a prospect. This list includes anyone who hasn’t yet exhausted rookie eligibility, and a few of these players are older, such Pittsburgh Pirates Korean import Jung Ho Kang was a year ago. He did well. You’ll also note I absolutely lean toward hitters over pitchers, not just for veterans, but for the inexperienced as well, and we’re most concerned with numbers in the fantasy categories and playing time. Defense is nice if it gets a player on the field, but for fantasy, that’s about it.
1. Corey Seager, SS, Los Angeles Dodgers: Certainly looked like a future star upon last season’s late recall, as he’s a shortstop with power and batting average upside, and his team will likely place him in a sweet lineup spot too. The best I could do in the overall rankings, however, was award him the No. 5 shortstop slot and seventh round overall. There is, you know, some risk.
2. Byung Ho Park, 1B, Minnesota Twins: He’s no kid at 29, but the right-handed slugger hit more than 100 home runs the past two seasons in South Korea, so while he might not aid your batting average, he’s going to play and some level of power seems assured, and that’s half the battle. Any time after Round 10 or so makes sense to me. And yeah, he’s a rookie.
3. Byron Buxton, OF, Twins: Buxton is a monster prospect, as reflected in Law’s rankings, but he looked really overmatched at the plate in his age-21 season with the Twins, and he’s no lock to start the season in the majors. Of course, we said this about Mike Trout after a few months of MLB action as well. Buxton doesn’t have big power, but he’ll run a lot. He needs to find the plate discipline he used to have. That said, he just missed my top 200. High risk, high reward.
4. A.J. Reed, 1B, Houston Astros: OK, this one might be a bit of a reach considering he hasn’t appeared in a Triple-A game yet, but the lefty slugger smacked 34 home runs a year ago and he can take a walk. Watch Astros spring training, because Reed really could steal the job from disappointing Jonathan Singleton. Today, he’s not in my rankings because first base is deep, but that could change.
5. Steven Matz, SP, New York Mets: Finally, a pitcher! We’ve seen what Matz is capable of, and it’s potentially special. The main concern is about durability and/or a likely innings cap in September, but when he’s healthy, the numbers should be very good. I tried to make him a top-40 starter in my rankings, but he just missed.
6. Trea Turner, 2B, Washington Nationals: Talent wins out. Just keep reminding yourselves of this. Turner, a shortstop prospect with contact skills and excellent speed, really should push Danny Espinosa aside in spring training. The Nationals keep bringing in players to block him, but a season with 10 homers and 30 steals remains possible. I refuse to ignore Turner, though for now he’s not worth taking in a standard league.
7. Hyun-Soo Kim, OF, Baltimore Orioles: Another Korean import with baseball experience, the 28-year-old lefty swinger figures to win the left-field job and brings modest power with a high walk rate. He could be the team’s leadoff hitter. Kim should be selected late in standard leagues, but bump him up some in OBP formats.
8. Kenta Maeda, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers: I thought about younger right-handers with massive upside such as the Nationals’ Lucas Giolito and St. Louis Cardinals flamethrower Alex Reyes, but Maeda comes from Japan with a big league job. He’s perhaps the lone right-hander in the Dodgers' rotation. He’s not likely to pile on the strikeouts and there was some concern -- reflected in his odd contract -- about elbow irregularities, but I’d invest in the same region as I would Matz, near Round 20.
9. Jose Peraza, 2B, Cincinnati Reds: Again, some will scoff at this selection because, as with Turner, the respective team is currently blocking said youngster with either lesser talent, or one who doesn’t want to be traded in Brandon Phillips. Peraza has been dealt a few times already, but the stolen base upside is huge. Don’t be shocked if/when he pushes Billy Hamilton aside in center field. What do the Reds have to lose?
10. Jose Berrios, SP, Minnesota Twins: Surprise! Others will take the chance on Giolito, Reyes, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Glasnow and Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I like Berrios for this season because he’s not a walker, still misses plenty of bats and I view him as having the best shot from this young crew to earn a rotation spot in April. Look at what the Twins have … Tommy Milone, Ricky Nolasco? Ugh, how about a young arm with K potential?
Other hitters to watch: I just don’t think Texas Rangers slugging prospect Joey Gallo, eligible in the outfield for fantasy, can make enough contact to earn big league playing time. Not yet. But yeah, he could be like Baltimore’s Chris Davis with the power and he’s next on my overall list. Nomar Mazara is also near-ready for Texas, but he’s 20 and needs more time in the minors. … If Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes misses time because of injury or suspension or gets dealt, Trevor Story steps into a wonderful situation. … I’m also watching New York Yankees right fielder Carlos Beltran. He played in 133 games a year ago, but if that trend ceases, giant Aaron Judge is ready. … Twins outfielder Max Kepler hasn’t hit at Triple-A yet, but he’s Miguel Sano insurance in right field and capable of double digits in power and speed. … Don’t be surprised if defensive woes cost Oakland Athletics shortstop Marcus Semien playing time, and Chad Pinder gets a shot. … For those in multi-catcher formats, the Rockies figure to see what Tom Murphy can do, and Murphy has power. … The Philadelphia Phillies gleaned excellent production from Rule 5 selection Odubel Herrera last season, and now former Rays prospect Tyler Goeddel could earn the left-field job. Playing time is critical. … As for Hector Olivera, third base eligible but moving to left field for the Atlanta Braves, I just don’t see a 20-homer guy. He’ll be 31 by opening day, which doesn’t bother me because Park and Kim aren’t “young,” but I think they’re better.
Other pitchers to watch: I think Giolito should be ready by midseason and I can’t see someone like Tanner Roark standing in his way. With Glasnow and I suppose right-hander Jameson Taillon, it’s similar. Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke don’t block future aces. Glasnow is the one, not the oft-injured Taillon. … Alex Reyes is suspended until late May and he has made a mere eight starts above Class A, but I still expect to see him by August. … We’ve been hearing about Dodgers lefty Julio Urias for years, but he’s only 19! Still, that organization needs results now, and Urias could debut this summer. … I won’t go near Rockies right-hander Jon Gray, and it’s not merely because of Coors Field. Same with Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Archie Bradley and Baltimore Orioles right-hander Dylan Bundy. How the mighty have fallen. … In terms of fishing for saves, like a year ago with the Blue Jays bullpen -- it ended up being Roberto Osuna and not Aaron Sanchez closing -- there really aren’t any obvious situations for bullpen-bound rookies to aid fantasy owners. Perhaps Milwaukee Brewers lefty Josh Hader ends up with a key role in their wide-open bullpen, but it’s so easy to find saves in any league, it’s much wiser to use bench spots on potential aces.