- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Wait, so there's an actual top prospects list without the great Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton at the top of it? How could that be!
Well, before you get upset while examining the official ESPN Fantasy top-50 prospects list for 2014, note that we're looking at immediate fantasy impact here, which is why Buxton's exclusion really isn't odd at all. In fact, while you'll see a few Chicago Cubs players listed, you won't see shortstop Javier Baez or outfielder Jorge Soler, as well as other youngsters who likely will need at least another full minor league season before they're ready for regular playing time in the majors.
Last month I posted my own top-10 fantasy prospects report for this coming season, and obviously the fantasy top-50 list is different, and not only in its length and depth. It should be since it's a staff effort and we all bring different ideas and mindsets, not to mention a few things have changed since my top-10 was posted. They're always changing! I'll be sharing my thoughts on prospects all season, but here are general ones about our staff list, from top to bottom and then some.
• Boston Red Sox infielder Xander Bogaerts was my top pick, but I really can't argue with New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka or Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu topping him. Those guys have extensive experience in other countries and are clearly big league-ready -- and maybe All-Star-caliber -- right away. Of course, I think Bogaerts is as well, and that shortstop/third base eligibility will come in handy!
• I've made it plainly clear that I have doubts Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton will hit enough to keep the center field and leadoff jobs, but as he is on my list, he checks in at No. 4 on the staff prospect ranks. Look, there aren't too many players capable of stealing 75 or more bases, if any. Hamilton can. That upside alone warrants special attention, and for some it's worth reaching a bit to get him.
• Playing time is critical, but the truth is nobody knows -- except perhaps the actual teams! -- when a prospect will be promoted to the big leagues and if he'll see regular playing time. Nothing official has really changed when it comes to the April status of intriguing outfielders Oscar Taveras (Cardinals), George Springer (Astros) and Gregory Polanco (Pirates), but they all belong in the top 10. Polanco mashed a home run in his first at-bat of his first spring game, which could inflate his value. If you see Cardinals first baseman/outfielder Allen Craig limping around, get ready to bid the extra dollar on Taveras. He'd be worth it even in standard formats.
• With starting pitchers, I'm far more likely to rank the potential ace types who might start the season in the minors over those who lack the ultimate upside to make major fantasy impact. I like Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi and I trust the Rays organization, but I'd have Arizona Diamondbacks right-hander Archie Bradley more than one spot ahead of him, even if I believe -- which I do -- that he'll make fewer starts. Bradley has ace potential, and I saw it in person Monday, when he fanned six Colorado Rockies over three impressive innings. Odorizzi seems like a guy who will post a 4.25 ERA and an ordinary strikeout rate, though I hope I'm wrong.
• The Houston Astros could have Springer and first-base prospect Jonathan Singleton in the middle of their batting order by Memorial Day and for the next five years. Singleton is a legit power hitter and one might notice the top-50 list isn't exactly overflowing with first basemen. There's Abreu and Singleton, and that's it. (Mike Olt of the Cubs is really a third baseman.) Hunter Morris of the Milwaukee Brewers would be on the list, but the organization didn't promote him last year, and then brought in several underwhelming names (Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay) to block him this offseason. Singleton, however, deserves top-20 status.
• Relying on young catchers is dangerous business. A year ago, Travis d'Arnaud of the New York Mets was 14th on this list, and now he's 12th, but he didn't do much to earn the higher grade. I'm avoiding him. He's extremely talented, to be sure, but durability is not his strength. Of the other three catchers from the 2013 list, one hit but is not a strong investment (Evan Gattis), one did not hit at all but still has opportunity (Mike Zunino) and the other seems to be buried and forgotten in Miami (Rob Brantly). This year d'Arnaud is joined by the Twins' Josmil Pinto -- he's not hitting near .342 again! -- and the Atlanta Braves' Christian Bethancourt on the list. Pinto should play with Joe Mauer moving to first base, and Bethancourt could cut into Gattis' playing time, but if looking for a late, impact flyer in a shallow league, in general it won't be a catcher.
• While a mere two starting pitchers are in the top 10, note that nearly half of the overall top 50 make their living with their arms. From a fantasy aspect, I find hitters far more reliable, from veterans to rookies and everyone in between. Most rookies disappoint, but that's especially true with pitchers. For comparison's sake, looking at last year's top-50 list, precisely half the list was made up of pitchers, and several of the prized options struggled, such as the Diamondbacks' Tyler Skaggs and Cleveland Indians tantalizer Trevor Bauer.
• Where are the relievers? Well, um, there's one, perhaps two. In general, a rookie or two will find his way into saves -- such as Addison Reed a few seasons ago -- and while that could happen again with the White Sox and right-hander Daniel Webb, the tale of Detroit Tigers right-hander Bruce Rondon a season ago is far more likely to be repeated in Webb's case. It makes sense that Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman, who could wind up in a bullpen role, is ranked better than Webb. Bet on skills, not roles. Stroman's future is brighter.
• Twins third-base prospect Miguel Sano, only 20, probably would have been ranked in the middle of this list, near similarly young Oakland Athletics shortstop Addison Russell, but he'll miss the entire 2014 campaign following Tommy John surgery. Yes, hitters occasionally blow out their throwing elbows, too. This shouldn't hurt Sano's future value, but a missed year is a lost opportunity for further development.
• So who's missing? Well, right-hander Joe Wieland of the San Diego Padres remains rookie-eligible, and he's now recovered from Tommy John surgery. Wieland isn't overpowering, but pitching half the time at Petco Park makes a difference. Mike Foltynewicz of the Astros, meanwhile, hits 100 mph on the radar gun and could emerge this year. David Hale (Braves), Jimmy Nelson (Brewers) and Enny Romero (Rays) bring varying degrees of stuff and upside, and could get opportunities. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez of the Philadelphia Phillies would have made this list, but he has looked so underwhelming in camp that it's best to look elsewhere.