Last year, Josh Shepardson, Paul Singman and I did a series of articles on our top 25 guys who are 25 or younger. It was pretty well received at the time, and looking back there were a lot of rankings that would make you go “hmmm” with hindsight. This year, Nick Fleder, Josh and Ben Pritchett did a 2012 edition of the top 25 who are 25 or under.
I had no time to complete a list in time to participate, but I felt that my list was different enough to warrant presenting and explaining separately. More than a mere ego thing, this article began as an in-depth response to the original articles that Josh and others in the fantasy division encouraged me to publicize.
This article will cover players ranked No. 1 through 15 on my list. Part 2 will cover players ranked No. 15 through 30. I always welcome discussion in the comment section, so have at the list when you are done reading.
TLDR: THE LIST
Rank Name 1 Justin Upton 2 Mike Stanton 3 Clayton Kershaw 4 Desmond Jennings 5 Felix Hernandez 6 Matt Moore 7 Stephen Strasburg 8 Carlos Santana 9 Andrew McCutchen 10 Jay Bruce 11 Jesus Montero 12 Mike Trout 13 Bryce Harper 14 Jason Heyward 15 Mat Latos 16 Michael Pineda 17 Yu Darvish 18 Buster Posey 19 Pablo Sandoval 20 Madison Bumgarner 21 Brett Lawrie 22 Eric Hosmer 23 Daniel Hudson 24 Logan Morrison 25 Tommy Hanson The next five 26 Starlin Castro 27 Matt Wieters 28 Yovanni Gallardo 29 Dee Gordon 30 Paul Goldschmidt And five more 31 Jason Kipnis 32 Jeremy Hellickson 33 Craig Kimbrell 34 Dustin Ackley 35 Cameron Maybin Plus two guys it pained me to cut 36 Anthony Rizzo 37 Brandon Belt
1. Justin Upton: Upton tops this list because he is an all-around, five-category real life and fantasy player who has proven himself capable of excellence, is still improving, and is still only 24, though because he came up so young, Upton might seem like he has been around “forever.” The junior Upton has averaged 25 home runs and 17 stolen bases per 162 games in his four-plus year major league career—hard to find production.
Upton had a down year in 2010, and it soured a lot of people’s opinion of him heading into 2011. Still, a .273 batting average with 17 home runs and 18 stolen bases is nothing to sneeze at. If 2010 is the floor for a rising superstar, then sign me up.
Upton’s walks dropped to merely league average last year, but he sliced the strikeout rate in a big way (18.7 percent after posting a 29.0 percent rate in 2008, a 23.3 percent rate in 2009, and a 26.6 percent rate in 2010) while re-upping the power (.240 ISO, .211 career ISO). I expect Upton to repeat his 2011 numbers in 2012, only with a little more batting average and closer to 100 RBI.
Upton might not offer the best overall numbers in any given category, but balanced production is a rare commodity these days. Balance is valuable because balanced players mitigate risks, making replacement production easier to find if a player hits the disabled list. Upton is going to easily push it as a top 15 overall hitter next year, and if you don’t value him as much as I do, I assure you that you will lose him to me at the auction table. We’ll see who’s laughing in September.
2. Mike Stanton: Putting Stanton behind Upton was a hard choice. On one hand, Stanton is only 22 and he has 56 career home runs in fewer than 1,000 plate appearances. Stanton also draws walks at a strong clip, for a player who is of the age of most college draft picks. Of all the players in baseball not named Jose Bautista, Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, Stanton has the greatest potential to hit 40 or more home runs next season if he stays healthy.
On the other hand, Stanton strikes out quite a bit (although he improved his strikeout rate last season. Stanton swung-and-missed more often than in 2010 (and chased more pitches outside the zone) and is unlikely to produce an elite, let alone decent, batting average without some luck dragons breathing fire in his direction. That makes him a liability in at least one fantasy category, unlike Upton. Stanton is also moving to a new park that is predicted to play at least as poorly on righty power as the Marlins’ old stadium. Then again, adding Jose Reyes to the lineup certainly bolsters RBI opportunities for the young slugger.
I have high hopes for Stanton in 2012, and he is likely to end up being more valuable overall than Upton next season. Alas, he is the more “incomplete” player compared to Upton, who poses a little less value risk than Stanton and his batting average liability. Maybe I am just looking for hairs to split, though. The difference in value between Upton and Stanton is slim, and will vary depending on what you are seeking in the player you draft.
3. Clayton Kershaw: Although I was skeptical of Kershaw a few years ago, he has become one of my favorite fantasy pitchers. Kershaw has done everything necessary to establish himself as a superstar pitcher working on skill rather than luck. He’s substantially improved his walk rate—more than halving it over the past two years—while keeping the strikeouts and slightly upping the groundball percentage. Few pitchers with who strike out 25 percent of the batters they face walk batters at even a league average rate, let alone post K/BB rates just north of 4.50.
Kershaw’s curveball might be the best in baseball, and 2012 is going to be Kershaw’s age 24 season. Stephen Strasburg might arguably have a higher ceiling than Kershaw, but Kershaw has no injury history to worry about and he’s already a Cy Young-caliber pitcher who will undoubtedly rank top five among starters in my 2012 fantasy rankings. Strasburg, only a few months younger than Kershaw, should be tickled pink if he ever reaches Kershaw’s level. Do not be surprised if Kershaw is the next pitcher in baseball to rack up 300 strikeouts in a single season.
4. Desmond Jennings: Jennings is a special talent who proved a lot of skeptics wrong last year when he made his major league debut. You could confuse Jennings as a Cubs prospect given how long it took the Rays organization to promote Jennings, but he proved himself capable of what we expect from B.J. Upton every year, only with higher batting average potential. Expect big things from Jennings, now 25, these next few seasons. I would not be surprised to see him hit 110 or more home runs with 220 or more steals over the next five years, all the while batting .275 or better. That kind of power and elite speed combination is hard to find, and it’s just another reason that I will never have to draft Carl Crawford again.
5. Felix Hernandez: Over seven major league seasons, he has logged 1,388.1 innings with a 3.24 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, a 3:1 K/BB ratio, 1,264 strikeouts and a career groundball rate of 55 percent. Oh, and he’s still only 25 (Okay, technically he’ll turn 26 in the second week of the season, but he’s too good to ignore). Over the last three seasons, his numbers are even better: 722 innings, 2.73 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, and 671 strikeouts to 208 walks (8.4 K/9, 3.2 K/BB). Even on the offense-less Mariners, he has been able to “win” fantasy owners a respectable 27 games over the past two season—that’s about as “no-decision proof” as an elite player on a crappy offensive team gets.
Last season was a “down” year for Hermandez, who still posted a sub-3.50 ERA, sub-1.25 WHIP, plus-8.0 K/9 and double digit wins for fantasy owners. His peripherals were really no different last year than they were in 2009 and 2010 (a few more strikeouts, but a few fewer groundballs), so there is no reason for worry about the production of this workhorse next season. The Mariners have added Jesus Montero, who should add run support, and it’s not like their 2012 offense could be much worse than their 2011 offense. Just imagine what kind of numbers Felix Hernandez would put up on a good team or in the National League. Needless to say, he is a top 10 major league pitcher in terms of talent. Matt Moore and Strasburg might have higher ceilings, but Hernandez is the safer pick given his record, home park and division. He’ll cost more at the draft table, but he’s worth it if money doesn’t matter.
6. Matt Moore: Okay, I know what you are thinking: “Yeah, I get Kershaw above Strasburg, and maybe Felix, but Matt Moore? Are you kidding me?” Answer: No, I am not. Matt Moore, in my mind, when you consider his floor and lack of injury history, has similar fantasy potential to Strasburg with less risk. If his end-of-season and ALDS performance are any indication of what this special arm can do, we are likely looking at a potential top 10 pitcher in the making. Moore projects as a guy who can strike out 30 percent of the batters he faces while walking three batters or fewer per nine innings. Moore has no injury history, and is likely to get a higher innings load than Strasburg in 2012 since he pitched 170 innings between the majors and minors last year. My projection for 2012? Only a 3.25 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and a K/9 rate between 9.5 and 10.0. Expect big, big things from Moore. Even in the AL East.
7. Stephen Strasburg: Strasburg could strike out 300 batters, post a sub-3.00 ERA and a low ones WHIP at his peak, but he is coming off Tommy John surgery. Sure, Strasburg’s recovery has been smooth, and he showed us that major league batters are still no really problem for him in limited action last year. However, 2012 is going to see Strasburg get the Jordan Zimmermann treatment, limiting his value. Plus, there is no real guarantee that Strasburg will both reach his peak and stay healthy.
Tommy John surgery has a substantially higher full recovery rate than it used to, but surgery can’t heal bad mechanics. Tom Verducci explains:
The answer to why Strasburg blew out—and why his future is a risky one—may lie in his mechanics. Several pitching coaches quietly predicted Strasburg was at risk before he broke down. He will continue to bear risky loads on his elbow and shoulder unless he changes the way he throws.
To understand the danger of the glitch, first you must understand the most critical point of a pitcher’s delivery. The pitching motion is a kinetic chain of events, carefully calibrated and timed, like a Formula One car’s engine, for maximum efficiency. But above all others one link of the chain is most important: the “late cocking phase,” or the phase during which the shoulder reaches its maximum external rotation with the baseball raised in the “loaded” position (typically, above the shoulder) and ready to come forward.
“The late cocking phase appears to be the critical point in the pitching motion,” according to a conclusion from a study by Dr. Brandon Bushnell of Rome, Ga., and colleagues and published last year in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, “where higher levels of torque at the shoulder and elbow can result in increased risk of injury. Manipulation of pitching mechanics to alter these torque levels or using these measures to identify pitchers at risk may help decrease injury rates.”
Here is the key to managing the torque levels in the late cocking phase: timing. The ball should be loaded in the late cocking phase precisely when the pitcher’s stride foot lands on the ground.
“If he’s too early or too late he winds up with more force on the shoulder and elbow,” said Glenn Fleisig, Ph.D., research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala. “The energy gets passed to the arm before it was ready, or after.”
Without the energy from the rest of the body, the shoulder and elbow must bear higher levels of torque in what in even optimum circumstances is a maneuver that taxes the physical limits of what an arm can bear.
Strasburg, thus, has some serious red flags that prevent me from ranking him top five. Still, we are talking about a once-in-a-lifetime arm here: a guy who can consistently throw in the upper 90s as a starting pitcher and strike out batters like Randy Johnson. That kind of potential is more than enough to outweigh most of the risk if you plan your team properly.
8. Carlos Santana: Santana is a really good hitter who is not only catcher-eligible, but decent enough a defender that he can likely stick at the position until his knees give out. Santana’s batting average was pretty poor last year—at .239—but his .263 BABIP was much lower than his peripherals otherwise indicated. Santana has monstrous power for a catcher (27 home runs, .217 ISO last year), but will need to cut down on the number of popups if he is going to hit above .260. Position eligibility is playing a big part of Santana’s ranking on this list, but Oliver’s 2012 forecast—a .259/.370/.489 triple slash line with 25 home runs, 79 RBI, 73 runs and a handful of stolen bases—says Santana is a good enough hitter in his own right to deserve recognition as a top young fantasy talent. Santana shares a birthday with King Felix, so this will be his last year on this list.
9. Andrew McCutchen: Seemingly a breakout player last year, McCutchen had a second half as bad as his first half was good. His overall season line was still pretty close to his likely true talent line, and that’s a pretty excellent level of production. McCutchen is a high .270s/low .280s batter with good on-base skills, an above-average strikeout rate and above-average power. A line of .280/.380/.470 is totally in the cards for 2012, and McCutchen has 20/30 upside. The Pirates may stink, but their young center fielder is a bona fide fantasy stud with five-category potential if he has a little luck on his BABIP.
10. Jay Bruce: Bruce is a frustrating player. His overall line is pretty solid, and he has 2008 Alfonso Soriano-like stretches where he is absolutely the best player in (fantasy) baseball, able to win owners weekly match-ups single-handedly. Alas, he has been the definition of hot-and-cold the last two years, doing his best Luke Scott impression. For Roto, Bruce is great for an owner with patience who is a believer. In H2H, however, Bruce is every owner’s worst nightmare. The only thing that you can guarantee with Bruce is that he’ll be a deadweight for the first three weeks. After that, you gotta ride the streaks.
Bruce has similar fantasy value to McCutchen, swapping out less speed for more power and a slightly lower batting average true talent line. McCutchen is the more balanced player, and the edge always goes to balance. Expect .270/.350/.490 next season, with 28-35 home runs, five to 10 stolen bases, and 100 RBI. The question is whether you can be patient enough to leave Bruce in daily to get those numbers.
11. Jesus Montero: A change of scenery from New Yankee Stadium to Safeco Field is never a positive move for a prospect whose key tool is his power stroke. Montero has enough raw hitting ability to survive the move and pay loyal believers in spades. Not only would all three of Montero’s home runs at home last year have been home runs at Safeco Park (sample size, sample size, sample size, I know), but we’re talking about a prospect whose MLE over the past few years has been above an .800 OPS/.350 wOBA.
Oh, and did I mention that Montero just turned 22? True, Safeco tends to be harder on right-handed batters than left-handed batters, but Montero still projects as a high .280s hitter with .350 OBP potential and .200+ ISO power despite the move. Oliver’s 2015 forecast for Montero is a .289/.347/.508 line with 25 home runs per 529 PA. Those are ridiculously good fantasy numbers. The best part? Montero might keep catcher eligibility for the next few years as the Mariners figure out where they want to play him to maximize his value. (He’s young enough that his defensive shortcomings might not result in a position change until 2014 if the Mariners feel a strong enough need at catcher). Montero is a young star in the making with the potential to make me regret not ranking him in the top 10 by the end of the season.
12. Mike Trout: Trout is also very young: He will not turn 21 until after the All-Star break this season. But Trout has already made his major league debut and is arguably baseball’s top prospect—ahead of the legend of Bryce Harper. After ridiculous numbers in Single-A and Double-A ball over the past two season, (combined minor league line of .338/.422/.508 with 22 home runs and 102 stolen bases), the Angels called Trout up last season for a pair of brief stints. He struggled in his first taste of major league pitching—batting a less than encouraging .220/.282/.390—but he is still has projectable potential as baseball’s next five- category fantasy stud.
THT Forecast’s Oliver system for 2016 projects Trout, in his age 24 season, to hit .307/.378/.500 with a 20/20, potentially 20/30 campaign over a full, healthy year. It’s worth buying low on Trout and getting in on the ground floor early in dynasty leagues. He likely won’t come cheap for a player with such little (successful) major league experience, but Trout has the potential to be a long term bargain in the right league.
13. Bryce Harper: Harper rounds out three guys (the other two being Montero and Trout) who are among baseball’s next big thing in hitting prospects. Harper gets ranked lower than the other two simply because he might spend 2012 in the minors. Of course that might change in a heartbeat, depending on how the Nationals start the season with their pitching phenom Strasburg back on the mound and whether they sign an outfielder.
If you do not yet know why Bryce Harper has a lot of buzz behind him, then you need to watch this video of him blasting a 500-foot-plus home run at Tropicana Field a few years ago. He is baseball’s premier power prospect—ahead of even Mike Stanton. Not even 20 years old (he’ll turn 20 in October), Harper projects as having .300 ISO potential power in his prime. Not only does Harper have raw power, but he is also pretty athletic and has good bat speed, according to the scouting reports I have read. He also has solid plate discipline for a 19-year-old, walking 59 times over 109 games last year. Put it all together, and you have a guy who can hit .290 with good on-base numbers, excellent power (30+ home runs) and double digit stolen bases. Harper’s only real flaw is
being too awesome his ego.
14. Jason Heyward: In his age 21 season, Heyward walked 91 times in 142 games (14.6 percent rate). That’s a rare level of excellence, and top 10 all time in number of single season walks for a player 21 years old or younger. In fact, in 2010, he was tied for eighth in the league in total walks, behind seven players who all played 150 or more games, top five overall in the league among qualified batters. One more walk would have made him top three. That is elite plate discipline for any batter, let alone one who was barely old enough to drink. Combine that with a .179 ISO and you have yourself one of the top prospects in baseball.
But 2011 was largely a disappointment for Heyward, who battled injuries. His groundball rate remained high (53.9 percent), his popup rate skyrocketed (21.8 percent), his line drives fell off (13.1 percent) and his power dipped (.162 ISO). All of that can be expected when batting nagging shoulder injuries. What is important is that Heyward’s mastery of the strike zone largely stayed intact, proving his 2010 plate discipline was no outlier. Heyward still walked 11.2 percent of the time while striking out at the exact same rate in 2011 as he did in 2010.
This will be Heyward’s age 23 season, and he has plenty of time to get back on track as one of baseball’s elite young hitters. If he is healthy, he should pick up where he left off at the end of 2011 (you know, before the playoffs). Even with an injury-stifled 2011 skewing his career numbers, Oliver forecasts Heyward to hit .273/.367/.475 this season with 20 home runs and double-digit stolen bases. By the time he is 27, I would not be shocked to see Heyward log at least one 30 home run season and one 20/20 season, and there is no reason, with a little luck on his side, that he can’t hit .280/.390/.480 this year. I’m expecting a 25/15 campaign as well. Now is the time to buy low. Heyward is ranked this low only because of injury risk.
15. Mat Latos: When healthy, Latos has one of baseball’s most electric young arms—a potentially top 20 arm. With a mid-90s fastball, mid-80s power slider and solid change-up, Latos has been able to dice through both handed batters with minimal platoon splits (career 3.49 xFIP versus LHB and 3.53 xFIP versus RHB, 23.1 K percentage versus LHB and 23.9 percentversus RHB). Sadly, health has proven an issue in his short career. Latos had with a shoulder injury that forced him to the disabled list to start 2011 and limited his effectiveness in the first half of the season. With a 25-plus percent slider rate, health may be an issue in the future as well. Oliver’s 2015 forecast for Latos’ age 27 season is a 3.18 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 and a +4.5 WAR per 180 innings. If healthy, Latos should be able to pitch 200-plus innings a year. “If” is a big word, however. Consider Latos a moderate-risk, high-reward player at this point.
Comments? Questions? Concerns? Feedback? Leave it all in the comments below. Make sure to check back for the second part.