Starting this week, I’ll be looking ahead to the 2012 fantasy baseball season by highlighting the potential impact rookies at each position. Why? Because it’s never too early to begin thinking about next year, even if you’re still trying to win your league right now. And for those of you in keeper leagues, particularly deeper ones, these primers will be especially helpful, because you’ll find out which young players may be worth snatching up now — before other owners get a clue — so you can hang onto them next season, when their value kicks in. Think of it like an investment requiring only a little up-front cost that could pay off big in the near future.
Much like my Mining the Minors columns on this site, which focus on current-season impact more than long-term upside, these 2012 rookie primers are meant for players who will fulfill or are expected to fulfill their rookiedom next year. Also much like my MTM work, the point here is to find the right mix of opportunity and talent, so that you’re picking up a player who can contribute, either in a starting role or as a reserve, from Day 1 or soon thereafter. Chances are, I’ll hit on many of these same players in depth at some point in future Mining the Minors columns, but for now, it’s good to get ahead of the curve with a snapshot of the young talent at each position.
To give you a brief idea of just how this sort of thing can be worthwhile, I’m in two deep keeper leagues, one AL-only and one NL-only, and around this time last year, I picked up Mark Trumbo, Jordan Walden and Brandon Beachy. Worked out pretty well, if I do say so myself.
First up? Catchers.
To be considered, the players must currently be eligible to maintain their rookie status for 2012, meaning they have yet to exceed 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched. Certainly, a few listed below may surpass these numbers in the final weeks of this season, but nonetheless, it’s worth pointing them out now.
PLAYERS RANKED IN ORDER OF 2012 FANTASY IMPACT
OPENING DAY STARTERS AND BACKUPS
Devin Mesoraco, Reds
If there’s one catcher from this batch that you keeper leaguers should add, here’s the guy. After stalling out in his first few seasons in the minors, Mesoraco, 23, has become a beast worthy of the No. 15 pick in 2007. He finally put it all together last year (.302/.377/.587 with 26 HRs) and has followed that up with an impressive Triple-A campaign (36 doubles, 15 HRs, 71 RBIs, .289 BA, .858 OPS). The Reds have some of the best catching depth in the majors, with Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan, but Hernandez is an impending free agent, and Hanigan is better suited to be a good backup rather than a starter, so Mesoraco could get a taste this September in preparation for the top job next April.
Jesus Montero, Yankees
Before you ask, no, I don’t have an answer as to why Montero isn’t already up. The 21-year-old Venezuelan is finishing up his second full season at Triple-A — and hitting .290 with an .821 OPS and 18 HRs — while the Yanks continue to employ Francisco Cervelli as the backup backstop and Jorge Posada as a DH option. While Montero’s defensive shortcomings may wind up pushing him to the DH role, the good news is that there should be a bigger opening for him in 2012, since Cervelli doesn’t bring much to the table and Posada is currently in the final year of his contract. (Russell Martin was only given a one-year deal, though the Yankees would be wise to bring him back.) As a catcher-eligible hitter who’s likely to spend most of his time DHing and not wearing down like most who don the tools of ignorance, Montero would top this list if guaranteed even 350 ABs, but at this point, that’s asking for a lot, given how he’s been handled so far.
Ryan Lavarnway, Red Sox
A Mining the Minors vet, this 24-year-old got a brief call-up in mid-August when the Red Sox were battling injury issues, and he went 7-for-23 (.304) with a solid 6:4 K:BB. Alas, he only caught two innings because, like Montero, his lack of skills behind the dish could resign him to doing most of his damage as a DH. Since returning to Triple-A, Lavarnway bashed his 31st homer of the year, and he’ll be back up once rosters expand in September. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia starting to come into his own (.783 OPS), Boston is likely to bring him back after giving him a one-year deal this season. But longtime Red Sox Jason Varitek, while still capable in a limited role (.742 OPS), is a free agent who will turn 40 soon after Opening Day 2012, and Lavarnway will be ready to contribute by then.
Tyler Flowers, White Sox
Once considered the White Sox’s catcher of the future, Flowers has struggled with strikeouts (28% K rate) enough to make some question his big-league future. But the 25-year-old has improved his defensive skills enough that he should be able to stick at catcher, and he’s always shown above-average pop, routinely posting ISO numbers north of .200. In his third try at Triple-A this year, Flowers notched an .890 OPS — his best at Charlotte — and he walks enough (17% BB rate) to balance out his tendency to whiff, at least somewhat. Filling in for the injured A.J. Pierzynski — who has one year left on his contract — Flowers has gone 14-for-43 (.326) with 2 HRs and 9 RBIs since mid-August, showing he’s capable of being the successor on the South Side. That should allow him to carve out an expanded role compared to most other backup catchers in 2012.
Salvador Perez, Royals
Perez’s value comes primarily from the fact that he has a clear path to the Royals’ starting catching job next season. (Yes, Jason Kendall‘s contract is finally, mercifully over.) He did hit 10 HRs between Double- and Triple-A this year, but overall, he doesn’t offer the same offensive upside as those mentioned above him. Still, the 21-year-old Venezuelan is hitting .295 (18-for-61) since his Aug. 10 debut, and he also has perhaps the best chance among everyone here to be the Opening Day starter and reach 450 ABs, considering Kansas City’s interest in making the most of it’s formidable farm system and utter lack of other catching options. If you can add him now, he’ll do enough to be a solid play in AL-onlies or deep mixed leagues that use two starting catchers.
OTHER TRIPLE-A NAMES TO KNOW
Robinson Chirinos, Rays: Chirinos debuted earlier this season and didn’t do much, but then again, neither have John Jaso or Kelly Shoppach all year. Plus, Chirinos has the ability to play multiple positions — something that gets Joe Maddon all tingly — which might give the 27-year-old an edge to make the roster next spring.
Stephen Vogt, Rays: Like Chirinos, Vogt is a bit older (26), can play all over the diamond and has always hit. His versatility — not to mention, his .303/.340/.499 line and 104 RBIs across Double- and Triple-A — would be a good fit for the Rays next year.
Josh Donaldson, A’s: For whatever reason, Oakland continued to deploy the atrocious Landon Powell as Kurt Suzuki‘s backup while this 25-year-old has hit 34 HRs at Triple-A since the start of 2010, even with a few cups of joe in between.
Anthony Recker, A’s: See “Donaldson, Josh” and replace “25-year-old” with “28-year-old” and “34 HRs” with “26 HRs.” Basically, the Landon Powell experiment should’ve ended a year before it did.
Jordan Pacheco, Rockies: Chris Iannetta still has a year and a club option left, so it’s unlikely Pacheco would be anything more than a backup, but he owns a career .302/.376/.425 slash line and a near 1:1 K:BB ratio in the minors, so he could cut it as the second catcher on Opening Day.
Bryan Anderson, Cardinals: Once thought of as St. Louis’ catcher of the future, the 24-year-old is looking more like a legit backup with just enough stick to hold down the job behind Yadier Molina, once Gerald Laird‘s allowed to walk after this season.
Austin Romine, Yankees: He’s repeating Double-A because the Yanks wanted to let Montero catch regularly one level up, otherwise Romine, 22, would already be with Scranton-Wilkes Barre. While playable for a catcher, Romine’s bat doesn’t measure up to Montero’s, but his glove is clearly superior, so he could wind up being the Yanks’ backup at some point next year.
Wilin Rosario, Rockies: Rosario, a 22-year-old Dominican, might already be in the bigs if not for a torn ACL that cost him the second half of 2010. Despite hitting 21 HRs in his second go-round at Double-A, he’ll likely need at least half a season at Colorado Springs to work on his plate discipline (7% BB rate).
Travis d’Arnaud, Blue Jays: This 22-year-old’s breakout 2011 at Double-A (32 doubles, 20 HRs, .922 OPS) puts him in line to be the Jays’ best chance for a future All-Star from the Roy Halladay deal. Still, J.P. Arencibia‘s done enough to maintain his starting role while d’Arnaud conquers Triple-A next year.
Yasmani Grandal, Reds: I often wonder if Grandal, 22, and Yonder Alonso exchange pen pal letters over their unfortunate standing on the Reds organizational depth chart. While Alonso remains blocked by Joey Votto, Grandal has to worry about surpassing the aforementioned Mesoraco and Hanigan if he wants to have a career in Cincy. But after an incredibly impressive 2011 at Hi- and Double-A (29 doubles, 14 HRs, .883 OPS), the 2010 first-rounder could be trade bait in the offseason, which would give him a clearer path — and propel him up these rankings.
Tony Sanchez, Pirates: The No. 4 pick in 2009, Sanchez, 23, has struggled in his first shot at Double-A (.657 OPS), so the Pirates’ catcher of the future probably remains just that until 2013, even if Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit‘s club options aren’t likely to be picked up.
Derek Norris, Nationals: Norris would be a sneaky play in OBP leagues that require two catchers, because the 22-year-old has a 24% BB rate in the minors, and he’s hit 64 HRs in his four years of full-season ball. Alas, his batting average has gone from passable to unacceptable (.204) at Double-A this year, and Wilson Ramos is good enough to own at least a share of the starting duties for the next few years.