Let’s continue 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 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.
Up next? Outfielders.
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
Mike Trout, Angels
Trout, recently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, is already making his mark in the major leagues — he debuted as a 19-year-old — with 5 HRs and 2 SBs in 100 ABs. A true prodigy with speed to burn and power to come, Trout actually passed over Triple-A when the Angels called him up earlier this year, so there’s always the chance they send him to Salt Lake for a month to start 2012. But with a .338/.422/.508 career slash line, to go with 102 steals since being selected No. 25 overall in 2009, Trout has little left to work on and could immediately become one of the sport’s most exciting players. L.A.’s outfield is fully occupied, and unfortunately, DH Bobby Abreu‘s $9M option for next year already vested, so Mike Scioscia will have to do some magical managerial maneuvering to ensure Trout plays. The most logical (hopeful?) scenario is that Trout mans left field regularly, while Abreu and Vernon Wells form the most expensive lefty-righty DH platoon in the history of baseball, with Wells filling in for Trout when the youngster needs a day off. (It helps that Trout can also man center when Peter Bourjos rests.) If you’re looking for a best-case scenario comp — for 2012 only — Trout could put up fantasy stats along the lines of what the Phillies’ Shane Victorino has done in recent seasons, while his worst-case for next year might wind up looking like Bourjos‘ impact this year. Either way he should be owned in all leagues, especially keepers. In re-draft formats, though, whether or not you get him depends entirely on where you fall in on the hype-to-production scale, because Trout is likely to cost a lot at your draft or auction.
Brett Jackson, Cubs
Jackson, 23, split his season almost equally between Double- and Triple-A, posting cumulative .274/.379/.490 line with 20 HRs and 21 SBs. He actually performed better at the higher level (.297/.388/.551), which bodes well for his development, and his eye (17% BB) will be a welcome addition to Chicago, where he could well be from Day 1 next season. A true centerfielder, the ’09 first-rounder is just about ready to take over for Marlon Byrd, who would enter into an outfield rotation with Alfonso Soriano and Tyler Colvin. Once he’s up for good in 2012, Jackson should be a capable starting OF in almost all NL-onlies.
Leonys Martin, Rangers
A 23-year-old Cuban defector who signed a 5-year, $15M deal in May, Martin showed he was nearly big-league ready from the get-go by shooting through three levels of the minors, thanks to a .295/.362/.421 line and 19 SBs in just over 300 ABs. Texas has struggled to fill the centerfield spot all year, and Martin will, no doubt, get a look next year, perhaps as soon as Opening Day. His speed could make him a candidate to hit .280 and steal 20 if he sees regular time right away, and in that lineup, Martin would be a fringe starting OF in deep mixed leagues, ideally used by owners as a plug-in for when another OF has an off day or gets hurt.
Michael Taylor, A’s
Taylor, a 2007 fifth-rounder, finally debuted earlier this month after a bounceback season at Triple-A, where he slashed .272/.360/.456 with 16 HRs and 14 SBs — production that came in less than 350 ABs due to an early-season injury. Oakland has free agents galore in the outfield (Coco Crisp, Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui and Conor Jackson), and Taylor is ready, so let’s make the match happen already. That would make Taylor a possible starter in AL leagues that use 4 or 5 OFs.
Brandon Guyer, Rays
After OPSing .986 and .905 in Double- and Triple-A, respectively, the last two years, Guyer — a 25-year-old who was acquired in the Matt Garza trade — doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job. But B.J. Upton has just one year of team control left, and he’s also been the topic of trade rumors, so the Rays will want to start working Guyer into the mix for the future. He should have a good shot to break camp as the fourth OF, and a starting job isn’t out of the question if Upton is dealt. Just don’t bank on him starting him in AL leagues until he proves himself.
Charlie Blackmon, Rockies
Blackmon, 25, debuted in early June after tearing up Triple-A for two months with a .337 BA, .965 OPS, 10 HRs and 12 SBs. The 2008 second-rounder got off to a blazing start — .410 BA with 5 SBs in his first 10 games — before cooling and ultimately fracturing his foot and being lost for the season a month after he came up. It’s worth pointing out that Blackmon has been injury-prone in his career, but provided he recovers in time for spring, he could displace Ryan Spilborghs as Colorado’s fourth outfielder, making him an NL-only reserve.
Trayvon Robinson, Mariners
The 24-year-old hit 26 bombs at hitter-friendly Albuquerque in Triple-A before getting traded to Seattle at the deadline, where he’s since received everyday play after debuting in early-August. There’s an intriguing mix of power and speed here, but Robinson really needs to cut down on his 40% K rate in the majors so far. Until he does, he’s more risk than reward and nothing more than a reserve OF in AL leagues.
Joe Benson, Twins
Delmon Young is already gone, and Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer are both free agents, so Benson, 23, could enter next spring with a real shot to earn a job with the Twins. It took him a while to get out of A-ball after being drafted in the second round back in 2006, but Benson finally put his tools to use and broke out in 2010 with a 27-homer, 19-steal campaign. He was called up recently so Minnesota brass could get a look at him as the team plays out the string in September, and if he shows enough, he’ll put himself on the radar for a potential early-2012 recall. His upside is higher than the next few names, so if starts out in Triple-A, he’s worth sticking on your Watch List in AL leagues.
Collin Cowgill, D-backs
At 25, the 2008 fifth-rounder did a little bit of everything at Triple-A this year, hitting .354 with 13 HRs and 30 SBs, albeit in the friendly environs of the PCL. His time with Arizona, though, has been limited since his recall (just 78 ABs in nearly two months), and he’s probably best suited in a backup role. Still, his LF competition is Gerardo Parra, who has a similar profile — that is to say, he can play, but he’s not the bee’s knees or anything — so Cowgill could work his way into a platoon of sorts. Deep NL league bencher at best.
Dave Sappelt, Reds
Sappelt, 24, has seen some time in Cincy because the Reds have been giving just about everyone a go on their left field merry-go-round. Sappelt is the athletic type whose best skills — decent speed, solid glove and good contact ability — translate to fourth outfielderdom. Considering that also describes Chris Heisey, the guy who will likely enter 2012 as the team’s starting LF, well, there’s some hope for the Sappelt Show.
Jose Constanza, Braves
Seinfeld jokes aside, Constanza has made a bit of a name for himself while helping cover for Jason Heyward this season, hitting .317/.355/.404 with 7 SBs in just over 100 ABs. He’s likely done enough to put himself in position for a job come next spring, but the only value he has for deep NL owners is as a fill-in when desperate for some steals.
Blake Tekotte, Padres
The 24-year-old is a bit long in the tooth to be in Double-A, but he likely would have posted a 20-HR, 30-SB season there had the Pads not called him up a few different times. The outfield in San Diego is still very much in flux, so Tekotte should see an expanded role next year, once he’s made it through Triple-A. A Watch-Lister in NL-onlies.
Jarrod Dyson, Royals
Dyson made the cut this past spring, but he’s spent most of 2011 in Triple-A, where he’s done what he does best — flash elite speed. With 38 SBs in just 83 games, Dyson has continued his trend of swiping a bag almost every other game on average. But the rest of his game is limited, and at 27, he’s looking like another Joey Gathright.
BONUS PLAYER: Dayan Viciedo, a 22-year-old out of Cuba, exhausted his 2012 rookie eligibility this month, but his power (20 HRs each of the past two years at Triple-A) shouldn’t be ignored. Nor should his improving plate discipline (10% BB in 2011 after 4% prior), or the fact that Juan Pierre‘s contract is done, opening up an outfield job for Viciedo. Were he still eligible, he would rank behind only the first two names above.
BONUS PLAYER: J.D. Martinez is already a regular in left field for the Astros, so this is actually his rookie campaign. But after making the jump from Double-A (.338/.414/.546 line) at the end of July, the 24-year-old has transitioned nicely to the bigs, hitting .270, with a .754 OPS, 12 doubles and 5 HRs in just 159 ABs. With a starting job locked up, he’ll have more opportunity than many of the players in this list. Were he still eligible, he would rank behind only the first three names above.
BONUS PLAYER: Lorenzo Cain just couldn’t buy a break this year. Yes, he was technically a rookie last year after hitting .306 ith 7 SBs in just about 150 ABs, but I’m including him here because I feel bad for the guy. He came over from Milwaukee in an offseason trade for Zack Greinke and looked to be in line for the starting CF job out of the gate — until Melky happened. And not just Melky, but also Jeff and Alex, too. So here’s Cain, biding his time with a .312/.380/.497 line and 16 HRs and 16 SBs at Triple-A, and dude just can’t break into the bigs. And now he’s looking at a similar sitch in 2012 because, well, Cabrera and Gordon were arguably the Royals top two hitters this year, and Francoeur finagled a two-year extension. The Royals need to utilize Cain in some capacity next year, but I fear it will have to be as a fourth OF. Until one of the guys ahead of him turns back into a pumpkin.
OTHER TRIPLE-A NAMES TO KNOW
Logan Schafer, Brewers: Seems like the Brewers haven’t had a legit CF in forever, and the 25-year-old Schafer (.315/.385/.439 across three levels in 2011) might not be a long-term answer, but he may be the best option next year…
Caleb Gindl, Brewers: …that is, if Gindl, 23, doesn’t get a crack first. He’s a better fit as a corner, but he’s seen some time in center, too, and his power upside (.307 BA, 15 HRs, 60 RBIs) is higher than the contact-oriented Schafer.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Mets: The 24-year-old is an overachiever-type who posted a .908 OPS at Buffalo before injuring his shoulder in June and requiring surgery that cost him the rest of the season. With the Mets OF a bit in flux, a healthy Captain Kirk could work his way into the mix in 2012.
Jermaine Mitchell, A’s: In case you forgot, approximately 43 A’s OFs are free agents this offseason, so if Mitchell, a 26-year-old fifth-rounder in 2006, is ever going to get a shot, it will be next year. He hit .332/.430/.530 between Double- and Triple-A, with 15 HRs, 27 SBs and 93 BBs — a number that probably got this guy all hot and bothered.
Jai Miller, A’s: As far as opportunity, what goes for Mitchell also applies to Miller. Drafted in the fourth round in 2003, the 26-year-old mashed a career-best 32 HRs — No. 2 in Triple-A — at Sacramento. He also K’d 179 times.
Jeremy Moore, Angels: Moore, 24, did a bit of everything at Salt Lake, hitting .298 with 24 doubles, 18 triples and 15 HRs, while also swiping 21. Somewhat of a PCL creation with a measly 7% career BB rate, sure, but he’ll probably spend next year shuttling up and down between the majors and Triple-A as needed.
Greg Halman, Mariners: It’s hard not to see Halman, a 24-year-old native of the Netherlands, as the next Wladimir Balentien. That is, a Mariners prospect with big power (averaged 27 HRs in his four full MiLB seasons) and even bigger contact issues (35% K rate). He’s gotten a look in Seattle in 2010 and 2011, but his once-bright future is dimming.
Bryce Harper, Nationals: Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Last year’s top overall pick, Harper actually exceeded expectations in his first pro season, slashing .297/.392/.501 with 17 HRs, while reaching Double-A as an 18-year-old. He also stole 26 bags, for good measure. Admittedly, he struggled some upon his promotion to Harrisburg, which is likely where he’ll open next season, and a mid-August hamstring injury ended his debut, but if he does what he did this year in 2012, he could reach the bigs by mid-season. The hype will reach Strasburgian levels, and while the immediate production probably won’t, Harper is going to be a beast, perhaps as soon as 2013.
Tim Wheeler, Rockies: The 23-year-old 2009 first-rounder busted out in a big way, hitting 33 HRs — second-most in all of the minor leagues — and stealing 20-plus bases for a second straight year, so let the imagine-what-he-could-do-in-Coors hype begin. But he does have some holes in his left-handed swing (25% K rate in 2011) and will need to prove himself at Colorado Springs for at least half of 2012.
Grant Green, A’s: The No. 13 pick in 2009, Green was actually a shortstop until the middle of this season, when Oakland decided to convert him to centerfield — cutting his fantasy value in half in the process. After slugging .520 and racking up 20 jacks in 2010, the 23-year-old hit a slightly disappointing .291/.343/.408 with just 9 HRs this year, but again, Oakland’s outfield spots are up for grabs, so a good start next year could result in the A’s going Green by mid-2012.
Starling Marte, Pirates: The 22-year-old Dominican flashed all five tools at Altoona, hitting .332/.370/.500 with 12 HRs, 38 doubles and 24 SBs, while also manning center. He should begin 2012 just one step from the bigs, but he’ll need to work on improving his 5% BB rate so he can become a true top-of-the-order catalyst.
Jaff Decker, Padres: The spelling of his first name isn’t the only odd thing about Decker. A short, squat body type, the 21-year-old isn’t the most graceful of athletes in the outfield, and his performance has dipped as he’s climbed the ladder, from a .299/ .442/.514 line in A-ball in 2009 to .236/.373/.417 this year. The walk rate (22%) is elite, but he also whiffed a career-high 145 times (29%) this year, so a return to Double-A could be in order.
Anthony Gose, Blue Jays: Gose was a second-round pick in 2008 who came over from the Astros (by way of the Phillies) in the Brett Wallace trade last year. The 21-year-old is the embodiment of the scouting term “toolsy,” and he showed as much with a 16-HR, 70-SB season in the Eastern League. Still, he’ll need to sharpen a few of his skills, primarily contact — he owns a career .258 BA and 26% K rate — to reach his tremendous potential, so the real impact probably won’t hit until 2013.