This week, we continue our look 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 reminder 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.
Here are the second basemen.
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
Jason Kipnis, Indians
A strained hammy in mid-August was the only thing capable of keeping Kipnis, 24, from continuing his assault on big league pitchers. At the time of his injury, the 2009 second-rounder was flat out raking following his July 22 debut, with a .279 BA, a .950 OPS and 6 HRs — including one in 4 straight games at one point. Now, Kip’s pop is legit (.204 ISO at Triple-A this season), but his pace in the majors was a little bit exaggerated, as he’s more of a 15-20 HR guy over the course of a full season. But factor in his speed and savvy on the basepaths (12 steals at Triple-A), too, and he shouldn’t have a problem reaching double-digits in both HRs and SBs in 2012. Depending on how quickly he can bring his 29% K rate closer to his more acceptable minor league rate of 20%, there’s potential here for a 15-15 season. At worst, he figures to be a starting middle infielder in deep mixed leagues or a starting 2B in AL-only play, and if everything goes just right, Kipnis could squeeze himself into the back end of the Top 10 2Bs next year.
Johnny Giavotella, Royals
I suggested you add Giavotella, 24, a week before he got the call, and while he hasn’t taken the major leagues by storm, he’s certainly been a useable AL-only middle infielder. That’s right where I’d recommend him for next season, too. As a guy who is capable of driving the ball (69 doubles between Double- and Triple-A the past two seasons) and knocking in a decent amount of runs, this second round pick in 2008 may wind up looking like a poor man’s version of the Pirates’ Neil Walker. If the Royals give up on their undying — and inexplicable — fascination with Chris Getz, and just let Giavotella play every day, there’s a possibility he could be a solid starter at 2B in deep AL leagues.
Steve Lombardozzi, Nationals
It doesn’t take a fantasy expert to tell you that Nationals SS Ian Desmond has had a disappointing season. Meanwhile, the player immediately to his left, Danny Espinosa — who would’ve been a top candidate on this very list a year ago — has put together an intriguing, if inconsistent 2011. Funny then, that Espinosa was a shortstop, and a good one, until the org decided to move him to second to allow both young players to man the middle together. Well, there was recent talk of possibly trading Desmond and switching Espinosa back to short, which would open up the keystone for Lombardozzi, a 22-year-old switch-hitter who slashed a combined .309/.360/.430 across Double- and Triple-A this year. Lombardozzi isn’t likely to hit more than a handful of homers at the big league level, but his speed (30 SBs in 2011 after swipin 24 a year ago) would make him an interesting category filler in deep NL-only leagues. Of course, there’s always the chance that he gets stuck in the minors until the Nats figure out just what to do with their current double-play combo, thus limiting Lombardozzi’s fantasy impact next season.
Cord Phelps, Indians
He’s been pretty brutal in his limited time as a big leaguer, posting a .143 BA and a .478 OPS in 63 ABs, but Phelps, 24, is ready to be on the Indians’ 25-man roster as a utility infielder next season. He’s clearly not leapfrogging the aforementioned Jason Kipnis at second, Lonnie Chisenhall at third or Asdrubal Cabrera at short, but this third-round pick in 2008 has the ability to man all three infield positions in a pinch, having done just that at Triple-A this year. Not to mention, he did actually hit .294/.376/.492 with a career-best 14 HRs and a nice 14% BB rate at Columbus, so he’s clearly better than what he’s shown while seeing some spot duty in place of the injured Kipnis. He should be deployed strictly as a reserve in deep AL-only leagues, where he could help owners by gaining eligibility at multiple infield positions. Do note, though, he’s only played second this year so far.
BONUS PLAYER: Jose Altuve, 21, of the Astros is no longer eligible for this list, since he’s already accrued more than 130 ABs, but as Houston’s primary second baseman for the past two months — and of the future — he’s hit a respectable .295/.310/.398 with 5 SBs and could make for a starter-worthy middle infielder in NL-only leagues in 2012. He would fit in right alongside Johnny Giavotella on this list.
OTHER TRIPLE-A NAMES TO KNOW
Josh Satin, Mets: Admittedly, I wasn’t very familiar with Satin until the middle of this season, when I noticed the 2008 sixth-rounder was on his way to a .323/.411/.495 line between Double- and Triple-A, to go with 12 HRs and 43 doubles. At 26, Satin is a little older than your typical rookie, but now that he’s been called up and should see some time at a position that is wide open for the Mets next year, he certainly has a shot to make the team out of spring.
Brad Emaus, Rockies: Speaking of the Mets’ black hole at second base, this 25-year-old deserves some of the blame after he broke camp with the job then proceeded to go just 6-for-37 (.162) in his first exposure to the majors. But while he’s no long-term answer, Emaus didn’t exactly get a fair shake either, and he showed as much by hitting .313/.389/.564 after catching on with the Rockies’ Colorado Springs Triple-A affiliate. Even though this plate discipline specialist (identical 14% K and BB rates) has been out with a thumb injury since the end of June, the Rockies also lack any definitive second sacker heading into 2012.
Ryan Flaherty, Cubs: The biggest hurdle for Flaherty, 25, has been finding a position to call home. The 2008 compensation pick after the first round has jockeyed between second, third, short and outfield this year at Double- and Triple-A, while hitting a combined .280 with an .824 OPS, 31 doubles and 19 HRs. Darwin Barney has done a surprisingly fine job holding down second base in Chicago, but perhaps the lefty-hitting Flaherty could work himself into a platoon, if Barney takes a step back.
Adrian Cardenas, A’s: A first-round selection in 2006, Cardenas has had a long, slow climb up the ladder, first with the Phillies then with the A’s, who obtained him in the Joe Blanton deal. With nearly 900 ABs already at Triple-A, the 23-year-old’s best skill is making contact, as he owns a strong 14% whiff rate in his career. There isn’t much upside with the stick, but his .314 BA and .791 OPS are career-bests, and like many others here, his versatility (2B/3B/OF) will only help his chances.
D.J. LeMahieu, Cubs: Since the Cubs selected him in round two of the ’09 draft, LeMahieu, 23, has been battling with Ryan Flaherty, as both have played all over the infield while the org tries to determine their respective futures. LeMahieu beat Flaherty to the bigs when he got a 37 AB audition as an injury replacement earlier this year, and he has a career .317 BA, but he doesn’t have Flaherty’s pop — just 7 HRs in 3 seasons — so his profile isn’t much different than that of Adrian Cardenas, as a supersub off the bench. Bottom line: Fantasy reserve in deep NL play.
Matt Antonelli, Nationals: Once upon a time, Antonelli, the No. 17 pick in 2006, was one of the top 2B prospects in baseball as a Padre. Alas, injuries and ineffectiveness limited him to just 190 ABs over 2009-10, and after being dumped by San Diego, Antonelli, now 26, managed to catch on with the Nats this year. He’s put up a .298/.390/.457 line, mostly at Triple-A, and while he’s no longer a long-term answer, I would be surprised if he doesn’t complete his comeback story by earning some legitimate time in the bigs next season.
Alexi Amarista, Angels: The 22-year-old Venezuelan saw some time with the Angels earlier this season, but didn’t do much (7-for-48, .146). Still, between his versatility — he’s played second, short and outfield at both Triple-A and in the bigs — his speed (averaged 23 SBs in his 5 seasons, albeit with a 66% success rate) and his solid ability to barrel balls (.314 career BA), Amarista could be a deep AL-only bench play.
Reese Havens, Mets: Havens comes with equal amounts of pros and cons. There’s the pedigree, as a first-rounder in 2008; but there’s also the advancing age, as he’ll be 25 next month. There’s the “Mets’ second baseman of the future tag” and the organization’s lack of any other true option at the position; but there’s also the nagging injury history that has robbed him of significant developmental time. Given his age and composite .301/.379/.505 slash stats at Double-A the past two years (albeit in under 300 ABs), the Mets will most likely push him to Buffalo to begin 2012, and if he can get off to a hot start, there’s a chance he could debut in New York by, say, next June. But there’s also the possibility that he falls short of expectations in what will undoubtedly be his make-or-break campaign as a prospect, which would mean he winds up becoming just another org guy.
Charlie Culberson, Giants: Culberson, 22, has surpassed fellow 2007 sandwich pick Nick Noonan — who was selected 19 spots ahead of him — to become the Giants’ top 2B prospect. Culberson’s .259 BA and .675 OPS don’t stand out, but he does have an intriguing mix of pop and speed, having followed up his 16-homer, 25-steal 2010 campaign at Hi-A by notching 10 HRs and 14 SBs while spending all of 2011 at Double-A. Even though Freddy Sanchez is signed through next season, he simply can’t stay healthy, and there’s not much else in Culberson’s way. Well, aside from his putrid 4% BB rate, which will have to improve if he wants to get ready to take over sooner rather than later.