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 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.
Let’s hit on the shortstops.
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
Zack Cozart, Reds
I hyped Cozart in the first Mining the Minors column of this season, figuring that he would have a genuine shot to impact the 2011 fantasy landscape because he’s a shortstop who can hit and, well, there just aren’t many of those around. Plus, there wasn’t exactly much (read: Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria) blocking the 2007 second-rounder’s path. Of course, Cozart, 26, didn’t help his cause by struggling mightily out of the gate at Triple-A (.615 OPS in April), but he really hit his stride in May (.906) and June (.969). The hot streak got him called up in early-July — finally — and Cozart proceeded to start his big-league career by going 12-for-37 (.324) with 2 HRs. Alas, an elbow injury requiring TJ surgery ended his season after 11 games, just when it seemed fantasy owners were catching onto what might have been. But since it was his non-throwing arm, Cozart should be ready for spring training next year, and again, there’s little standing between him and the Reds’ starting SS gig. All told, Cozart is no stud, but he should be a nice sleeper — thanks to the injury — who could provide enough pop and speed to post low double-digits in HRs and SBs, which would allow him to flirt with being a back-end Top 10 SS in 2012. If he’s been dropped in your NL-only keeper league, you need to snag him now, because he’s capable of being a starting SS in that format.
Chase d’Arnaud, Pirates
d’Arnaud’s profile is that of a serviceable backup infielder capable enough to fill in at second, short and third. But the Pirates lack much else at short, meaning the 24-year-old could get a shot at a regular role there next year. Unfortunately, his 2011 audition — .200/.223/.264 in 125 ABs — hasn’t exactly shown the 2007 fourth-rounder can offer Pittsburgh much, if anything, more than what the org has gotten from the inept likes of Ronny Cedeno the past two seasons. d’Arnaud’s value, if you can call it that, will come from his eligibility at multiple infield positions and the ability to steal 15-20 bases, given his decent speed and savvy on the bases (9 SBs as a Pirate). Even if he’s the Opening Day shortstop, I wouldn’t expect him to maintain a starting job, so he’s best deployed as a reserve in extremely deep NL leagues.
Yamaico Navarro, Royals
Navarro, a 23-year-old who signed with the Red Sox out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, joined Kansas City in this year’s deadline deal involving Mike Aviles. He’s accrued nearly 100 MLB ABs between 2010 and 2011, but the results haven’t been favorable (.191 career BA). Still, his track record in the minors is a bit more promising, as he’s posted OPSes of .793 and .780 the past two seasons while at Double- and Triple-A, and his 10% BB rate is encouraging. Like d’Arnaud, Navarro fits best as a utility man, which is the role he should inhabit in KC at some point in 2012, so he can put his versatility to good use. Having already seen time at 3B, SS, 2B and OF in his big-league career, Navarro could be in line to back up a bunch of young, inexperienced Royals who will struggle from time to time, giving him a chance to carve out, say, 350 ABs. In such a role, he might be a useful bench player in deep AL leagues.
Eric Sogard, A’s
Sogard, 25, should be Oakland’s backup infielder next year, a role he’s tailor-made for, given his versatility, lefty bat and keen plate discipline (14% BB, 12% K in minors). There’s little in the way of power — only 16 HRs since 2009 — but he has the instincts to sneak some stolen bases. In extremely deep AL play, he’ll squeeze himself onto some owner’s roster and might not even be entirely useless, particularly in leagues that use on-base percentage as a category rather than batting average (career .380 OBP).
Justin Sellers, Dodgers
Sellers, 25, is little more than an org guy who’s getting a shot because this org just doesn’t have many other guys who can be middle infielders at the moment. Between filling in at short after Rafael Furcal went away and manning second more recently, he’s posted a .612 OPS in nearly 100 ABs. Because the Dodgers don’t have any real 2B or 3B next year (despite paying a lot of money for Juan Uribe), Sellers could get a look and might hang on as a backup. But don’t be fooled by the PCL-inflated 14 HRs he’s hit each of the past two seasons; his previous high was 6.
BONUS PLAYER: The Dodgers’ 23-year-old shortsop, Dee Gordon, just recently surpassed the 130-AB mark, so he’s no longer rookie-eligible next year, but I wanted to give him a quick mention. As I said when I covered Gordon’s call-up earlier this season, I like him for the simple fact that he’s going to be elite in the stolen base category immediately. And hey, he’s got the starting job to himself, so opportunities to run should be plentiful. Yes, the power is nonexistent and the average probably won’t help much, but he should be able to hit .250-plus given his wheels. And with the state of SS so dire, if you can get 40 SBs out of the spot — something Tom’s kid can reasonably accomplish next year — there’s value in that as an NL-only starter or a mixed league MI.
BONUS PLAYER: Brandon Crawford, 23, of the Giants got a surprising call-up all the way from Hi-A in May, then hit a go-ahead grand slam in his first game. The rest of his stint in the majors hasn’t gone nearly as well — he’s currently hitting just .184 in 163 ABs, which is bad even by Giants’ standards — but at least he’s shown he can take a walk (12% BB rate). With no clear shortstop coming into next year, Crawford will probably get a look during spring, and he’ll almost definitely be up again, regardless of whether he gets the job by Opening Day or not — which he shouldn’t, for his development’s sake.
OTHER TRIPLE-A NAMES TO KNOW
Tyler Pastornicky, Braves: Despite playing just 27 games above Double-A, Pastornicky, 21, could enter spring with a legitimate shot to be Atlanta’s starting SS because Alex Gonzalez is an impending free agent. Owning strong minor-league contact rates (10% BB, 13% K) and hitting .314 with a .773 OPS this year might help, too.
Eduardo Escobar, White Sox: The 22-year-old Venezuelan is known more for his glove than his stick (.270/.315/.351 MiLB career), but after debuting earlier this month, he should be with the Sox again at some point next year as a backup middle infielder. And it’s not out of the question that he could steal some time at second from the disappointing Gordon Beckham.
Tim Beckham, Rays: The No. 1 overall pick in 2008, Beckham hasn’t quite lived up to his draft status. That said, he’s still just 21 and was promoted to Triple-A in August amid posting a 2011 slash line of .271/.328/.408 with career-bests in HRs (12) and RBIs (70). There are questions about his ability to stick at short, and the Rays tend to be Ent-like in their handling of young ‘spects, but if Beckham continues to improve next season, he could make his debut later in the year with an eye on a bigger role in 2013.
Jordy Mercer, Pirates: The 25-year-old Mercer, a third-rounder in ’08, showed good pop this year, with 19 HRs between Double- and Triple-A and his third straight 30-double campaign. With Pittsburgh’s aforementioned hole at short — and who knows what to make of Pedro Alvarez‘s lost season at the hot corner — Mercer could wind up being this year’s Josh Harrison. If you actually know who that is, then congratulations on being in the deepest league ever. Or the most hardcore Pirates fan of all time.
Jordany Valdespin, Mets: He quietly broke out this year, thanks to career-highs of 32 doubles, 17 HRs and 37 SBs at the minors’ top two levels. There are still plate discipline issues to work out (just 25 BBs in over 500 ABs), but depending on what happens with Jose Reyes‘ free agency, I could see a scenario where Valdespin, 23, gets pushed to the bigs.
Adeiny Hechavarria, Blue Jays: Hechavarria signed a four-year, $10 with Toronto in 2010 after defecting from Cuba, so he could get a shot some time next year so the Jays can start getting a little return on their investment. But the 22-year-old is known much more for his glove than his bat — though he did perk up to .389/.431/.537 (108 ABs) after a late-season promotion to Triple-A — and he might have to transition to second base, where recently-extended Yunel Escobar isn’t in the way.
Jose Iglesias, Red Sox: Another defensive whiz kid from Cuba, Iglesias actually debuted earlier this year when Boston’s other shortstops were hurting, but the 21-year-old has absolutely no power and his .261/.308/.316 career line indicates he could wind up being another Rey Ordonez.
Nick Franklin, Mariners: Just 20, the 2009 first-rounder has all of 21 games above A-ball, but he’ll begin 2012 in Double-A — where he hit .325 in just over 80 ABs — and if he can show more of his 20-20 form from 2010, he could make a late second-half appearance in Seattle because, unlike most other Mariners, he actually has some offensive ability.
Christian Colon, Royals: The No. 4 overall pick in 2010 was seen as one of the more big-league ready draftees, but he spent all of this year OPSing just .668 at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Colon would need an Eric Hosmer-like turnaround to get himself in the picture before 2013, and the Royals actually have enough infield options to afford to let the 22-year-old improve.