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Keeper Strategy — 2013 Impact Rookies: Middle Infielders

It’s time again to look ahead to the 2013 fantasy baseball season by highlighting the top 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.

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 2013 rookie primers are meant for players who will exhaust (or are expected to exhaust) 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 Opening Day or soon thereafter. For now, it’s good to get ahead of the curve with a snapshot of the young talent at each position.

In case you need a brief example of how this sort of strategy can be worthwhile: In two deep leagues, one AL-only and one NL-only, that allow for up to 10 keepers, I picked up Jarrod Parker, Addison Reed and Will Middlebrooks, as well as Paul Goldschmidt, Todd Frazier and Zack Cozart around this time last year, keeping them all for dirt cheap. Worked out pretty well, if I do say so myself.

Here are the previous position primers: Catchers, Corner Infielders

This episode? Middle infielders (aka, second basemen and shortstops).

To be considered, the players must currently be eligible for rookie status in 2013, meaning they have yet to exceed 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 30 appearances. Certainly, a few listed below may surpass these numbers down the stretch this season, but nonetheless, it’s worth pointing them out now. The players are ranked in order of their potential 2013 fantasy impact and their current level is listed in parentheses.

There are some super prospects in this group, ones who should eventually be among the very top of their positions in fantasy. Their 2013 impact, however, is tough to gauge because these elites are still so young and will either have trouble cracking starting lineups or struggle with inconsistency — and that’s not including those who might not come up until late in the second half. So while there are certainly keepers here, keep in mind that the long-term outlook is brighter than the short-term prognosis.

Jurickson Profar, Rangers SS (Majors)
The Precocious One, Profar is the first player born in 1993 to make it to the majors. And In case you missed it, he promptly homered in his first big league at-bat, too. This, after being one of the best players — and the youngest — in the Double-A Texas League, which was an aggressive assignment in the first place. The risk here is that Profar’s 2013 impact could be minimal, as the Rangers have a full infield. But perhaps Josh Hamilton leaves in free agency and Ian Kinsler shifts to the outfield? Or maybe the Elvis Andrus trade speculation actually becomes reality? Even if neither of those happen, do you really want to bet against Profar? Hang onto him now and see what transpires in the offseason.
2013 ETA: Expectations are already sky high, but Profar would be best served playing everyday, which could mean he starts out in Triple-A until an injury or trade clears the way, most likely by midseason.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting shortstop in 10-team leagues, if he’s up in a starting role.

Manny Machado, Orioles 3B/SS (Majors)
First, Machado’s probably not going to qualify at middle infield in most leagues because he’s yet to play a game at his normal shortstop position. Second, he’ll exhaust his rookie eligibility this year, as he’s already just shy of the 130 at-bat mark. But he’s still a must-mention here for the fact that he’s holding his own — and then some — as a 20-year-old playing a new position in the majors. Could he afford to be a bit more patient (just two walks)? Sure, but can you really blame the kid for his approach when it’s working? Machado is hitting a solid .267 and has 12 extra-base hits and two steals so far. What seemed like an odd experiment when he was first called up to play third has actually worked out all around, and he’s proven he’s ready to help fantasy owners now.
2013 ETA: At this point, it would be shocking if Machado isn’t the O’s third baseman out of the gate next year.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting corner infielder in 10-team mixed leagues, and if he regains shortstop eligibility, Machado could be a starter there in all formats.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves SS (Majors)
Simmons’ rookie status is also just about to expire, but if you’re looking for stability and security in a keeper shortstop, the 23-year-old might be an even better option than Profar or Machado for fantasy owners in 2013, even if his long-term upside isn’t quite as high. Simmons is the no-doubt starter for Atlanta going forward, and he has enough pop and speed to put a 10-homer, 20-steal campaign within reach. Plus, Simmons makes plenty of contact, so his average should help owners, too.
2013 ETA: Opening Day starter, unquestionably.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting shortstop in 10-team mixed leagues.

Billy Hamilton, Reds SS (Double-A)
Hamilton, who broke the single-season stolen base record this year with — count ’em — 155 thefts may wind up being the top fantasy player of this bunch, simply because a potential 80-steal season would dwarf anything else his fellow middle-infield prospects could do in any one category. But Hamilton, 22, is unlikely to make the leap to the bigs for any meaningful action in the first half of 2013, so let’s temper expectations just a bit. Still, Hamilton could swipe 20-30 bags in a couple months without breaking much of a sweat.
2013 ETA: As fast as Hamilton is, there’s no need for the Reds to rush him, so figure on a post-All-Star break call-up.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting shortstop in 12-team mixed or NL-only leagues, especially for owners in need of steals.

Kolten Wong, Cardinals 2B (Double-A)
Wong, 21, is a walking baseball cliché, a “ballplayer” and “gamer” who “plays the game the right way.” But he’s going to be a pretty good fantasy option, too. Eventually, there will be double-digit homer-steals production and Wong’s top-of-the-lineup approach should mean he’ll score oodles of runs for a potent Cards attack. Remember, St. Louis hasn’t had a legitimate second baseman since, like, Delino DeShields, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see the club turn to the steady, nearly-ready Wong at some point next year.
2013 ETA: Wong starts out in Triple-A, and as long as he continues to do what he does, a call-up around the midseason mark could fit.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting middle infielder in 12-team mixed or NL-only leagues.

Jean Segura, Brewers SS (Majors)
The 22-year-old has taken over the starting gig in Milwaukee, a club that needed a shortstop so badly that Segura was promoted from Double-A only days after coming over in the Zack Greinke trade. Segura’s skill set could make him a lite version of Rafael Furcal in his prime, a guy who could steal 30 and contribute with extra-base hits. For 2013, though, the production and transition might be rough for Segura. Injuries have been his biggest problem as this is just the second time he’s played more than 61 total games in his six pro seasons, so it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Brewers to have an able shortstop caddy to plug in if Segura gets hurt or struggles early on next year.
2013 ETA: Given the lack of other options currently in the organization, Segura should enter next spring with a good chance to win the job.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting middle infielder in 14-team mixed or NL-only leagues.

Nick Franklin, Mariners SS (Triple-A)
For those who recall Franklin’s breakout 2010 (23 HRs, 25 SBs), he might seem like a disappointment the past two seasons. But remember, he’s still all of 21 and has already made it to Triple-A for half a season. While his .725 in the PCL wasn’t very impressive, his .896 OPS over the first half in Double-A suggests that dude can hit — and especially well for a middle infielder — and simply needs some more time to get comfy at the minors’ highest level. The big question for Franklin is whether he can be a shortstop down the line, as opposed to shifting to second (where Dustin Ackley resides) or some other position at which his fantasy value would drop dramatically.
2013 ETA: Truth be told, Franklin would benefit from another half-season at Triple-A, but frankly, Franklin could be up sooner because even the folks in Seattle are getting tired of Mr. .555 OPS starting.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Starting middle infielder in 14-team mixed or AL-only leagues.

Alex Castellanos, Dodgers 2B/3B/OF (Majors)
Castellanos probably deserved more of a chance in L.A. this year than he actually got. His .328/.420/.590 line was certainly PCL-aided, but it’s not as if the Dodgers had infielders up the wazoo. Castellanos’ versatility — he can handle second, third and outfield — should make the 26-year-old a viable bench part in 2013.
2013 ETA: The best-case has Castellanos breaking camp with the team after a nice spring, but he could be the type who shuttles back and forth all season long.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Reserve option in NL-only leagues, but one who could have valuable infield-outfield eligibility.

Grant Green, A’s 2B/3B/OF (Triple-A)
Green was the No. 13 overall pick in 2009, a pick that will always carry inherent expectations, ones that Green is unlikely to fulfill. However, that’s not to say that a guy who sports a career 302/.348/.461 line over three pro seasons can’t be a useful major leaguer. He’ll turn 25 in late September, so there’s not much in the way of projection here, but Green has shown good instincts and enough bat — if something to be desired with a 6% BB rate — while being moved off his original position of shortstop to centerfield, second base and third base. Basically, he’s been groomed as a utility man, but one who could actually have value in fantasy because the A’s don’t exactly have the infield spots locked up, so there will be plenty of PT available.
2013 ETA: Green is ready to help the A’s as soon as they’re ready to call him up, which should be by June, if not sooner, considering the club’s lack of alternatives at second, short and third.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Reserve option in AL-only leagues who could earn eligibility at multiple positions, including 3B and OF.

Adeiny Hechavarria, Blue Jays SS/2B (Majors)
The Cuban import is most known for his stellar glove, but he’s gotten better with the bat, to the point where he won’t hurt and might occasionally help in fantasy. Incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar remains under a team-friendly contract but was also mentioned as a trade piece this year, and Kelly Johnson is a free agent at season’s end, so Hech could get a shot to handle second base full-time next year. The 23-year-old hasn’t been all that good in his first 100 plate appearances (.618 OPS), but his .312/.363/.424 line at Triple-A — PCL-aided though it was — offers hope he could continue to improve.
2013 ETA: Depending on what the Jays do with Escobar and Johnson, Hechevarria could either open the season in Toronto as a starter or come up in the first half in a bench role.
POTENTIAL 2013 FANTASY ROLE: Reserve middle infielder option in AL-only leagues.

Jake Elmore, D-backs SS (Majors); Didi Gregorius, Reds SS/2B (Majors); Jeff Bianchi, Brewers SS (Majors); Ryan Jackson, Cardinals SS (Majors); Cord Phelps, Indians 2B (Majors); Jose Iglesias, Red Sox SS (Majors); Christian Colon, Royals 2B (Triple-A); Tim Beckham, Rays SS/3B (Triple-A); Cesar Hernandez, Phillies 2B (Triple-A); Vincent Belnome, Padres 2B (Triple-A); Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox SS (Double-A); Hak-Ju Lee, Rays SS (Double-A); Scooter Gennett, Brewers 2B (Double-A)
-Jackson could wind up getting a decent amount of at-bats in St. Louis, where both middle infield spots are marked by either injury-prone (Rafael Furcal) or low-caliber starters (Daniel Descalso, Skip Schumaker).
-Oddly enough, Elmore is actually seeing some time at short for the D-backs in the wake of the Stephen Drew deal. Even though he posted a crazy .344/.442/.465 line at Triple-A, he clearly benefitted by hitting in the PCL…in a great park at Reno…and amid a strong lineup. He has an idea at the dish (more walks than whiffs for his career), but he’s got no power and only utility man hopes and dreams.
-Iglesias could legitimately be the Red Sox starting shortstop in 2013, but his bat is just so meager (career .626 OPS) that he’s bound to hurt more than help in fantasy, and it’s not like he brings any other quantifiable skill (i.e., steals) to the table to offset this.
-Speaking of Red Sox prospects, Bogaerts is quite possibly the second- or third-most talented young player among all those mentioned above (behind only Profar), but as phenom-esque as he’s been so far — reaching Double-A at age 19 — it would be a stretch for him to A) stick at shortstop (right field may wind up being his spot long-term), and B) make it to the bigs as anything other than a September call-up in 2013.
-Lee’s 2012 was seen as disappointing to many, but the progression of his season was almost the polar opposite of his 2011, which he started off by missing time with chicken pox before coming out on fire, only to peter out. This year, he hit just .233 through May before gaining steam later on (.311 across June and July), only to have his momentum cut short with an oblique injury. He did, though, swipe a career-best 37 bases, which will ultimately be his biggest asset in fantasy.