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Top 100 Fantasy Prospects for 2012: 60-41

From Juan Abreu to Joe Benson.

After spending the past few weeks at a secure, undisclosed location (Code Name: Parent’s Basement), I’ve emerged with a list of 100 prospects who, I’m fairly confident, will make an impact on the 2012 fantasy baseball season. Just how much impact? In some cases, it could be a lot; but in others, it could be minimal — or even none. That’s the inherent risk in predicting and projecting not only prospects’ development curves but also how these players could possibly fit into their big-league team’s plans during the upcoming season.

That’s why, much like I do with my Mining the Minors columns, I’ve done my best to incorporate both talent and opportunity. Sometimes, a player’s talent is so elite that it’s worth bumping him up the rankings even if his path to playing time isn’t all that clear (think: Mike Trout). But there are also plenty of players in the rankings who will skew more toward the opportunity side of the spectrum, as in: talent aside, they’re (nearly) ready from Day One. Trying to weigh and balance these two aspects — talent and opportunity — is what makes a list like this so challenging. And so fluid. Which is to say, my mind could change on any of the players on the list between today and tomorrow. Or even today and later today.

What I hope this ranking provides for you readers is some semblance of an idea of which prospects will be making an impression on the 2012 fantasy baseball landscape. If you happen to think that the guy ranked No. 18 should be No. 93 … or that there’s no way the dude at No. 47 should be outside the Top 10 … well I can’t say you’re wrong. I can only say this is my guess based on my knowledge of these players and their teams — and where everything stands at the moment.

So over the coming weeks, I’ll be unveiling my rankings 20 players at a time, starting from No. 100 and working all the way to the top of the list.

Remember, to be eligible for this, a player must not have exceeded 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (or 30 appearances) in his career.

Also to be clear: This is strictly for 2012. While some of these players are already owned, about to be drafted or could make for nice in-season acquisitions in keeper leagues, the goal here is to help fantasy owners in 2-0-1-2.

Previous Installments
Nos. 100-81
Nos. 80-61

60: Juan Abreu, Astros RP
Talent: 5
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Even with control concerns (5.4 BB/9 as a minor leaguer), Abreu was going to rank slightly higher on this list thanks to his big arm and whiff-ability (10.4 K/9) and the possibility that he could earn a shot at the closer gig left vacant when Houston traded Mark Melancon in the offseason. Alas, the Astros decided to try the Phillies experiment from 2007 and give the gig to Brett Myers. Still, Abreu could accrue some holds and lots of Ks, just be wary of what is likely to be a high WHIP.

59: Collin Cowgill, A’s OF
Talent: 5
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Cowgill’s fantasy value went on a bit of a roller-coaster ride this offseason, from outside-looking-in as a D-back to potential starter with the then-outfield-depleted A’s. Then Oakland went and acquired — deep breath — Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes, while also bringing back Coco Crisp. Cowgill profiles as a decent fourth outfielder with some speed and a little pop, but he doesn’t have enough of either to seize a starting job in a sea of outfielders.

58: Austin Romine, Yankees C
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Francisco Cervelli probably makes the Opening Day roster as the backup to Russell Martin, but his offensive upside is limited (career .692 OPS), so Romine should almost definitely get some chances to prove whether or not he can be in New York’s long-term plans as either the starting catcher or a backup. Romine isn’t a huge hitter either, but in AL-only leagues that start two catchers, he’s a guy who will probably be worth owning for the 150-250 ABs he could get.

57: Ryan Flaherty/Matt Antonelli, Orioles INF
Talent: 5 (both)
Opportunity: 9 (both)
2011 Highest Level: Triple-A (both)

I’m cheating here with two names (something you should get used to), but it wouldn’t be surprising to see one, if not both, of these guys get significant PT in an Orioles infield that is as mish-mash as it gets outside of J.J. Hardy at short. With unproven Chris Davis at third, strikeout machine Mark Reynolds handling first and injury-prone Brian Roberts at second, basically nothing’s solidified. That could give the versatile Flaherty (a Rule 5er) and his .462 career SLG and/or the OBP-friendly Antonelli (.373 career) plenty of opps.

56: Jose Constanza, Braves OF
Talent: 5
Opportunity: 9
2011 Highest Level: Majors

The 28-year-old isn’t your typical prospect, but he’s slated to be a backup at all three outfield positions, which means his speed (35 SBs on average since 2009) will get enough play to matter as a deep NL-only stolen base sleeper. And his ability to make contact (13% K career) and take a free pass (10% BB) also help him fill the role of fourth outfielder quite well for a team in need of production from that position.

55: Eduardo Sanchez, Cardinals RP
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

St. Louis’ bullpen is deeper than you might think, with Jason Motte at closer, Fernando Salas and Lance Lynn as set-up men, and Kyle McClellan and Mark Rzepczynski as other late-inning options. Where Sanchez fits in is the biggest reason he’s not higher on this list, but something tells me a guy who putg up a 1.80 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.5 K/9 and even notched 5 saves in his 2011 debut season (30 IPs) will find a role.

54: Nick Hagadone, Indians RP
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Hagadone, 26, is a big guy (6’5″, 230) with a live left arm who really took to becoming a full-time reliever last year, posting a 2.79 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 9.8 K/9. As a starter, he was almost as injury-prone as he was walk-prone (5.5 BB/9). But his 71 IPs in 2011 were his second-highest total (85.2 between starting and relieving in 2010) and his 2.8 BB/9 rate was a huge improvement. He won’t get a prime gig in the deep Indians bullpen, but he’ll help AL-only owners in deep leagues pile up some whiffs.

53: Kelvin Herrera, Royals RP
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

After converting to relief full-time last year (1.60 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 14 SVs), Herrera may actually be KC’s future closer if Joakim Soria is ever traded, but there’s so much depth and talent among Royals relievers — Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, Greg Holland and even recovering-from-injury Jonathan Broxton — that we might not see Herrera break camp with the club. In that case, expect him to be an early call-up.

52: Nate Eovaldi, Dodgers SP
Talent: 7
Opportunity: 7
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Eovaldi, who just turned 22, still has plenty of time on his side, but he showed last year he could handle starting in the bigs (3.63 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) after getting the call from Double-A. He’ll have to improve his control (5.2 BB/9 in MLB and 4.0 in MiLB in 2011), and he’s not likely to make the rotation out of spring now that Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano are on board. But some time at Triple-A could do some good, and it’s not like those two back-end starters are bastions of health.

51: James Paxton, Mariners SP
Talent: 8
Opportunity: 6
2011 Highest Level: Double-A

The 23-year-old Paxton had a serious breakout in 2011, thanks to these sexy stats across two levels in his first full season: 2.37 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 12.4 K/9. A hard-throwing lefty, Paxton might actually have a shot to make the five-man out of spring training if he performs, but the more likely scenario has him returning to the minors; but with a repeat performance in the first half, he could be brought up to start or at least earn a role in relief.

50: Robbie Erlin/Joe Wieland/Casey Kelly, Padres SP
Talent: 7 (all)
Opportunity: 7 (all)
2011 Highest Level: Double-A (all)

That’s right: Three names for the price of one. But when the Padres rotation currently flaunts the likes of Tim Stauffer, Clayton Richard and Dustin Moseley, it’s hard not to be more excited about what’s next compared to what’s now. Lefty Erlin (10:1 K:BB) and righty Wieland (7:1), both of whom came over in the Mike Adams deal last July, are more finesse/command types (but with better stuff than a typical pitcher with a similar profile); while Kelly, a right-hander, has yet to merge his stats (3.98 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 6.6 K/9) with his stuff. But pitching in Petco will help all three of these arms.

49: Andy Oliver/Drew Smyly, Tigers SP
Talent: 7 (both)
Opportunity: 8 (both)
2011 Highest Level: Majors/Double-A

Oliver has already pitched in the majors, albeit unsuccessfully (31.2 IPs, 25 ER, 23:21 K:BB), and Smyly has all of 45.2 innings above A-ball, but the final spot in the Tigers’ rotation could wind up being a case of musical chairs between these two and Jacob Turner, who’s the best prospect of the three. Considering the other four starters already in Detroit’s five-man are all righties, the southpaw Smyly might be a surprising sleeper, and it’s not like Detroit has any issues with putting pitchers on the fast track.

48: Justin De Fratus/Phillippe Aumont, Phillies RP
Talent: 6 (both)
Opportunity: 9/8
2011 Highest Level: Majors/Triple-A

We keep rolling with the 2-for-1s, as both of these hard-throwing righties are ready to help fill out the lean Philly bullpen. De Fratus (2.99 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 15 SVs) has already earned a cup of coffee, and Aumont’s shot should be very soon after a dynamite first season as a full-time reliever (2.68, 1.29, 13.1). It’s just a shame neither of these guys will get a chance to be closer now that Jonathan Papelbon‘s in town.

47: Brad Boxberger, Padres RP
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 9
2011 Highest Level: Triple-A

The extra piece in the Mat Latos deal, Boxberger should wind up being a very useful part for the Padres and NL-only owners alike. The 23-year-old righty pitches in the mid-90s with a knockout slider, and as long as he proves his control is more 2011 Double-A (3.4 BB/9) than 2011 Triple-A (4.9), there’s a potential seventh-inning role for him in San Diego. When closer Huston Street takes his usual DL sabbatical or gets traded, Boxberger could be the closer-in-waiting.

46: Chance Ruffin/Forrest Snow, Mariners RP
Talent: 6 (both)
Opportunity: 9/7
2011 Highest Level: Majors/Triple-A

These two aren’t necessarily more talented than any of the other relievers below them on the list. Where Ruffin and Snow do have a leg up, though, is in a legitimate chance to snag some saves, particularly later in the season. It’s no secret that incumbent closer Brandon League has been a trade chip for quite some time, and among Seattle’s relief corps, there’s not much else in the way of fill-ins. Ruffin, who was part of the Doug Fister deal and made it all the way to the majors in his first pro season, is probably the best candidate. But c’mon, I couldn’t pass up a chance to mention a dude named Forrest Snow.

45: Wilin Rosario/Jordan Pacheco, Rockies C
Talent: 7/5
Opportunity: 8/9
2011 Highest Level: Double-A/Majors

Rosario is the better prospect — he hit just .249 and sported just a 5% walk rate but did smack 21 homers — but he’s yet to spend any time at Triple-A despite making his MLB debut last September, so the uber-versatile Pacheco — he played everything from catcher to first to third to second in his 21-game taste in Colorado — might get the call on Opening Day, while Rosario marinates a bit more in the minors. Pacheco, who hit .278 with a decent .343 OBP at Triple-A in 2011, won’t be an impact bat, but his versatility will make him a nice piece to own in NL-only play.

44: Ryan Lavarnway, Red Sox C
Talent: 7
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Lavarnway, 24, has shown big-time power at every stop along the way, with 21, 22 and 32 homers the past three seasons. The fact that he’s likely good enough to stick at catcher — at least part-time — only makes him more valuable in fantasy. The problem, then? Boston signed Kelly Shoppach to back up Jarrod Saltalamacchia when Lavarnway would have been capable of doing the job (and with more production, too). Basically, he’ll be useful, maybe even valuable, in AL-only leagues, but only once he gets a chance to play. Start rooting for Shoppach to hit sub-.200 for the third straight year.

43: Welington Castillo/Steve Clevenger, Cubs C
Talent: 6/5
Opportunity: 9 (both)
2011 Highest Level: Majors (both)

Three catchers in a row, eh? Of all of them, Castillo has the easiest path to regular playing time, since he could be Geovany Soto‘s primary backup on Opening Day. He’s also capable of doing some damage with the stick, having hit 40 homers the past three years, including a career-best 16 in 2011 when he OPSed .876. Clevenger is more of a contact hitter (10% K career) who will need to prove his .300-plus average in the minors can translate to the bigs if he’s going to be relevant in anything other than the deepest of NL-onlies with two starting backstops.

42: Tom Milone, A’s SP
Talent: 6
Opportunity: 9
2011 Highest Level: Majors

Milone is the ultimate test case in stats versus stuff. In short, how a lefty who throws in the high-80s could finish second in strikeouts in all of Triple-A might have you repeating over and over, “Does not compute.” His deceptive delivery and ridiculously good command and control (1.5 BB/9 career) make Milone a viable rotation back-ender, which is just the role he’ll be aiming to fill in Oakland — a park that suits his craftiness just fine — as long as he performs in camp. Consider him a reserve or streaming option based on matchups in deep AL-onlies.

41: Joe Benson, Twins OF
Talent: 7
Opportunity: 8
2011 Highest Level: Majors

The 23-year-old Benson’s a toolsy type who’s nearly ready to be a regular in The Show. He’s got a good mix of power (43 HRs across 2010-11) and speed (33 SBs in that time), but he’ll have to watch his whiffs in the bigs (24% K career). With Denard Span and Josh Willingham locked into center and left, respectively, the bet here is that Benson, a righty hitter, gets a long look in spring to work himself into a platoon with lefty-hitting Ben Revere, who’s really more of a backup outfielder capable of being a great defensive replacement and pinch-runner.