We’ve refined this annual tradition  — now there’s beer on the line, for instance — but there is actually a point to this (other than proving once and for all that I’ve got the better hair). By putting up the heralded prospects against those that come with less pedigree, we are trying to accomplish a veritable checklist of strategical things:
1) Collect all the most fantasy-relevant prospects for you in one place.
2) Discuss the chances that each of these prospects actually help in 2012.
3) Point out how hard it is to depend on a rookie-eligible player for steady production.
4) Link prospects to their cost in order to find the real values, heralded or not.
5) Beat Carson Cistulli handily (again) despite all efforts to make this matchup more fair.
Last year, my team featured Freddie Freeman , Danny Espinosa , Dustin Ackley , Desmond Jennings , Jeremy Hellickson , Michael Pineda , Chris Sale , and Jordan Walden . Call it a blowout, especially since I made a Christina Ricci / Buffalo 66 / David Mamet reference in the writeup .
Presented: your 18-man lineup of 2012’s top prospects — with some extra mentions for good measure. Here’s to another blowout, because Carson’s britches are getting a little big. As in, he’s losing weight and really should get those pants taken in.
C: Devin Mesoraco , 24
Organization: Cincinnati Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .248/17/1
ADP: 346 (300)
Heading into 2010, Mesoraco was an afterthought. He was coming off a .228/.311/.381 season at High-A that didn’t seem like it portended much greatness. Then the dude just went nuts. Across three levels in 2010, he had a .302/.377/.587 line that made people sit up and take notice. Tell it like it is: he’s a good glove with a great bat, and he’ll be playing in the Major Leagues this year. It’s hard to tell exactly why ZiPs doesn’t like his batting average, since he he usually shows better-than-average strikeout rates, but there are reasons. He’s not fast — he is still a catcher — and he does hit more fly balls than ground balls. Whatever, draft him for his power (.299 ISO at Double-A, .195 at Triple-A), and hope that Dusty Baker  doesn’t fall in love with his decent veteran, Ryan Hanigan . Which could totally happen if the Rookie starts out with The Bad Batting Average.
1B: Anthony Rizzo , 22
Organization: Chicago (N.L.) Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): ?
ADP: 395 (300)
This pick is not without peril. The Cubs have said that they will go with 29-year-old in-house option Bryan LaHair  first, and ZiPs ‘likes’ LaHair to the tune of a .262/.324/.469 line and 24 home runs (107 OPS+). And Rizzo also showed a more flawed approach when he hit the Major Leagues with the Padres. What was a slightly-above-average strikeout rate on the farm became a full-blown whiff problem in his 153 Major League plate appearances. That bad strikeout rate was also supported by a poor swinging strike percentage, which comes in a larger sample. Scouts began talking about his bat path and how he seemed to get beat on the inside with gas. Some of the shine came off. Since 2010, though, Rizzo has shown a .220+ ISO in the minors, and Theo Epstein liked him enough to re-acquire him. 29-year-old debuts like LaHair don’t usually have a ton of upside, and the team will likely turn to their new toy — the question is how quickly.
2B: Zack Cox , 23
Organization: St. Louis Highest Level: Double-A
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .278/11/1
Is this cheating? Perhaps it is. But there really aren’t many prospects that come up as second basemen. Usually you play some other position and end up being moved to second. So, it’s not cheating like having hair like mine is cheating, it’s just a slight bend in the rules. Cox could very well end up at second base, given the Cardinals’ approach to the position (read: stick anyone that can hit there, regardless of glove). If Skip Schumaker  fails again (he doesn’t have many skills) and Allen Craig  is needed in the outfield and at first base (his glove is pretty atrocious), then Cox only has to beat out Daniel Descalso  (who profiles as a backup). Cox has proven the draft-day suggestion — that he was a polished bat — to be correct, and he seems like he could step in and be okay pretty quickly. Then again, the Cardinals also seem to like to wait on their prospects, so Cox is better taken in deeper keeper leagues.
SS: Hak-Ju Lee , 21
Organization: Tampa Highest Level: Double-A
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .248/4/30
The middle infield is a tough place to go prospecting. Way too many shortstops end up at lesser defensive positions, so you are stuck with less exciting players that you hope will actually stick. Not that Lee doesn’t have some skills. He’s always had above-average patience, he makes good contact, has some speed, and can pick it. His power uspide is somewhere below league average, but that might be asking for too much anyway. With only 114 plate appearances above High-A, Lee probably needs a little more seasoning, but the road to Tampa is paved with flawed middle infielders. Reid Brignac  is projected for a .239/.281/.338 disasterpiece, Sean Rodriguez  has his platoon strengths/weaknesses but as a whole is looking at .230/.315/.391 numbers that don’t excite, and Elliot Johnson  brings up the rear with his .237/.287/.361 projection. Tim Beckham , yester-years prized prospect, has a .239/.294/.336 projection. Suddenly, Lee’s .248/.308/.326 looks good. Keep an eye out on his Minor League production and he might be a great September callup for your team.
3B: Josh Bell , 25
Organization: Baltimore Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .232/17/3
Yes, Nolan Arenado  and his .266/.302/.436 ZiPs projection, is way sexier. But the dude hasn’t had a plate appearance at Double-A yet. He’ll most likely spend some time marinating in the Minor Leagues — and what if the Rockies don’t hit the ground running? Then they’ll want to slow the timetable on their hot prospect, even if he did just destroy the Arizona Fall League. On the other hand, Josh Bell  is running out of chances and has a terrible strikeout rate that sinks his batting average projections. Whoo-hoo! What there is to like about Bell is opportunity — both Mark Reynolds  and Chris Davis  are poor defenders with huge holes in their bats. Especially if the Orioles don’t sign a DH, there’s room for Bell to get an extended look this year. Expect strikeouts and home runs and a poor platoon split when that does happen.
OF: Bryce Harper , 19
Organization: Washington Highest Level: Double-A
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .238/17/22
20 year-old Mike Trout  has the better ZiPs projection (.267/.338/.414 with 15 home runs and 39 stolen bases), but we can only afford to take one high-risk high-draft-pick outfield prospect, so Harper gets the nod. Once again, it’s about opportunity, although these guys are #1 and #1A in terms of prospecting this year and Harper’s .238/.317/.405 projection is not terrible when it comes with all those counting stats. Where Trout has to beat out someone among Vernon Wells , Peter Bourjos  and Torii Hunter , Harper is looking at beating out… Roger Bernadina . If the pitchers look like they are in good shape in Spring Training, and Harper is rocking it, then the percentage likelihood that Harper breaks camp with a full starter’s share of the playing time  begins to skyrocket. Both of these guys might be fools’ gold in redraft leagues, though — they’re still so young.
OF: Yonder Alonso , 25
Organization: San Diego Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): ?
Here’s another position eligibility bend of the rules, but at least Alonso has played the outfield in the Major Leagues before and can play in your fantasy outfield. He’ll be the starting first baseman in real-world San Diego, which is a dubious proposition for power production — but it at least means he’ll get his fair share of plate appearances. Alonso is a lefty hitter, and PetCo kills lefty home run power by 41%. On the other hand, so far in his career, Alonso has shown better power to the opposite field (.261 isolated slugging percentage) than to the pull field (.212 ISO). Perhaps he can go oppo at home and pull for power on the road. Either way, his plate discipline, youthful athleticism, and batted-ball mix suggest that his batting average will be decent. Alonso is a legitimate, if deep-league, sleeper even in redraft (non-keeper) leagues.
OF: Brett Jackson , 23
Organization: Chicago, N.L. Highest Level: Triple-A
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .254/16/22
Brett Jackson  has flaws! Or, to be precise, he has one huge flaw. He has struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances in his last two Minor League stops, and that projects to be a problem in the Major Leagues. It might even keep him from breaking camp with the team, but he’s closing in on 1000 PAs in the high minors and the team is obviously shopping its’ veterans as they look to rebuild. There are plenty of reasons to like Jackson this year, in other words. Just look to his power (.254 ISO in Triple-A last year) and speed (58 total combined stolen bases in 2011) and wipe that drool off your chin. He’s the future in the outfield and for the Cubs, it’s all about the future — the past is just one really difficult to read prologue.
Util: Jesus Montero , 22
Organization: Seattle Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (AVG/HR/SB): .271/27/0
This is the year of the young catcher, apparently. It’s probably appropriate that Montero is in the Utility slot in our lineup, since he might be a future designated hitter, but the Mariners will give him every chance to catch. That’s great news for dynasty and keeper owners, and okay news for redraft leagues — it means that he won’t be hitting off the bench in the DH slot, and that he should get a full slate of plate appearances. Too bad the Jesus went from park that augmented right-handed home runs 15% to one that suppresses then 18%. He does have great opposite-field power, though, so maybe he’ll be fine in SafeCo. The dude has hit everywhere he’s been, and if he can cut the strikeout rate some next year, he should pair a good batting average with mid-twenties home runs at a very difficult position. He’s a good pick late in almost any draft.
SP: Matt Moore , 23
Organization: Tampa Bay Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): 145/150/69/14/109
Moore and Montero and that’s a wrap. There’s enough potential upside in these two players alone to power my team to victory — and that’s why we always follow the siren song of the rookie. One hit and you’ve got a top-five-rounder for a bottom-five-round price. Moore only got 28 outs in the Major Leagues last year, so it’s the tiniest of samples, but at least his per-pitch metrics — 14.1% swinging strike rate, 95.7 MPH fastball velocity, 196 pitches — held up well. He’s projected for a double-digit strikeout rate, an elite walk rate, and an average ground-ball rate: excellence. For those talking about innings limits, Moore managed 164.1 innings last year — with a modest 15% increase, he could be ‘limited’ to 189 innings. Don’t expect Moore to do more than miss the odd start to keep him fresh for late in the season and possibly the postseason.
SP: Jarrod Parker , 23
Organization: Oakland Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): ?
ADP: 402 (300)
Parker is not second on this list by talent. There are a few other pitchers that would rank above him if we were only talking about their ability. But Parker is second on this list because of opportunity. With half of the Athletics’ rotation traded or injured, he is set to have all the innings his surgery-repaired elbow can handle. Now 135.2 innings removed from his Tommy John  surgery, he is ready to go. His strikeout rates suffered as he advanced in the Minor Leagues, but scouts love his stuff, and why not? The righty has 93-MPH velocity on his fastball and a strong slider and changeup to go with it. Pitching in Oakland, and against some of the weaker American League West teams, should make Parker a decent upside pick late in any draft this year.
SP: Trevor Bauer , 21
Organization: Arizona Highest Level: Double-A
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): ?
Call this the Mike Trout  / Bryce Harper  entry. Trevor Bauer  and Shelby Miller  are also probably #1 and #1A in terms of pitching prospects, but their opportunities for playing time are not similar. In other words, Jake Westbrook  is a better pitcher than Joe Saunders  — similar in every way, except Westbrook gets about 10% more ground balls. Bauer has only pitched 25.2 professional innings, but there was talk of pushing him all the way to Arizona in his first year. That sort of talk was seemingly merited by his otherworldly strikeout rates (he struck out 43 batters in those innings) — Bauer is Lincecumian in upside, and even has a similar delivery. Redraft leagues may want to wait until the season to pounce, but everyone else should act quickly to get Bauer before he starts blowing away Padres and Dodgers and Giants (oh my!).
SP: Danny Hultzen , 22
Organization: Seattle Highest Level: AFL
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): ?
Let’s put Danny up against Julio Teheran  in the battle of the next-best prospects. Once again, Teheran has his backers and Hultzen has virtually no professional experience — but Hultzen is the one that is being looked at for a rotation spot this spring, while Teheran is seventh on the current Atlanta depth chart (at best). Hultzen is a tall lefty with movement on a low-90s fastball with a great changeup and an above-average slider. A three-year college pitcher, he’s more ready than most to make the jump, and right now he only has the underwhelming Blake Beavan  and Charlie Furbush  in front of him on the depth chart. Only two spots in the 2012 rotation are even set — Felix Hernandez  and Jason Vargas . Hultzen could make the team in the spring, or he could spend most of the year in Triple-A, and that’s just how it goes with prospects.
SP: Robbie Erlin , 21
Organization: San Diego Highest Level: Double-A
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): ?
Robbie Erlin  was the winner of the Mike Adams  trade. Moving from the Texas organization to the San Diego one should help mitigate his primary flaw: he’s a fly ball guy. He’s used his combination of decent fastball and excellent curveball and changeup in order to put up gaudy strikeout totals with minuscule walk rates so far. Now his home organization has a nice home-run suppressing park waiting for him — and, likely, a job. The Padres have Tim Stauffer , Cory Luebke , and Edinson Volquez  in the top three slots. Andrew Cashner  is probably not going to be able to stretch out quick enough to start this year, and Dustin Moseley  is nobody’s idea of a quality Major League starter. Deep redrafts and all keepers should know Erlins’ name.
RP: Addison Reed , 23
Organization: Chicago (A.L.) Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): 76/81/28/8/117
ADP: 319 (300)
This was another easy one. Drafting college closers is an iffy real-world proposition, but once they make it through the gauntlet that is the Minor Leagues, they can be a very interesting fantasy proposition. See Drew Storen  for the possibilities. Fresh-faced rookie manager Robin Ventura  says that Matt Thornton  might be the closer to begin the year, but most observers feel the rebuilding squad will turn to Reed sooner or later. And with good reason — Reed has blown away batters at every level, including the bigs. His worst strikeout rate at any professional level was 11.81 per nine in Triple-A. Add to that a walk rate that has so far been well under two per nine, and it doesn’t matter that he’s an extreme fly ball pitcher. Reed should out-save Thornton this year, and that makes him a great sleeper in all leagues.
RP: Nathan Eovaldi , 23
Organization: Los Angeles Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): 119.1/83/62/9/88
The flip side of the problem cited above — college relievers are not always sought-after — is that it’s hard to find a top-100 relief ‘prospect.’ Most relievers are failed starters, so now we’re reduced to trying to find top prospects that might move to the pen. Consider Eovaldi if you’re looking for SP-eligible relievers in your deep league this year. Eovaldi started some and relieved some last year, and though he has flaws, he also has a couple things going for him. He had a poor strikeout rate (5.97 K/9), but his swinging strike rate (8.7%) was above average. That’s probably because his 94-MPH fastball and wicked slider are effective, but also have platoon splits. The curveball was a show-me pitch, and if it doesn’t develop further, the voweled-one will surely end up in the pen. Stash this name for later.
RP: Wily Peralta , 23
Organization: Milwaukee Highest Level: Triple-A
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): 135/105/68/10/100
In the case of Wily Peralta , who is still a starting pitcher, there are a couple factors pushing him towards the pen. For one, his mid-90s fastball is his strength and his slider and changeup are still developing. For two, his conditioning has been an issue and he may be a good fit for shorter outings. For three, his team looks to be competitive this year despite some high-profile losses. This might be the perfect storm for moving Peralta to the bench — especially if the Brewers find a trade partner for Francisco Rodriguez .
RP: Arodys Vizcaino , 21
Organization: Atlanta Highest Level: MLB
ZiPS (IP/K/BB/HR/ERA+): 105/79/33/10/95
Vizcaino is pretty far away from saves in Atlanta, considering that Jonny Venters  stands behind Craig Kimbrel , and both are young, excellent and healthy in their own right. But Vizcaino was thought to be headed to the bullpen even when he came over in the Javier Vazquez  trade, and he’s pretty clearly behind Teheran and Randall Delgado  in the battle for the rotation. Vizcaino used his 95+ MPH fastball and curveball almost 98% of the time last year and got above-average whiffs on a per-pitch basis. If he can show better control, and he should, since he never really battled his control in the Minor Leagues, he could be a great reliever for rates and holds. The Phillies’ Trevor May  is in the conversation, but he hasn’t even seen Double-A and is having control problems. Remember Arodys.