Most top prospects don’t start out as corner outfielders. To be a top prospect, you have to be pretty great at baseball. And if you’re pretty great at baseball, you probably played third or shortstop or center when you were in high school or college, because you were just way better than everyone else. Heck, you probably pitched, too. That’s how these things generally shake out.
Then you get to the pros, and you’re still better than pretty much everyone, but you’re not way better than everyone. Some guys are faster than you, some have quicker reactions, and there’s this one guy who plays center like nobody you’ve ever seen before. You still have a great bat, there’s almost no one out there who can hit for average and power like you can, but the game is moving way faster than it ever has and after a year or two or three, your manager calls you into his office and tells you that the organization thinks it’d be in everyone’s best interests if you moved to a corner. You’ll get to the majors faster and won’t have to worry about watching YouTube clips of you not quite getting to a sinking liner in center or bobbling another bunt down the line at third. It’s fine. This is just the reality of baseball.
This list below has some awesome prospects on it, and some that are maybe not-awesome prospects but they’re going to play a bit. Baseball’s hard, not everyone can be an awesome prospect. Cut them some slack. This list below isn’t comprehensive and doesn’t care about how good they are with the glove, since it’s a fantasy baseball list for 2014, and 2014 alone. There are no Raimel Tapias or Josh Bells listed below, because they won’t play in the majors in 2014. Keep reading. Everything you’ve read so far is much less important than what comes next.
1. Oscar Taveras — St. Louis Cardinals | (AA/AA: .310/.348/.471 in 188 PAs)
Everyone loves Oscar Taveras. And everyone loves the guy that he’s most often compared to — Vladimir Guerrero. How can you not love Vladdy? He literally hit pitches in the dirt for base hits. The talents like that are what make baseball amazing. Taveras is the same kind of player — a free swinger who can barrel up pitches a foot outside of the strike zone, and he has some serious power. Injuries derailed his season last year and he’ll probably start the season in AAA, but, barring further injury, I think he’ll be up sometime in early May. The Cardinals let Carlos Beltran walk mostly because they know Taveras will be ready to slot into their outfield sometime this year, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he won the job out of spring training. The most likely scenario is he’s called up sometime in late April or early May, he hits .280-.290, swats 15 bombs and has the chance to score and drive in lots of runs, thanks to the Cardinals’ deep lineup.
Draft Advice: Taveras isn’t an early round pick, but he’s someone whose draft stock could change dramatically based on what he does in spring training. I think he can be a starting fantasy outfielder in all formats once he makes the bigs, so I’d try to nab him in the 10th or 11th round in 12 team leagues.
2. Gregory Polanco — Pittsburgh Pirates | (A+/AA/AAA: .285/.356/.434 in 536 PAs)
Polanco is the top prospect in a Pittsburgh system that’s stuffed with toolsy outfielders. He’s got power, speed, can play defense, hit for average, and he’s just 22 years old. Oh, he also won the Dominican Winter League MVP and Rookie of the Year awards a few weeks ago, after posting a .331/.428/.494 for Escogido. The Pirates have a spot reserved for him in in right field, and I think he’ll claim that spot sometime in May. Though seemingly everyone in the Pirates organization believes in Polanco, he’s only played 70 games above A+, so he needs some time in the minors. I am impressed with how he handled his transition from A+ to AA last year, as he went from a 37/16 K/BB ratio in A+ to a 36/36 K/BB in AA. Moving up a level and improving on your plate discipline is a delightful thing to see. I don’t think he’ll make the transition as smoothly as Taveras and he’ll never hit for average like Taveras, but I expect their OBPs to be close. If he’s up in May, I think Polanco will hit in the .250s with seven or eight homers and 25 steals the rest of the way. And in 2015, the entire Pittsburgh outfield will be drafted by the fifth round.
Draft Advice: Polanco will be available much later in most draft rooms, and might go undrafted in some. I think he’s worth a flier pick in the late teens in standard drafts, and could pay huge dividends down the stretch this fantasy season.
3. Cesar Puello — New York Mets | (AA: .326/.403/.547 in 377 PAs)
The Mets outfield has been generally awful for a while now. It’s been a steady diet of Eric Young Juniors, Andres Torreses, Lucas Dudas and Jason Bays for a few years. They just signed Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, but Granderson was hurt most of last season and Young’s hit only .200 last year. Neither of them are sure things. The only guy they shouldn’t be messing with is Juan Lagares and His Glove of Glory, but since they’re the Mets they’ve talked about starting Eric Young, Jr. in center. The Mets will be Mets. We haven’t even gotten to Cesar Puello yet, but he had a fantastic 2013 that you probably didn’t hear much about. Along with his triple-slash line above, he stole 24 bags and hit 16 bombs in only 91 games last season. That’s promising. He only played in 91 games because his name was on some documents at this place in Florida called Biogenesis. That’s not promising.
We don’t know what’s real with Puello — was last season a steroid creation or was it a toolsy prospect finally starting to figure things out? We’ll see this year. He still needs to work on his plate discipline, since he’s got no problem striking out and isn’t the biggest fan of taking walks, but he could be a 20/20 player at his peak. And if he’s destroying AAA in June, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a hole in the Mets outfield somewhere.
Draft Advice: Puello shouldn’t be drafted, but he should definitely be monitored. If he keeps hitting he could be an impact add in June.
4. Michael Choice — Texas Rangers | (AAA: .302/.390/.445 in 600 PAs, MLB: .278/.316/.333 in 19 PAs)
Choice was a couple spots higher on this list before the Rangers signed Shin-Soo Choo. Now he’s fourth, and he’s probably going to shuttle between AAA and the bigs for most of the season. Before Choo showed up, Fantasy Michael Choice was having a wonderful year. He hit .300 for the first time in his professional career, hit 14 homers and another 29 doubles. Then, he went and got himself traded from Oakland, where balls hit in the air are almost always caught, to Texas, where a well struck bunt will occasionally clear the fence. Choice will still get a chance to play in Texas this year, as Mitch Moreland isn’t an awe inspiring designated hitter and he can back up all three outfield positions, but his path to regular at bats is blocked. If he can get a regular job, I think an average in the .260s, an OBP around .340 and 10 homers is a fair expectation, with the potential to hit for much more power too.
Draft Advice: Choice doesn’t need to be drafted this year. But, if Choo or Alexis Rios gets injured, make sure to pick him up quickly. That Texas lineup is deep and will provide him with plenty of opportunities to get runs and RBI.
5. Kevin Pillar — Toronto Blue Jays | (AA/AAA: .307/.353/.461 in 545 PAs, MLB: .206/.250/.333 in 110 PAs)
Pillar might seem a bit out of place on this list. There aren’t any other senior signees who were drafted in the 32nd round on any of these fantasy prospect lists. I’m not even going to look that up to confirm. Pillar’s the type of player teams draft to fill out their minor league rosters. Those players usually hang around for a few years, maybe make AA or AAA, then move on to start a new life after baseball. But Pillar just kept on steadily producing — he hit for a good average, had decent power, stole quite a few bags and was able to play all three outfield positions. Then he got called up to the bigs and all that came to a halt — in 36 games he was worth 0.0 WAR according Fangraphs. Pillar was replacement level, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have some kind of fantasy relevancy next year. He can steal bases, doesn’t strike out too much, and might hit .270 as a fourth outfielder.
Fine, he won’t have much fantasy relevancy, but he’s worth knowing. And now you know him.
Draft Advice: Don’t draft Kevin Pillar. If you’re in a 28-30 team league with deep rosters, then sure, Pillar could be useful as an active player, but his value doesn’t go further than that.
The Last Cut:
Rymer Liriano — San Diego Padres
Liriano could end up with a job in San Diego this year, but he’s got to make up for lost time, as his 2013 was wiped out by Tommy John surgery. I’ve always liked Liriano and he’s got huge long term fantasy potential, but he needs to get healthy and get at bats. Keep an eye on him this season.