Young players have become more prominent in Major League Baseball. Properly valuing farm players' talents, timetables and opportunities will help rotisserie and head-to-head managers win their fantasy baseball leagues.
6. Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners
Zunino just about ready
Zunino was taken third overall in last year's draft out of the University of Florida. He was taken high for a reason: He's extremely polished and physically developed for his age (22 on March 25). Zunino was a recipient of the Golden Spikes Award in college and led the Gators to three straight College World Series showings. He hit a combined .360 with 13 home runs and 43 RBIs in 161 at-bats between Low Single-A Everett and Double-A Jackson last year.
Zunino is an extremely rare catching talent that has the raw skills to hit for plus power and a high average in the major leagues as a middle-of-the-order run producer. His 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame gives him a thick lower half to help generate plenty of torque to drive the ball in the gaps and over fences. Surprisingly for a backstop, he's also tough to strike out thanks to his quick hands and sometimes short swing that can drive the ball to all fields. He possesses an above-average arm behind the dish and has improved the rest of his defensive skills in short order.
The Florida native is on the fast track to the bigs, and Seattle is so impressed with his overall skill set and baseball IQ, that they are hoping he becomes a big part of their plans this season, even though they have Jesus Montero and Kelly Shoppach on roster. Montero projects in the long term to become mainly a designated hitter/first baseman, and Shoppach is merely a placeholder until Zunino arrives. For those in two-catcher setups or AL-only leagues, Zunino could easily produce for you in 2013. Think Buster Posey of the American League eventually ... he has that kind of talent.
7. Taijuan Walker, SP, Seattle Mariners
Walker: in no hurry, but will cruise
Walker, who will turn 21 in early August, was selected by the M's with the 43rd overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Yucaipa High School in California. He bypassed High-A ball to pitch for Double-Jackson last year and went 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA and 118 punchouts in 126 2/3 innings. He walked 50 hitters. At Single-A Clinton the year before, he had a 2.89 ERA and 113 K's in 96 2/3 innings.
This kid has the potential to be something special alongside Felix Hernandez at the top of the Seattle rotation. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound right-hander has a very simple and fluid delivery and generates exceptional fastball velocity with ease. He's a great athlete on top of that, and with three pitches that have the potential to be above-average, Walker has strikeout upside (8.38 K/9 at just 19 years old in AA ball) that will punch through the roof. He has plenty of time to fill out, too, meaning his fastball could receive even more zip in the coming years. Walker could probably develop into an ace on any pitching staff.
Similar to the other Mariners pitching prospect, Danny Hultzen, the club isn't rushing their top arm. They have him in spring camp to get a taste of major league hitters, but he'll start in the minors, likely at Class AA again. Walker has plenty to work on as he matures, mainly his consistency, but he should realize his full potential quickly and morph into a viable rotation option as soon as 2014. Combined with King Felix, Walker and Hultzen, Seattle figures to have a dominant one-two-three punch that can rival any other club in several seasons.
8. Nick Castellanos, 3B/OF, Detroit Tigers
Castellanos was drafted by Detroit in the first round (44th overall) back in 2010 out of Archbishop McCarthy High School in Florida. He crushed pitching at High Single-A Lakeland last year (.405/.461/.553 in 215 at-bats) before being promoted to Double-A Erie, where he hit .264 with seven homers and 25 RBIs in 322 at-bats.
Castellanos, 21, is a pure-hitting prospect despite his lack of patience; he's posted high BABIPs in his two minor league seasons. He consistently squares the ball up with hard contact and has solid pitch recognition. He only has 17 long balls in two seasons, but he should grow into some more power at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds. He's a natural infielder - he played shortstop in high school - but he was moved to right field last year to give him another avenue to The Show. He uses the entire field when hitting and could develop into a consistent, middle-of-the-order run producer soon.
There is a good chance that Castellanos will start the year in the minors, but he has shown to be a quick study in left field this spring, and his bat is making Jim Leyland's decision tougher. It's possible he starts the year as a right-handed hitting platoon to Andy Dirks. Brennan Boesch was just released and Quintin Berry isn't a long-term option. Because he has the potential to hit near .300 with 20-plus home run power, Castellanos will be in the discussion for a full-time job next season.
9. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston Red Sox
Bogaerts can bring it
Beantown signed Bogaerts as a non-drafted free agent in August of 2009. The 20-year-old hit only three home runs in 63 games with the Rookie-level team in 2010 but jumped up to 16 jacks in 2011 with Single-A Greenville (72 games). At High Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland last year, Bogaerts clubbed 20 homers, drove in 81 runs and hit .307 in 532 at-bats. He's playing for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.
At 6-foot-3, 175 pounds, Bogaerts is a tall and athletic specimen that features surprising pop for his lanky build. It's scary to envision the kind of power numbers he could put up at the next level if he continues to grow and improve on his plate patience like he did last season. He has elite bat speed and strong, explosive hands that make the ball jump off the bat. He's overly aggressive at times, and he has struggled with offspeed offerings, but his impressive maturity may counteract that in the long run. He's only a slightly above-average defender at the 6, and his foot speed is also merely average.
Bogaerts' future probably isn't at shortstop in the big leagues, and as his body fills out, he'll likely become a defensive liability there. Third base or left field is more realistic in the long term. However, with Stephen Drew around on a one-year deal, Bogaerts could make his debut in 2014 at shortstop if Jose Iglesias continues to struggle with the stick. What's more concrete: Bogaerts is a 30-home run threat when he eventually makes it to Boston, and he'll have batting average upside with improved plate discipline and pitch recognition.
10. Aaron Hicks, OF, Minnesota Twins
Hicks doing tricks
Hicks hails out of Long Beach, Calif., and was taken 14th overall by the Twinkies back in 2008. The switch-hitting outfielder spent 2009-2011 at Class A, including two straight seasons with Single-A Beloit. In his first taste at Double-A New Britain last season, he hit .286 with 13 home runs, 61 RBIs and 32 stolen bases in 472 at-bats.
Hicks has all the tools to succeed at the next level. He posted career highs last year in home runs and also led the Eastern League in walks with 79. His spike in homers suggests he's tapping into some of his raw power. While he doesn't profile as a power-hitting outfielder, it isn't completely far fetched that he could approach 20 homers in a full season. After all, he's only 23 years old and can grow into his 6-foot-2, 185-pound body. His speed and defensive skills are above average, too.
An exemplary showing this spring (13-for-32, four homers) has Hicks as the favorite to win the starting center field gig in Minnesota over Joe Benson and Darin Mastroianni. A hamstring tweak for Mastroianni has helped Hicks' cause. Be careful not to overvalue his spring stats. Playing time is what's important here, and he should receive plenty of it if he indeed does crack the opening day roster. However, Hicks must cut down on his strikeouts if he's to make a significant impact in the majors. He's not a bad late-round speculative pick in drafts this year.
Keith, an editor with KFFL, joined the team as a Hot off the Wire analyst in 2008 and has been playing fantasy sports since 2005. He is involved in MLB, NFL and NASCAR content. He graduated from the University of California-San Diego in 2005 with a B.A. in Communications and was a four-year starter as a member of the baseball program.