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Top fantasy baseball prospects: NL - 21-25

By Keith Hernandez
Edited by Nicholas Minnix

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.

21. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

Colorado Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado
Another shot for Arenado?

Drafted in the second round of the 2009 MLB Draft, Arenado had his breakout minor league campaign in 2011 with Single-A Modesto, where he hit .298 with 20 long balls and 122 RBIs in 134 games. Because of the Rockies' dearth of hot corner options, since, well, Vinny Castilla really, they were seriously considering Arenado as a candidate to force their hand at the position last year. However, his power spike didn't translate to Double-A Tulsa (.285-12-56).

Speed is not a part of his game, but then again, not many third basemen possess this skill. On to the positive: Arenado has a strong bat, and he proved last year that he'll probably be more of a batting average and contact batter than a power hitter, at least for the time being. But he's only heading into his age-22 season, so the pop has plenty of time to develop. Playing half his games at Coors Field won't hurt him as he develops into his power, either. Once considered a liability with the glove, Arenado has made some real nice strides with his leather, and his arm strength can sufficiently handle the position.

It's clear that new Colorado skipper Walt Weiss clearly favors versatility in his players, which Arenado doesn't have much of. However, Arenado's improved defensive play won't go unnoticed, and third base isn't a position that's exactly locked down in the Mile High city. He'll likely start in Class AA again this year, but if some combination of Chris Nelson, DJ LeMahieu and Jordan Pacheco isn't working, don't be surprised to see Arenado make his debut this season.

22. Robert Stephenson, SP, Cincinnati Reds

Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker
Another toy for Dusty coming soon

Stephenson, who'll turn 20 this Sunday, got off to an outstanding start at Rookie-level Billings after he was taken with the 27th overall selection by the Reds in last year's draft. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound right-hander posted a 2.05 ERA, 37 strikeouts, just eight free passes and a 0.98 WHIP in seven starts (30 2/3 innings). He didn't fare as well in his move to Single-A Dayton later in the year, but wasn't terrible (4.19 ERA, 35 K's, 15 BBs in 34 1/3 frames).

There is a lot to like about the California native. He has a simple, clean delivery and has an electric heater that reaches into the mid- to upper 90s. A bit of a max effort pitcher at times, Stephenson boasts repeatable mechanics, and his fastball could be elite down the road when he develops a more mature frame. His weakness, like most young hurlers, is the lack of depth in his secondary pitches. He made solid strides perfecting his changeup last year, but his curve is still a work in progress.

His fastball alone can carry him to the upper minor league levels, but he will need to develop his arsenal in order to break into the bigs. If he can do that, Stephenson, because of his intelligence and poise on the bump, easily projects to be at least a No. 2 starter in the majors. He's likely to begin somewhere in Class A again this season, but depending on his development, he could be a quick riser. It would be realistic to see him in the consideration for a rotation post in spring training in 2015.

23. Albert Almora, OF, Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, Chicago Cubs
Epstein, Hoyer continue rebuild

Another first-round draft selection in last year's first-year player draft, Almora was selected sixth overall out of Mater Academy Charter School in Florida. He'll turn 19 in two months and should be a key component as the Cubbies' new ownership attempts to rebuild a winner on the North side. Chicago realized his talent right away at a Rookie ball and low Single-A stop (Boise) last year, where Almora put up a combined slash line of .321/.331/.464 in 140 at-bats.

The biggest knock against Almora is his current lack of power, but at his age, he has plenty of time to develop that skill set as he grows and matures into his body. Almora is currently listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. Aside from his shortcomings in the power department, this is a kid who was one of the more polished prospects coming out of the '12 draft. His above-average bat speed and line drive-oriented approach bode well for him to hit for a high average. He also utilizes the entire field and carries above-average contact skills. If the power develops here, look out.

Most first-round selections, let alone those taken in the top-10 picks, have tremendous potential to become consistent contributors at the major league level, and Almora is no different. His status as a long-standing member of the USA Baseball circuit may lend more optimism to his long-term outlook, since he's been playing, and excelling, against top-notch talent throughout his young playing career. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer love developing and implementing their homegrown talent, but Almora probably won't be ready for Wrigley until at least the 2016 season.

24. Max Fried, SP, San Diego Padres

San Diego Padres SP Max Fried
Fried: a steal in 2012 draft?

Although Fried was taken seventh overall in last year's draft and is at the ripe age of 19, he's already listed as one of the Friars' top prospects, with perhaps a much higher ceiling than names such as Jedd Gyorko, Rymer Liriano and Casey Kelly. When an organization has as deep a pool of prospects as San Diego does, you take notice.

The problem is that he's young and made just nine starts (3.57 ERA, 17 K's, 1.13 WHIP in 17 2/3 innings) in the Arizona Rookie League last season. Fried fires a low- to mid-90s heater from the left side and possesses a nasty curveball that can consistently fool hitters, according to Baseball Prospect Nation. A developing changeup should give him the arsenal to become a front-line starting pitcher in the Padres' rotation eventually, but his combination of the fastball and curve have many scouts wondering how he even fell to No. 7 overall in last year's draft.

Fried's stellar command of his pitches is what makes him most intriguing. That and the fact that he can easily grow into his 6-foot-4, 170-pound frame - which could help him touch mid- to upper-90s on occasion - give him the potential to serve as a staff ace down the road. Even though San Diego's rotation has some major question marks, Fried won't become a realistic option to start every fifth day in the bigs for at least another season. He should be making his way onto the radar of dynasty and keeper leaguers, though.

25. Kolten Wong, 2B, St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals 2B Kolten Wong
Wong could debut in 2013

Wong, a University of Hawaii product, has quickly risen to the top of second base prospect lists after his first full season with Double-A Springfield last year. He impressed by hitting .335 with five home runs and 25 RBIs in just 194 at-bats (47 games) at Single-A Quad Cities after being drafted 22nd overall in 2011. Wong followed that up with a slash line of .287/.348/.405 with nine home runs, 52 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 523 at-bats at Springfield.

The 22-year-old left college with polished plate skills from the left side of the box. He boasts surprising power for his stature (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) thanks to a short, compact left-handed stroke. His short swing has also kept his strikeout totals down, and a solid and disciplined batting eye will work in his favor to generate free passes when moving to the next level. Perhaps his biggest weakness is his lack of high-level defensive prowess and average speed. Wong's 21 thefts last year may be on the high end of what we'll see down the road in the stolen base department.

At the end of the day, Wong looks to be the Redbirds' long-term solution at the keystone, and he could wind up in the discussion as the starter by 2014. A combination of Daniel Descalso and the transitioning Matt Carpenter will hold down the fort in the meantime, but neither of those players should prevent Wong from bursting onto the scene when he's ready. We could see Wong enter the picture at some point this season - most likely late in the year - if an injury or poor performance befalls Descalso or Carpenter.


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