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Top fantasy baseball prospects: NL - 1-5

By Keith Hernandez
Edited by Nicholas Minnix and Tim Heaney

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.

1. Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

Oscar Taveras, OF, St. Louis Cardinals
Waiting for an opportunity

Taveras was signed by the Red Birds as a non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in November of 2008. He has hit over .300 in every minor league season except his rookie voyage in 2009. Taveras posted a triple slash line of .321/.380/.572 with 23 home runs, 94 RBIs and 10 stolen bags in 531 plate appearances at Double-A Springfield last season.

For as aggressive a hitter as he is, Taveras surprisingly has great plate discipline and strike zone judgment. He attacks pitches ferociously within the zone and is very tough to strike out (just 56 K's in 477 at-bats in 2012). He makes a ton of contact from the left side, thanks to excellent hand-eye coordination and quick, strong hands. He can hit for both power and average and has solid enough wheels to become a 20-stolen base threat.

St. Louis knows they have something special in this 20-year-old, and they're treating him accordingly in spring camp. He's perhaps the most major league-ready hitting prospect in the National League. The Cardinals will probably play it cautious and start him at Class AAA since their outfield is set with Matt Holliday, Jon Jay and Carlos Beltran. However, Holliday and Beltran have had their fair share of injury problems, so Taveras could be up as soon as somebody goes down. He can play all three outfield positions, too, making him even more valuable. Taveras should be playing consistently in the majors by the end of the year, and there aren't many players that have the power and BA upside that he possesses.

2. Jose Fernandez, SP, Miami Marlins

Miami Marlins SP Jose Fernandez
Fernandez mowing 'em down

Fernandez, who will turn 21 this summer, was taken with the 14th overall selection in the 2011 Free Agent Amateur Draft. He might have been the most dazzling minor league hurler last year when he went 14-1 with a 1.75 ERA, 158 strikeouts and only 35 free passes in 134 innings (25 starts) between Single-A Greensboro and High Single-A Jupiter.

One of the first things you notice about Fernandez is the strong lower half of his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame. It allows him to reach the high 90s with his fastball, which possesses serious late movement. He'll probably rise quickly through the minors because he adds a sharp, late-biting slider, a slow curveball and a changeup. For a pitcher his age, the way he attacks and challenges hitters is encouraging. It's also kept his BB/9 ratio down at 2.5 in two years in the minors. Fernandez's changeup needs some work, but he has time to do that in the upper minor league levels.

Fernandez was already reassigned to minor league camp this spring. Scouts and evaluators are very high on him, but the fact remains that he hasn't pitched above Class A yet. It would be tempting for the Fish to bring him up to the major league level after their fire sale last winter, but they'll probably be patient as they rebuild. It's entirely possible he'll show his face in the majors later this year depending on how he fares down on the farm, but 2014 is a better bet to see him, perhaps full time.

3. Shelby Miller, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals SP Shelby Miller
Miller is cooking up dominance

Miller came out of the first round (19th overall) to the Cardinals in 2009. He went 11-6 with a 2.77 ERA and 170 K's in just 139 2/3 innings with High Single-A Palm Beach and Double-A Springfield in 2011. A rough start to 2012 with Triple-A Memphis set him back a tad, but a second half growth in dominance and control put him back on the fast track. He finished with 160 punchouts in 136 2/3 frames and was called up to St. Louis, where he got the win in his lone start.

The 22-year-old northpaw is very athletic and can add strength to his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame down the line. He has a an elite fastball-curveball combination that can get major league hitters out now. He's extremely smooth and balanced in his delivery, making his mid-90s fastball tough to square up with late movement added. His hard-biting curve misses bats with frequency, and the addition of a changeup makes him a true power pitcher with heaps of K upside. If everything goes right, he's the Red Birds' future ace of the staff.

The Cardinals haven't decided what they're doing with Miller just yet, but from all indications, he seems to have a slight lead over Joe Kelly for the No. 5 rotation spot. One more impressive spring outing would probably seal it for Miller. If for some reason he loses the job to Kelly, Miller will probably be up contributing to the rotation before long this year. He's a no-brainer addition in keeper leagues and is worth a late-rounds investment in mixed leagues because of his enticing, high-K upside.

4. Zack Wheeler, SP, New York Mets

New York Mets SP Zack Wheeler
Wheeler turning

The San Francisco Giants took Wheeler sixth overall in the 2009 draft and eventually traded him to the Mets in the package for Carlos Beltran at the trade deadline in 2011. The soon-to-be 23-year-old split 2012 with Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Buffalo, where he went a combined 12-8 with a 3.26 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 149 innings (25 starts).

At 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, Wheeler generates easy mid-90s heaters and can occasionally touch the high 90s when he dials it up. His fastball has late movement, and he mixes in a hard-biting slider and average changeup to fool hitters. Easily repeatable mechanics have allowed him to consistently throw hard without much effort. If his changeup can improve even slightly, Wheeler has the ability to be the future ace for the Mets. His body should fill out some, too, giving him more durability as he adds innings to his right arm.

Wheeler was ticketed to start the year down on the farm even before he suffered an oblique injury this spring. However, we'll see him soon; New York is expected to promote him sometime this summer, and they're likening his ascent to the majors to that of Matt Harvey's journey a year ago. New York isn't expected to contend for the division this year, but when Wheeler is ready, they won't hold him down for long. His confidence and poise on the mound in camp show he's not far off from making an impact on the biggest stage.

5. Travis d'Arnaud, C, New York Mets

New York Mets C Travis d'Arnaud
Mets await arrival of d'Arnaud

D'Arnaud, 24, was initially property of the Philadelphia Phillies when they took him 37th overall in the 2007 draft. He has had the pleasure of twice being traded in deals involving Cy Young winners; once for Roy Halladay and this past winter for R.A. Dickey. D'Arnaud was having a fine season with Triple-A Las Vegas, affiliate of the Blue Jays, last year (.333/.380/.595 with 16 home runs in 279 at-bats) before suffering a knee injury.

It's tough to find catchers who make consistent contact and can hit for average, but d'Arnaud is in the minority. He has quick hands and excellent bat speed, which help him make contact often. He also uses the entire field and can be a 20-homer backstop over a full season. D'Arnaud is athletic and agile on defense, even at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds. He has decent speed for a catcher, too, although he probably won't be seen attempting thefts too often.

The Metropolitans traded for d'Arnaud knowing that he'd be their catcher of the future. He's still learning how to call games efficiently, and his defense could use a little work, but his bat is very close to major league-ready. New York will likely start him down on the farm, but with only John Buck and Anthony Recker ahead of him, d'Arnaud will be catching at Citi Field in 2013. He'll be more of an NL-only commodity this year, but expect him to be in play in mixed universes in 2014 when he'll be the unquestioned starting catcher in Flushing.


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