In 2010, Major League Baseball saw a mammoth influx of young talent, but fantasy baseball players can't expect that impact each year. Properly valuing rising farm players' talent, timetable and opportunity will help win your fantasy baseball league.
1. Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Tampa Bay Rays
There's not a rookie in baseball more big league ready than Hellickson, and he's essentially assured a starting rotation spot following the winter trade of Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs. In today's age of high-heat flamethrowers, Hellickson's low- to mid-90s fastball seems rather ordinary for a blue chip pitcher, but don't be fooled by the radar gun readings.
"Hell Boy" is as polished as they come for a 24-year-old. The right-hander can pinpoint his fastball on the black, and he has become adept at creating sinking and cutting action on his heater. Thanks to his uniform, deceptive arm angle, his changeup is a devastating weapon that is hard to hit when Hellickson is getting ahead early in the count with his fastball.
The International League ERA champion put up strong peripherals last season in Triple-A, and he made a seamless transition to the big leagues late last season by posting a 3.47 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and an 8.17 K/9 during a stint of 36 1/3 innings. The only real concern is whether his fly-ball tendencies will haunt him. During his short big league stint, Hellickson surrendered five homers, which was the same amount he allowed in 117 2/3 innings of work at Triple-A Durham.
Hellickson recently suffered a hamstring injury in spring training that bears watching, but barring a major setback, he is the front runner for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
2. Jesus Montero, C, New York Yankees
Jennings blocked, but for how long?
Montero can flat out hit. It's rare to find a prospect that has put up a career .314 batting average and .511 slugging percentage in the minors while excelling all under the age of 21 and at all minor league levels. The Venezuelan is not the most orthodox hitter but has exceptional hand-eye coordination and strong wrists that allow him to adjust quickly to pitches and hammer them.
The catcher has the makings of a .300 hitter in the majors with 25- to 30-home run pop. If he was in a more ideal playing situation, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound backstop would be the top prospect on this list. Unfortunately, Montero is in the middle of a logjam at catcher. Russell Martin is expected to get the bulk of the starts behind the plate, and long-time veteran Jorge Posada is going to get his share of time at designated hitter while still making crouching cameos.
Furthermore, Montero is considered a very raw catcher defensively, so his progress behind the plate this spring may determine whether he beats out Austin Romine or Francisco Cervelli for the backup catcher spot; both better fit a backup role because of their defense. While there has been speculation about a long-term move to first base, Mark Teixeira's presence there rules out that possibility.
It's hard to predict how the Yankees will approach this situation at the onset of the season, but they seem committed to developing Montero as a backstop, and his bat will be too enticing to ignore.
3. Desmond Jennings, OF, Tampa Bay Rays
Following the free-agent departure of Carl Crawford to the Boston Red Sox, it was widely assumed that Jennings would step in immediately in left field. However, things changed when the Rays signed veteran outfielder Johnny Damon late in the offseason. Now Jennings is in a position where he won't be handed an opening day job, and he will have to impress the brass to make the team out of spring training.
Injuries have prevented the 24-year-old from fully capitalizing on his impressive array of tools. Plagued by a wrist injury early last season, Jennings had an underwhelming season at the plate, registering a .278 batting average and .393 slugging percentage at Triple-A Durham. But those moderate numbers hide the improvements he showed from June on, as he showed more of his top prospect skills. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound outfielder has never had difficulty getting on-base (.384 career on-base percentage in the minors) and wreaking havoc on the basepaths, though.
Jennings, who was successful on 37 of 41 stolen base attempts at Durham in 2010, has the wheels and base stealing skills to compete for the AL crown if given the chance. If Jennings can earn an everyday gig sometime this year, he's capable of putting together a season similar to what Austin Jackson did as a rookie with the Detroit Tigers last year (.293, 103 R, 27 SB).
What makes Jennings so intriguing is that he has the upside and talent to dwarf what Jackson did by stealing a lot more bases and putting up double figures in home runs.
4. Chris Sale, P, Chicago White Sox
In a two-month span, Sale made a remarkable ascent from being an amateur to a feared major league fire baller. Selected by the White Sox with the 13th overall pick of the 2010 Draft out of Florida Gulf Coast, Sale threw just 10 1/3 innings in the minors before making his major league debut in early August.
In his initial exposure to big league hitters, Sale overwhelmed them by striking out an eye-popping 32 batters in 23 1/3 innings of work. Although he had some control issues, the 6-foot-6 lefty was able to record a 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and four saves in 21 appearances. What makes Sale so tough to hit is that he attacks batters from a low three-quarters delivery, and it is difficult for opponents to pick up the ball. He also has three quality offerings in his arsenal, which include a mid- to high-90s fastball, a nasty slider and a good changeup that he rarely used in the big leagues.
The Pale Hose eventually want to groom Sale as a starter, but he will begin the 2011 campaign throwing out of the bullpen. This spring the rookie is competing with Matt Thornton, Sergio Santos and Jesse Crain for the White Sox's closer spot. At this point in time, Sale projects as a top-five fantasy setup man, but he could be a top-10 closer if he is able to assume ninth-inning duties.
5. Michael Pineda, SP, Seattle Mariners
Standing at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Pineda is a physical specimen armed with an electric fastball that sits in the mid- to high 90s. After battling elbow problems in 2009, the Dominican put together a breakout season in 2010 as he recorded an 11-4 record, with a 3.36 ERA and a 9.95 K/9 in 139 1/3 innings of work between Double-A West Tennessee and Triple-A Tacoma.
His slider and changeup are coming along, but they aren't completely refined yet. Despite that fact, Pineda looks well equipped to make the jump soon to the big leagues. He misses bats, doesn't walk batters and induces his share of ground balls. The Mariners are giving Pineda a chance to crack the starting rotation this spring, but don't be surprised if he spends a month or two in Tacoma before making the jump for good.