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. Domonic Brown, OF, Philadelphia Phillies
Selected in the 20th round of the 2006 Draft, Brown was an unpolished ballplayer when the Phillies first lured him away from a University of Miami football scholarship, but over time he has slowly developed into a can't-miss, five-tool prospect. In 2010, Brown solidified himself as one of the game's elite prospects after hitting a combined .327 with 20 homers, 68 RBIs and 17 steals between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
Brown: lithe lightning
The 23-year-old has the makings of being a five-category star in fantasy baseball. While there's a lot of pressure on Brown to fill the void in right field left open by departed free agent Jayson Werth, the Phillies may handle him with kid gloves initially by starting him in Triple-A or having him split time with right-handed hitters Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr.
As shown by his 24 strikeouts and five walks in 62 big league at-bats last season, Brown is still adjusting to big league pitching. Expect some growing pains, but expect to see him make his presence felt this year in the steals and extra-base hit department if given the opportunity.
2. Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals
Our list puts heavy emphasis on 2011 impact, but we made an exception with Harper because he is a once-in-a-generation talent that every dynasty and keeper manager should be clamoring for. A case can be made that Harper is a more refined and talented prospect than both Ken Griffey Jr. (1987) and Alex Rodriguez (1993) were when they were chosen with the first overall pick in the draft out of high school.
Even though Harper has been known for crushing 500-foot home runs and hitting 95-plus mph on the radar gun, his five-tool package is only part of what makes him an exceptional prospect. In his recent baseball career, the Las Vegas native has outperformed much older competition like a man among boys. In what was supposed to be his junior year of high school, Harper batted .443 and led national junior colleges with 31 home runs and 21 steals playing in a wood bat JUCO against guys who were two to three years older than him.
Even though it's a small sample size, it was amazing that the teenage Harper was able to hit .343/.410/.629 in the Arizona Fall League, a circuit which is comprised of established minor leaguers. This was his first exposure to professional baseball, and he wasn't going up against rookie ball teenagers. Harper says his goal is to make it to the majors by September. It might seem unrealistic, but keep in mind that Harper is a unique player and everything he has done so far has defied logic.
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves
There's a pretty good chance Freeman will break camp as the Braves' everyday first baseman. As a 20-year-old in 2010, Freeman hit .319 with 18 homers, 35 doubles, 87 RBIs and an .899 OPS at Triple-A Gwinnett. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound first baseman has performed well at every level in the minors against much older competition as he holds a lifetime .301 batting average.
Despite his steady performance, Freeman has yet to have a big-time slugging season that one expects from a first baseman. There are two trains of thought on Freeman: His supporters believe he is a polished hitter well ahead of his years and his power will eventually come around. They point to the fact that he slugged .521 when he was the second youngest starter in the International League.
The skeptics feel Freeman does a lot of things well but isn't exceptional in any one category. Freeman probably won't club 25 or more homers this year to validate his supporters, but he should accumulate his share of at-bats as an everyday starter and at least meet a decent portion of that potential.
4. Aroldis Chapman, P, Cincinnati Reds
Freeman should get his shot
Chapman ranks this high primarily because of the lightning bolt in his arm. Last season, the Cuban southpaw went into the Guinness Book of World Records by heaving a 105.1 mph fastball in San Diego, setting the record for the fastest recorded pitch in major league history.
While his fastball gets all the attention, there are some who feel Chapman's slider is in the same neighborhood as his famous four-seamer. Chapman fared well last year in his bullpen role with the Reds by posting a 2.03 ERA and a 19-to-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 innings. He did issue 52 walks in 96 innings at Triple-A Louisville, but he exhibited much better control when he was moved to the 'pen.
With Chapman, there's no question he has the talent, but he may not have a prominent role this season to be much of a fantasy baseball star. The Reds boast a deep starting rotation, so there are no plans to move Chapman back there at this point in time. For now, the Reds are content with utilizing Chapman as a setup man, where he will rack up gaudy strikeout numbers but not compile the saves that would make him more fantasy-friendly.
Though manager Dusty Baker has remained loyal, 35-year-old closer Francisco Cordero has been on the decline in recent years, so there is a decent possibility of Chapman eventually assuming closer duties at some point in the season. If Chapman can be grabbed at the right price, which is a big if given his fame, he could pay big dividends if things work in his favor.
5. Brandon Belt, 1B/OF, San Francisco Giants
A little known fifth-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2009, Belt surprised the baseball world last year by hitting a combined .352 with 23 home runs, 112 RBIs, 22 stolen bases and a 1.075 OPS between high Single-A San Jose, Double-A Richmond and Triple-A Fresno.
When Belt was coming out of college, the Giants liked his athleticism and plate discipline, but they didn't think he was getting his desired results at the plate because of a few mechanical flaws in his swing. They opened up his stance and shortened his stroke. As a result, he became less susceptible to inside pitches that plagued him during his college career. He had better plate coverage and showed the ability last season to drive the ball to all fields.
Belt earns rave reviews for his baseball acumen. He is a smart hitter who makes adjustments on the fly. When one considers Belt's grasp of the strike zone, his athleticism, smarts and pretty swing, he comes across as a safe player to bet on despite his "out of left field" success. This spring the Giants are giving Belt a long look at first base and in the competition for the starting left field gig, but he is expected to begin the 2011 season at Triple-A Fresno.
The Giants have so many interchangeable pieces at first base and the corner outfield spots that it is hard to envision Belt getting significant playing time soon, but if he keeps tearing the cover off the ball they will probably have to find room for him much like they did for 2010 NL Rookie of the Year Buster Posey. Long term, the 6-foot-5 rookie profiles as a .290 hitter with 25-home run pop and double-digit steals.