He might not be a sleeper anymore, but Billy Hamilton could steal his way into owners' hearts in 2014.
Just because Major League Baseball's 2013 regular season hasn't yet come to an end doesn't mean it's too early to start prepping for fantasy baseball's 2014 draft season.
One of the best things about the chaos that comes with September baseball—what with the playoff races and expanded rosters—is that we get a glimpse of how some of the top prospects look heading into next year. Those who perform well can put themselves in position to make the club out of spring training next April—and thus, make an impact in fantasy.
Not every top young player, though, has been promoted to The Show this September, and those who haven't will remain a bit of a mystery entering the offseason. But the savvy fantasy owner should still have an idea of which prospects could be ready to make their big league debuts next Opening Day.
That in mind, below are 10 top youngsters who not only will retain their prospect eligibility in 2014—meaning, they have yet to exceed 130 at-bats or 50 innings or 30 games pitched—but also will be worth picking for your fantasy team in the spring.
Also not included: any international free agents or recent signees like Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who inked with the Phillies over the summer and could be a part of their rotation next year.
To be clear, the focus here is on fantasy impact in 2014, so you won't see hitters like the Twins' Byron Buxton or Miguel Sano, the Cubs' Javier Baez or the Indians' Francisco Lindor, or pitchers like the Astros' Mark Appel, the Rockies' Jonathan Gray or the Marlins' Andrew Heaney. Even though those names may rank higher on prospect lists, they're unlikely to see much, if any, playing time in the majors next season.
Fantasy's Top Prospects for the 2014 Season
1. Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds
In case there were any doubts about whether Hamilton's speed would translate to the majors after he stole 333 bases the last three years, well, he nabbed his first 13—in only 12 games—before being caught for the first time Wednesday. The doubts about his bat, though, are still there, as the 23-year-old switch-hitter slashed just .256/.308/.343 at Triple-A this year.
With Shin-Soo Choo a free-agent-to-be, the Reds will need someone to handle centerfield in 2014, and that job could go to Hamilton, who has turned himself into a strong defender with incredible range after shifting from shortstop last year.
Even if Hamilton hits .250 and nary a home run, he could swipe 80 bases with somewhat regular playing time. Because of his questionable hitting ability and approach, Hamilton's value is going to be all over the board next spring, but any player with the potential to dominate one category single-handedly could go in the first five rounds.
2. Taijuan Walker, RHP, Mariners
As a right-hander with a big fastball who is ready for an Opening Day rotation spot in the big leagues, Walker may be the closest thing to 2014's version of Shelby Miller. The 21-year-old dominated the high minors this year, compiling a 2.93 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 10.2 K/9, which earned him a late-season call-up.
In three starts with Seattle, Walker proved his stuff can get major leaguers out, as he gave up only 11 hits and four walks in 15 frames with 12 whiffs. Expect him to be a member of the Mariners' five-man rotation out of the gate, and his fantasy numbers should be aided by throwing at pitcher-friendly Safeco. With the potential to ascend to being a No. 3 fantasy starter next year, Walker may be the AL Rookie of the Year favorite...
3. Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B, Red Sox
...that is, if Bogaerts doesn't enter 2014 as the ROY front-runner in the Junior Circuit. Still just 20, Bogaerts' rise through the minors was downright meteoric, and after hitting .297 with 15 homers and 67 RBI in fewer than 500 at-bats across Double- and Triple-A in 2013, he's honing in on Boston's starting shortstop job.
Stephen Drew is a free agent, and if the Red Sox hand the gig over to Bogaerts, the righty masher could excel in Boston's lineup and at Fenway Park. The club has broken him in slowly since his late-August promotion—he has only 38 at-bats—but at some point soon Bogaerts will be unleashed on the league. Depending on what Boston does at shortstop in the offseason, Bogaerts could be worth a mid- to late-round selection—with the payoff of a top-10 shortstop.
4. George Springer, OF, Astros
The first player on this list who has yet to reach The Show, Springer has the rare power-speed skill set to be a fantasy monster next year. Fresh off his 24th birthday, the 2011 first-rounder made a run at becoming the first 40-40 player in the modern history of the minor leagues while playing at Double- and Triple-A this year. Although he thieved 45 bases, he came up short with "only" 37 homers. In a word: Wow.
If Springer, who also hit .303 and walked 83 times for a .411 OBP, has a flaw, it's his swing-and-miss-ability. The righty batter whiffed a whopping 161 times (27 percent), so he may struggle while adjusting to the best arms he's yet to face. Still, he's almost guaranteed to be Houston's centerfielder from the start next year and is a legitimate 20-20 candidate.
5. Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals
Even with the outfield well covered in St. Louis, Taveras, 21, was considered a possible Rookie of the Year this season because of his bat. Alas, after a breakout 2012 in which he destroyed Double-A to the tune of a .321 average, 23 homers and 94 RBI, an ongoing ankle injury limited him to only 46 games at Triple-A in 2013.
The good news is that the ankle should be healed up by next spring. Right fielder Carlos Beltran is a pending free agent, but Taveras is a natural fit in that spot and has the goods to replace most of Beltran's bat immediately. Some owners may overlook him for what was really a lost season, but this preternaturally gifted lefty hitter could be a third outfielder in fantasy circles by the middle of next season.
6. Nick Castellanos, OF, Tigers
At 21, Castellanos was one of the youngest players in Triple-A this season, but he acquitted himself rather well to the challenge. In the less hitter-friendly International League, Castellanos was in the top three in hits (147) runs (81), doubles (37), homers (18) and RBI (76).
The 2010 first-round pick got the call to Detroit in September, but the Tigers have given him only 17 at-bats so far, mainly because a contender is unlikely to give regular run to such a young, inexperienced player down the stretch. Still, Castellanos has an opening in left field—and a spot in a potent Detroit lineup—awaiting him n 2014. After a very strong year, the job should be his to lose next spring.
7. Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals
If you've seen Ventura pitch for Kansas City this September, you've been impressed. It's hard not to be by a guy who stands all of 5'11" but throws in the triple digits routinely. If that isn't enough, the 22-year-old's curveball can be downright unhittable when it's on.
8. Kevin Gausman, RHP, Orioles
Gausman is nearing 50 innings pitched (46.1 with four games to go), so he could be ineligible by the time the season's over, but if not, the No. 4 overall pick in 2012 is one to consider as a flyer in the last few rounds. The hard-throwing righty reaches the upper-90s with his heat and possesses an out-pitch changeup as well as very good control (just 27 walks in nearly 130 total innings).
His intro to the bigs hasn't been ideal, as the O's have shuffled him between the rotation and the bullpen, and he owns an ERA north of 5.00—in part, because of a .333 BABIP and 64.4 percent LOB—but don't let that turn you off.
Gausman should have a chance to win a rotation spot in camp, and while he's likely only draft-worthy in deeper formats for now, the 22-year-old has the stuff to become a fourth or fifth starter in most fantasy leagues.
9. Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox
Bradley created quite a stir in Boston's camp last spring, which was enough for the club to bring him north for the first week or two while David Ortiz was recovering from an injury. In hindsight, the 23-year-old may have been pushed a little too quickly, considering he entered 2013 with all of 61 games above A-ball.
While Bradley hasn't done much in his limited role with the Red Sox—he's just 18-for-92 (.196)—he does have five doubles, three homers and nine walks, showing better pop than initially expected and the strong batting eye that is his biggest asset at the moment (.404 career OBP in the minors).
A natural centerfielder, Bradley also has above-average speed that should allow him to steal 20-plus bases in a full season, but his fate—and fantasy value—for 2014 will be depend on what the Red Sox wind up doing with Jacoby Ellsbury and his expiring contract.
10. Archie Bradley, RHP, Diamondbacks
The seventh overall selection in 2011, Bradley was among the most dominant starters in all the minor leagues this season. Only 21, the big righty finished up his second full pro season with 123 innings at Double-A and posted a 1.84 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 overall.
There had been some speculation that Bradley could get a look this month, but Arizona thought it best to save him for next year when he'll compete for a big league job out of spring training, according to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. The Diamondbacks' rotation has a hole or two and lacks a true ace, and Bradley is nearly ready to address both problems.
Honorable Mentions: James Paxton, LHP, Mariners; Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Astros; Jameson Taillon, RHP, Pirates; Trevor Bauer, RHP, Indians; Erik Johnson, RHP, White Sox; Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets; Matt Davidson, 3B, Diamondbacks; Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals; Travis d'Arnaud, C, Mets; Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks; Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates; Carlos Martinez, RHP, Cardinals; Mike Olt, 3B, Cubs