Following a spring training that seemed to feature a new starting pitcher breaking down each day, establishing a fantasy draft strategy might seem difficult. The good news, if you want to see the glass half full, is that injuries open doors for rookies to play a more prominent fantasy role.
Of course, some rookies were all but guaranteed a spot on their team's 25-man roster out of spring training and were generating buzz in fantasy circles.
Trying to evaluate what a rookie will do in regular baseball is hard enough, but trying to boil it down to key fantasy stats is enough to drive one mad. Unless we are talking about Mike Trout, rookies have peaks and valleys that established players usually don't.
As you prepare to set your fantasy draft board, debating player after player round after round, here are our predictions for the top fantasy rookies in 2014.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit Tigers
Projected stat line: .275 AVG, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 4 SB
For offensive value, Nick Castellanos is the best fantasy rookie in baseball this year. Spring training stats are useless, but at least we can say the 22-year-old looked ready after a .333/.348/.571 line in 63 at-bats.
The key to any rookie having success is a guaranteed job. The Tigers traded Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers, allowing Miguel Cabrera to move over to first base and putting Castellanos back at his natural position.
Bleacher Report Lead Prospect Writer Mike Rosenbaum wrote an updated scouting report on Castellanos, and it was enough to get fantasy owners salivating at the idea of adding him:
Castellanos is one of the purest hitters among prospects, with a fluid inside-out swing, advanced bat-to-ball skills and outstanding barrel control that could make him a .300-plus hitter in the major leagues.
One area in which Castellanos is limited is home run power. He's a full-grown man at 6'4", 210 pounds and has the ability to hit balls with authority all over the field. But it's not a natural power hitter swing.
Castellanos' swing is more conducive to hitting line drives, leading me to believe he will be more of a 30-35 doubles, 15-20 homers kind of player. He's good enough, physically and developmentally, to hit those marks in 2014.
The average is going to sit in the .260-.280 range this season because pitchers can get him out with good off-speed stuff out of the zone. But Castellanos knows how to adjust and anything less than a .260 average would be a surprise.
The Boston Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts has more long-term potential, but he's still growing into his frame and may not hit more than 12-15 homers this year. Otherwise, he would be the top position player among AL rookies.
Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, New York Yankees
Projected stat line: 14-10, 199.0 IP, 3.40 ERA, 180 K, 1.30 WHIP
Masahiro Tanaka, the most high-profile rookie in Major League Baseball, not to mention the richest, is going to be under an intense microscope all year because he's playing in New York and signed a $155 million deal.
Who should be the first rookie taken in fantasy drafts?
Unfortunately, that lofty contract is going to make his debut season seem like a disappointment.
Using the projection measurements on FanGraphs, Tanaka ranges anywhere from 3.0 wins above replacement to 6.4. The latter would make him an easy Cy Young contender, so we won't go that far for the 25-year-old. Instead, there's something to be said for splitting the difference.
Having written about most of Tanaka's spring outings, what struck me is how good the split-finger fastball is and how little command he has of the breaking balls.
There is a little more life on Tanaka's fastball than we had been led to believe coming out of Japan, though it's still too straight at times and can be elevated. He's going to give up some home runs, especially pitching in Yankee Stadium against AL East competition.
The good news is the Yankees offense has been upgraded to the point where even a few clunker starts aren't going to damage Tanaka's win-loss record.
Billy Hamilton, OF, Cincinnati Reds
Projected stat line: .264 AVG, 3 HR, 35 RBI, 95 R, 75 SB
Unlike last season, the 2014 crop of NL rookies doesn't appear to have much depth, at least not yet. That could change when the Houston Astros' George Springer and Jonathan Singleton, Chicago Cubs' Javier Baez and Pittsburgh Pirates' Gregory Polanco debut (presumably) later this year.
As a result, Billy Hamilton enters the year as the top fantasy rookie in the league. He's also an impossible player to get a read on because of how unique he is.
A player with Hamilton's slight 160-pound frame wouldn't normally register because there would be too many concerns about the bat, and if you can't hit, you're not going to play. There are doubts about his ability to hit from prospect evaluators. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) wrote that if Hamilton didn't have speed that he'd "put a below-average future on hit tool."
It's only because Hamilton is so fast—we are talking like the best speed you will ever see from a baseball player—that he has any kind of value as a big leaguer and fantasy player.
The Reds are going to use Hamilton as their leadoff hitter, which only makes him more valuable. It's hard to imagine him getting on base enough to hold the position for long, but with his wheels and the lineup behind him, a season of more than 100 runs scored isn't out of the question.
Hamilton's going to get his stolen bases, one way or another, so at least you are guaranteed to find value in one category late in the draft.
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