If you follow the misguided notion rookies are over-hyped and useless in Fantasy leagues, you must not have won your league last year. We saw what they can do for owners in 2005 as call-ups Ryan Howard, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Zach Duke, Dan Johnson and Jeff Francoeur carried teams with veteran-like production in the second half.
Jeremy Hermida is looking to follow Miguel Cabrera's steps from Double-A to big-league stardom. (Getty Images)
Here's a scary thought: The 2006 rookie class is even better. In fact, it's the best crop since the Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Adam Dunn and Roy Oswalt group in 2001.
Our top 10 rookies must be gobbled up by the time things wrap up in all mixed leagues on Draft Day. We compare those special phenoms with a Fantasy player they could develop into long term. Players ranked 11 through 20 are possible starters and sleeper Rookie of the Year candidates, while the final five are those who will be the biggest minor-league noise-makers and potential impact call-ups around the All-Star break.
Good luck with your keeper-league bargain hunting.
1 OF Delmon Young, 20, Devil Rays
Think: A right-handed Ken Griffey Jr.
2005 stats: Triple-A (52 games) -- .285 average, six homers, 28 RBI, 33 runs, seven steals (.447 slugging percentage, .303 on-base percentage) / Double-A (84) -- .336-20-71-59-25 (.582-.386)
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His breakthrough 2005 (.315-26-99-92-32 combined in 558 minor-league at-bats) puts the 20-year-old on the cusp of big-league stardom. Assuming he can win the right-fielder's job this spring, Young has to be considered the favorite for AL Rookie of the Year honors. If the Devil Rays decide Aubrey Huff can play first base, they could slot Jonny Gomes at DH and play a young studly outfield of Carl Crawford in left, Rocco Baldelli in center (eventually) and Young in right. The new regime in Tampa Bay says it won't unnecessarily hold him back in order to slow his arbitration clock. All he needs is an opportunity.
2 OF Jeremy Hermida, 22, Marlins
Think: Shawn Green
2005 stats: Majors (23) -- .293-4-11-9-2 (.634-.383) / Double-A (118) -- .293-18-63-77-23 (.518-.457)
If you were one who got the second-half boost by Francoeur in 2005, you'll want to hone in on this guy. Hermida grades a little better than his Braves counterpart across the board, and when you consider his ability to get on base far more consistently through walks, you have a rock-solid NL Rookie of the Year favorite. He'll head to spring as the Marlins right fielder, a status he should keep until he threatens to bust the seams of the tight purse in Florida.
3 1B Prince Fielder, 21, Brewers
Think: Ryan Howard
2005 stats: Majors (39) -- .288-2-10-2-0 (.458-.306) / Triple-A (103) -- .291-28-86-68-8 (.569-.388)
The Brewers wouldn't have shipped a solid veteran like Lyle Overbay out of town this winter if they weren't confident Fielder is big-league ready. The son of Cecil, who was a former 50-homer slugger himself, handled the highest levels of the minors faster than Howard, the reigning NL ROY. Although Fielder won't out-produce his Philly counterpart in his first year, he's a solid source of power in any Fantasy league.
4 RHP Matt Cain, 21, Giants
Think: Kerry Wood
2005 stats: Majors -- 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA, 24 hits allowed, 19 walks and 30 strikeouts in 46 innings / Triple-A -- 10-5, 4.39, 118 hits, 73 walks and 176 Ks in 146 innings
Cain can sustain mid-90s heat and even kick it up close to triple digits on occasion. All he needs now is control and experience. Pitching is more art than skill, so Cain could struggle at times in his first full season, but the Triple-A strikeout leader has to be considered the top rookie pitcher in baseball (the rookie eligibility of the Mariners' Felix Hernandez expired last season). Only Hernandez was younger in the big leagues last season. After Cain's outstanding results in his September call-up, the Giants aren't hesitating to slot him in their rotation. He should better the rookie numbers of Scott Kazmir from 2005 (10 wins, 3.77 ERA and 174 strikeouts).
5 LHP Francisco Liriano, 22, Twins
Think: Johan Santana
2005 stats: Majors -- 1-2, 5.70, 33 hits, seven walks and 33 Ks in 23 2/3 innings / Triple-A -- 9-2, 1.78, 56 hits, 24 walks and 112 Ks in 91 innings / Double-A -- 3-5, 3.64, 70 hits, 26 walks and 92 Ks in 76 2/3 innings
Forget the uneven results in his cup of coffee in '05, the minor league's strikeout leader is a big-time talent. The Twins have given him the No. 5 starter's job to lose and we see a young Santana in the making. Imagine facing the apprentice and then emperor on back-to-back days this season. Forget it. The best part about Liriano -- and the reason we can compare him to Fantasy's No. 1 pitcher -- is his control. He walked just 50 hitters in almost 167 minor-league innings. Those numbers are even better than Santana's were at a similar stage. Like many Dominicans who pitch year round in winter ball, Liriano's arm is ready for the 162-game haul. Although he might not post big win totals, his strikeout potential makes him a top-notch sleeper.
6 RHP Anthony Reyes, 24, Cardinals
Think: Mark Prior
2005 stats: Majors -- 1-1. 2.70, six hits, four walks, 12 Ks in 13 innings / Triple-A -- 7-6, 3.64, 105 hits, 34 walks, 136 Ks in 129 innings
While he isn't as top shelf of a talent as Prior, a fellow USC Trojan, Reyes has been given a rotation spot in one of the best situations in baseball. Name a Cardinals starter who hasn't won at least 13 games in each of the past two seasons? You won't find one. That bodes well for Reyes' Fantasy prospects, even if he is raw, and says a lot about what his organization thinks of him. The Cards won't be quite as good as they have been, but Reyes still should post 12-plus wins with a solid ERA, WHIP and close to a strikeout per inning. That's not something we say about a rookie pitcher very often, even if it's the third time you heard it in this list. Reyes doesn't boast the lightning stuff of the two arms ranked above him, but he has the better supporting cast.
7 2B Ian Kinsler, 23, Rangers
Think: A right-handed Chase Utley
2005 stats: Triple-A (131) -- .274-23-94-102-19 (.464-.348)
It says a lot about what your organization thinks of you if it trades a potential 30-30 second baseman in Alfonso Soriano to clear the position. Such is the case with Kinsler, who has a slim Utley-like build with the rare middle-infielder pop to go with it. Kinsler has progressed rapidly through the system and gets his shot years before Utley. It could take longer for Kinsler to hit his full stride, but we see one of the more potent Fantasy 2Bs down the road. He's not quite in the Rickie Weeks class of speed and power, but take a flier on Kinsler late in mixed leagues.
8 1B Conor Jackson, 23, Diamondbacks
Think: A right-handed Lyle Overbay
2005 stats: Majors (40) -- .200-2-8-8-0 (.306-.303) / Triple-A (93) -- .354-8-73-66-3 (.553-.457)
Veteran Tony Clark went .303-30-87 with a .636 slugging percentage last season, but that's not good enough to start at first in Arizona, where they're handing the job to Jackson this spring. Clark will be his tutor. That's a staggering thought that speaks volumes of Jackson's upside. His minor-league numbers are eerily similar to Overbay's at this point, but we like the OPS hog Jackson to develop more power as a rare slugger who won't strike out very often. (He posted better than a 1-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio (32-69) in Triple-A). Clark's presence will be a drain on Jackson's value on Draft Day -- as well as during the season if the prospect starts slow -- but that only makes him even more of an attainable sleeper.
9 C Jeff Mathis, 22, L.A. Angels of Anaheim
Think: A right-handed Jason Varitek
2005 stats: Majors (5) -- .333-0-0-1-0 (.333-.333) / Triple-A (112) -- .276-21-73-78-4
Mathis rebounded from a disappointing 2004 campaign (.227-14-55-57-2) to earn honors as the heir to Bengie Molina in Anaheim. It's rare a contender puts its pitching staff in the hands of a rookie catcher -- Joe Mauer being the most recent exception -- but Mathis has long been rated as a future All-Star backstop. His bat will be given time to develop, but it's promising enough in his first year to warrant a late-round flier in mixed leagues. We say Mathis outperforms the other young catchers -- the Pirates' second-year man Ryan Doumit included -- and puts the 2005 failures of J.D. Closser and Chris Snyder to shame.
10 3B Ryan Zimmerman, 21, Nationals
Think: A right-handed John Olerud
2005 stats: Majors (20) -- .397-0-6-6-0 (.569-.419) / Double-A (63) -- .326-9-32-40-1 (.528-.371) / Low Class A (4): .471-2-6-5-0 (1.059-.471)
A perfect example of how the economics of today's game puts the onus on draft and development. Zimmerman was the fourth overall pick in the June draft (Virginia) and made the quickest position-player rise to the big leagues since Olerud. Like so many of the prodigies ranked above him, a veteran was let go in the offseason (Vinny Castilla) to clear an everyday spot at third base. It's clear Zimmerman can become a .300 hitter; he handles the bat well to all fields, but it's uncertain how much power he'll develop. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, you would think he'll become a slugger, but he's more of a line-drive gap hitter at this extremely early stage. Assuming those doubles become homers, he might be more like the next Hank Blalock and not Joe Randa. Posting top-notch mixed-league Fantasy numbers in his first year will be tough after only 250 minor-league at-bats, especially in the pitcher's haven in D.C., but Zimmerman is a solid late-round flier.
Other rookies who can win jobs this spring:
11 RHP Justin Verlander, 23, Tigers
Think: Jake Peavy
2005 stats: Majors -- 0-2, 7.15, 15 hits, five walks, seven strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings / Double-A -- 2-0, 0.28, 11 hits, seven walks, 32 Ks in 32 2/3 innings / High Class A -- 9-2, 1.67, 70 hits, 19 walks and 104 Ks in 86 innings
A sore shoulder ended his 2005 early, but the Tigers are saying it was due to the workload and his "getting after it" in his first professional season. They're confident he can compete for the fifth-starter's job this spring. His minor-league numbers and talent are top notch, so there's no reason he can't win the job and surge to the front of this list. He was orginally listed at No. 25 here because it was believed they would start him off slow before slotting him in their rotation this summer. Just looking at those minor-league numbers makes you believe the possibilities are endless.
12 1B Mike Jacobs, 25, Marlins
Think: A left-handed Craig Wilson
2005 stats: Majors (30) -- .310-11-23-19-0 (.710-.375) / Double-A (117) -- .321-25-93-66-1 (.589-.376)
The oldest player thus far on this list had the biggest impact in Fantasy 2005, hitting 11 homers in just 100 at-bats. The two-time Mets minor-league player of the year rebounded nicely from shoulder woes that ruined his 2004. He has moved from catcher to first and was dealt to the Marlins in the offseason, where he should at minimum get all the at-bats at first base vs. right-handed pitching. The right-field porch in South Florida requires a homer longer than a 100-plus yard kickoff return, but Jacobs has a sweet swing that can generate power anywhere. All he needs is an opportunity, which he'll get. While we rank him as an NL-only rookie to target, he could be the highest riser on this list, becoming a potent mixed-league sleeper.
13 C Kenji Johjima, 29, Mariners
Think: Paul Lo Duca
2005 stats: Japan (116) -- .309-24-57-70-3 (.557-.381)
Johjima, a three-time 30-plus homer catcher in the Japan leagues (the stats equivalent of the Triple-A PCL), was signed this winter by the Mariners, who consider him more of a gap hitter in Seattle's pitcher's park. The success of Japanese position players is hit (Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki) and miss (Kaz Matsui), so Johjima should be considered a risk in mixed leagues on Draft Day. He'll be an everyday catcher with upside, however.
14 2B Josh Barfield, 22, Padres
Think: A young Bret Boone
2005 stats: Triple-A (137) -- .310-15-72-74-20 (.450-.370)
Another player with pedigree whose position was cleared this winter. Josh is the son of former 40-homer slugger Jesse Barfield and is Mark Loretta's heir apparent at second base in San Diego. You might think it's a tough park for a young Fantasy prospect, but right-handed power plays there (think: double-play 'mate Khalil Greene's 15 homers). Barfield will be less tempted to allow his swing get long -- as it had at times in the minors. He has been considered a bigger prospect than Robinson Cano, but Cano's 2005 numbers should be considered the higher end of Barfield's projections. Pick him up as an NL-only sleeper on Draft Day, but watch the notoriously streaky hitter in mixed leagues as a stopgap.
15 OF Jason Kubel, 23, Twins
Think: Mark Kotsay with more pop
2005 stats: DNP in 2005 after reconstructive knee surgery
Kubel is the wild card of the 2006 rookie class after missing all of last season to a knee injury suffered in an outfield collision during the 2004 Arizona Fall League. Before the injury, Kubel was slated to be the Twins' everyday right fielder with the potential to go .300-20-80 as a Kotsay-type with a higher ceiling. If he's healthy this spring, he's a must-have outfielder in AL-only leagues and a potential sleeper in mixed leagues.
The best of the rest:
16 OF Brian Anderson, 23, White Sox
Think: Poor man's Magglio Ordonez
2005 stats: Majors (13) -- .176-2-3-3-1 (.382-.176) / Triple-A (118) -- .295-16-57-71-4 (.469-.360) / Low A (51): .331-6-36-28-6 (.513-.383)
The Aaron Rowand trade cleared a spot for Anderson in the outfield, but his open opportunity is more exciting than his numbers at this point. Consider him a solid flier in AL-only leagues. The above comparison to Ordonez has to do with the similarity of their numbers at this stage of Anderson's career. His minor-league stats are eerily similar to the former White Sox player who developed into a slugger in the big leagues.
17 C Josh Willingham, 27, Marlins
Think: A left-handed Chris Shelton
2005 stats: Majors (16) -- .304-0-4-3-0 (.348-.407) / Triple-A (66) -- .324-19-54-56-5 (.676-.455) / High Class A (2) -- .222-0-1-1-0 (.333-.300)
Willingham has been an OPS monster in the minors, but the fact he's a 2B-turned-catcher has slowed his progress -- along with a broken arm last year. He will compete with Miguel Olivo to be the rebuilding Marlins' everyday catcher and his promising bat should trump his below-average defense. Consider him a viable No. 2 at the position late in mixed leagues.
18 SS Hanley Ramirez, 22, Marlins
Think: Wilson Betemit
2005 stats: Majors (2) -- .000-0-0-0-0 (.000-.000) / Double-A (122) -- .271-6-52-66-26 (.385-.335)
Ramirez, dealt to the Marlins is the offseason, is a better prospect in person than on paper, according to scouts. Much like the His speed-and-power potential didn't show up on the stats sheet in Double-A last season, but many expect him to blossom, a la Rickie Weeks a year ago. He will compete to start in Florida, so his potential and role make him an outstanding sleeper in NL-only and keeper leagues.
19 3B Andy Marte, 22, Indians
Think: Adrian Beltre
2005 stats: Majors (24) -- .140-0-4-3-0 (.211-.227) / Triple-A (109): .275-20-74-51-0 (.506-.372)
The Red Sox absolutely stole Marte from the Braves this winter in the Edgar Renteria deal, but had to trade him and Kelly Shoppach off to Cleveland. His right-handed power could come in handy, but it's unclear how he will get at-bats at this point. Track his battle for a spot this spring, because he would be a top-10 Fantasy rookie if he lands the starting job.
20 LHP Scott Olsen, 22, Marlins
Think: Jarrod Washburn
2005 stats: Majors -- 1-1, 2.84, 21 hits, 10 walks and 21 Ks in 20 1/3 innings / Double-A -- 6-4, 3.92, 75 hits, 27 walks and 94 Ks in 80 1/3 innings
The lefty proved effective in his four-start stint for a contender in 2005 and he'll compete for a spot with a slew of outstanding prospects in a revamped Marlins rotation this spring. We like his upside, but he'll be working for a sub-.500 club, so consider him more of an NL-only prospect.
The long-term keeper prospects:
21 SS Brandon Wood, 21, L.A. Angels
Think: Cal Ripken Jr.
2005 stats: Triple-A (4): .316-0-1-1-0 (.526-.316) / High Class A (130): .321-43-115-109-7 (.672-.383)
Wood's Ruthian assault on minor-league pitching continued in the Arizona Fall League as he set a record with 14 homers in 29 games. Mind you, that is a league where Pujols spent time before he went on to post the greatest Fantasy rookie season in history. Wood will need a trade of Orlando Cabrera and perhaps some at-bats in the high minors before he's called up. Once he is, he's a must-have in any Fantasy league.
22 SS Stephen Drew, 22, Diamondbacks
Think: A better Jhonny Peralta
2005 stats: Double-A (27) -- .218-4-13-11-2 (.386-.301) / High Class A (38) -- .389-10-39-33-1 (.738-.486)
Drew tore up the AFL, too, and isn't far from being a big-leaguer, but the D-Backs have veteran Craig Counsell to be his placeholder at shortstop this spring. We see Drew being a midseason call-up and a must-have in any Fantasy league at that point.
23 OF Carlos Quentin, 23, Diamondbacks
Think: Lance Berkman
2005 stats: Triple-A (136): .301-21-89-98-9 (.520-.422)
Fellow D-Backs prospect Jackson has more potential this season, but Quentin is the better prospect because of his 35-homer potential. Quentin is stuck behind veterans at this point, but move him into the top five among rookies if he slugs his way into an everyday job this spring.
24 3B Andy LaRoche, 22, Dodgers
Think: A right-handed Eric Chavez
2005 stats: Double-A (64) -- .273-9-43-41-2 (.445-.367) / High Class A (63) -- .333-21-51-54-6 (.651-.380)
Andy is the younger brother of the Braves' Adam LaRoche and son of former big-league pitcher Dave LaRoche. He has more power potential than Adam (25-30 homers annually), but will need time in the high minors before he assumes the 3B job in Los Angeles long term. He's a midseason call-up and a solid flier in any Fantasy league.
25 DH Billy Butler, 19, Royals
Think: Mark Teixeira
2005 stats: Double-A (29) -- .313-5-19-14-0 (.527-.353) / High Class A (92) -- .348-25-91-70-0 (.636-.419)
Butler might be the best pure slugging prospect in baseball, but he is very young and raw. The perennially rebuilding Royals will be patient with him, but a midseason call-up is very possible. He's a future Fantasy first-rounder.