Posted: Friday February 18, 2011 11:33AM ; Updated: Friday February 18, 2011 3:46PM
Eric Mack
Eric Mack>INSIDE FANTASY BASEBALL

Promising rookies to target in 2011

Story Highlights

Craig Kimbrel could be in line for plenty of saves with quality Braves team

Twins 2B Tsuyoshi Nishioka has skills to hit .300 and steal 25-plus steals

Domonic Brown has five-tool potential but has much to learn about consistency

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If rookie Craig Kimbreal can win the Braves' closer job, the rookie could be busy saving games for a playoff contender.
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Everyone loves a novelty. Fantasy owners are the worst at buying into them.

They all want a piece of the next big thing, but they tend to forget the next big thing isn't the next sure thing.

Jason Heyward was the sexy name in spring training last March, but he hardly made a dent in most fantasy leagues for much of the second half of the year. Stephen Strasburg was the talk of baseball after mid-June and he wound up on the operating table in fantasy crunch time.

This is sixth and final part of our series on how to find players to outperform their draft position. You should have already digested the first five rules of thumb: 27-year-olds, third-year starting pitchers, contract years, injury-risk sleepers and overlooked sophomores.

Rookies are the hardest category to score with on draft day.

Prospects are suspects, as the famous cliché goes. In fantasy drafts, if they are hyped, they are best off avoided.

Most of the top rookies picked on draft day tend to go bust. Last year's first rookie picked by average draft position was Alcides Escobar. He was so useless, the Brewers didn't hesitate to deal him away this winter.

2010 ADP rookie rankings

1 Alcides Escobar SS MIL
2 Jason Heyward OF ATL
3 Stephen Strasburg SP WAS
4 Aroldis Chapman SP CIN
5 Brian Matusz SP BAL
6 Neftali Feliz SP TEX
7 Wade Davis SP TB
8 Buster Posey C SF
9 Scott Sizemore 2B DET
10 Ian Desmond SS WAS
11 Austin Jackson OF DET
12 Madison Bumgarner SP SF

Strasburg didn't make the majors until mid-June, Chapman was nothing more than a middle reliever late in the year and Matusz did more harm than good through the first half.

It wasn't until the sixth rookie off the board -- Feliz -- where we actually got some value a year ago with the eventual AL Rookie of the Year. But he wasn't a closer to start the season.

The NL Rookie of the Year, Posey, was a mid-June call-up. It is that time of the year when the real impact rookies get the call, because teams want to slow down their arbitration timetable.

And when a prospect becomes a productive rookie, usually it only lasts in stretches. Baseball might be known as a kid's game, but the highest level it is a man's game. It takes years to become the man in it.

But you cannot ignore the rookies, especially in-season, when they get call-ups and expanded roles.

There are more than 30 rookies who will be legitimate candidates for jobs in spring training -- no, not teenage wunderkind Bryce Harper (eventually) of the Nationals. None of them will have anything handed to them, especially not Harper.

It makes a top rookies list an evolving thing. See, a prospect is a talented young player with rookie eligibility (Harper), but a rookie is a prospect who is actually in the big leagues (Chapman, who retains eligibility).

Outside of keeper leagues, your fantasy team is better off if your players are actually competing at the major-league level (see Chapman last year).

Here is an early spring training ranking of the top 15 rookies to target. These prospects have jobs to lose this March. This is not a judgment of their actual long-term potential as much as how they figure to go off the board on draft day.

1. RHP Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves (No. 191 in initial Top 300)

This is how tentative rookie chasing is: Kimbrel tops this list going into spring only on the speculation he will be the closer for the Braves. He might have to deal with sharing that role with sophomore Jonny Venters, though. Kimbrel is more of a power arm with a higher ceiling, so we will give him a nod that he can be this year's Feliz. The Braves are a legit contender with a great rotation, so Kimbrel could have a 30-plus save debut.

2. LHP Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox (No. 217)

Yet another shot in the dark, with the hope Sale serves as the White Sox's closer coming into the season. The White Sox see their No. 1 pick from last June as a starter long term, but closing for the White Sox could make him a potential steal on draft day. He will only be a reliever if Jake Peavy (lat muscle surgery) proves healthy in spring training. And even then, the White Sox might prefer veteran lefty Matt Thornton as the closer. For now, consider Sale in the latter rounds for potentially huge rewards.

3. SS Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Minnesota Twins (No. 219)

The first position player on the list wasn't even picked in SI.com's initial mock draft. That was a head-to-head points league. Nishioka is going to be more of a rotisserie pick, because of his potential for 25-plus steals. He can slap his way to .300, a la Ichiro Suzuki, and prove as a useful middle-infield filler late if you miss out on the top options. The best part about this Japanese import is he is coming over in his prime at age 27. Bonus!

4. C J.P. Arencibia, Toronto Blue Jays (No. 233)

The Blue Jays toyed with us this winter, picking up Mike Napoli in a deal with the Angels, which figured to keep Arencibia in prospect purgatory. But Napoli was flipped to the Rangers, and Arencibia is back to being the Blue Jays' catcher of the present. There is legit pop in his bat and a solid first season could see him pop 20 homers. He is outside the top 12 catchers to target on draft day, so the bargain is certainly there if he can make good on promise.

5. LHP Jake McGee, Tampa Bay Rays (No. 300)

McGee is another one who's ranking here is a function of speculation. The Rays don't have a closer right now and they are shaping up to be a pretty good contender with a potent offense and strong rotation. There should be ample save opportunities for whomever steps forward. McGee, a Tommy John surgery survivor, has the best arm in the Rays' bullpen. He's another option as this year's Feliz if you miss out on Kimbrel.

6. RHP Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays

Hell-boy, as he has come to be known in fantasy circles, has had one great year in Triple-A and down the stretch with the Rays. The offseason trade of Matt Garza made his role a bit more certain going into camp. He will now be the No. 5 starter of choice instead of an option to close. Hellickson has the better upside long-term than McGee, but as a No. 5 starter, he has slightly less value than a potential closer on a contender. Case in point: Jaime Garcia was a great rookie pitcher for the Cardinals and fantasy owners last year, but he wasn't as valuable as Feliz for the most part. Hellickson would need to pitch impressively to outperform the veteran starters if he is going to get picked before them. In SI.com's initial mock draft, Hellickson was the first rookie off the board in Round 10. Kimbrel was the only other rookie to get picked before Round 19 in the 21-round draft. It was too early for Hellickson in that instance, but it says a lot about what at least one fantasy analyst thinks of him.

7. OF Domonic Brown, Philadelphia Phillies

Brown is a potential five-tool, five-category star, but he has a learning curve ahead of him. He wasn't quite ready for prime time down the stretch last year and he might only win his way into a platoon to start the season. If Kimbrel doesn't close for the Braves, though, Brown has to be the pick for NL Rookie of the Year. The Phillies allowed Jayson Werth to leave via free agency, so Brown has wide open opportunity and plenty of talent to make a great late-round pick. He was the third rookie off the board in the initial SI.com mock draft, behind only Hellickson and Kimbrel.

8. RHP Michael Pineda, Seattle Mariners

Pineda is one of the power arms of the minor leagues and a future No. 2 starter to King Felix Hernandez in Seattle. The question is whether he is truly ready to win a rotation spot for the rebuilding Mariners, and whether he can handle losing a bunch of games in his first season. Seattle has a great ballpark for young pitchers to grow confident in, though, and Pineda could lead all rookie starters in strikeouts if he makes the rotation out of spring training. As a rookie starter on a non-contender, you cannot count on him as anything more than a late-round pick.

9. LHP Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati Reds

If this list was just about raw talent, Chapman would easily be near the top, if not No. 1. But Chapman is stuck in the Pitch-22, the Catch-22 for pitchers: Good enough to start, but too valuable in relief. The Reds say he won't go back to the minors, but he is currently slated to set up games for closer Francisco Cordero for the Reds. He could become a closer midseason, though, so he definitely should be picked up in Rotisserie formats and in leagues that use true middle men.

10. RHP Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays

Drabek, the son for former Pirate Doug, has the Pineda curse working against him as a fantasy option. He is a back-end starter candidate on a team that doesn't project to contend. Even if Drabek pitches well beyond his years, er year, it would be tough for him to be anything more than a .500 pitcher on this Blue Jays team. Remember all the hype Matusz got last year only to suffer through some beatings in the AL Beast in the first half? Drabek is a future ace, but he is a late-round pick at best in a standard format. He wasn't even drafted in the initial SI.com mock.

11. 1B Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

The question isn't about Freeman's role, or his talent, is whether he can hit enough at the stud first base position to really make a dent as a rookie. Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez had great moments as rookie first basemen a year ago, but they were hardly options for mixed-league fantasy owners. Freeman could be in that same boat, although his on-base ability and strikeout-to-walk rate suggest he won't go through the extended slumps Davis and Sanchez had to endure. By the way, SI.com interviewed Freeman on the day of the mock draft and Freeman himself called the Phils' Brown his pick for NL ROY. We should assume he was just afraid to say himself.

12. LHP Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves

If you're a betting man, or woman, go with the Braves as the team that will boast the 2011 NL ROY. They have strength in numbers. If Kimbrel doesn't close or Freeman doesn't jack, Minor could be a big winner for them at the back end of their strong rotation. Minor showed some flashes down the stretch last year and should beat out fellow rookie Brandon Beachy and veteran import Kenshin Kawakami for the No. 5 starter's spot this spring. With the Braves a contender, Minor could be an instant winner for fantasy owners.

13. 2B Daniel Espinosa, Washington Nationals

Unlike most of those listed above, Espinosa won't grade out too highly on most prospect lists. But those lists are more about long-term potential. Espinosa has more of a ceiling, but he does have tools and a starting job to lose at second base in Washington. He could prove to be a surprise, so we will consider him worth targeting as a stopgap middle infielder over the far more talented likes of No. 14.

14. 2B Dustin Ackley, Seattle Mariners

Ackley was the No. 2 overall pick in the June '09 draft and he rose all the way to Triple-A last season despite some mediocre numbers by his lofty prospect expectations. Ackley is a future run-producing fantasy second baseman, so he will get a look to win the job in Seattle out of spring training. There were prospects of his caliber before him that had so-so minor-league numbers and were able to find it at the major-league level after being rushed, so don't let Ackley drop too far off your radar. He could rise up these charts with a strong spring.

15. 3B Brent Morel, Chicago White Sox, and Matt Dominguez, Marlins

It was tough to decide between these two potential opening-day, hot-corner infielders -- and going to 16 just didn't seem to make sense -- so here they are just listed together. Dominguez is getting rushed from Double-A, but the Marlins would prefer to start him in the majors this year to have him ready to go when their new park opens in '12. Morel will have to beat out Mark Teahen and Dayan Viciedo, but the White Sox said they prefer Morel's glove over both, so they might just let him play and not worry about the offensive numbers right away. Either of these guys could surprise this spring and for fantasy owners, or they could spend the entire season in Triple-A. They rank here because the former seems more possible, if not likely.

The list of rookies to target will be evolving as position battles are determined this spring, but the 15 (plus) have the best opportunities before them. Here are the remainder of the potential spring surprises that could rise up to earn jobs:

RHP Beachy, ATL; 1B Brandon Belt , SF; LH Zach Britton, BAL; OF Chris Carter, OAK; C Hank Conger , LAA; LHP Scott Elbert, LAD; RHP Kenley Jansen, LAD; OF Desmond Jennings, TB; RHP Cory Luebke, SD; RHP Jordan Lyle, HOU; RHP Lance Lynn, HOU; RHP Jenrry Mejia, NYM; 3B Mike Moustakas, KC; LHP Andrew Oliver, DET; RHP Jarrod Parker, ARI; RHP Mark Rogers, MIL; RHP Tyson Ross, OAK; RHP Zach Stewart, TOR.

Eric Mack writes bi-weekly for SI.com. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy. Hit him up. He honestly has nothing better to do with his free time.

 
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