MLB Prospects

Fantasy Baseball 2014: Ranking the Top 25 Prospects to Target for 2014

Jason CataniaMLB Lead WriterMarch 18, 2014

Fantasy Baseball 2014: Ranking the Top 25 Prospects to Target for 2014

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    Ready to make an immediate impact for the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka has looked good in his first major league spring training. But is he the No. 1 overall fantasy prospect for 2014?
    Ready to make an immediate impact for the Yankees, Masahiro Tanaka has looked good in his first major league spring training. But is he the No. 1 overall fantasy prospect for 2014?Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Before we embark on the endeavor of ranking the top 25 fantasy prospects to target for the 2014 season, let's get one thing straight up-front: This is based on potential and projected impact for the 2014 season—and the 2014 season alone.

    Oh, and before we forget, we better mention this list is all—and only—about 2014.

    Got all that? Now then, moving on.

    For many prospects who have either only just gotten their feet wet in the majors or who have yet to even dip their big toe in but at least have their swimming trunks on, their fantasy value for the upcoming season is as much about opportunity as it is about talent.

    In other words, no matter how talented a youngster is, he also has to be both developmentally ready and in a place on his club's depth chart to contribute in order to be among the best of the best for 2014. That's why, on the pages to follow, you'll find the top 25 fantasy prospects have ratings in both "talent" and "opportunity" (scale out of 10).

    As an example, take Byron Buxton. The consensus top prospect in baseball, he would earn a 10 in talent but merely a five in opportunity, since he's yet to play above A-ball and is unlikely to debut until August or September—and even that's only if everything goes just right for him. Hence, Buxton isn't on this list and didn't come all that close, frankly.

    What's more, to better represent the fantasy factor here, also included are the standard 5x5 categories that a prospect could be best expected to contribute in for this upcoming season. Plus, each player write-up comes complete with his potential 2014 fantasy peak role to help you better grasp how he might fit into your roster if it all clicks just so.

    It's also worth pointing out that to be eligible as a prospect for these purposes, a player must not have exceeded 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 30 appearances. (Service time, however, was not considered.) That means you will not see the likes of Christian Yelich, Khris Davis or Corey Dickerson among the hitters or Michael Wacha, Danny Salazar and Sonny Gray among the pitchers. They all played a little too much in 2013 to remain prospects in 2014.

    Now that everything is clear about how we compiled this ranking of the top 25 fantasy prospects to target for this season only—again, that's solely 2014—it's time to count 'em down.

     

    These rankings are based on 10- or 12-team mixed leagues with standard 5x5 rotisserie scoring for hitters (BA, R, HR, RBI, SB) and pitchers (W, ERA, WHIP, K, SV).

    To be eligible as a prospect, a player must not have exceeded 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched or 30 appearances. Service time was not considered. And to be eligible at a particular position, players either must have played at least 20 games there in 2013 or be in line to start there in 2014.

    For another prospect-related fantasy piece, here's a rundown of a batch of youngsters whose fantasy value is better or worse than their real-life value.

     

    Statistics come from Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

Honorable Mentions

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    After dominating at Double-A in 2013, Marcus Stroman is nearly ready to help plug a leaky Blue Jays rotation.
    After dominating at Double-A in 2013, Marcus Stroman is nearly ready to help plug a leaky Blue Jays rotation.Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Marcus Stroman, SP, Blue Jays (pictured)

    Alexander Guerrero, 2B, Dodgers

    Michael Choice, OF, Rangers

    Jake Odorizzi, SP, Rays

    Trevor Bauer, SP, Indians

    Wilmer Flores, 3B/SS, Mets

    Arismendy Alcantara, 2B/SS, Cubs

    Tommy La Stella, 2B, Braves

    Casey Kelly, SP, Padres

    Carlos Martinez, RP, Cardinals

Potential Second-Half Call-Ups

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    If the Orioles still have a second base problem by June, Jonathan Schoop could be the solution.
    If the Orioles still have a second base problem by June, Jonathan Schoop could be the solution.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Jonathan Schoop, 2B, Orioles (pictured)

    Kyle Zimmer, SP, Royals

    C.J. Cron, 1B, Angels

    Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers

    Rafael Montero, SP, Mets 

    Matt Wisler, SP, Padres

    Nick Kingham, SP, Pirates

    Alex Meyer, SP, Twins

    Andrew Heaney, SP, Marlins

    Maikel Franco, 1B/3B, Phillies

No. 25: Javier Baez, SS, Cubs

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Talent: 10

    Opportunity: 7

    2013 Highest Level: Double-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SS

    Admittedly, there may have been a minor amount of finagling bordering on forcing to fit Javier Baez into the top 25. He's yet to play above Double-A and might not make it to the majors until September at the earliest if he doesn't at least address his uber-aggressive approach at the plate.

    Then again, it's that very aggression, combined with wicked bat speed, that helped the 21-year-old mash 37 homers across two levels last year. He's already made a powerful impression in big league camp—even more so because incumbent shortstop Starlin Castro is battling a hamstring injury. If Baez, who is seeing some action at second base, too, continues to bash in the high minors, it's not out of the question that he could be the top waiver-wire claim in June.

No. 24: Jonathan Singleton, 1B, Astros

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    Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 8

    2013 Highest Level: Triple-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league CI

    Last year began with Jonathan Singleton on the doorstep of the majors, until the 22-year-old was suspended for a drug of abuse and then struggled mightily after his season started 50 games late.

    He started to right the ship with a strong winter-ball effort. There isn't much blocking his path to Houston, where he projects to be a solid middle-of-the-order bat with the potential for 20-plus homers and a robust OBPs—eventually. For now, Singleton just needs 2014 to start out a lot better than 2013 did.

No. 23: Josmil Pinto, C, Twins

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Talent: 7

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league C2

    His push through Double-A and Triple-A last year culminated in an impressive September cameo in Minnesota. For Josmil Pinto, the shame of it is that just as the Twins moved franchise cornerstone Joe Mauer out from behind the dish, they more or less decided that over-the-hill veteran Kurt Suzuki is going to be the new starter. For now.

    Pinto, 24, could crack the 25-man roster as the backup, though. As long as he can show his defense is up to par, he has the bat to make some noise in deeper mixed leagues as what could be an ideal second catcher in formats that require two. It may not be long before the club's catcher of the future becomes the catcher of the present.

No. 22: Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, SB  

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league OF5

    A year after proving to be the breakout prospect of spring training 2013, Jackie Bradley Jr. is having a much tougher go of it this time around. Not only does the 23-year-old have just six hits in his first 33 at-bats (.182), he's also facing the increasingly real possibility of being beaten out for the center field job by former-fantasy-first-rounder-turned-DL-mainstay Grady Sizemore.

    Even if that happens, the chances are simply nonexistent that Sizemore could make it through the season without hitting the DL or at least needing a caddy to help keep him healthy. Because his skill set is built primarily around defense and a discerning approach at the plate, Bradley's fantasy numbers won't be loud, but he could make enough contributions to matter in many leagues, regardless of Sizemore's (likely temporary) presence.

No. 21: Jameson Taillon, SP, Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Talent: 9

    Opportunity: 8

    2013 Highest Level: Triple-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: ERA, WHIP

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP5

    In reaching Triple-A for the final six starts of his third full pro season, Jameson Taillon put himself on the verge of his big league debut. The 22-year-old's numbers were more good than great (3.73 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 8.7 K/9), but the second overall pick in the 2010 draft (behind that Harper guy) only needs another half-season or so.

    That works out well, because as a top young talent in a small-market organization, the tall right-hander might be held back until the Super Two deadline passes—likely some time in June. Once he gets the call, he'll be a useful streaming option at the least in most leagues.

No. 20: Travis D'Arnaud, C, Mets

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    Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league C2

    Travis d'Arnaud's biggest problem always has been his health, with the 25-year-old having reached the 450-plate appearance plateau only twice, in 2009 and 2011. Last year, after becoming the Mets' catcher of the future as part of the R.A. Dickey deal, d'Arnaud lost a few months to a fractured bone in his left foot after taking a foul ball off the foot while catching.

    Despite his initial look with the Mets going poorly (.202/.286/.263 in 99 ABs), d'Arnaud can hit, which is what fantasy owners in two-catcher leagues like to hear. Of course, the "when healthy" caveat applies here, so don't expect to be able to rely on d'Arnaud as anything more than a C2 more than likely.

No. 19: Noah Syndergaard, SP, Mets

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Talent: 9

    Opportunity: 7

    2013 Highest Level: Double-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: ERA, WHIP, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP5

    Even at 21 and with but 11 starts above A-ball, a case could be made that Noah Syndergaard is already one of the Mets' top five starting pitchers. The club, though, is expected to take a conservative route with the towering, hard-throwing right-hander, who is likely to debut midseason and have his innings capped on the back end.

    Still, it's easy to see how Syndergaard's stuff and results—3.06 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 10.2 K/9 at High-A and Double-A last year—could translate to immediate fantasy success for two or three months this summer. You'll want him when he's up, but you'll need to add him before that happens.

No. 18: James Paxton, SP, Mariners

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Talent: 7

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: ERA, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP5

    You're excused if you didn't catch James Paxton's first taste of the big leagues at the very end of last season. After all, he made only four starts over the final three weeks of September. But they were four none-too-shabby outings, as the 25-year-old fell an inning shy in his third outing of going four-for-four in quality starts against four really good teams in the Rays, Cardinals, Tigers and Royals.

    Paxton has some blowup potential because his control isn't always on, but he might also pile up strikeouts when he's efficient enough to pitch deep into games. With injuries opening the door for him in Seattle, the big southpaw will have an opportunity to show his late-season roll can be carried over into 2014. Until he proves himself a bit more, though, mixed-league owners should consider Paxton a streaming option with upside.

No. 17: Marcus Semien, 2B/3B, White Sox

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Talent: 7

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, SB 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league MI

    Last year, Marcus Semien did his best to go from likely career utility man to possible starter at either second or third base. In splitting his time in the minors between Double-A and Triple-A, the 23-year-old hit a solid .284 but sported an OBP that began with a "4" (.401) by walking more times (98) than he struck out (90).

    That's all well and good for real life, but Semien showed he can be a fantasy helper, too, by scoring 110 runs, hitting 19 homers and swiping 24 bases—all while playing second, short and third. Gordon Beckham is about the only thing standing in Semien's way, and he's both underwhelming and injured (again), so expect Semien to try to seize that gig at the outset of the regular season. Even better, because of his versatility, he should gain eligibility at two or perhaps even three infield spots, which would up his fantasy value all the more, especially in deeper leagues.

No. 16: Kevin Gausman, SP, Orioles

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Talent: 9

    Opportunity: 8

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: ERA, WHIP, K, SV

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP3

    If Kevin Gausman was guaranteed an Opening Day role as a starter with his club—as many of those ahead of him in the rankings are—then he would bump up this list quite a few spots. Alas, the 23-year-old with the mid-90s heat and put-away changeup is likely to begin the year in the high minors in the wake of the Orioles' inking of Ubaldo Jimenez.

    That might not be such a bad thing, though, as Gausman did struggle in his first shot in a big league rotation (7.66 ERA, 1.62 WHIP in five starts). In fairness, that came less than a year after he was drafted No. 4 overall in 2012, and Gausman proceeded to dominate once switched to a relief role (3.52 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 11.3 K/9).

    The O's want—and need—him to develop as the front-of-the-rotation arm that he can be, though, which is why another dozen starts in the minors is to be expected. At that point, Gausman could come back up and fill whatever job Baltimore needs, be it a starter or even a possible ninth-inning solution if Tommy Hunter and Darren O'Day can't hold that down. Whether as an SP or an RP, Gausman will be worth owning for his upside.

No. 15: Erik Johnson, SP, White Sox

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: W, ERA, WHIP

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP5

    Erik Johnson's potential might not be quite at Kevin Gausman's level, but the big right-hander has the body and stuff to be a durable, innings-eater type and then some—all with an Opening Day rotation spot pretty much sewn up.

    The 24-year-old beat up the competition at both Double-A (2.23 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 7.9 K/9) and Triple-A (1.57, 1.08, 8.9) before making five mostly solid starts on the South Side. Mixed leaguers should give Johnson a chance to make his way into their rotation, even as a streamer, but AL-only owners can grab him on draft and/or auction day and plug him into one of their final SP spots with the expectation that he'll help more than hurt.

No. 14: Matt Davidson, 3B, White Sox

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Talent: 7

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league CI

    Matt Davidson, 22, might be fighting a losing battle with Conor Gillaspie to begin 2014 as the White Sox's starting third baseman, as Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times writes, but that's bound to be only temporary. For his 20- to 25-homer power, Davidson profiles better at the hot corner than does Gillaspie. While fantasy owners would prefer the former gets in 500-plus plate appearances, his batting average might benefit some from sitting against tough right-handers while he breaks in as a rookie.

    Prior to coming over to Chicago from the Diamondbacks in exchange for Addison Reed, Davidson had hit at least 20 home runs each of his last three seasons, with the final three four-baggers in 2013 coming in Arizona. Owners in need of cheap pop should keep tabs on Davidson's situation and playing time early on.

No. 13: Kolten Wong, 2B, Cardinals

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, SB 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league MI

    At 23 and coming off a brief, 33-AB big league trial after a very nice performance at Triple-A in which he hit. 303 with 10 homers and 20 steals, Kolten Wong is ready for a little more action entering 2014.

    The 2011 first-rounder is having himself a good spring—13-for-33 for a .394 average, along with six extra-base hits, including a pair of round-trippers—and is all set to see the lion's share of the platoon with veteran keystoner Mark Ellis, who hits from the right side. The Cardinals know how to break in young talent (see: Wacha, Michael; Carpenter, Matt; Adams, Matt), and Wong is just the next one in the assembly line.

No. 12: Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, SB

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SS

    If Chris Owings can beat out incumbent Didi Gregorius as the Diamondbacks' starting shortstop, he should be able to earn this fringe top-10 ranking. While Gregorius is the superior defender, Owings can hold his own with the leather—and is much, much better with the lumber.

    In his first opportunity at the minors' highest level, the 22-year-old earned the MVP of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2013, hitting .330 with 12 home runs and 20 stolen bases. Owings won't be that good in the majors, of course, but he could hit and run his way to double digits in homers and steals, which would make him a potential starter at one of fantasy's shallowest spots.

No. 11: Oscar Taveras, OF, Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Talent: 10

    Opportunity: 8

    2013 Highest Level: Triple-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league OF3

    The only thing that has gotten in the way of Oscar Taveras' otherwise meteoric rise to the majors? Injuries. Last year, the 21-year-old managed to make it into only 46 games in the minors due to a right ankle injury that eventually required surgery. He seemed tentative at times this spring while trusting the repairs and was also bothered by a tight hamstring in the same leg, as Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported.

    Alas, Taveras was sent down to minor league camp late last week, so he's not coming north with the big league team. That wasn't necessarily to be expected, though, after a lost 2013. Still, a healthy Taveras has shown thunder in his bat, with a career slash line of .320/.377/.518. A couple healthy months in the minors will allow Taveras to get his legs under him, at which point he just might force his way into a deep and talented Cardinals lineup before the All-Star break. If that happens, he could do something similar to what Wil Myers did last season.

No. 10: Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Talent: 9

    Opportunity: 8

    2013 Highest Level: Triple-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, SB

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league OF3

    Gregory Polanco was sent down to Triple-A last Friday, as Tom Singer of MLB.com noted, but it's hard not to see him as one of the Pirates' 25 best players at this point. Especially considering the team's current right-field situation, where the duo of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider have some sort of unproductive platoon going on.

    The 22-year-old, who has averaged 14 home runs and 39 steals over his past two seasons in the minors, could use some time at Triple-A to marinate a bit more (he's played only two games there so far) but come late May or early June, Polanco should be ready to provide a lift for the Pirates—and fantasy owners everywhere.

No. 9: Taijuan Walker, SP, Mariners

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Talent: 9

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: W, ERA, WHIP, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP3

    Were it not for a bout of right-shoulder soreness this spring, Taijuan Walker would be closer to the top five here. As is, the 21-year-old is feeling better and told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times the following after a 40-pitch bullpen session on Sunday: "It went great. I'm very happy. My arm felt great. It was really coming out good."

    Given that Walker is behind schedule and spring training is nearing an end, he's unlikely to crack the five-man at the outset, as had been expected when camp opened. Still, provided he doesn't suffer any further setbacks, Walker—who had an impressive September call-up after owning minor league hitters in 2013 to the tune of a 2.93 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.2 K/9—still will have the stuff and opportunity to make a major impact on the fantasy landscape this year.

No. 8: Yordano Ventura, SP, Royals

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: W, ERA, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP3

    It's time to get excited, fantasy owners. After yet another dominant outing in a spring full of them, Yordano Ventura was officially named a member of the Royals' starting rotation, according to Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star. Through four games, the 22-year-old fireballer has pitched 15 frames and allowed only 10 hits and three runs while sporting an excellent 15-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    Bound to be called "Ace," Ventura showed what he could do in three solid starts with K.C. last September, which was the culmination of a campaign in which he posted a 3.14 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.4 K/9 at Double-A and Triple-A.

    The two biggest challenges Ventura will face—and the reasons he's not higher on this list—are his ability to sustain his stuff every five days for 170-180 innings at the big league level and his control, which can come and go at times. Otherwise, though, there's no reason not to snatch up Ventura with one of your final handful of picks and enjoy the upside ride.

     

No. 7: Archie Bradley, SP, Diamondbacks

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Talent: 10

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Double-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: W, ERA, WHIP, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP2

    Sunday's news of the torn ulnar collateral ligament in Patrick Corbin's left elbow, per John Schlegel of MLB.com, means the left-hander who was slated to start Opening Day for the Diamondbacks may very well miss all of 2014. While that's terrible for Arizona—not to mention fantasy owners who drafted Corbin already—there is hope in the form of Archie Bradley.

    The consensus top arm still in the minors, Bradley is a sturdy 21-year-old who used his big fastball and nasty curve to notch a 1.84 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 9.6 K/9 while pitching at High-A and, primarily, Double-A last season. While the calendar year of 2014 began with the possibility that Bradley could earn a rotation job out of camp, that seemed to evaporate once veteran Bronson Arroyo signed with the D-backs in February.

    Alas, Corbin's injury—not to mention the fact that Arroyo hasn't been all that healthy this month—opens the door back up for Bradley to bust through at some point in the near future. When that happens, he should be considered a front-runner for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

No. 6: George Springer, OF, Astros

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 9

    2013 Highest Level: Triple-A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: R, HR, RBI, SB 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league OF2

    Following a campaign in the high minors in which he smashed 37 homers and and stole 45 bases, George Springer possesses one of the fantasy-friendiest skill sets among all 2014 rookies. With his ability to hit balls over walls on a regular basis and get on base and then steal them, the 24-year-old former first-rounder could tickle a 20-20 season in his first go-round the bigs.

    Springer's stats will be subdued some by his surrounding lineup and scary strikeout rate (26.5 percent career), which will keep his batting average down. And despite being ready to roll, it seems more than likely that he'll start the season back at Triple-A while the Astros delay his service-time clock. Regardless, he's worth drafting in deep mixed leagues right now, and if he falls through the cracks, you'll want to pluck him from free agency sooner than later.

No. 5: Nick Castellanos, 3B, Tigers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, RBI

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league 3B

    Spring training stats don't mean much, but nonetheless, Nick Castellanos' numbers—17-for-41 (.415) with six doubles, two homers and 16 RBI in 13 games—are both hard to ignore and a good sign going forward as he's about to embark on 2014 as the Tigers' Opening Day third baseman.

    The 2010 first-round pick, who just turned 22 this month, proved he can handle just such an aggressive assignment as the one he's facing this year by ranking among the Triple-A International League leaders in all sorts of offensive categories last season as a 21-year-old.

    Getting to hit in a potent Tigers lineup from the get-go should help Castellanos post a good batting average, as well as compile plenty of runs and RBI to keep his owners happy. He might not possess the power of a prototypical third baseman just yet, especially by fantasy standards, but it's a safe bet most will find a way to use him as a 3B, CI or even OF4 (if the converted outfielder is eligible as such in your league).

     

No. 4: Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: R, SB 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league OF3

    A poor spring training a year ago got Billy Hamilton started off on the wrong foot in what proved to be a disappointing 2013. After all, while playing at Triple-A, the guy managed only 75 steals. Psssssh.

    In all seriousness, Hamilton—who set the single-season record with a staggering 155 swipes in 2012—wasn't very good last season, as his .308 OBP and .343 SLG show. Of course, even with those digits, the 23-year-old also proved he can pretty much do what he wants on the basepaths, including going 13-for-14 on attempts in only 13 games with the Reds in September.

    This spring, Hamilton has been noticeably better, going 10-for-33 (.303) with six walks against only four whiffs for a .410 OBP. He's also pilfered nine bases already—tied for the most with fellow speedster Dee Gordon. Obviously, 12 spring training games is both a super small sample and one that's not exactly the proper representation of what Hamilton will be facing next month. Questions, then, do—and will—remain about whether he can handle hitting leadoff for a playoff contender. For fantasy purposes, however, Hamilton could more or less fail in real life and still succeed in helping his owners steal the SB category.

No. 3: Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Talent: 10

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: Majors

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, HR, RBI

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SS

    Xander Bogaerts ranks third only because he's behind a pair of players with years of professional baseball under their belts and, as such, are only really rookies by the technical definition of the term. And even still, it wouldn't be crazy to see a scenario play out where this precocious 21-year-old phenom could top this year's class of first-year fantasy talent.

    Bogaerts, after all, plays perhaps the most premium, hard-to-fill fantasy position around—shortstop—and will get to hit at cozy Fenway Park and amid a Red Sox lineup that wrecked the league in 2013. Thanks to his incredible approach, Bogaerts' is the sort of profile where the minor league numbers—a .297 average with 72 runs, 15 homers and 67 RBI at Double-A and Triple-A in 2013—actually might get better at the major league level. If that does, in fact, happen, this ranking could very well be regrettably low.

No. 2: Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Talent: 8

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: N/A

    Fantasy Category Contributions: BA, R, HR, RBI 

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league 1B

    Of all the top 25 prospects here, Jose Abreu is the only one whose wild-card factor can come close to matching that of Billy Hamilton. In his day, the hulking 27-year-old slugger put up statistics in Cuba's top pro league, the Serie Nacional, that were some kind of otherworldly. (Seriously, you should educate—and amaze—yourself by reading up here.)

    And yet there are more than a few who question how well Abreu's overall game, especially his bat speed, will translate to the best competition the world has to offer. Honestly, it wouldn't be surprising if Abreu hits 30-plus homers and approaches 100 RBI in his first year...but it also wouldn't be a shock if he's a candidate to be sent to the minors for some extra seasoning by May or June, either. Because his cost of acquisition isn't crazy high in fantasy, owners should gamble on the former but be prepared for the latter, just in case.

No. 1: Masahiro Tanaka, SP, Yankees

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    Talent: 10

    Opportunity: 10

    2013 Highest Level: NPB

    Fantasy Category Contributions: W, ERA, WHIP, K

    Potential 2014 Fantasy Peak: Mixed league SP2

    Here's the $155 million question: Following a season in which he led his Nippon Professional team, the Rakuten Golden Eagles, to their first-ever Japan Series title while going 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, what will 25-year-old Masahiro Tanaka do in the major leagues?

    Maybe it's a matter of getting too caught up in those numbers or listening to too many glowing reports about his impressive repertoire—including a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a drop-off-the-table splitter—but there seems to be a very real chance that Tanaka could be a third starter for fantasy purposes (roughly a top-30 arm overall) with the potential to be a legitimate SP2, if it all works out.

    That's not to say there aren't doubts and concerns about how he'll adjust to a whole lot of "new's" this year—new ball, new pitching schedule, new ballparks, new team and new country. But for this list of first-year players who are by their very definition unproven and inexperienced, Tanaka is, relatively speaking, the right mix of ready, safe and top-of-the-scale potential. For that, he has to come in at No. 1.

     

    To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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