1. Domonic Brown - RF - Philadelphia Phillies
Brown managed an OPS above 920 and a batting average above .300 at each of the three highest minor-league levels. He's a five-tool talent. He's got a decent eye and a low strikeout rate. Best of all, for fantasy owners, he'll open the season with a starting position, hitting amidst a thunderous lineup, in a power-friendly ballpark. If there is a 2011 version of Jason Heyward, he's it.
2. Jeremy Hellickson - SP - Tampa Bay Rays
One of the biggest upshots of the Matt Garza deal was that it made room in Tampa's rotation for Hellickson. He will be the most expensive rookie in most fantasy auctions because he had a very impressive and well-publicized debut in August of last year, when he won three consecutive starts while filling in for Jeff Niemann. Be forewarned, however, even premier starting pitching prospects like David Price and Tommy Hanson, have experienced growing pains in their first full seasons. Hellickson's maturation process is further complicated by the fact that he has to pitch in the loaded AL East. I like Hellickson as much as anybody, but I probably won't own him in many leagues this year, because the price is too high.
3. Brandon Allen - 1B - Arizona D-Backs
I don't know if he's technically a rookie, since he's gotten an extended cup of coffee in each of the last two seasons, but this will be Allen's first full year in the big leagues. Coming out of the D-Backs system, he's something of an under-the-radar talent, but he's got everything one looks for in a fantasy first-baseman: awesome power (.541 SLG @ AAA), very good eye (83 BB/95 K in 2010), and even a little bit of speed (14 SB in '10). His average probably won't be great (although he did hit .298 in '09), but Arizona's park certainly plays to his strengths and he's got to be the odds-on favorite to replace Mark Reynolds as Justin Upton's protection.
4. J. P. Arencibia - C - Toronto Blue Jays
While your fellow owners are scrambling for Jesus Montero, who could very well spend the entirety of 2011 at AAA, do yourself a favor and grab Arencibia instead. Montero is probably the better prospect long-term, but Arencibia had much better numbers at AAA last season (986 OPS, 32 HR, .301 AVG) and, most importantly, he'll open the season as the Blue Jays primary backstop. Arencibia's can hit homers (averaged 27 HR per season in the minors), and, as Jose Bautista & Co. proved in 2010, Toronto is a very good place to be a power-hitter.
5. Tsuyoshi Nishioka - 2B/SS - Minnesota Twins
It's extremely hard to predict how Japanese players will perform in the MLB. For every Ichiro, Dice-K, or Godzilla, there is a Kaz Matsui, Kosuke Fukudome, or Hideki Irabu. What we do know about Nishioka is that the Twins, by trading away J. J. Hardy and allowing Orlando Hudson to walk, have committed to playing him in their middle infield. There's also a fair chance he'll start the season hitting in front of Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. That's a favorable situation. In Japan, he showed good discipline, decent speed, and power...for his position. And that's the key. Middle infield talent doesn't come into the league very often, so it's worth grabbing a 26-year-old with significant upside, even if his overall numbers won't necessarily compare to some of the guys I rank below him.
6. Freddie Freeman - 1B - Atlanta Braves
Freeman probably doesn't have as much long-term upside as many of the prospects ranked below him, but what he does have in 2011 is a starting job, as the Braves elected not to pursue any free agent first-basemen. Freeman's '10 numbers at AAA - .319 AVG, 898 OPS, 18 HR, 87 RBI - justify that decision, but don't necessarily scream "Rookie of the Year." He plays a position with many preferable veteran options, so don't overpay, but 2010 Gaby Sanchez is probably a reasonable comparison. His big advantage, like Sanchez, is that he doesn't have the name recognition of Hellickson, Brown, or Jennings, so he'll probably still be available in the final rounds of your draft, at which point he's got a very commendable risk-to-reward ratio.
7. Desmond Jennings - LF - Tampa Bay Rays
Jennings has a hard act to follow, as he replaces arguably the best outfielder in all of baseball. He's also not completely absent of competition, as there a plenty of good young players trying to earn roster spots in Tampa. Don't be surprised if the Rays elect to give Jennings a couple more "Super Two" months in AAA. He didn't exactly light it up in 2010 (.278 AVG, 756 OPS). That said, I think Jennings has a great future and with a career .384 OBP and 84% success rate, he promises to be an excellent source of runs and steals as soon as he enters the league. Don't mistake him for a five-tool player, however. He's got great speed, a great batter's eye, and plays good defense, but as yet he hasn't developed much power (.415 SLG @ AAA) and has been prone to occasional slumps, especially when starting new levels.
8. Lorenzo Cain - CF - Kansas City Royals
With guys like Melky Cabrera and Mitch Maier hanging around, there's no guarantee Cain will be Kansas City's Opening Day centerfielder. However, it's a pretty safe bet he'll be holding down that position be midseason. Cain looked very good in a brief stint with the Brewers at the end of 2010 and was made one of the key pieces in the Zack Greinke deal. He's got the tools to be an excellent leadoff hitter (.317 AVG, .402 OBP, 9 3B, 26 SB in 84 games between AA and AAA in '10).
9. Mike Moustakas - 3B - Kansas City Royals
Like Cain, the only thing stopping Moustakas from breaking camp with the Royals is the "Super Two" rule. He'll be one of the first players promoted in June and will likely hit in the middle of the Royals order soon thereafter. He could very well be a Rookie of the Year candidate, even with the late start, just as Buster Posey was last year. Is he the next Ryan Braun? Maybe...but probably not.
10. Chris Sale - RP - Chicago White Sox
Sale sailed through the minors (that's the second time I've made that joke this week, tee hee). He'll be fighting for the closer role in Chicago during Spring Training. I think he gets it. High-upside rookie closers win fantasy leagues (see Feliz, Neftali).
11. Dayan Viciedo - 3B - Chicago White Sox
Nobody seemed to notice that 21-year-old Dayan Viciedo bashed 20 HR in half a season at AAA than joined the major-league club for about six weeks and hit .308 with an 840 OPS. Like his close friend, Alexei Ramirez, Viciedo is going to struggle with his plate discipline (.313 OBP in the minors), but he's a power stud at a very young age, and at this moment looks like the probable starter at third base in Chicago (he'll have competition from another rookie, Brent Morel). I don't imagine he'll contend for Rookie of the Year, but he could play well enough to stick in the majors. Third base is currently one of the shallowest positions in fantasy baseball, so you could do worse than snagging a kid who'll get you 20+ HR at the very end of your deep-league draft.
12. Dustin Ackley - 2B - Seattle Mariners
At this point, it appears the Mariners are heading into 2011 expecting the #2 pick in the '09 draft to be their Opening Day second-baseman. There is nothing about his 2010 campaign that suggests he will be a productive player immediately. He showed no power (7 HR, .410 SLG), only moderate speed (10 SB), and hit a modest .267. He did show excellent discipline (75 BB/79 K, .368 OBP) which bodes well for his long-term prospects, but with Seattle's poorly offense and tough ballpark, I just can't see Ackley having a stellar rookie campaign. That said, as I pointed out earlier, high-upside middle-infielders are a rare breed indeed, so Ackley should be owned in keeper leagues and deep leagues, and everybody should pay careful attention to how he does this spring.
13. Leslie Anderson - 1B - Tampa Bay Rays
As a 28-year-old Cuban defector, Anderson has snuck in under-the-radar of most prospect analysts. Sure, he's old for a rookie, but that's not exactly his fault. He moved quickly through the Rays system in 2010, accumulating solid numbers at each level. He doesn't have prototypical first-base power, but he'll hit for a high average. Most importantly, at this point it looks like he has the inside track to replace Carlos Pena. The Rays will probably bill it as an open competition between him and Dan Johnson this spring, but after failing to top the Mendoza line when the Rays handed him a starting job at the end of last season, Johnson's got to be running out of chances.
14. Craig Kimbrel - RP - Atlanta Braves
I think Jonny Venters will get the first crack at the closer's job in Atlanta, but many people think it will go to Kimbrel and there's no denying he's got the talent for it. In deep leagues, even if he isn't pitching in the ninth, he'll be well worth owning just for his ability to rack up strikeouts at an alarming rate and make solid contributions to your ERA and WHIP.
15. Mike Minor - SP - Atlanta Braves
Atlanta is the place to go for rookie strikeout artists. Mike Minor will probably struggle a bit with his control, but he's got an outstanding strikeout rate for a starting pitcher (10.9 K/9 in 2010). Right now he's the odds-on favorite to slot in the back of Atlanta's strong rotation. He got some experience down the stretch last year, so the majors won't be a total shock. Could be a decent sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.
16. Jenrry Mejia - SP - New York Mets
Mejia looked pretty good as a reliever early in 2010, so the Mets sent him back to the minors to convert him into a starter. The 21-year-old responded by posting a 1.28 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP with 45 K in 42 innings across three different levels. He'll be back in New York to begin 2011, slotted into the back end of the Mets rotation. It's a notoriously good place to pitch, so even if there are some growing pains, Mejia could end up with solid fantasy numbers.
17. Mark Rogers - SP - Milwaukee Brewers
The #5 pick in the '04 draft, Rogers moved slower through the system than the Brewers might have liked, due to a surgery that cost him more than two full seasons. But in the last two years, Rogers has made significant strides. He'll enter the spring with an opportunity to battle Manny Parra and Chris Narveson for the last spot in the rotation. The Brewers are "going for it" in 2011, so service time consideration should be ignored if Rogers proves himself ready to contribute to that goal.
18. Jake McGee - SP - Tampa Bay Rays
He may have to wait until midseason, but at some point this year McGee will get his opportunity to contribute at the major league level, either as a starter or possibly as the Rays closer. Watch carefully how he performs in Spring Training. He's a sleeper candidate to start the year at the back of the bullpen.
19. Aroldis Chapman - RP - Cincinnati Reds
I'd like to rank him much, much higher, because there's no denying his talent warrants it, but with a dearth of solid starting pitching on the Reds and a top-flight closer in their bullpen, there's little reason to predict Chapman will evolve beyond his set-up man role in 2011. Even so, I'd expect he'll scavenge his share of wins and saves, as well as pile up a whole bunch of strikeouts, so you could do a lot worse in this rookie crop.
20. Jesus Montero - C - New York Yankees
Unfortunately, Montero's fantasy impact is entirely dictated by the fate's of Russell Martin and Jorge Posada. If the veterans stay healthy and play even moderately well, Montero will probably linger in the minors for another season. However, if he does get an opportunity, there's a strong chance he'll hit the ground running and catchers with his kind of impact bat are, as Buster Posey proved this past year, game-changers, both for their real and their fantasy franchises.
21. Kyle Drabek - SP - Toronto Blue Jays
When the Jays tell you that Drabek is in competition to make the rotation straight out of Spring Training, don't listen to them. Drabek's ETA is June 15th, at best, because there is no reason for the Jays to start his service clock any earlier than that. They've got a stable of other interesting starting pitchers and they will want to get the most they possibly can out of the major fruit of the Doc Halladay trade. Drabek did do everything he was supposed to in 2010. He pitched lights out at AA (14-9, 2.94 ERA, 1.20 WHIP). He'll be in Toronto soon enough, but the AL East can be cruel to rookie pitchers, no matter how talented they are.
22. Martin Perez - SP - Texas Rangers
Perez is probably the most anticipated pitching prospect in baseball. However, like Montero, he is not assured a spot on the major-league roster in 2011. Even without Cliff Lee, the Rangers have a nice stable of arms, many of whom are much further along in the development process than Perez, who is just 19-years-old and didn't exactly light up AA (5.96 ERA, 1.68 WHIP). There's still a strong likelihood he'll be in Arlington by October, but the Rangers have a history of introducing their young arms as relievers (Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman, etc.), so Perez's immediate future could be in middle relief, where he has little fantasy value.
23. Tim Collins - RP - Kansas City Royals
Collins is definitely the best thing to come out of the Rick Ankiel experiment for Kansas City. He won't make many lists of the top 25 prospects in the country, because he's a reliever, but maybe he should. His minor-league stats are a little obscene. Last season, between AA and AAA, he struck out 108 batters in 71 innings. His overall ERA was 2.02. A 21-year-old who already has 223 innings of professional relief under his belt, he's got a career 2.26 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 13.3 K/9. Collins won't start the season in Kansas City, but I bet he ends it as the Royals closer. The Zack Greinke trade confirmed that Kansas City has committed to at least two and probably three more years of rebuilding. One would presume that means Joakim Soria will be available at the trade deadline, if not before, as K.C. attempts to further its stockpile of prospects. Collins is Soria's heir apparent and could be good for double-digit saves given a couple months in the role.
24. Michael Pineda - SP - Seattle Mariners
After a very busy offseason in 2010, the Mariners have been more or less silent in 2011. Unless they make a flurry of moves between now and Opening Day, it seems likely that Pineda, like Dustin Ackley, will make the major-league roster, probably even the rotation. I'm not sure he's "ready," given his 4.76 ERA in a dozen starts at AAA, but opportunity is as important to fantasy relevance as talent. His ballpark works to his advantage, as does his division, so Pineda could manage respectable stats even as a work in progress.
25. Yunesky Maya - SP - Washington Nationals
The Cuban defector's numbers were not great in five starts at the tail end of last year, but Maya's got the inside track to be in the Nats rotation and there's no denying he's got stuff.
Other Rookies/Prospects Worth Following:
Yonder Alonso - 1B - Cincinnati Reds
Chris Carter - 1B - Oakland Athletics
Brandon Belt - 1B/OF - San Francisco Giants
Fernando Martinez - OF - New York Mets
Jason Kipnis - 2B - Cleveland Indians