Over the years, I've learned that no matter what we say about baseball prospects, many readers will accuse us of producing excessive hype, misleading sales propaganda, irrational enthusiasm. Even when we offer a relatively pessimistic spin about a young player, this still happens. Where prospects are concerned, we basically can't win. We're going to spend a fair amount of time discussing MLB call-ups this season — hopefully in a measured, responsible way — and plenty of blog commenters are going to hammer us for it. This is the way of things.
Before we give you a list of bolded prospect names for 2011, here are a few things you'll need to know, so as to use the list responsibly:
• Last year was unusual. In a normal season, you just won't see so many 20-year-old players — think Heyward, Stanton, Castro — excel in their rookie campaigns. The learning curve is typically more difficult. Don't assume that there's going to be a "this year's Jason Heyward(notes)." If a player can merely tread water in the big leagues in his age-20 season, that's a significant achievement.
• Elite prospects are always great trade chips; they do not always have fantasy utility. Even the can't-miss guys will, in fact, occasionally miss. It's not uncommon for a prospect's fantasy trade value to peak before he makes his first plate appearance in the majors.
• Major league teams are going to act in their own financial best interests, not in the best interests of your imaginary team. MLB franchises routinely decide that the right time to raid a minor league roster is late-May or early-June, even if spring numbers tell a different story.
• Generally speaking, prospects have more value in head-to-head formats. In a competitive roto league — where April stats mean just as much as September stats — it's tough to hold multiple minor leaguers on your roster for 8-10 weeks, waiting, hoping. But in head-to-head, the final month of the season is when championships are decided. There, it's not such a bad idea to stash high-ceiling rookies and/or injured vets.
• Don't be the guy who drafts six minor leaguers and expects to dominate. There's always an owner like this, even in non-dynasty formats. For some managers, draft day is simply a time to demonstrate a familiarity with prospect rankings, no matter how much damage such a demonstration can cause to a fantasy roster. In most leagues, you'd be better off ignoring all prospects than drafting several. It's tough for any first-year player to achieve fantasy relevance. (Heyward, for example, didn't finish among the top-35 outfielders in Yahoo! rank last season, despite generating plenty of excitement).
OK, those are my warnings. Feel free to heed them, ignore them, mock them in comments. Do whatever feels right, gamer.
Below you'll find the names of several prospects to know for the fake season ahead. When the Yahoo! Sports Fantasy Baseball 2011 Draft Guide finally hits the shelves, you'll find a much deeper list (40-plus players). This is just a tease, a small pile of unranked names. Dig in…
JP Arencibia(notes), C, Toronto Blue Jays - Many of you no doubt recall Arencibia's ridiculous 2010 debut, when he went 4-for-5 with a pair of homers. Unfortunately for those who added him, he managed only one hit in his next 30 at-bats for the Jays. Arencibia appears to be the early favorite for the catching gig in Toronto; there's plenty of power potential here (32 HR, .626 SLG at Triple-A last season).Dustin Ackley(notes), 2B, Seattle Mariners - This was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft, and Rivals has ranked him as the best collegiate hitter of the past decade. So yeah, the ceiling here is pretty high. Ackley dominated the Arizona Fall League, leading all players in batting average (.424), OBP (.581), slugging (.758) and runs scored (28). He won't necessarily open the year in the M's lineup, but he'll make his way to Seattle by mid-season.
Brandon Belt(notes), 1B, San Francisco Giants - Belt spent time at three minor league levels last season, and impressed at every stop (combined 23 HR, 22 SB, 1.075 OPS). He could reportedly force his way into the big league conversation this spring, though that's probably just hot stove propaganda from the team's GM. Still, this is a left-handed slugger worth watching.
Zach Britton(notes), SP, Baltimore Orioles - A nice prospect, but to be perfectly honest, um … he's only listed in this piece because I don't want to hear any complaints from this one dude who loves the O's and does a lot of emailing. The fact is, when Britton makes it to the majors, he'll pitch in a rough division for a last-place team. This lefty's numbers were excellent across two levels last season (2.70 ERA, 1.24 WHIP), but the strikeout-rate is less than ideal for fantasy purposes (7.3 K/9).
Domonic Brown(notes), OF, Philadelphia Phillies - We've already had the call-up fire drill on Brown (pictured above), so you should be familiar with him by now. He's a five-category talent who delivered a .980 OPS in the high minors last season, belting 20 homers and stealing 17 bases. Like nearly everyone else on this list, he's not guaranteed a starting spot in the bigs to begin the season. He'll nonetheless get drafted in many mixed leagues.
Danny Espinosa(notes), 2B/SS, Washington Nationals - Is he a poor man's Ian Desmond(notes), or is he simply an Ian Desmond clone? Dunno. But he's a middle infielder with respectable power and speed (22/25 in the minors last year), and little hope of delivering a useful average (.268 in 2010, 116 Ks).
Freddie Freeman(notes), 1B, Atlanta Braves - Freeman, 21, has a clear path to a starting job in Atlanta, so naturally he's on the fantasy radar. Let's just keep in mind that he plays an incredibly deep position, and he hit just 18 homers in 519 plate appearances at Triple-A last season. In mixed leagues of standard size, he's not a must-own player.
Jeremy Hellickson(notes), SP, Tampa Bay Rays - This is a potential ace. He went 12-3 for Triple-A Durham last season with a 2.45 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. He also struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings. In four August starts for the Rays, he went 3-0, posted brilliant ratios (2.05, 0.76), and delivered 25 Ks in 26.1 innings. He appears to be ready to succeed, and the Matt Garza(notes) trade opened a spot in Tampa Bay's rotation.
Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals - Hosmer finished his age-20 season at Double-A, where he posted a .313/.365/.615 line over 211 plate appearances. He rebounded nicely from a disappointing 2009 campaign at Single-A (.695 OPS in 106 games). Again, we'll remind you that first base is a loaded position; Hosmer isn't guaranteed anything.Desmond Jennings(notes), OF, Tampa Bay Rays - Last year at Durham, Jennings swiped 37 bags in 41 attempts, and he stole 52 bases across two levels in '09. He's also a career .299/.384/.441 hitter in the minors, so that works. Eventually, this guy figures to be a top of the order hitter in an excellent lineup, a three-category fantasy asset (R, SB, AVG). He'll need an impressive spring to crack the Rays' opening day roster, however.
Craig Kimbrel(notes), RP, Atlanta Braves - At 22, Kimbrel clearly has a shot at the closer's role. His Triple-A stats were obscene last year — 23 SV, 1.62 ERA, 83 Ks in 55.2 IP — and he somehow improved when he made his way to the Braves' bullpen (0.44 ERA, 40 Ks in 20.2 IP).
Mike Minor(notes), SP, Atlanta Braves - The lefty was a strikeout-machine at Double-A and Triple-A last year, whiffing 146 batters in 120.1 innings while posting a 1.16 WHIP. The highlight of his nine-game major league run was a 12-K win over the Cubs in August. He was plenty useful for Atlanta in his first four starts after the call-up (3-0, 26 Ks, 3.91 ERA), but eventually hit a wall.
Jesus Montero(notes), C, New York Yankees - Yeah, the Russell Martin(notes) signing is an annoyance, no question (even if it's just a one-year deal). Montero's route to the majors is suddenly cluttered. Still, this is a terrific power prospect and he had a sensational second half at Triple-A in his age-20 season (14 HRs, .351/.396/.684). It's worth nothing that his name has been attached to trade rumors before, so we know the Yankees don't consider him completely untouchable.
Mike Moustakas(notes), 3B, Kansas City Royals - It's tough to imagine the Royals unleashing Moustakas on opening day -- the economics of baseball almost force the team to stash him in the minors. But he'll be a player of interest when he arrives in Kansas City. He was a monster at Double-A last season, running away with the Texas League Player of the Year award (25 doubles, 21 HR, .347 AVG in 259 at-bats). After another half-season of development and consolidation at Omaha, we should see him in KC.
Michael Pineda(notes), SP, Seattle Mariners - This is Rob Steingall's guy. In fact, the Steingall-Pineda thing is a lot like the Brad Evans-Billy Butler(notes) thing, but maybe 18 percent less creepy. The point is, it feels wrong for anyone else to promote this particular pitcher. I'll simply direct you toward Pineda's 2010 minor league stats and move along…
Michael Taylor(notes), OF, Oakland Athletics - Yup, he's still out there, lurking. Taylor's first season in the A's system wasn't so impressive — 6 HR, 16 SB, .272/.348/.392 at Triple-A — and he just turned 25. But there's still multi-category potential here, and Oakland's outfield is full of injury risk.
Photos via Getty Images (Brown, Ackley, Jennings)