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Rookies: Keys to success

Brandon Funston
Yahoo Sports

Rookies help win fantasy titles.

Last season, no player was more integral to fantasy success than NL ROY Ryan Braun, the most commonly found player among the top 500 Yahoo! public league teams. Among the top 12 on the same list was James Loney, the Dodgers' rookie first baseman who hit .382 with nine home runs during the September fantasy stretch run. NL ROY runner-up Hunter Pence clocked in among the top 35 on this "Keys to Success" list.

The previous year, Dodgers rookie Takashi Saito was the fourth-most commonly found player among top 500 public teams. Fellow freshmen Hanley Ramirez (13th), Jered Weaver (21st), and Cole Hamels (48) also could be found among the top 50.

The 2006 season was bloated with rookie contributions beyond those of Saito, Ramirez, Weaver and Hamels.

Francisco Liriano went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA before being lost for the final two months of the season because of an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery; AL ROY Justin Verlander contributed 17 wins to the fantasy cause; Florida's Dan Uggla came out of nowhere (at the time, he was rated as Florida's No. 29 prospect, according to Baseball America, who stated that it's "unlikely he'll be more than a utility player") to deliver 27 HRs, 105 Runs and 90 RBI; Jonathan Papelbon made a late spring switch to closer and allowed just one earned run in his first 33 appearances en route to 35 saves and a sub-1.00 ERA; Nick Markakis closed out the final two months of the season hitting .316 with 13 home runs. The list goes on … Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Johnson, Matt Cain, Prince Fielder, Ian Kinsler. A total of 10 rookies finished among the top 100 in the final Yahoo! rankings (season total) for '06.

Continuing on in the wayback machine … in '05, Felix Hernandez made his MLB debut on August 4 and fantasy owners jumped on board for an 84.1-inning ride that resulted in 77 Ks, a 2.67 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP. He finished as the second-most commonly found player on top 500 Yahoo! public league rosters. AL ROY Huston Street finished sixth on the list, NL ROY Ryan Howard landed at No. 21 and Pittsburgh southpaw Zach Duke ended up at No. 35.

In case you weren't counting, that's three consecutive seasons in which a rookie has finished among the top five most commonly found players on top 500 public league teams.

At the moment, there isn't a rookie being drafted among the top 125 players in fantasy drafts, but the odds are that at least a couple will finish among the top 100 fantasy producers, and perhaps a few more will do enough in the final month or two of the season to find their way onto fantasy rosters and play a major role in that team's ultimate success – once again landing a rookie in the top five on the "Keys to Success" list.

Which players have the best chance to be vital cogs in fantasy championship machines for '08? Here are my 10 favorite candidates, based on their situation, opportunity and skills:

Note: I understand that Kosuke Fukudome is technically a rookie, but for the purposes of this column, I'm going to eliminate the 30-year-old Japanese all-star. For the record, if he was included, he'd be in my top two or three.

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, Bos, OF
Ellsbury set unrealistic expectations in his 33-game Boston debut in '07, hitting .353/.394/.509. He went on to produce a .438 batting average in the World Series. That said, he offers the speed and plate skills to be a consistent .300 hitter at the Major League level. In addition, if Boston manages to purge itself of CoCo Crisp, Ellsbury would find himself alone at leadoff for one of the top offenses in the league, making 40 stolen bases and 100-plus runs, in addition to a .290-.300 average a very distinct possibility. If you want to talk about rookies with legit top 100 fantasy upside for '08, you have to put Ellsbury right at the top. Of course, he needs Crisp to go away. A strong spring could push Boston to try even harder to make that happen.

2. Clay Buchholz, Bos, SP
Boston plans to treat Buchholz with kid gloves this season, limiting him to less than 200 innings, including the postseason. That could mean that Buchholz, whose 22.2 IP Red Sox debut in '07 included a no-hitter, starts the season off in Triple-A as a way to preserve his arm for the stretch run and postseason. Boston's riches in the rotation afford the team this type of luxury. But it's doubtful the team can stifle the temptation to leave him in the minors for long, if at all. Buchholz gets nice movement on a low-to-mid 90s fastball, but his 12-to-6 curveball and devilish changeup are his most devastating weapons, with Baseball America claiming both pitches to be better than anyone's currently on the Red Sox staff. Boston's a cat-bird seat for pitchers, as the team has finished in the top four in runs scored five of the past six seasons. Figure that Buchholz earns roughly 125-150 IP during the regular season, which would make him a good bet for right around 10 wins to go with a K per inning, with the majority of his stat accumulation coming after the All-Star break. He's landing at pick No. 158 in average MDC drafts. That's reasonable, but he certainly has the upside to exceed his current ADP value.

3. Joba Chamberlain, NYY, RP
Joba or Buchholz? While the opinions differ, even amongst the Yahoo! fantasy staff, there's no denying the legitimacy of both young arms. Chamberlain devoured hitters in his 24-inning Yankees debut in '07, fanning 34 and posting a 0.38 ERA. He pushes 100 mph with his fastball, and compliments it with debilitating breaking stuff (curve and slider). He can also mix in a serviceable changeup. And, at 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he's a menacing sight on the mound. He's in a similar situation as Buchholz in that the Yankees would like to bring him along slowly but may be tempted to use him more than they'd prefer. He's expected to start the '08 season back in the Yankees bullpen with the idea of limiting him to 140 innings or less. However, the Yankees head into the season with 39-year old Mike Mussina, who posted an ERA north of 5.00 last season, 35-year old Andy Pettitte and Kei Igawa, he of the 6.25 ERA in '07. It seems very likely that Chamberlain will log at least some time in the rotation this season – when that Red Sox-Yankees rivalry starts to heat up, all bets are off. But given his lower innings pitched limit and ambiguity of the number of starts he'll get, Chamberlain warrants coming off the draft board after Buchholz.

4. Evan Longoria, TB, 3rd Base
The Rays have options at third base (Eric Hinske, Willy Aybar, Joel Guzman, Akinori Iwamura) if Longoria does not inspire confidence that he's ready this spring. But the conventional wisdom is that Longoria is a can't-miss candidate. He combines an advanced plate approach with a quick, compact swing that allows him to hit with power to all fields – he's hit .304/.388/.546 with 44 HRs and 43 doubles in 733 minor league at bats. Alex Gordon was last year's "can't-miss" cautionary tale, bringing a similar resume to Kansas City only to fall flat out of the gate. Gordon was drafted on average at No. 195 in drafts at MockDraftCentral in '07 and, perhaps because of his failings, Longoria is falling to pick No. 236 in early MDC drafts. That's a bargain. It's possible that Longoria slips down a similar path as Gordon did in '07, but the talent he possesses also makes a Ryan Braun-type rookie splash not completely out of the question. My guess is that he lands somewhere in the middle. Don't draft him with the hopes of anything more than .280/20/75/75/0, even though his ultimate ceiling stretches well beyond that.

5. Geovany Soto, ChC, Catcher
Soto was toiling on the Cubs' farm in relative anonymity (he was listed as the team's No. 17 prospect by Baseball America heading into the '07 season) before a power explosion last season changed everything. Soto attributes drastic weight loss (30 pounds) and heightened confidence for his breakout. His 29 home runs in 128 games between Triple-A and Chicago in '07 represented more than half his professional total – his other 25 career home runs coming in a combined 490 games. The power transformation has placed Soto at the forefront of Chicago's catching plans for '08. In his 18-game stint with the parent club last season, Soto managed to do something that few youngsters have been able to do – receive an endorsement from manager Lou Piniella. When asked about the young players on the team this offseason, Piniella replied, "I like our young kids. Are they ready to contribute on an everyday basis? The catcher is …" Given the thread-bare catcher position, Piniella's vote of confidence is music to fantasy owners' ears. Soto's not likely to be a top 100 player this season, but he could prove to be a nice draft-day bargain (current ADP of 159, No. 8 catcher overall).

6. Joey Votto, Cin, 1st Base
After 708 minor league games, Votto finally received his first taste of big league pitching last September. In his 24-game trial run, Votto slugged .548 and drove in 17 runs. Despite an impressive minor league resume that has tagged him with .280, 25 home run future expectations, the 24-year-old Votto's path in Cincy has hardly been paved for '08. The team re-upped 38-year-old veteran first baseman Scott Hatteberg's contract and brought in manager Dusty Baker, not exactly known for his baby-sitting skills. But Baker eased some concerns about Votto not getting his just due in recent comments. Said Baker about the team's first base situation, "What's Hatteberg? 38? Votto's the future here. I talked to Hatteberg about Votto. He thinks he's going to be a heck of a player. He's not conceding his position … I think he understands to be part of the club that Votto might have to be a major part of it. It might be Votto's time." Even if he gets 450-plus at bats, Votto's probably not going to give fantasy owners more than 20 home runs. But, he's averaged more than 20 stolen bases in his past two minor league campaigns, and he could be a sneaky source of 10-15 steals, making him worthy of mixed league consideration.

7. Andy LaRoche, LAD, 3B
LaRoche has averaged 32.4 home runs per 162 games during his 450-game minor league career and has hit at a .295/.376/.525 clip. But he was a disaster in his first stint with the Dodgers in '07, hitting .226/.365/.312 in 35 games. His big league debut left a bad taste in the Dodgers' mouth, but the team heads into '08 with no better options at the hot corner than LaRoche or Nomar Garciaparra. Manager Joe Torre has already talked out of both sides of his mouth about the situation, saying that Nomar might better serve the team in a bench role, but also claiming that the veteran had the inside track on the starting gig. LaRoche deserves another shot to show off his exceptional plate skills. If he earns the job with a strong spring, he could be that out-of-nowhere 20-25-HR waiver wire grab that fantasy owners glow about come September.

8. Jay Bruce, Cin, OF
If you look at the lists of current top prospects according to respected minor-league talent evaluators like Keith Law, John Sickels, and the diamond minds of Baseball America, Bruce is almost universally regarded as one of the top two talents on the farm. Just 20 years old, Bruce is a sweet-swinging lefty with a quick bat and natural instincts for the game. Despite the fact that he strikeouts out a lot (once every 3.9 at bats in the minors), he projects to hit for a solid average. And, while he's not a base-burner, he has enough athleticism and awareness to consistently supply 10-15 SBs. Bruce will have a hard time breaking camp with the Reds – manager Dusty Baker has already indicated that he expects Ryan Freel and Norris Hopper to handle centerfield and leadoff, and he's also talked to free agents Kenny Lofton and Corey Patterson – but Freel's injury history and the likelihood that Bruce will continue to tear up minor league pitching to start the season could force the Reds' hand even before the All-Star break. Fantasy owners will want to be at the ready when his bat does finally land in Cincinnati.

9. Colby Rasmus, StL, OF
Just about everything about Rasmus projects positively, from his athletic prowess to his vigor and aptitude for the game. He's a "gamer," as they say, and despite being just 21 years of age, many feel he's ready to take on the highest level of competition. And St. Louis should be a great place for opportunity in '08, as the team is tentatively set to start an outfield of Chris Duncan in left, Rick Ankiel in center and Ryan Ludwick in right – a group that conjures at least a few question marks. In addition, a Rasmus-less Cardinals lineup would be forced to go with Adam Kennedy in the leadoff spot, he of the .282 OBP in 87 games for St. Louis a year ago. If Rasmus can impress out of the gate and wrangle the centerfield spot, he could be a 20/20 contributor this season.

10. Ian Kennedy, NYY, SP
Kennedy's a control freak. He doesn't have drop-dead stuff, but he has command of his pitches, and understands how to maximize his ability on the mound. He also has a hold of the No. 5 spot in the Yankees rotation, and that's at least as meaningful as anything else I can say about Kennedy, including the fact that he's held hitters to under a .190 BA in his 168-inning professional career. The Yankees scored six runs a game last season, nearly a half-run more than the second-best offense in the league, Philadelphia. Given 20-plus starts, Kennedy's going to have a great chance to reach double-digit wins with the bat support behind him.