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Prospecting isn't for everyone. It can be painful. We have to wait weeks or months for these guys, with no guarantee they'll succeed upon arrival. If you want to simply avoid the entire pool of untested would-be rookies during your fantasy drafts, we get it. It's a defensible position.
But it's also not uncommon for a first-year player to make noise immediately, giving a massive edge to fantasy managers who were willing to draft and wait. Also, prospects are often the very best trade sweeteners in our game. So even if you don't want to rely on them, they can be plenty useful as fantasy building blocks.
We're entering a year in which several familiar players who've already established themselves in the majors are nonetheless still, technically, rookies. Thanks, short season. You can read about many of 'em right here. Today, our focus is going to be on the most interesting young players who haven't yet hit the majors, but have the potential to be impact talents whenever they get the call. Zero MLB experience, high ceilings — that's the mission here. Let's begin with a young slugger who sure seems ready to contribute.
Note: Spring stats through 3-19
Andrew Vaughn, 1B, Chicago White Sox
Few prospects, if any, have appeared as comfortable at the plate this spring or as ready to maul big league pitchers as Vaughn, the No. 3 overall pick from the 2019 draft. Just look at this missile...
"Andrew Vaughn demolishes this baseball. Boom."
Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. pic.twitter.com/hK1Ir7qy2s
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 19, 2021
Over his first 15 spring games, Vaughn slashed .294/.415/.500 with three extra-base hits and nearly as many walks (6) as strikeouts (8). He homered 50 times in 160 career collegiate games at Cal, reaching base at a .495 clip. The White Sox have made it fairly clear that Vaughn has a chance to make an impact in the majors this season, perhaps soon. He should be drafted and stashed in most mixed leagues. Vaughn should be an immediate fantasy contributor in runs, homers and RBIs, no matter where he lands in Chicago's loaded lineup.
Bobby Witt Jr., SS, Kansas City Royals
Witt was actually selected one pick ahead of Vaughn in the 2019 draft, and there's been at least as much spring buzz about his potential. He's a consensus top-10 prospect, a power/speed combo player who hasn't struggled a bit during exhibition play, launching three homers over his first 14 games. Witt has done some of his best work against legit major league talents, too...
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 15, 2021
He has an exceedingly fantasy-friendly profile and he's basically a lock to debut at some point this season. It won't be opening day, but it shouldn't be long.
Jarred Kelenic, OF, Seattle Mariners
Kelenic is almost certainly ready for his MLB debut, having little left to prove at lesser levels. Back in 2019, he homered 23 times, stole 20 bags and hit .291 with a .904 OPS at multiple minor league stops, finishing at Double-A. He's dealt with a minor knee-tweaking this spring, but has since returned. The only thing that's prevented him from reaching Seattle already is the usual service-time game. Assuming he's fully healthy, he clearly belongs in the bigs. Kelenic is an excellent power/speed fantasy option, generally available outside the top-200 picks.
We should note that Kelenic isn't the only elite M's outfield prospect, which is kinda nuts. Julio Rodriguez only just turned 20, but he's been raking this spring. This team's farm system is excellent.
Nolan Jones, 3B, Cleveland Indians
Jones doesn't quite occupy the same range in the prospect ranks as the other names we're discussing here (and he was optioned to the minors a week ago), but he's a personal favorite. He went 3-for-8 this spring with a steal and four walks, showcasing his elite on-base skills and mastery of the strike-zone. His career minor league OBP is .409 and he drew 96 walks in 126 games across two levels in 2019. He has easy power, particularly to the opposite-field. Jones will swing and miss a fair amount and left-handed pitching has given him trouble, so we're not talking about a flawless prospect. Also, it's not as if Cleveland has an urgent need at third (although Jones has gotten some reps in the outfield). But the soon-to-be 23-year-old is clearly a tough out, capable of helping the big-league lineup this season.
Wander Franco, SS, Tampa Bay Rays
Franco is everyone's top prospect, so he should be well known to any consumer of fantasy content. He flashed his power early in the spring...
...and he's held his own ever since. Franco has generally been a line-drive/contact hitter in the minors, which means we probably shouldn't expect 30-homer power as soon as he reaches the majors. And since these are the Rays, we can't realistically expect the team to be in a huge hurry to advance Franco, for all the usual business-of-baseball reasons. It's hard to imagine he won't hit for average the instant he arrives, as he's slashed .336/.405/.523 in the minors despite always being young for his level. He's also struck out just 54 times in 175 minor league games while drawing 83 walks. He's gonna be fun.
Logan Gilbert, SP, Seattle Mariners
OK, we've hardly seen him this spring. Just 2.0 innings, that's it. But in those two frames, he's frozen Mike Trout...
Logan Gilbert striking out Mike Trout pic.twitter.com/Nxeo2sf4gH
— Sarah Langs (@SlangsOnSports) March 7, 2021
...and also K'd Ohtani and Fowler. So he's passed the eye test. Two years ago, he threw 135.0 frames at three minor league stops, striking out 165 batters and posting a 0.95 WHIP. Whenever he gets the call, it's gonna be an actionable event. He's a hard-thrower with four quality pitches and he limits the walks. You want him.
MacKenzie Gore, SP, San Diego Padres
If it feels like Gore has been hyped and re-hyped over the years ... well, yeah. He's entering his fourth year as a top-30 prospect, yet he's still just 22. Gore is a left-hander with a full pitching arsenal who's fanned eight batters in his 6.0 spring innings, allowing five hits and two runs. His 2019 numbers were terrific, as he made the jump from High-A to Double-A: 101.0 IP, 135 Ks, 28 BB, 1.69 ERA, 0.83 WHIP. (It's kinda wild that San Diego held onto both Gore and shortstop prospect C.J. Abrams this offseason, while enhancing the big league roster via trade.) The Padres' rotation is obviously stacked with veteran talent entering the year, but Gore should need only modest refinements before he's ready to assist in some capacity.
Jeter Downs, SS, Boston Red Sox
Downs landed in Boston's farm system via the Mookie Betts trade and he's opened a few eyes this spring (4-for-9, HR, 2 BB). If things go according to plan, he's the second baseman of the future for the Red Sox. Down produced a 24/24 season in 2019, slashing .276/.362/.526 and finishing at Double-A. The fantasy player pool at second can definitely use a boost, so here's hoping Downs can force his way into Boston's 2021 plans.
Jonathan India, 3B, Cincinnati Reds
Here's one last young talent who's raking in the spring, going 10-for-30 with two homers, three doubles a steal and four walks over his first 15 games. India has 17 home runs and 17 stolen bases over 165 career minor league games, and he's reached base at a .369 clip. He's been a buzzy player in camp, both among teammates and media. He has a path to 2021 relevance.