The most basic tenet of fantasy drafting is to focus on value, not hype. Once upon a time, that idea meant avoiding highly touted prospects, who were bound to fall short of expectations. But times are changing, the sport grows younger every year, and fantasy players need to take note as they approach their 2019 roster builds.
FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman has found that players are reaching their peaks earlier than ever before, “performing at his career best immediately”; that much of their early success comes from quick-to-mature power and batted-ball performance; and that rookies are maintaining their home run rates upon moving from the minor leagues to the majors instead of undergoing an adjustment period.
It’s not hard to find noteworthy examples of that trend. Last year, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. didn’t leave Triple-A until late April and missed four weeks in June with an ACL sprain, but he still clubbed 26 homers, stole 16 bases, and rated as a top-20 fantasy outfielder overall. Drafters who splurged for the likes of Acuña and Gleyber Torres despite uncertainty surrounding their promotion dates were rewarded with April debuts and strong rookie seasons, and owners who scooped Juan Soto, Walker Buehler, or Miguel Andújar early likely bathed in fantasy glory.
Who might follow their paths in 2019? We’ll go position by position to identify the best first-year players to draft—or, in some cases, to at least monitor and be ready to grab once they’re promoted to the majors later this season. And to gain an additional advantage on fantasy opponents, we’ll focus only on players who have yet to debut. (Apologies to Víctor Robles, Luis Urias, Francisco Mejía, and more, but they’ve all played in the majors before, even if they’re still eligible for prospect lists and Rookie of the Year consideration.) The players listed below will probably start this season in the minors, but don’t fret! All of last year’s top rookies did, too, and they provided plenty of fantasy thrills anyway.
Catcher: Sean Murphy, A’s
MLB rookies can traverse two paths to fantasy relevance: They need opportunity, thanks to an easy-to-supplant starter; they need immense and obvious talent, such that no obstacle can block them for long; or, as in most cases, they need both. Soto reached the majors as a teenager last season because of injuries in the Nationals outfield and his own hitting gifts; Torres ascended to the Yankees infield not just because he rated as a top-10 prospect, but also because New York’s incumbent second basemen had spent three weeks hitting like they were the ones who belonged in the minor leagues.
Murphy could occupy that fortuitous intersection in 2019. The Athletics’ starting catcher this season will be Josh Phegley, who has hit .223/.264/.372 in his MLB career. The backup will be Chris Herrmann, who’s hit .205/.282/.351 in his. That leaves ample room for a quick rise to the majors for Murphy—an excellent defender at a key position—if he continues to hit like he has throughout his minor league career. The young backstop hit .285/.361/.489 last season, mostly in Double-A, despite missing time because of a broken wrist, and in the offensive wasteland that is the catcher position at the MLB level, his potential for both contact and power makes him a worthwhile bet in both the short and long term.
First Base: Pete Alonso, Mets
It seems that everyone believes Alonso is ready for the majors except the Mets. The right-handed slugger tied for the minor league lead with 36 homers last season, split between Double- and Triple-A, and displayed both increased power and refined plate discipline.
The main question for the sport’s best first-base prospect isn’t whether he’ll hit in the majors, but how often he’ll receive the chance. New York didn’t promote him last season to manipulate his service time, and after the Mets spent the offseason overstuffing their infield—adding Robinson Canó, Jed Lowrie, and J.D. Davis to a group that already featured Todd Frazier, Jeff McNeil, and Amed Rosario—it’s unclear when he’ll finally get the call. But when he does arrive, Alonso should mash: He’s never slugged below .500 at any minor league level.
Second Base: Keston Hiura, Brewers
Hiura occupies a similar position to Murphy: He spent most of last season in Double-A but might rise quickly because he plays for a contending team that can’t afford to waste defensive innings and at-bats. Hiura boasts a “rare blend of power and bat control,” according to the FanGraphs prospects team, and he capped his 2018 by winning the Arizona Fall League’s MVP award, which had gone to Acuña and Torres the previous two seasons and Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado earlier this decade. He won’t be in the majors to start the season, after Milwaukee re-signed Mike Moustakas last month to play second base, but a hot start at Triple-A would force the issue—plus the Brewers could grow tired of trying out natural third baseman Moustakas at an unfamiliar position and decide they need their future to help win in the present, too.
Shortstop: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres
While major league moves by the Mets and Brewers might mean delays to their top prospects’ debut dates, the Padres’ big splash might accelerate their prized youngster’s 2019 timeline. Tatis is a consensus top-three prospect in the whole sport, and he was cruising through Double-A in 2018 before an errant slide fractured his thumb and ended his season early. But Tatis is healthy again—he waved a hot bat in the Dominican Winter League—and San Diego might be motivated to handle his assignments with aggression, particularly if he shows no rust in the minors in April. Manny Machado’s in town now, giving the Padres an outside chance at a wild-card berth, and he and Tatis project to form an elite infield pairing for years to come. Perhaps the Padres will try to fast-forward to that future now.
Third Base: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
Where to begin with young Vlad? The PECOTA projection system thinks he’s already one of the 10 best hitters in the majors. The Steamer system thinks he’s top-15. He hit .402 in Double-A; he walked more than he struck out in Triple-A; he doesn’t turn 20 years old until mid-March. You know who Vlad is; you want him on your team. The question is how high you’re willing to draft him, given that he hasn’t yet performed at the MLB level and that Toronto is already making transparent excuses to delay his promotion by two weeks and secure an extra year of service time. He’s going around pick 50 in Yahoo drafts—the same range as established fantasy stars like Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon, and Xander Bogaerts. That seems rather high for a rookie, but Guerrero might be a better pure hitter than all of them already.
Outfield: Eloy Jimenez, White Sox
If Vlad didn’t exist, Jimenez would fill this year’s Acuña role as the most touted fantasy debutante. The Chicago outfielder, sent across the Windy City in 2017’s José Quintana trade, boasts elite projections of his own after tearing through Double- and Triple-A last season. His plate discipline doesn’t equal Guerrero’s, but the power is right there; here are their 2018 stats from those two levels side by side:
2018 Minor League Performance
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||19||91||394||63||20||76||0.381||0.438||0.637||0.256|
The outfield options beyond Jimenez are rather fallow, in large part because the other top prospects at the position have already spent some time in the majors (Washington’s Robles, Houston’s Kyle Tucker, L.A.’s Alex Verdugo). They’re desirable fantasy players too, but Jimenez might be the best of the bunch even if he starts the season in Triple-A because the White Sox want to exploit the sport’s player-compensation system—er, because the White Sox want him to work on his defense.
Utility: Nick Senzel, Reds
Had a bout with vertigo and finger surgery not sidelined Senzel for much of 2018, the Reds’ top prospect would have debuted last year. Senzel’s career minor league statistics look obscene next to any that aren’t Guerrero’s: .314/.390/.513 with 27 homers and 40 steals in 990 plate appearances. Even his abbreviated stint at Triple-A last season produced dazzling numbers, and his all-category potential makes him a dream fantasy prospect. Senzel might not have an obvious route to everyday playing time on the Reds, with Eugenio Suárez blocking his natural spot at third base and Scooter Gennett filling in ably at second. But Cincinnati has started preparing Senzel for a possible outfield role, dropping hints that he could take a turn as the starting center fielder, and a bat as talented as his should find its place in the lineup before long.
Pitchers: Forrest Whitley, Astros; Jesus Luzardo, A’s; Griffin Canning, Angels; Chris Paddack, Padres; Brent Honeywell, Rays
That Whitley is the consensus best pitching prospect even after missing two months in 2018 to a drug suspension and one month to an oblique injury shows just how much talent the 6-foot-7 righty possesses. He tossed just 52 1/3 innings last season, split about evenly between Double-A and the AFL, but struck out 70 hitters across those frames. That’s a pattern: Whitley’s career K rate in pro ball is 35.6 percent. He throws five—five!—good pitches, and with Houston down three starters after Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton became free agents and Lance McCullers Jr. underwent Tommy John surgery, he’ll receive the opportunity to translate that performance to the majors soon enough.
Whitley is the top prize among pitching prospects once he receives a promotion to the majors, but he won’t be the only touted arm to debut this season. The left-handed Luzardo worked through three minor league levels in 2018, ending the season at Triple-A, and could be an option for Oakland’s feeble staff as soon as April. Luzardo came to Oakland with Blake Treinen in 2017’s Sean Doolittle swap, and a trio of plus pitches—fastball, slider, changeup—have helped him rocket up prospect rankings ever since. One concern, like with most young pitchers today, is a potential workload limit, as he’s already endured Tommy John surgery and his 109 1/3 innings last season represented a career high. But like his former (and future) batterymate Murphy, Luzardo has the right skill set in the right system to succeed this year.
Another advanced arm is Canning, who struck out better than a batter per inning at three minor league stops in his first professional season in 2018. Though he struggled in his first exposure to Triple-A bats, a high ERA at that level (5.49 in 59 innings) was largely the result of poor batted-ball luck, and a fastball that sits in the mid-to-upper 90s gives him a sturdy base from which to grow. Like their division-mate in Oakland, the Angels are a playoff hopeful with an unsettled and injury-prone rotation, so Canning could take on a key role in Los Angeles—and fantasy rotations across the internet—by summer.
The final two spots go to high-risk, high-reward hurlers with injury-checkered pasts. Paddack has thrown fewer than 200 professional innings despite being drafted back in 2015, yet he boasts the best changeup in the minors and his combined numbers from High-A and Double-A last year—2.10 ERA, 120 strikeouts versus just eight walks—were so dominant that he could catapult to the majors soon. After Paddack’s first spring training appearance, Padres catcher Austin Hedges said it was the “easiest game to catch of all time.”
Honeywell, meanwhile, was set to debut in 2018 after a strong Triple-A campaign the year before, but he tore his UCL early in spring training. Don’t worry about Tampa Bay’s use of the opener messing with his fantasy value: The setup is actually designed to help the “bulk” pitcher lower his ERA and WHIP, and it doesn’t impair his potential for strikeouts or wins. Last season, Ryan Yarbrough collected 16 wins despite starting only six times. So even if Honeywell doesn’t become a starter in the majors, but rather throws only with the opener formation in play, he can still provide both real-life and fantasy success. The Rays righty throws a wicked set of pitches, including the rarely seen screwball, and should return to fantasy radars in late spring or summer once his rehab from Tommy John surgery ramps up.