Among the most rewarding experiences in fantasy baseball is picking a prospect just before he bursts onto the MLB scene. It’s nice to rely on steady veteran production, but correctly prospecting on a breakout youngster reaches another level of thrills.
It can also reap great, tangible benefits, with unproven minor leaguers lasting longer in drafts than their skill level suggests they should. And with MLB players reaching peak production earlier than ever before, particularly with regard to power at the plate, there’s never been a better time to hit on these picks. Fantasy players who had Pete Alonso, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Chris Paddack last season—as recommended in the 2019 version of this piece—learned the feeling, using late-round selections to secure early-round talents.
We’ll identify the right targets again this season, with the same format as last time: identifying one prospect per position (including each rotation spot for pitchers) who’s due for impressive fantasy production in their debut campaign. Nobody who’s played in the major leagues before is eligible, even if they still qualify for prospect lists; apologies to Gavin Lux and Jesús Luzardo.
Catcher: Tyler Stephenson, Reds (No. 73 on FanGraphs’ Top 100 List)
The sport’s best catching prospects—Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman (FanGraphs’ no. 5 prospect) and San Francisco’s Joey Bart (no. 10)—probably won’t reach the majors this season. Stephenson, conversely, isn’t an elite prospect, but he has a much better chance to play in 2020.
Incumbent Reds backstop Tucker Barnhart has a career 83 wRC+ and has been in the range of replacement level throughout his career, according to FanGraphs. If Stephenson starts the season strong in the minors, the Reds would do well to be aggressive with his promotion timeline given their apparent win-now mandate.
Stephenson has hit throughout his minor league career, including a .285/.372/.410 Double-A line in 2019, and given the dearth of high-caliber offensive catching options in the majors, he could immediately prove worth a fantasy roster spot. Playing half his games at Great American Ball Park will only help.
First Base: Evan White, Mariners (No. 64)
White is not the second coming of Alonso. The Mets first baseman crushed 53 homers as a rookie; White has gone deep 32 times total in more than 1,000 minor league plate appearances.
But just because he won’t set a rookie record doesn’t mean White can’t contribute to a fantasy squad. White’s natural athleticism makes him more of an all-around contributor: His average and OBP could impress, he runs well enough to add a handful of stolen bases, and even his power output has ticked up as he’s focused on lifting the ball—18 of his home runs came last season, when he reportedly posted the organization’s second-highest exit velocity in the minor leagues.
White also signed a six-year contract with the Mariners this winter (with options that could extend it up to nine years), so Seattle has every incentive to call him up for Opening Day. If not White, keep an eye on Andrew Vaughn, the pure hitter picked no. 3 in last year’s draft. The White Sox’s first baseman of the future isn’t a top fantasy value this season, though, with both José Abreu and Edwin Encarnación blocking his way on the South Side.
Second Base: Nick Madrigal, White Sox (No. 41)
Madrigal might be the strangest prospect in the sport at the moment—a 5-foot-7 second baseman picked no. 4 in the 2018 draft, with a career strikeout rate below 3 percent. Every part of that sentence is more remarkable than the last; Madrigal will be a joy to cheer as part of a fantasy squad.
The diminutive second baseman won’t help with power (four career minor league home runs), but he’ll provide a boost in every other fantasy category. He can run, with 35 steals in 2019; he can hit for average, with a career .309 mark in the minors; and he can reach base a ton, with the paucity of strikeouts giving Madrigal ample opportunity to collect runs.
Madrigal reached Triple-A last season and should find his way to the majors soon enough; after Chicago non-tendered incumbent second baseman Yolmer Sánchez over the winter, nobody stands in his way on the big league club. In a much-improved Chicago lineup full of fantasy contributors—another such youngster remains on this list—Madrigal should fit right in, provided his owners have power stats to spare from elsewhere on the roster.
Shortstop: Wander Franco, Rays (No. 1)
Franco might not play in the majors this season; he just turned 19 years old and hasn’t played above High-A ball. So why gamble on his fantasy potential? Because players like Franco don’t follow typical paths to the majors—and once he arrives, Franco could lay waste to the league.
Across two minor league seasons, the consensus top prospect in baseball has hit .336/.405/.523 with 1.5 walks for every strikeout. He has speed (a 60 rating on the 20-80 scouting scale). He has the potential for power (also a 60). He has all manner of playable intangibles, from top-notch defense to equal ability from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter.
And though he certainly won’t start the season in the majors, and probably won’t even play there before the All-Star break at best, it’s also not impossible that he forces Tampa Bay’s hand early and pushes himself into a playoff race. A 19-year-old Juan Soto began the 2018 season in A-ball, then hopped to High-A and Double-A and the majors within two months. Rays GM Erik Neander recently said it’s “conceivable” that he’ll call up Franco this season. Be prepared if he does.
Third Base: Alec Bohm, Phillies (no. 56)
The Phillies seem to expect Bohm to reach the majors by midseason, after the former no. 3 pick crushed minor league pitching last year (.305/.378/.518 across three levels). Scott Kingery is slated as the club’s projected third baseman, but he profiles better as a utility man, leaving the hot corner for the taking.
It shouldn’t take long for him to seize it, barring an unexpected slump in the early minor league campaign. FanGraphs’ preseason projections think Bohm is already as solid at the plate as Phillies infielders Didi Gregorius and Jean Segura, and superior to depth options like Kingery, Neil Walker, Logan Forsythe, and Josh Harrison.
If Bohm plays up to expectations, he’ll provide typical power for a third baseman. And if the Phillies’ lineup plays up to expectations, he should have a bevy of runners to drive in, too.
Outfield: Luis Robert, White Sox (No. 7); Jo Adell, Angels (No. 4); Dylan Carlson, Cardinals (No. 39)
Robert looks like the most valuable 2020 fantasy player on this whole list; he combines multicategory potential with opportunity, and thus profiles as a mouthwatering fantasy talent. First, the skill set: Robert hit 32 home runs and stole 36 bases last season, making him one of just two members of the minor league 30-30 club. (The other, Houston’s Kyle Tucker, is ineligible for this exercise because of his MLB experience.) As a free swinger, Robert could run into some trouble reaching base in the majors—his walk rate across three levels last season was just 5.1 percent—but his counting stats could be obscene.
Robert should also have ample opportunity to play with the White Sox, who lack a strong incumbent center fielder and want to contend right away. He signed a long-term contract this winter, too, which should obviate any front office desire to manipulate his service time.
Adell, meanwhile, has a spot waiting for him in the Angels’ outfield, but it might take him a bit longer to arrive. A freak injury last season—when he hurt both his hamstring and ankle while running the bases—sapped some of Adell’s forward momentum, and he struggled in a 27-game stint at Triple-A. Those obstacles won’t get in the way of Adell’s eventual rise to Mike Trout’s side, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Adell prove himself in Triple-A before his eventual promotion.
When that promotion does come, however, expect both real-world and fantasy greatness. Like Robert, Adell has something of a strikeout concern, but also like Robert, his numbers could be extraordinary regardless. At FanGraphs, prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen writes that Adell will grow into “a middle-of-the-order force who hits 35-plus homers” at his peak. Now that players are peaking earlier than ever before, and their power is coming with them to the majors, he could blast a bunch of dingers this year.
Finally, Carlson should have the opportunity to feature in a St. Louis outfield that has shed Marcell Ozuna, José Martínez, and Randy Arozarena this winter without adding any notable replacements. The 21-year-old rocked the upper minors last season, slashing .292/.372/.542 across Double- and Triple-A, with 26 homers and 20 steals to boot. Some scouts suggest those numbers overstate his actual talent level—his average minor league exit velocity is reportedly mediocre—but if the Cardinals can consistently turn non-prospects into productive major leaguers, imagine what they can do with a bona fide top-50 youngster. It doesn’t hurt that Carlson is hitting .400/.520/.650 early in spring training, either.
Pitchers: Nate Pearson, Blue Jays (No. 8); Casey Mize, Tigers (No. 16); Matt Manning, Tigers (No. 12); Deivi Garcia, Yankees (No. 42); Forrest Whitley, Astros (No. 15)
Let’s run through the pitchers with speed—like the fastballs they’ll soon zip past MLB batters nationwide.
Pearson offers the best combination of potential and proximity to the majors. His fastball routinely reaches triple digits and registers as a perfect 80 on the scouting scale, he reached Triple-A last season, and he shouldn’t have too many workload concerns after holding up for more than 100 innings in 2019.
Mize, the no. 1 pick in 2018’s amateur player draft, is the first of two Tigers here, and might be in the majors already if not for a shoulder injury that cost him a month last summer. His pre-injury performance in High-A and Double-A shows why he’s worth fantasy speculation even on a Tigers team that might stop him from collecting wins: 0.92 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 75 strikeouts and 12 walks. He had more scoreless starts than games in which he allowed a run. If he stays healthy, he’ll battle Pearson for the title of best new fantasy arm.
Manning should join Mize in the majors this season, and depending on the prospect analyst, he’s considered potentially more valuable in the long term than his Detroit teammate. The 2016 first-rounder took a great leap forward last season, spinning a 2.56 ERA and 2.53 FIP in 24 Double-A starts. Unlike Mize, he has no history of arm issues, and his strikeout potential has always been apparent in the minor leagues (career 11.1 K per 9). Manning should start the season in Triple-A and force his way by the summer, if not earlier, to Detroit—where he and Mize can begin wowing Tigers fans and fantasy players.
Garcia wasn’t on an initial version of this list—but then James Paxton needed surgery that will keep him out until May or June, and Luis Severino needed surgery that will keep him out for the entire season, and all of a sudden the Yankees have multiple rotation holes to fill. Garcia might not be the choice right away, as he could still benefit from more Triple-A seasoning, but his timeline could accelerate with a strong start. His strikeout rate last season hit 34 percent across three minor league levels, sixth best among all minor league pitchers (minimum 100 innings), and no. 2 among pitchers who reached Triple-A.
And finally, Whitley might hold the widest error bars of anyone on this list. The lanky right-hander might not pitch at the top level in 2020, and various injuries and a drug suspension have mostly kept him off the mound for the past two seasons (86 total innings), casting doubt on whether he’ll develop into a productive major leaguer. When he has pitched, his results have been erratic: In 2019, he amassed a 5.56 ERA in Double-A and a 12.21 ERA in Triple-A, with ludicrous walk and strikeout totals at those levels. Still, Whitley’s potential is prodigious, replete with five above-average pitches, and he has a spot waiting in Houston’s rotation if he manages to harness it.
Other rookie pitchers may impress this season, too—keep an eye on San Diego’s Luis Patiño (FanGraphs no. 18), Philadelphia’s Spencer Howard (no. 26), and Atlanta’s Ian Anderson (no. 44), among others. But these are the top options for now, taking into account potential and opportunity. That’s the right fantasy balance to manage. Take this advice and prosper.