As a general rule, you do not want to be the sort of fantasy owner who compulsively collects prospects in your non-dynasty leagues. Almost every group has at least one obsessed futurist, a manager who behaves as if the goal is to create a title-winning roster for some distant season. Such owners rarely finish in the money. History tells us it’s unwise to rely too heavily on 20 and 21-year-old ballplayers, still in the developmental phases of their careers, fresh from the Arizona Fall League.
Of course we’re also coming off a season in which first-year guys like Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, Andrew Benintendi, Rhys Hoskins, Matt Olson and Luis Castillo were key pieces on championship fantasy teams. It would be fantastically wrong to suggest that prospects can’t help. When rookies break out, they deliver massive fantasy profits. So while we can’t recommend stacking your fantasy bench with minor leaguers, we do encourage you to take a flier on a potential difference-making prospect (or two. But not three or more).
If your league makes use of the “NA” roster spot, designed primarily for dynasty formats, then there’s no good reason not to stash a minor league lottery ticket. Our purpose today is to review several of the most appealing prospects for 2018. Please note, this list should not be interpreted as any sort of long-term ranking of minor league talent, nor is it meant to be an exhaustive list. Instead, we’re simply discussing a collection of young players (with one exception) who need to be on your fantasy radar for the season ahead.
Ronald Acuna, OF, Atlanta Braves, age 20
Acuna is the reigning AFL MVP, the youngest player to win the award, and there really isn’t much left for him to prove in the minors. He slashed .325/.374/.522 across three levels last season with 21 home runs and 44 steals; he improved at every stop along the way, finishing with a .344/.393/.548 line at Triple-A. He’s raking this spring, too. Acuna should be the first non-Ohtani prospect selected in your draft, without question. He may not open the season in Atlanta, for the usual business-of-baseball reasons, but we should still see him in April.
Here’s a preview…
— Grant McAuley (@grantmcauley) March 5, 2018
Eloy Jimenez, OF, Chicago White Sox, 21
Jimenez mostly destroyed minor league pitching last season, producing a .947 OPS and 19 homers over just 89 games. He’s dealt with minor knee tendinitis this spring, but it’s not an issue that should impact his April availability. There’s no obvious reason for the White Sox to rush Jimenez, so expect him to torment pitchers in the high minors over the season’s opening months. When he arrives in the big leagues, it will be an actionable fantasy event.
It feels as if he’s been around for a decade or more, but Brinson is still just 23. He’s well traveled, having already been dealt away by two different organizations (Texas and Milwaukee). Miami may not be the ideal landing spot, but at least the Marlins can offer a clear path to playing time. Brinson has a 20/20 skill set, which will always play in fantasy. Don’t expect him to hit for a useful average, but his power/speed combination is legit.
Willie Calhoun, OF, Texas Rangers, 23
Calhoun was the key prospect in the haul Texas received from the Dodgers in exchange for Yu Darvish, and he’s a safe bet to produce in the big leagues, soon — hopefully on opening day. He began his spring going 8-for-22 with a homer, five RBIs, two walks and only one strikeout. He’s been a tough batter to K throughout his minor league career. Last season, he slashed .300/.355/.572 with 64 extra-base hits (including 31 HR) in the PCL. He’s ready.
Kyle Tucker, OF, Houston Astros, 21
At the moment, there’s no clear opening for Tucker in Houston. The Astros have more talented outfield bats than they can squeeze into a lineup. But Tucker’s name belongs on your cheat sheet nonetheless. He delivered an impressive 70-25-90-21-.274 fantasy line last year at two minor league levels. If a trade or injury creates an opportunity in the majors, he could certainly make some noise.
Austin Hays, OF, Baltimore Orioles, 22
Hays has been slowed by a lat malfunction in spring, though he’s expected to DH this week. He seemed like a good bet to open the season in Baltimore prior to the Colby Rasmus signing. It’s still not out of the question that he might snag an early-season role, but the outlook is murkier. Hays hit .329 and slugged .593 in the minors last season, banging out 32 home runs at two stops. He struggled in a September cameo with the O’s, but that’s forgivable.
Victor Robles, OF, Washington Nationals, 20
One of the main reasons Robles ranks among baseball’s upper-tier prospects is that he can do stuff like this…
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 3, 2018
But obviously his defensive skill isn’t terribly meaningful to fantasy owners. His speed should be clear enough in the clip above, and that’s one of the keys to his projected fantasy value. Robles stole 27 bags last year and 37 the season before. To this point, his power is more of the doubles/triples variety; just 10 of his 55 extra-base hits last year were home runs. He’s a career .304/.395/.470 batter in the minors and doesn’t K excessively, so there’s plenty to like in his profile. Robles is blocked in Washington’s outfield currently, but an injury could bring him to the bigs.
Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres, 19
It seems a little crazy to include a 19-year-old player on a list of prospects who might make a splash in the current season, but Tatis simply won’t stop hitting. As of this writing, he’s 8-for-23 with three doubles, one homer and three steals in spring play. Tatis produced an .877 OPS last season with 22 homers and 32 steals, finishing up at Double-A at only 18 years old. That’s nuts. He should open the year in the high minors, but we can’t rule out a summer call-up.
Nick Senzel, 3B, Cincinnati Reds, 22
Senzel was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft, and there are few open questions about his bat. He starred in the Double-A Southern League last season, hitting .340/.413/.560 with 10 homers in 57 games. He’s displayed mostly doubles-power thus far, but he’s been a .300-plus hitter at every stop. The Reds are giving him time at shortstop in the spring, under the tutelage of Barry Larkin, opening another route for him to reach the majors. He’d be particularly interesting for fantasy purposes with eligibility at two premium positions.
Gleyber Torres, SS, New York Yankees, 21
Torres is a consensus top-five overall prospect, and he was pushing for a promotion to New York before tearing the UCL in his non-throwing arm last season. He’s had a quiet spring, but no one seriously doubts his bat. He was the AFL batting champ and MVP back in 2016, and he was stinging the ball at Triple-A before last year’s injury (.309/.406/.457 in 23 games). Torres has 20-steal speed, too. We’ll see him somewhere in the middle infield in the Bronx in 2018, perhaps before summer.
Francisco Mejia, C, Cleveland Indians, 22
No less an authority than Francisco Lindor thinks Mejia is ready for the majors right now, so you’ll get no argument here. Mejia was a monster at Double-A last season over 92 games (.297/.346/.490, 14 HR), and he was an even more terrifying monster at Single-A the prior year (.342/.382/.514). He’s also 5-for-10 this spring with a homer, double and three RBIs. Despite progressing through Cleveland’s system as a catcher, he worked at third base in the AFL to enhance his versatility. Backstop still seems like the path of least resistance to the big leagues, but any route will do.
Miguel Andujar, 3B, New York Yankees, 23
Andujar might just be forcing his way into New York’s April plans. He’s opened the spring schedule going 8-for-22 with four home runs and two doubles, which is of course ridiculous. The Yankees’ lineup wasn’t exactly hurting for power before his surge. Andujar slashed .315/.352/.498 in the high minors last season with 54 XBHs (16 HR) and just 71 Ks, so he has little left to prove at any lower level.
Ryan McMahon, 1B, Colorado Rockies, 23
You may have already seen McMahon’s name on a few sleeper lists, because he’s a decent bet to claim the first base job in Colorado. He’s having a huge spring (11-for-28), he’s an exit velocity all-star, and he had an absurd season at Double and Triple-A last year (.355/.403/.583, 20 HR, 39 doubles). He belongs in your mixed league plans.
Shohei Ohtani, SP, Los Angeles Angels, 23
You probably didn’t need an expert to tell you that Ohtani is rare talent. He’s been the most frequently discussed/hyped player in the game, and the frenzy is completely understandable. It’s been multiple generations since baseball has seen a player with his two-way potential. Two seasons ago in Japan, he hit .322 with 22 home runs while also delivering a 1.86 ERA over 140 innings, striking out 174 batters. Ridiculous. He swiped seven bags that year, too.
Ohtani will be an impact pitcher immediately, both in fantasy and reality. That much seems clear. He’ll open the season in a 6-man rotation, however, which suppresses his potential in our game. Still, there’s little doubt his K-rate will translate. He’s a bit over-drafted, thanks to the extreme buzz, but he’ll be a fun arm to own. The hitting version of Ohtani has a wider range of outcomes, and should only be rostered by attentive owners in daily transaction leagues.
Michael Kopech, SP, Chicago White Sox, 21
Kopech’s only reasonable player comp might be Sidd Finch, a guy who did not actually exist. You’ve probably already heard about Kopech’s triple-digit heat and silly K-rate. He and Yoan Moncada were the prime prospects in the Chris Sale deal last offseason, and the right-hander delivered a stellar year in the high minors (2.88 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 11.5 K/9). Walks are an ongoing issue, but he’s been otherwise dominant when facing minor league hitters. We should see him in Chicago by mid-season. After Ohtani, he’s arguably the best pitching prospect in the game.
Walker Buehler, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers, 23
Buehler was roughed up in his 9.1-inning taste of the big leagues last season (8 ER, 8 BB, 11 H), though he did manage 12 strikeouts. He has a deep arsenal of quality pitches, including a high-90s fastball, and the Dodgers clearly expect him to contribute in the majors this year. We can say with confidence that he’ll pile up Ks whenever he arrives.
A.J. Puk, SP, Oakland Athletics, 22
He’s a gigantic left-hander (6-foot-7) with a mid-to-high-90s fastball and quality slider, and he’s having an outstanding spring. Puk struck out an eye-popping 184 hitters in just 125.0 innings in the minors last season, but he was challenged by the jump to Double-A (2-5, 4.36 ERA). He figures to open the year in the high minors, but should finish in Oakland.
Luiz Gohara, SP, Atlanta Braves, 21
Gohara is another high-K lefty who figures to claim a major league role at some point in 2018. He whiffed 147 batters in 123.2 minor league innings last season, delivering an ERA of 2.62 across three levels. Although he’s dealt with a groin strain this spring, he still may have a shot at landing a rotation spot. He’s a flamethrower (96.3 mph average fastball) who produced a swinging-strike rate of 13.4 percent, but it’s worth noting that right-handed batters mauled him during his five-game visit to the majors last year (.319/.360/.532).
And here’s a bonus arm who’s new to the league, but perhaps too old for traditional prospect status…
Yoshihisa Hirano, RP, Arizona Diamondbacks, 33
It felt a little wrong including Hirano in this piece, because he’s a decade older than anyone else mentioned here. But it would also feel wrong to exclude him, because he’s entering his first MLB season. Hirano was an accomplished closer in Japan, having saved 156 games for Orix, including 29 last season. He’s going to be part of the end-game plan for Arizona this season, and he remains in contention for the as-yet-undecided ninth-inning role. Hirano’s splitter is his money pitch, but he’s had mixed results so far this spring. If you’re drafting in a deep league — a format in which the competition for saves is fierce — then you’ll want to keep Hirano in your late-round plans.