Top 5 fantasy baseball prospects
1- Ryan Lavarnway, C
If asked which super hero Ryan Lavarnway most reminds me of, I'd have to say Hulk, because Lavarnway smash. In 1372 minor league at-bats he has slashed .284/.376/.521 with 77 home runs. He was at his best last year in 227 Triple-A at-bats where he hit .295/.390/.612 with 18 home runs. Lavarnway walks a lot, and his strikeout rate is completely acceptable for a player with his slugging prowess.
The bat has never really been the question with Lavarnways. Concerns have always revolved around his ability to stick behind the plate. When he entered the system as a sixth round pick in the 2008 amateur draft out of Yale, the thought of him playing catcher in the majors was laughable. He has made huge strides, and while there are still some who question his ability to stick there, he looks capable of being an offensive minded catcher (i.e. below average defender that can make up for it with the bat). As long as he plays enough catcher to retain the eligibility in fantasy leagues, his fantasy value will be relatively high.
2- Xander Bogaerts, SS
Ignore the shortstop eligibility above, Bogaerts will outgrow the position. It won't matter, his bat will play anywhere on the diamond. Ideally, he won't fill out so much that a shift to third base will be problematic. Bogaerts spent 2010 in the Dominican Summer League displaying tremendous strike zone judgement, 30 walks to 37 strikeouts in 239 at-bats. This past season he spent time showing off his power prowess in Low-A drilling 16 home runs and 32 extra base hits in total in 265 at-bats. His strikeout rate went up, and his walk rate went down, but as an 18 year old in Low-A, neither was concerning. He's got a chance to be a special player, and I was oh so close to ranking him above Lavarnway. Just to give an idea of how close they are in my mind, they ranked 19th and 20th respectfully on my top 100 fantasy baseball prospect list at The Hardball Times.
3- Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Middlebrooks tops most Red Sox prospect lists, but a big part of that is his glove work. He ranks a bit lower here because he has some chinks in his offensive armor. Middlebrooks is an aggressive hitter that rarely walks, and is still working on figuring out how to turn his raw power into in game power. That's not to say he isn't showing any in game power, he did have a .218 isolated slugging (ISO) in Double-A this past year, but he is expected to hit for more. His strikeout rate ballooned to 30.0 percent in 60 Triple-A plate appearances, and carried over to 60 more plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League (AFL). A full season in Triple-A should be just what the doctor ordered. If he plays well there, the Red Sox may have a tough decision with their club option on Kevin Youkilis.
4- Brandon Jacobs, OF
Jacobs enjoyed a breakout in 2011. He is a big imposing outfielder that had a college football scholarship offer to play running back at SEC powerhouse Auburn when the Red Sox decided to pop him in the 10th round and pay him a $750,000 bonus. Right now, it looks like money well spent. Jacobs blends power and speed in a way that is drool inducing for fantasy gamers. In 502 Low-A plate appearances he hit 17 home runs and stole 30 bases in 37 chances. He isn't a burner, but is an above average runner with good base stealing instincts. His 24.5 percent strikeout rate will likely preclude him from hitting .300 in the upper minors if he's unable to tone it down a bit, but his 8.6 percent walk rate is solid for a prospect that played all year at 20 years of age. He may not be a special player in any one category, but a 20-20 outfielder with a .280 or better average has plenty of fantasy value.
5- Bryce Brentz, OF
Ranking Jacobs and Brentz was nearly as difficult as choosing between Lavarnway and Bogaerts for the top spot in this system. Brentz skill set isn't as well rounded as Jacobs, and thus, he ranks a spot lower. Brentz game is predicated on power. In 507 plate appearances split between Low-A and High-A, Brentz found the seats 30 times. He was exposed a bit in High-A as more slugger than power hitter striking out in 24.9 percent of his plate appearances. Brentz generates his power with plus bat speed and raw strength. He doesn't walk enough to project in the middle of an order, but if he develops as hoped, he can be a five or six hitter capable of hitting 25-30 home runs annually. That power will come at the cost of a .260-.270 average, but he should be a fine fantasy gamer if he doesn't stall out in the high minors. He'll open the year in Double-A, and could be ready as soon as 2013 to contribute to the parent club.
Bonus- Blake Swihart, C
It wasn't cheap ($2.5 million), but the Red Sox signed Swihart away from a University of Texas commitment. He is a switch hitter with future plus grades on his hit and power tools. Swihart was totally over matched in his pro debut failing to record a hit. I'm teasing folks, I couldn't help but rattle the cages of the small sample size community (a demographic I occasionally fall in). Swihart is older than most of his prep draftee peers at age 19, and plays a position that has a steep learning curve. Those factors and his lack of pro data left him just off the Red Sox top five prospect list. That said, a catcher with the future batting tool grades Swihart possesses is special.
Top 5 in 2012
1- Ryan Lavarnway, C
The bat is ready, but he'll receive a bit more seasoning working on his defensive skills in Triple-A. Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a solid season last year, but has a notable platoon split and a sky high strikeout rate that could open the door for Lavarnway to wrestle the job away. The backup catcher is Kelly Shoppach. Shoppach hasn't hit over .200 since 2009 and should provide little resistance to Lavarnway. Expect to see Lavarnway sometime during the early summer.
2- Lars Anderson, 1B
I'm going to cheat a little bit here. Barring an injury to Adrian Gonzalez, Anderson won't see playing time at first base. Should David Ortiz suffer an injury, it's likely Lavarnway would have the first crack at laying claim to the designated hitter role. What that means is, Anderson is a blocked prospect and a trade candidate. Anderson's prospect stock has been on a free fall. Lost in his descent down the Red Sox prospect list is his big post All-Star Break production in Triple-A. Post All-Star Break he hit .288/.396/.482 with seven home runs in 170 at-bats. A change of scenery is Anderson's best bet for playing time, and something that I believe is a near certainty at this point.
3- Alex Hassan, OF
Hassan is a better real life player than fantasy gamer, but could reap the benefits of playing in a loaded lineup should he see the majors this season. The right field situation is a mess, and Hassan could be one of the first names called if Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney fumble the duties. At his best, Hassan hits for average, draws walks, and offers a dash of power and speed. He could be an AL-only option, or large mixed league option if he gets extended run.
4- Alex Wilson, SP
The back end of the Red Sox rotation has more questions than answers, and could be in flux all year long. Clay Buccholz is looking to return to his pre-injury form, and the combination of Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves are being stretched out from bullpen roles. Wilson pitched well enough in Double-A to earn four starts in Triple-A to close out the year. He is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher, with his change-up lagging behind. He threw strikes last year, and has a back of the rotation ceiling. Not the most exciting profile, but one that could be effective in soft matchups and a stream candidate for wins.
5- Chris Carpenter, RP
The Red Sox received Carpenter as compensation for Theo Epstein. He throws hard, and when he throws strikes, has closer quality stuff. He's behind Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon in the saves pecking order. Bailey was on the disabled list for an extended period of time last year, and Melancon has a short track record saving games. Those facts add up to an outside shot at saves for Carpenter in 2012.