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Top 20 Rookies (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

by Brendan Tuma | @toomuchtuma | Featured Writer
Mar 25, 2021

The shortened 2020 Major League season was obviously strange for a lot of reasons. One of the lasting effects was how it impacted both rookie and prospect eligibility. To summarize, it’s a bit messy right now.

For example, Rays postseason phenom Randy Arozarena is still technically a prospect. So are a number of other rookie-eligible players who debuted last summer. Therefore, I’ve separated the “Top 20 Rookies” into two distinct top-10 lists.

The first list includes players who played a meaningful amount in the regular season last year but who are still rookie eligible entering ’21. Many of these names get drafted within the top 150 picks of fantasy drafts, so it didn’t make sense to lump them in with prospects who have yet to arrive in the majors, which is who makes up the entirety of the second list. These are prospects who might not be with their clubs on Opening Day, but still figure to be prominent factors throughout the fantasy baseball season. Without further ado…

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Rookies Who Have Already Debuted

1. Randy Arozarena (OF – TB)
Tampa’s playoff hero is a polarizing player entering 2021 fantasy drafts. This is entirely due to his small sample of success since everything we saw last year couldn’t have been more encouraging. Arozarena hit 17 homers in 43 games between the 2020 regular season and postseason.

Optimists will point to the fact that the Rays gave away a legitimate pitching prospect (Matthew Liberatore) for his services and that his launch angle showed a healthy increase from 2019 to 2020. Skeptics will bang the small-sample drum and mention that most of his success came against fastballs, and that the league will soon begin adjusting.

The most likely outcome should be a good player who possesses power and speed, but one who isn’t the superstar we thought he was becoming last October. There are simply too many value bats to be had later in drafts for me to be overly interested in Arozarena this year.

2. Ian Anderson (SP – ATL)
Anderson entered 2020 with a strong prospect pedigree and proceeded to dominate his competition. Playoffs included, the young right-hander put up a 1.59 ERA with 65 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched. Anderson never got pummeled in any start and allowed just one homer all year long. His 30.8% CSW (called strikes plus whiff rate) rated similarly to Blake Snell and Walker Buehler.

The concerns with Anderson lie in his 4.2 BB/9 from last summer as well as a possible innings limit. Still, he’s talented enough to be a difference-making fantasy asset for however many starts he gives managers.

3. Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B – PIT)
Hayes was always billed as a glove-first prospect through the minors, but his 24-game big league sample was evidence that he’s a different hitter now. Hayes’ 92.8 mph average exit velocity and 55.4% hard-hit rate both would’ve ranked within the top-15 of baseball if he had the playing time to qualify. His 47.7% ground ball rate isn’t ideal, but Hayes has proven he’s talented enough to continue making adjustments. It feels as if he’s being drafted at his floor right now, which makes him a risk-free investment with the potential for plenty of ADP profit.

4. Sixto Sanchez (SP – MIA)
Acquired from the Phillies as the centerpiece of the J.T. Realmuto trade, Sanchez lived up to his scouting report in his major league debut. Throughout the minors he was always able to limit hard damage despite a strikeout rate that left a lot to be desired. The 22-year-old averages 98.5 mph on his fastball, but it doesn’t have much spin, which forces him to rely on his changeup and command. Sanchez wound up with just 33 strikeouts in 39 innings last year.

So we can’t expect a high strikeout total, but that’s also true of Kyle Hendricks and Hyun-Jin Ryu. I therefore view Sanchez as similar to those two. He’s a starter who suppresses hard contact to put up a strong ERA and WHIP. It’s worth pointing out that in Sanchez’s first five starts, he completed seven frames in three of them (6 ER in 32 IP). He then allowed 13 earned runs over his final 15 innings, playoffs included. Sanchez’s slight frame leads to some concerns over ability to handle a huge workload.

5. James Karinchak (RP – CLE)
“Special K” is a breakout candidate for me. The 25-year-old struck out a preposterous 53 hitters in 27 innings last season (48.6% K%). Brad Hand is now in Washington, which likely means that Karinchak will have the closer’s role this year (or so we think!!). Cleveland hasn’t officially announced this, and Karinchak has struggled this spring, but until we definitively see someone else earn saves I’m going to bet he’s the guy. With his ability to miss bats Karinchak has the upside of a top-three fantasy reliever.

6. Dylan Carlson (OF – STL)
Following a monstrous 2019 minor league campaign (mostly in Double-A) that saw Carlson post a 142 wRC+, his first taste of big league action was generally considered a flop. Carlson hit just .200 with a .616 OPS in 35 regular season games. However, those games were divided by a midseason demotion back to the alternate training site, and Carlson was much better upon his return. He even went on to hit cleanup in each of St. Louis’ three playoff games.

The scouting report on Carlson is that he’s more of a well-rounded player with few weaknesses, rather than a toolsy phenom. Still, his advanced feel for taking at-bats combined with some power and speed means that he could hit .280 with 25 homers and 15 steals if everything breaks right. Carlson is penciled into the Cardinals’ everyday lineup as of now, and he could find himself batting in the top half of the lineup if he gets off to a strong start.

7. Ryan Mountcastle (1B/OF – BAL)
Regardless of the level, Mountcastle just keeps hitting. His poor defense kept him buried on most prospect lists compared to where his hitting skills were at, but he finally debuted last summer after an International League MVP campaign in 2019. Mountcastle was limited to just 35 games but hit .333/.386/.492. We certainly can’t expect a repeat of that batting average, and the Baseball Savant data doesn’t pop, but Mountcastle’s history of producing renders him a reasonable value at his ADP.

8. Nick Madrigal (2B – CWS)
The No. 4 overall pick from the 2018 amateur draft, Madrigal is a near-lock for a .300 batting average and had a 35-steal season in the minors in 2019. This makes him a must-have player in roto drafts, as he provides upside at two of fantasy’s scarcest categories. The White Sox haven’t run much in recent years, but perhaps that’ll change under the old-school tutelage of Tony La Russa. Fantasy managers should project virtually zero power from the 24-year-old.

9. Andres Gimenez (2B/3B/SS – CLE)
Acquired from the Mets in the Francisco Lindor trade, Gimenez is expected to operate as Cleveland’s starting shortstop this year. Suddenly, this makes the young infielder a priority target for fantasy managers seeking stolen bases late in drafts. Gimenez went 8-for-9 on steal attempts last year and should have every opportunity to continue running with the Indians. He won’t be as valuable in points or category leagues, but those in roto scoring formats should consider him a must-have target.

10. Tarik Skubal (SP – DET)
The 24-year-old is penciled into Detroit’s rotation to begin the year, and he makes this list over his teammate Casey Mize. While Mize is still struggling this spring, Skubal has registered eight shutout innings with a 12:3 K:BB ratio. He put up a 5.63 ERA in eight appearances last summer, but the southpaw is making an effort to throw more of his secondary stuff in 2021. He developed a new split-change over the winter and will try and carry his spring success into the regular season. He’s an upside starter to target late.

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Prospects Expected To Debut In 2021

1. Andrew Vaughn (1B – CWS)
Kirilloff originally occupied the top spot on this list but following Tuesday’s demotion to the minor leagues, I’m making Vaughn a higher priority since he could still open the year in the majors. The No. 3 overall pick from 2019, Vaughn is having a fantastic spring. He enters Wednesday hitting .289/.396/.489 with two homers and a 7:9 BB:K ratio in 53 plate appearances. The plate discipline is what’s most impressive. I think he could open as Chicago’s everyday DH even if he doesn’t sign a team-friendly extension prior to the season.

2. Alex Kirilloff (OF – MIN)
A 4-for-31 effort during Grapefruit League play was enough of a reason for the Twins to demote Kirilloff to the minors. He shouldn’t be down for long, however, as the 23-year-old has such a strong hit tool. Kirilloff uses the whole field, turn on pitches with power, and can handle both velocity and breaking pitches.

A wrist injury hurt his minor league numbers in 2019, but the lefty slugger was reportedly crushing the ball at last summer’s alternate training site. He debuted in the postseason, which is a sign the Twins believe in him. Kirilloff is still worth stashing at the end of fantasy benches, and he’ll be must-add once Minnesota brings him up.

3. Jarred Kelenic (OF – SEA)
It’s been an eventful spring for the hyper-competitive 21-year-old. Former Mariners President Kevin Mather’s leaked conversation said that Kelenic would be in the majors by the end of April, which was a blatant example of service time manipulation. Mather added that the top prospect had turned down a long-term extension last season, which is yet another sign that Seattle thinks he’s ready for the majors. Unfortunately, a mid-spring knee injury slowed the momentum surrounding Kelenic’s chances at an Opening Day debut.

Still, there’s a lot to be excited about. Kelenic has bounced back strongly from that knee issue, and he’s hitting 5-for-15 with three extra-base hits overall. A well-rounded player capable of contributing in all five categories once he gets settled in the bigs, Kelenic has the upside to be a league-winning fantasy pickup.

4. Bobby Witt Jr. (SS – KC)
Witt recently took the fantasy baseball world by storm. Royals general manager Dayton Moore was on record for saying that the team was open to having Witt break camp with the club. Witt had a big spring, but this is a 20-year-old kid who has yet to play above rookie ball.

While he has already been sent down to the minors, I’m confident that we see him in 2021. Witt is a plus-power hitter who has worked on his approach at the plate to alleviate swing-and-miss concerns. He’ll likely arrive in Kansas City as a second baseman, but he carries all five tools and reminds scouts of Troy Tulowitzki. He’s a must-add prospect whenever he debuts.

5. Wander Franco (SS – TB)
Franco enters 2021 with a career 83:54 BB:K ratio in the minors. He recently received a perfect, 80-grade hit tool from MLB Pipeline and has always been extremely advanced for his age. Franco’s approach at the plate is best described as “controlled aggression” with a compact swing that gives him exceptional control of the strike zone.

He’s widely considered the top prospect in the sport, and the only concern for his ’21 fantasy value has to do with how soon we’ll see him in the majors. The Rays aren’t exactly known for fast tracking their prospects, and Franco has yet to play above High-A. Still, we could wind up seeing him by the end of April if he gets off to a hot start. There isn’t another prospect who can match his probability of being a productive major league player right now.

6. MacKenzie Gore (SP – SD)
The lanky southpaw is generally considered the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball. Gore has a funky delivery with a high leg kick that he’s generally athletic enough to repeat on a consistent basis. However, he reportedly had some trouble with his mechanics at the alternate training site last summer, which is why the Padres didn’t call him up to the majors despite the fact they were contending.

By all reports Gore got back into a rhythm by the end of the year. His arm extension allows his 93-94 mph fastball to explode onto hitters quicker than anticipated. He also possesses four plus pitches and looks like a future fantasy ace if everything clicks at the same time. He’ll be worth adding as soon as San Diego has a need for him in the rotation.

7. Ha-seong Kim (2B/SS – SD)
Kim was a power/speed star in Korea, averaging over 20 homers and 20 stolen bases from 2015-20. He arrives in San Diego without a true position, as the Padres have a surplus of versatile position players without the universal DH.

Kim can get pull-happy at times but he possesses enough natural power to be fantasy relevant in this regard. He should also be given the opportunity to steal bases on a run-first Padres team. Expectations should be tempered early on as he adjusts to MLB pitching, so perhaps this makes Kim more of a trade target later in the season.

8. Matt Manning (SP – DET)
Unlike Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, Manning didn’t debut last summer. He would’ve, though, if it wasn’t for a “slight” forearm strain suffered in August. The 6’6″ right-hander was healthy by October and has been throwing the ball well during Grapefruit League play. Manning is expected to open the season in Triple-A and will be a starting pitcher to target once he debuts. The 23-year-old possesses a strong fastball-curve combo with good control and a developing changeup.

9. Logan Gilbert (SP – SEA)
We know there aren’t a plethora of high-end starting pitchers to draft this spring, which is why it’ll be critical to monitor any prospects who could make a difference during the season. That’s why both Manning and Gilbert are on this list. And it’s actually Gilbert who has the higher upside of the two.

Another 6’6″ righty, Gilbert generates tremendous extension that helps all of his pitches play up. He already possessed a strong fastball-curve combo before improving his changeup last summer, which gives him potential for three plus pitches. If Gilbert can maintain last year’s strides over a full season there’s ace upside here.

10. Jarren Duran (OF – BOS)
A seventh-round pick from 2018, Duran isn’t considered a top-100 prospect by most sites. He got off to a blistering start to his minor league career before coming back down to earth in 2019. He still stole 46 bases in 132 games that season, showing off his blistering speed that put him on the radar of dynasty leagues in the first place.

Duran has since undergone a swing change, which has allowed him to make strides at the plate without giving up any of his speed. Duran’s swing was originally crafted to take advantage of that speed with a flat bat path that resulted in grounders and line drives. However, after meeting with swing guru Doug Latta entering 2020, Duran is more easily able to turn on pitches with authority. He displayed this adjustment at last summer’s alternate training site before showcasing his newfound skills in Puerto Rico this winter. His rapid development (and difference-making speed) is something to take note of if/when he gets promoted later this summer.

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Brendan Tuma is a correspondent at FantasyPros. To read more from Brendan, check out his archive and follow him @toomuchtuma.

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